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JOAN VENNOCHI

The real issue with the Sox

AFTER THEO, it's a whole new ballgame.

The Boston Red Sox lost general manager Theo Epstein -- and, perhaps, their political fastball.

The ball club hopes to win $55 million from the state for what they label neighborhood improvements before the legislative session ends this month. Yet even the Sox-loving mayor of Boston went public this week with concerns that the proposed taxpayer-funded improvements benefit the Sox more than their neighbors.

In an interview, Menino said he has two basic questions: ''What's the rush?" and ''Where's the plan?"

The Sox proposal, according to Menino, takes control away from the city. He also said it also skirts broad neighborhood planning issues and the specific concerns of nearby institutions such as Boston University and the hospitals in the Longwood Medical Area. ''How does it all work together?" Menino asked. ''Where do the numbers -- the $55 million -- come from?"

On Beacon Hill, the Sox present their case as part of a grand plan for the Kenmore-Fenway-Longwood area. They argue that many components were taken from various city blueprints for the area, drawn up on Menino's watch.

But the Sox agenda, as described by CEO Larry Lucchino, is mostly about the Sox. The mission, he said during a brief conversation this week, is to ''preserve, protect, and connect."

The ball club is investing about $100 million to preserve Fenway Park and enhance the Fenway experience.

But Sox owners also want to make sure the ballpark is not what they describe as ''the jewel in the junkyard."

To that end, they want to protect and grow their investment by enhancing property values around Fenway, which also increase the ballpark's value. The Sox recently signed a letter of intent with the Sage family for a joint venture to tear down the aging Howard Johnson's motor lodge on Boylston Street and replace it with a 200-room hotel and market-rate condos. The Sox are also working with developer John Rosenthal, who has proposed a large mixed-use development for an area near Kenmore Square and Fenway Park. (The New York Times Co., parent company of The Boston Globe, owns 17 percent of the Boston Red Sox.)

The ''connect" part of the Lucchino equation involves making it easier to get to the ballpark, and that is where the public money for which they are currently lobbying comes in. The ballclub wants the $55 million to convert the Yawkey Way commuter rail station from a part-time to a full-time stop, improve four nearby MBTA subway stops, and upgrade the traffic rotary near Landmark Center. The ballclub also hopes to reap game day revenue from two proposed 900-car garages that would be financed with tax-exempt bonds.

It may seem odd that the state Legislature is poised to hand over $55 million so the Boston Red Sox can essentially control development around them, even while the mayor still questions their agenda.

But then, it's not that odd, is it? Baseball is such a priority in this Athens of America that the future of the 31-year-old, now ex-Sox GM takes precedence over all other local and national matters. So, too, if the Sox wanted neighborhood improvements, that desire took precedence over other infrastructure needs -- at least up until this week.

Asked to respond to Menino's concerns, Sox spokesman Doug Bailey said, ''We believe that the Senate's package accurately reflects the leadership and directives that the mayor himself has brought to bear on these issues, and, in fact, his stewardship can be seen in much of the legislation, since the major elements come from a variety of city planning initiatives. However, we look forward to talking to him after his reelection and hearing directly from him what his concerns are and how they can be addressed."

Menino is only part of the political problem right now. The bigger problem is trustworthiness and credibility.

Sox principal owner John Henry was asked about what he labeled ''the trust issue" during yesterday's press conference to address Epstein's resignation. Henry denied there was a ''trust issue" between Epstein and Lucchino. But media accounts point to at least a perception of bad faith, leading to Epstein's decision to walk.

Lucchino is also the Red Sox point man on Beacon Hill, responsible for coordinating the lobbying effort for the $55 million proposal.

After Theo, taxpayers might legitimately wonder: If Epstein couldn't trust Sox management, why should they?

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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