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For Sox owner Henry, the joy comes daily

John Henry tolerates but does not welcome the celebrity his team has brought him. John Henry tolerates but does not welcome the celebrity his team has brought him. (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff/File 2007)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Staff / October 1, 2008
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He gets a lot of work done during the post-midnight hours when phones don't ring and he can be alone at his computer. Billionaire Red Sox owner John Henry never goes to bed before 2 a.m. and most mornings he sleeps in . . . because he can. He'll get moving at 9:30, maybe meet with an architect who is building his new house in Brookline. Many days he attends early afternoon meetings at Fenway. Henry likes to walk in the empty ballpark for exercise.

But the best part of the day, every day, is when he pulls up a chair and watches the first pitch of his team's ballgame.

"If you could afford it, would you own a major league baseball team?" he asks. "I can't imagine anything more fun. You get up in the morning, you know that what you do is going to affect people, impact people. You don't always like every day, especially when you first do it, but it just gives you juice. Where could you go after this? You'd have to retire."

There are no plans to retire. With the 59-year-old Henry at the wheel, the Red Sox are near the top of their game. Defending champs, winners of two of the last four World Series, the Sox tonight play the first game of a best-of-five Division Series in Anaheim, Calif., against the Los Angeles Angels. It marks Boston's fifth postseason appearance in six years, an unprecedented run of success for the 108-year-old New England institution.

The fabled franchise is doing boffo business off the field as well. In the seven seasons since purchasing the team for $700 million, Henry and his partners have seen the ball club attain new heights of popularity. Red Sox Nation makes its presence felt in enemy ballparks across the land, and Fenway Park has evolved into a tourist destination on par with the Old North Church and the Bunker Hill Monument. The Red Sox brand is gold. Despite charging the highest prices in baseball, the Sox have sold out 469 consecutive home games. Demand far outstrips supply.

Asked to assess the state of his franchise, Henry says, "Never been better."

Which is not to say that life is easy or trouble-free for the Sox owner.

You'll never see Henry - fiercely private, frail, and a notorious low-talker - in an American Express commercial, dancing in a conga line like the George Steinbrenner of old. Henry is more Mr. Rogers than Mr. Bluster. He is not comfortable with celebrity.

It was awkward for him last summer when reporters wrote about his $16 million purchase of Frank McCourt's 13,000-square-foot house in Brookline. Henry immediately petitioned to have the home torn down to make way for his dream house on the seven-acre lot. It was headline news when he won town approval in May.

"Nobody wants to see their personal life in the newspapers, especially when you are building a house," he says. "There are security issues and they take photos and say 'Here is where the house is.' That's not pleasant, but I knew when we purchased this team what I was getting into.

"Just before buying the Red Sox I was trying to buy the Angels. I was with the Marlins in Boston and I remember thinking how different it would be to own a team where everyone knows who you are. If you said you were involved with the Angels, people would say, 'What kind of Angels?' That was a big advantage of not being here because you'd have privacy."

World of affection

Recently divorced from his wife of 10 years (Peggy Sue), Henry is dating Linda Pizzuti of Lynnfield. They went to Paris during the All-Star break in July, only to be reminded of the global phenomenon of the Red Sox. Touring the Louvre, Henry and Pizzuti were interrupted by multiple Red Sox fans, including a starstruck couple from Boston who politely asked for a photograph with Henry.

How far must a man travel to find anonymity?

"I have nothing to complain about," says Henry. "How could I possibly complain? Everyone in this community loves the Red Sox so much."

Thus far, fans have been willing to pay the steep price of affection.

The staggering success of the Sox has made the team less accessible to blue-collar fans and families on budgets. The century-old, spontaneous, day-of-game ticket purchase is a thing of the past at Fenway. Henry says his team will turn a profit this year, even though he is paying $83 million in luxury tax fees and an average of $40 million per year on ballpark renovations. Mindful that the Yankees will be moving into their new, luxury box-laden stadium next year, he wonders how much fans can continue to pay.

