Little stepped out of the shadows at City of Palms Park to a roar of approval from his new players at 11:33 a.m., the dawn of a new era in Sox history. His arrival marked the last major change in a sweeping makeover of the team by the franchise's first new owners in 69 years.
"While there still are decisions to be made," said team president Larry Lucchino, "the decision today is really a fundamental and important one. Now, we are on course for the 2002 season."
Little, 52, who was poised to start his third year as bench coach for the Cleveland Indians after serving in the same role for three years with the Sox, was nearly asleep just before midnight Sunday when Lucchino and interim general manager Mike Port called to offer the coveted job. In his rich Southern drawl, Little seized the opportunity. He got a two-year deal with club options for a third and fourth year.
Little had 16 years of minor league managing experience when he was coaching with the Sox in the late '90s under former manager Jimy Williams, living in Boston's North End, and contemplating his future in baseball. "At that time, I decided I would like to be managing in the major leagues by the time they finished the Big Dig," he joked in his introductory news conference.
Little beat out two other finalists - former Montreal manager Felipe Alou and Boston third base coach Mike Cubbage - largely because his ties to the new Sox bosses made them feel more comfortable entrusting their $700 million franchise to him. Little helped coach the San Diego Padres to the top of the National League West in 1996 when Lucchino was that team's president. And he helped coach the Sox to the playoffs in 1998 and '99 when Port was vice president for baseball operations.
"It's almost like promoting from within," Lucchino said. "There's something about someone who knows your system, knows your people, knows your personalities, knows your division, knows your league, knows your media, etc. That was a significant part of it."
The only problem: Lucchino referred to Little at least twice as "Brady" before he caught himself.
Beyond the respect Little commands among Sox veterans, including Manny Ramirez, whom he coached in Cleveland, he won over the new Sox regime with the dogged determination he showed toiling for nearly two decades in the minors and as a major league understudy.
"We had three exceptional candidates, people whose careers and characters command and deserve respect, three men whose reputations were impeccable," Lucchino said. "But at the end of the day we chose Grady Little to be the manager because Grady did it the old-fashioned way. He earned it."
Little posted a record of 1,054-903 in his 16 seasons in the minors.
"I've had players win me championships at every level in baseball except for one," he said. "The Red Sox have afforded me an opportunity to be in a position where it might just happen at this level. It's quite an honor."
Little would not discuss potential changes in the coaching staff, though it's a strong possibility he will recruit former Yankees coach Tony Cloninger - now a scout for the Giants - to serve as pitching coach, according to two baseball sources.
Cubbage, 51, who has served as interim manager since Joe Kerrigan was fired last week, said he would manage the team in games against the Cardinals today and Expos tomorrow in Jupiter, Fla., before handing over the reins to Little Thursday in Fort Myers. Cubbage's coaching job is considered safe.
"I've known Grady for a long time and I told him today when I saw him, `It's about time you got a job,' " Cubbage said. "He's been deserving of a chance for a long time."
Alou, 66, whose rejection of former general manager Dan Duquette's offer to manage the Sox last year led to Kerrigan's hiring, received word from principal owner John Henry yesterday that he would not get a second chance. Henry did not attend the news conference because he remained on the opposite coast of Florida tending to other business interests.
"He had the opportunity to convey to [Alou] the enormous respect we have for him and the great appreciation we have for his career and his achievements," Lucchino said. "He is a man of extraordinary dignity and class, and we were very fortunate he was willing to consider this franchise."
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has made a top priority of increasing the number of minorities in management. But Selig's staff approved Little's hiring over Alou, according to Lucchino, despite Alou's lofty credentials. Lucchino said the Sox consulted the commissioner's office about the minority issue throughout the search process.
"We know we satisfied their concerns," he said.
Indeed, Lucchino may have had more trouble convincing Henry to back Little over Alou. Henry was seen as one of Alou's biggest boosters, but by the end of a telephone conference Sunday night with Lucchino, Port, and team chairman Tom Werner, the group had agreed to hire Little.
Lucchino did not "accept the characterization" that Alou was Henry's top choice. "John has enormous respect for Felipe," he said, "but it was a decision we came to without any head-butting."
Port described the final decision as a "crystallization" of opinions. "We each had our thoughts, and there was a devil's advocate period," he said. "When we were talking about Grady Little, we said, `Why not Grady Little?' And we didn't come up with any answers in that regard."
So it was that Little got the call before midnight at his temporary home in Winter Haven, 133 miles from Fort Myers. His new bosses pledged him to secrecy so they could inform the players before the public, unlike the previous administration, which the players often accused of keeping them in the dark.
"We saw this as a small symbol of a new way of communicating," Lucchino said.
At 11:15 a.m., Lucchino and Port entered the manager's office to inform Cubbage of their decision. They asked reporters to leave the clubhouse and gathered the players behind closed doors. Unknown to the players, the bosses had secreted Little into a rear corner of the clubhouse, and he emerged the instant they announced his hiring.
As Pedro Martinez made a playful gesture to the new boss, the clubhouse erupted in applause. Little said he had a simple message for his players.
"Buckle up," he said. "We're getting ready to have a good ride."
Gordon Edes of the Globe staff contributed to this report.?
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