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In Red Sox lineup, he’s the toughest out

No one’s role is bigger than Larry Lucchino’s as team rises from September’s ashes

“It’s hard to be in baseball for 30-plus years and not have clashed with people,” said Larry Lucchino, Red Sox president and CEO (right), with the team’s new general manager, Ben Cherington. “It’s hard to be in baseball for 30-plus years and not have clashed with people,” said Larry Lucchino, Red Sox president and CEO (right), with the team’s new general manager, Ben Cherington. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Staff / October 30, 2011

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The former manager retreated to Florida, far from the noise and hostility that followed his abrupt departure. The rock star general manager took his talents to Wrigley Field, leaving an elegant farewell note and two World Series trophies. The pariah pitcher who served as a poster boy for the beer-swillin’, chicken-eatin’ team that folded so dramatically, scheduled major surgery, and will miss next season. The soft-talking billionaire owner went back underground after a bizarre and spontaneous radio appearance in which he fiercely defended the honor and brand of Boston’s fabled American League franchise.

And who is the last man standing at Fenway Park?

Larry Lucchino, Red Sox president and CEO.

Controversial, brilliant, combative, and ever-lawyerly, Lucchino represents the past, present, and future of the 21st century Red Sox. He was the man in charge when the Sox broke the Curse in 2004, and he’ll be calling the shots as the ballclub attempts to rise from the rubble of September/October 2011.

Given the fervor attached to our local baseball institution, Lucchino has maintained a fairly low profile in his 10 years on the job. But what has heretofore been known only inside the walls of Fenway (and in baseball front offices across North America) has become apparent to even casual Red Sox fans: Larry Lucchino is the man in charge.

Check out the file photos: Theo Epstein hired. Grady Little fired. Terry Francona hired. Ballpark renovations announced. Tito leaves. Theo leaves. Ben Cherington hired. The single thread is Lucchino. Looking a little like Tommy Lee Jones, Lucchino is sitting there, in every photograph, at every press conference.

“The buck stops with Larry,’’ says Sam Kennedy, Red Sox executive vice president and president of Fenway Sports Group. “The way I see it, a baseball team has three functions - baseball, the business, and the ballpark. The CEO is the one who manages all three. He doesn’t sit at the table when Theo is deciding who to draft. He doesn’t sit with me when I’m negotiating a seven-year deal with Budweiser, but he pushes back and challenges and manages and leads the people who are doing that.’’

Owner John Henry made this abundantly clear at his impromptu radio appearance at 98.5 The Sports Hub Oct. 14. Challenged about a perceived disconnect from his 2011 team and his focus on Roush Racing, Liverpool soccer, and his futures trading entities, Henry explained that while he and Sox Chairman Tom Werner are involved in many non-baseball ventures, “Larry Lucchino runs the Red Sox.’’

“I certainly wasn’t surprised to hear that,’’ says Lucchino. “Maybe it’s a good thing. It gives us an opportunity to clear up the governance of the club. The governance of the club is invested in the three of us. I am here managing the club, day-to-day. It’s not new and it’s worked well. Judge us by our body of work.’’

In 32 years in major league baseball, Lucchino has built two beautiful ballparks, one of which (Camden Yards in Baltimore) changed everything about the way all subsequent parks were built. He has overseen the renovation of Fenway Park, and he earned World Series rings with three franchises. Meanwhile, his direct and demanding style has left a trail of success and bruised feelings from coast (Baltimore, Boston) to coast (San Diego).

He jousted famously with George Steinbrenner and Jerry Reinsdorf. He battled the Maryland Stadium Authority. Things ended awkwardly with his San Diego Padres partner, John Moores. He called agent Scott Boras a liar at the end of the Mark Teixeira negotiations. Here in Boston, there was a well-documented loss of trust between Lucchino and former general manager Theo Epstein.

“It’s hard to be in baseball for 30-plus years and not have clashed with people,’’ says Lucchino. “But it’s one thing to be a forceful advocate for your franchise and it’s another to be a guy who accumulates enemies while doing that. I’m sure there are people with whom I disagree on a variety of issues, but I can’t think of too many personal enemies.’’

Boston businessman Joe O’Donnell started out as an adversary. O’Donnell’s bid to buy the Sox was rejected when Selig awarded the Sox to Henry and Co. But with time he came to appreciate the human side of the hard-edged Sox CEO.