"We haven't talked about what we're going to do [regarding a ticket price hike for 2009]," he says. "Tickets are already expensive. There's potentially a recession headed our way. I've heard there's been some softness with the [new] Yankee Stadium so we just have to wait and see how big the gap is and see if there are other ways to generate revenue."

What about his personal fortune? Nobody worries about a billionaire losing a few million, but it's important to Red Sox Nation that the owner of the team has pockets deep enough to compete with the Yankees. With America teetering on financial meltdown, is Henry in danger of watching his empire crumble?

"I've had a good year," he says. "Our company [John W. Henry & Company trades in global financial and commodities markets] thrives on volatility. We went through a number of years where our company didn't look very good because there was very little volatility. I don't want people to think I'm responsible [for the tough economic times]. If you make money when other people are losing money, it's like 'those guys profit.' It's not our fault. We're just mathematicians."

Never taking his eye off the price of pork bellies, Henry, like all Sox fans, worries about Josh Beckett's oblique muscle, Mike Lowell's hip, and J.D. Drew's back. He knows the Angels beat his team eight times in nine meetings this year. He's still mad at Manny Ramírez. He's also at loggerheads with Major League Baseball over protection of his club's media assets, a complicated tax issue in which the Red Sox have taken an unpopular stance.

"We spend more time protecting ourselves against MLB than we do against the Yankees," he says. "We have been told recently, 'You have the distinction of being the most hated team in baseball.' "

It's odd to hear Henry complaining about the powers at MLB. It was baseball commissioner Bud Selig who hand-picked Henry's group to take over the Red Sox when Yawkey Estate caretaker John Harrington put the team up for sale at the beginning of this century. Selig denied rigging the sale process, but acknowledged, "someday you'll thank me for it."

(For the record, The New York Times, which owns the Globe, owns 17 percent of the Red Sox).

For Henry, there are other uncomfortable issues having little to do with hits, runs, and errors. Rival teams keep raiding his staff ("virtually every person who is a key person here has been tampered with") and he's always dealing with extensive real estate development in the Fenway neighborhood. Meanwhile, down in Florida, Sarasota is trying to pry the Sox away from their spring training site in Fort Myers.

"Fort Myers has been very good to us," he says, clearly uncomfortable with the topic. "Lee County has been very good to us. It would take quite a bit for us to go north. I don't know. I don't follow it that closely."

Dealing with GM's pact

Henry is also reluctant to talk about a new contract for Theo Epstein, perhaps because he said too much a couple of weeks ago. On Sept. 16, Henry sent an e-mail to the Globe that stated Epstein's new deal was "done." This infuriated Epstein, and prompted Henry to fire off a second missive in which he stated, "I got a little ahead of where we are today in commenting on what have been refreshingly private negotiations. We are not done, but we expect to have an announcement very soon."

Epstein's contract triggers a particularly painful memory for the Sox owner. In autumn of 2005, less than a month after the Sox were swept out of the playoffs, Epstein resigned as general manager. The day Theo quit (he returned before the start of the '06 season), Henry sat before dozens of cameras and microphones and said, "Maybe I'm not fit to be the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox."

It was a stunning statement. The "new" ownership in 2004 had snapped an 86-year-old Curse by beating the Yankees in the greatest comeback in sports history, then winning the World Series in four straight. They'd found creative ways to make Fenway sparkle. They'd earned the love and trust of a skeptical fandom. And there was Henry saying perhaps he was not fit to be the owner.

"I think when it comes to leadership, people don't want to hear introspection," he says today. "So it wasn't the best thing to say, but I think any time things go wrong in a business or a franchise you have to question yourself, especially if you are near the top. But it was an emotional day. And there were things that I could have done and should have done."

Henry's transgression in the Epstein fiasco was inattentiveness. He hadn't noticed the growing resentment between Epstein, the brilliant young GM, and club CEO Larry Lucchino, Epstein's former mentor in Baltimore and San Diego. In 2005 Epstein's baseball operations department repeatedly clashed with Lucchino's vision of marketing and ballpark renovations. The men did not trust each other and it came to a head during Epstein's contract negotiations. Epstein's Halloween resignation caught everyone by surprise. Especially Henry. It was the low point of Henry's seven seasons in Boston.

