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Ghostbuster

In a new book about the Red Sox, owner John Henry is portrayed as a sage and mediator who helped a team and its fans overcome selfishness, infighting, and a haunted past

Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top
By Seth Mnookin
Simon & Schuster, 433 pp., illustrated, $26

For most Boston fans, Red Sox owner John Henry's greatest achievement has been bankrolling the team that finally won a World Series in 2004.

In ``Feeding the Monster," Seth Mnookin does not exactly slight that triumph, but he is even more impressed by how Henry manages to remain fair-minded, selfless, and wise while most of those around him are turning out to be sneaky, greedy, and self-absorbed. In a note at the end of the book, Mnookin writes that he ``wasn't willing to grant John any editorial control," but Henry could hardly have edited his way to a more flattering portrait.

On the team as Mnookin presents it, Nomar Garciaparra's paranoia has him wondering out loud if the front office has bugged his phone, and if the groundskeeper has been instructed to scratch up the infield dirt to cause errors that will make the shortstop look bad. Dan Duquette's distrust of the media is ``pathological." Manny Ramirez is either dumb, or a liar, or both. Pedro Martinez is ``driven by an irrational (and slightly contrived) fear of being disrespected." Larry Lucchino has ``a hair-trigger sense of being slighted and often seemed to be spoiling for a fight." Theo Epstein, resentful about being low-balled and feeling unappreciated, ``decided to use money as the barometer of his worth to the organization." And Mnookin contends that the Globe's ``notoriously contrarian" Dan Shaughnessy made bad situations worse by going astray with the facts.

Amid a passel of insecure scoundrels, spoiled brats, and reckless hotheads, Henry quietly oversees ``the magical run" that brought the Red Sox a championship for the first time since 1918, and ushers the team into a present that promises more triumphs. He applies his skills as ``a caring and thoughtful owner" to such tasks as addressing ``the calcified rancor and bitterness that existed" between Lucchino and Epstein, and he still has time and expertise enough to notice a flaw in Martinez's pitching motion during spring training.

As the subtitle indicates, part of Mnookin's intention is to provide us with a sense of how the very rich operate. A revealing moment occurs when Henry, prepared to put up most of the money necessary to buy the Red Sox but not all of it, attempts to close the deal before the partnership he eventually headed takes its final shape. Henry gets a call from a harried associate who tells him, ``You're going to have another chance to bid for the team. But this time it's for 100 percent."

``We're going to need to come up with another $350 million in a week. How can we be expected to do that?" Henry asks.

Then he shrugs and does it, because, as he told Mnookin, ``This was a rare, unique opportunity to own one of the crown jewels of baseball."

Henry is more qualified than most people to make that judgment, since he has owned, co-owned, tried to buy, or contemplated buying half a dozen other baseball teams. One of them was the Florida Marlins, which he owned before purchasing the Red Sox. His ambition for that club was foiled by a reluctance on the part of the citizens of Miami to provide him with a new stadium, a perverse demonstration of common sense that set Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and his cohorts to feeling sorry for Henry.

``They took the position that I had done a good job [in Florida], so they came to see me about other potential teams," Henry told Mnookin, who writes that ``since buying the Marlins, Henry had, in many ways, been a model owner." Maybe. But as one Marlins-fan website notes, there are those in Florida who still see Henry as the guy who ``abandoned his plan to rebuild the Marlins so he could buy the Boston Red Sox . . . leaving the Marlins without an owner or anyone to run the team."

In any case, nudged back into the market by MLB officials Paul Beeston and Bob DuPuy -- ``We cannot allow you to sit down there in the rain for years losing the kind of money you would have to with no assurances on the future of a team down there," DuPuy said -- Henry could hardly escape the charge that the sale of the Red Sox was rigged to conform to the wishes of Selig.

``Today, four years later," Mnookin writes, ``it's clear there never was a bag job of the type alleged by so many of the city's media provocateurs." Again, maybe. Smearing reporters and columnists as ``provocateurs" smacks of the tactics of the old regime on Yawkey Way, and when he first announced that the team was for sale, John Harrington did say he hoped to pass the Sox on to an individual or group with Boston roots, of which Henry had none.

The celebration of Henry's ``money, smarts, and nerve" and the glimpse into the ways in which the rich are different occupy Mnookin in much of ``Feeding the Monster, " but humming through the book is an unstated question the author may not have intended to raise: Why would anybody want to own the Red Sox? The ball club Mnookin describes is crowded with feuding executives and selfish, whining players. Once-useful and even inspirational characters such as Kevin Millar are regarded as foul-mouthed clowns whom teammates come to see as pests. The real business of the ball club is to figure out how to squeeze every dollar out of an ancient stadium, hence the $200 seat s and the public relations posture (ridiculed by Epstein) that there is no such thing as a re building year.

A lot of people who read ``Feeding t he Monster" may come away from the experience wishing they'd remained simple, ignorant fans, cheering for circus catches and clutch hits and howling at lack of hustle and pitchers left in too long.

Bill Littlefield hosts NPR's ``Only a Game" each Saturday from WBUR in Boston. See ``Shelf Life," Page E6, for information about a local appearance by Seth Mnookin.

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