Remembering Larry Lucchino, baseball’s great builder

Larry Lucchino passed away Monday at 78, and baseball immediately became less vibrant, passionate and excellent.

Every obituary and remembrance will tell you about a resumé that was nearly unparalleled, especially in the baseball department. His tenures as president of the Orioles and president and CEO of the Padres were transformational, highlighted by the construction of Baltimore’s Camden Yards, and San Diego’s Petco Park.

Together with principal owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner, Lucchino ushered in a new golden age of Boston baseball: the Sox reversed the ‘Curse of the Bambino’ in 2004, one of seven postseason runs and the first of a trio of championships (2007, 2013). He then spearheaded the purchase of their Triple-A club, which he moved from Pawtucket, R.I., to a beautiful, award-winning new home in Worcester, breathing new life into the ‘Heart of the Commonwealth.’

As Commissioner Rob Manfred summed it up, he was “one of the most accomplished executives that our industry has ever had.”

You will read time and time again about this visionary, a champion of this game the likes of which it may never be blessed with again. Lucchino was passionate about putting MLB on the world stage, helping facilitate regular-season games in Mexico (‘96 Padres), Hawaii (‘97 Padres) and Japan (‘08 Sox). He had a keen eye for talent, including bringing Theo Epstein to Boston as the youngest general manager in MLB history.

In an era in which many teams sought to construct modern ballparks, Lucchino, a history major at Princeton, was a staunch proponent of retro designs. He took care to incorporate traditional ballpark elements into each new venue, and spearheaded the preservation of Fenway Park. When current ownership took over the Sox in 2002 and his longtime right-hand man, Dr. Charles Steinberg, asked if Boston was about to get a new ballpark, the new president replied, “You preserve the Mona Lisa!”

Between May 2003 and April 2013, the not-new, but improved Fenway set a Major League record with 820 consecutive home sellouts.

About a decade later, Lucchino proved once again how much he valued Fenway when the Red Sox moved into their new spring training complex in Fort Myers. He’d overseen the design of JetBlue Park, including its near-exact replicas of the Green Monster and manual scoreboard.

He’s the only person in history with a Super Bowl ring (Washington Redskins), a World Series ring – let alone five – and an NCAA Final Four watch (he played varsity basketball at Princeton). He was also the first person to refer to the Yankees as the “Evil Empire.”

He was a force, a titan, argumentative, exacting, stubborn, someone who strove for and demanded excellence. He was also kind, a father figure to many, and immensely generous, and philanthropic. He co-founded the Orioles Foundation, Padres Foundation and Red Sox Foundation, and served as the chairman of the Jimmy Fund from 2016 until his passing. While beating three different types of cancer between 1985 and 2019, he worked tirelessly in every way he could to make baseball better for fans, because at heart, he was one of them.

Somehow, this is all an understatement for a man who should’ve been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame long ago.

So, I’d also like to share a little bit about the Larry Lucchino I had the honor of getting to know.

We met for the first time almost a decade ago, before I began working in sports. My family was attending a Fenway concert as guests of a friend, and when we arrived, we were surprised to find out that we’d be sitting in one of the suites. As we walked, I recall telling my father that we were probably getting to do this because no one important needed the space, since the team wasn’t playing.

Of course, it was Larry who opened the door.

To someone who’d grown up just down the street before and while he transformed the Red Sox, he was a rock star in his own right.

“It’s you,” I said. Then, realizing that I sounded very lame, I managed to add, “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Lucchino. I’m such a big fan.”

“Call me Larry,” he said with a smile. “So, you like baseball?”

Just like that, I found myself talking about baseball, music, and Mexican food with the great Larry Lucchino.

Two years later, we met again, under even more unexpected circumstances. A friend who worked for the team offered to give me a ride home from a dinner in Chestnut Hill, but said they had to make a quick stop to drop off a gift the Sox had for Derek Jeter, of all people. When we pulled into the driveway of this beautiful house, they insisted I be the one to ring the doorbell.

Once again, Larry opened the door.

“Hello,” he said, looking equal parts confused and amused by what was, unbeknownst to me, an ambush by our mutual friend.

“I’m so sorry to bother you so late,” I replied, utterly mortified to be showing up unannounced on what was clearly his doorstep. “We’re just here to drop off the Jeter gift.”

“You’ll probably appreciate my baseball room,” Larry said. He proceeded to give me a quick tour of a baseball fan’s equivalent to Disneyland. Then, he told me to open one of the doors near the foyer, and suddenly, I was standing in front of his 2004, 2007, and 2013 World Series trophies.

He got such a kick out of surprising baseball fans in such ways. In recent years, those trophies sat in his suite at Polar Park, and he delighted in watching fans gaze into the case.

Next week marks seven years since I wrote my first-ever story about the Red Sox. Someone forwarded it to Larry, and he responded with encouragement.

He was someone who still got newspapers delivered. More than once after I began reporting for the Herald, he called to discuss something I’d written, or texted to inform me that it had been too long since I’d been to a WooSox game. I hope I properly conveyed how much it all meant to me.

Larry Lucchino will live on in the historic details he thoughtfully included in his ballparks and in the countless lives he touched, including mine. Baseball won’t be the same without him, but it is infinitely better because of him.

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