In the three years since the contract debacle, Epstein has blossomed into one of the best GMs in the business, cultivating a strong farm system, and making crucial acquisitions, while keeping the team in the postseason almost every year. His mistakes (Edgar Renteria, Julio Lugo, overpaying for Drew, re-signing Curt Schilling) are forgiven by Henry's fortune.

"I thought we might have been a little overrated as a team coming in this year," says Henry. "But when you look at what we've accomplished with all the injuries and all the problems we've had, Theo's done a tremendous job of filling in the areas that we needed to keep us going for the playoffs. Before the season he said we'd win 95 games. We won 95 games. The best part is having somebody that you talk with on a day-to-day basis - someone that's so much fun to work with. We know there's someone down there that's not leaving any stone unturned."

What about Epstein's relationship with Lucchino? Any frost on the walls when they are in the same room?

"It's sort of the opposite," says Henry. "It gets pretty hot sometimes with those two - not that they are arguing. We're all animated and involved. It's fun . . . They're the ones that had to convince me about Manny."

Persuaded on Ramírez

Ah yes, Manny Ramírez. Henry was the last holdout to keep Ramírez when he quit on the Red Sox in late July. Ramírez was upset with the language of a contract he signed in 2000 - it included options for the club to renew him for 2009 and again for 2010. After Epstein arranged a trade deadline deal to ship the slugger to Los Angeles, Ramírez's agent, Scott Boras, called the Sox in an effort to keep Manny in Boston.

"Scott called to say if we would just drop the options that Manny would play every day and be fine," recalls the owner. "I had been at Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s place in North Carolina. I thought it was all over with, but when I got on the plane to fly home, Theo and Larry called me after takeoff and said 'Manny wants to stay, he doesn't want to go to LA.' At that point, both said, 'We have to do this deal.' So it's not a case where they are generally on different sides of issues."

As for Ramírez, Henry says, "I was offended. Someone's upset about the contract they signed eight years ago that we fully lived up to. For them to start attacking us personally for doing things behind his back - when we bent over backwards for years to make him happy - it's irritating."

Parting with Ramírez made sense for team morale and for peace of mind. Statistically, it did not make sense, which is one reason Henry wasn't sure about trading the slugger. Henry made his fortune developing a systematic approach to commodities trading. He remains a numbers man all the way.

"I like that position because there's some degree of objectivity," he says. "You can separate meaningful stats from unmeaningful stats. The game is so unpredictable . . . but I recognize how successful we've been, trying to project players through scouting. Even though I might personally be more comfortable with a statistical approach. When we hired Grady [former manager Grady Little, who rejected computer printouts and flew by the seat of his pants], from the very beginning, I couldn't understand that. Theo has done a tremendous job incorporating both sides. I think he would lean toward the statistical side except that he knows the limitations. If it were less limited, we'd both be on that page squarely. But it is limited. On a statistical basis you don't make the Manny trade, right?"

That's the lesson. Seven years in charge of the Red Sox has taught Henry that sometimes the numbers do lie. Sometimes you have to believe in your GM when he says that a 5-foot-6-inch kid named Dustin Pedroia is going to be a .300 hitter in the big leagues. Sometimes it makes sense to trade a Hall of Fame-bound RBI machine who always looks good in the stat book. Henry can easily calculate the odds of a team winning four straight games after falling behind three games to none. It is highly unlikely, but it happened against the Yankees in 2004. It happened because of heart, soul, will, and a bloody sock - things that can't be calculated or quantified - and it remains the moment that changed everything we think about the Red Sox today.

"I still feel like the new owner," Henry says. " I think you get to a certain age, time goes by so rapidly that it doesn't seem that long ago. I feel like I've learned a lot more about the game - I've watched a thousand more games."

He'll be watching again tonight. At home. In Brookline.

The best part of his day.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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