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Brian McGrory

Writers series a hit for Sox

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / March 30, 2011

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There’s not an author alive who hasn’t shown up for a book event at a Barnes & Noble in, say, suburban Philadelphia, only to find three people sprinkled among a sea of empty chairs and a store manager who cheerily explains how hard it is to go head-to-head with the season premiere of “Dancing with the Stars.’’

Two of the audience members are crocheting, and the one guy looks like he’s just thrilled to be indoors. Wait a minute, he just fell asleep and the author hasn’t started speaking yet.

And when it’s Q&A time, the first polite question comes from one of the elderly crocheters: “When does it come out in paperback?’’

Now get this image out of your mind, because an unlikely organization is doing more than its part to make sure it doesn’t happen here: The Boston Red Sox.

Yes, the baseball team. No, Josh Beckett is not picking the titles for a players book group, and Dustin Pedroia is not sacrificing practice time to finish Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel.

It’s the owners. Many years ago, they brought George Plimpton to Fenway to speak to some invited guests, and when it went well, they quietly began luring authors of sports books to the ballpark to address small groups of faithful fans.

One thing turned into another. They began inviting non-sportswriters to speak. Small meeting rooms became vast ballrooms. Voilà, The Great Fenway Park Writers Series was quietly born. At this point, the team gets more attendees for a book event than the Tampa Bay Rays get for a playoff game. OK, almost.

The baseball season begins Friday with a game in Texas, and the team’s literary season begins at the Hotel Commonwealth next Wednesday with a talk by Harvey Frommer, the noted sports author who recently published, “Remembering Fenway Park.’’

The endeavor has been done absent of profit or publicity, two characteristics closely associated with this team. It is, as Larry Lucchino, Red Sox chief executive, said yesterday, “a little thing that we take some pride in. We’re the Red Sox, we’re Boston, and it works here.’’

In other words, don’t try this in Toronto, or Oakland, or St. Louis. In fact, only in one major or minor city could a sports franchise fuse the disparate passions of baseball and books into an enterprise as successful as this.

Credit George Mitrovich, an old Lucchino friend and former Capitol Hill aide, who runs the program from San Diego. He chooses the authors, makes the arrangements, and takes rejection from precisely nobody. On the eve of the event, Mitrovich expertly presides over small dinners at Eastern Standard restaurant (a sponsor), during which an eclectic group of writers, past and present pols, and sports figures solve the problems of the world. Picture Dwight Evans sitting next to Gloria Steinem, and you’ve pretty much got it.

The main event the following night, held at the Hotel Commonwealth, can bring in 150 people. Attendees pay from $50 to $70, which includes a copy of the book. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be an author staring out at a ballroom full of people holding your tome? Neither do I. The writers also get a glowing introduction from Mitrovich.

“He is the great raconteur,’’ said Washington lawyer and author Richard Ben-Veniste.

Besides Ben-Veniste, past speakers include Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated, Christine Brennan of USA Today, Dan Shaughnessy and Tony Massarotti of the Globe, and performer/humorist/writer Roy Blount Jr. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer spoke, as did New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, former US senator Bill Bradley, and old Globe friends Jack Farrell and Larry Tye.

It may be, as Lucchino said, a small thing, yet it says many good things about the team, its fans, and the city.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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