“I love the way Larry was about his mother [Rose Lucchino, an avid bowler and scorekeeper of every Sox game, died last year at the age of 94],’’ says O’Donnell. “My mother is also Italian and when we didn’t get the team she was asking me, ‘Joey, who should I hate?’ and it was supposed to be Larry, of course because he was the guy. I kidded Larry that my mother was smarter and faster and stronger than his mom. All that stuff. But I saw that he’s the guy that makes it go over there. He was the dead-end kid from Pittsburgh who wound up going to Princeton and loved his mom. Larry is without question the most valuable guy in that organization. He’s the glue. He’s irascible, but maybe you have to be that way in this business.’’

Lucchino’s mentor, trial attorney Edward Bennett Williams - a card-carrying member of Richard Nixon’s enemies list - defended celebrity clients such as Jimmy Hoffa, John Connolly, and Steinbrenner. Soon after Williams bought the Orioles in 1979, Lucchino found himself on Steinbrenner’s enemies list.

According to author Bill Madden, when Henry bought the Red Sox in 2001, Steinbrenner called Henry and told him, “I’m very concerned about you getting into bed with Werner and Lucchino. Those are two treacherous, phony backstabbers you’ve got there, John . . . I’ve got no use for those two bastards.’’

Lucchino proceeded to infuriate Steinbrenner again when he characterized the 2002 Yankees as “the Evil Empire.’’

“When you are bold, you’re going to offend some people,’’ acknowledges Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig. “Sure, Larry has critics, but does he have the pragmatic knowledge to do this job? No question about it.’’

The Lucchino-Epstein dynamic is an age-old tale of protege-mentor relationship gone awry.

Lucchino was running the Orioles when 19-year-old Epstein came into baseball as an Oriole intern in 1992. After Theo graduated from Yale, he followed Lucchino to San Diego. Epstein went to law school at the University of San Diego at the behest of Lucchino and eventually moved into the Padres’ baseball operations department. When Lucchino came to the Red Sox with Henry and Werner in 2001, Lucchino brokered a deal to bring Epstein and Sam Kennedy (Brookline High School classmates) to the team as well. In 2002, after Oakland GM Billy Beane rejected Boston’s offer to join the Red Sox, Lucchino made 28 year-old Epstein the youngest GM in baseball history.

“Remember this,’’ says Stan Kasten, former president of the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals. “It was not obvious to the outside world that Theo Epstein should be general manager of the Red Sox.’’

The Lucchino-Epstein tandem delivered a World Series championship in 2004, but things blew up a year later when Epstein abruptly resigned because he thought Lucchino was leaking information that reflected poorly on the baseball judgment of the young GM. Epstein returned a few months later, but the relationship was never the same. In Theo’s final years, there was limited dialogue between baseball ops and all other departments at Fenway.

In his parting missive published in the Globe last Tuesday, Epstein wrote that he still enjoyed close relationships with Henry and Werner, then referenced a “complicated, but ultimately productive’’ relationship with Lucchino.

“I think it’s fair to say that initially the relationship was bruised a bit,’’ says Lucchino. “But we got over it. We were together for 20 years, so necessarily there are going to be some adjustments and growing pains.’’

“Those two guys are never going to go on vacation together,’’ says Kennedy, Epstein’s lifelong friend. “They’re not going to hang out socially at happy hour and make small-talk. But they did work together very effectively and the perception that there’s this hatred or distrust is overblown.’’

Lucchino admits that Epstein’s baseball operations department isolated itself from the rest of the Red Sox front office after their personal clash: “I would not say it was an island, but I think there was a time when it was drifting away and we had to make an effort to integrate, as we are now.’’

Now that Theo has moved on, does Lucchino think baseball ops will work more in concert with the rest of the organization?

“I do,’’ says the CEO. “I think Ben [new general manager, Ben Cherington] recognizes the importance of integrating baseball operations with all of the other operations we have going on around here.’’

Regarding player evaluation, Lucchino considers himself a blend of old-school scouting and new-school sabermetrics.

“Everybody uses [data driven analysis] now,’’ he says. “So if you’re looking for the edge going forward, the edge will revert back to the teams that have the best hands-on observational, traditional scouts. So we will always use both.’’

Lucchino rejects the notion that Red Sox ownership was any part of a smear campaign against Terry Francona after the manager was fired: “I will bet you a house, if we could bet, that derogatory things about Tito did not come from John, Tom, myself, or anybody in ownership.’’

Just as Lucchino will defend Sox ownership from the charge of smear, he will defend Henry when Henry says he did not want $142 million free agent Carl Crawford. He will defend the selling of Fenway bricks and “Sweet Caroline.’’ He will defend John Lackey and other Sox pitchers when it’s reported that they were drinking beer in the dugout during games. He will defend the old days of Theo and the new days of Ben. Now that he works in Boston, Lucchino will defend big baseball’s big markets, just as he vigilantly advocated for small markets when he ran the San Diego Padres.

“He’s always somebody’s lawyer,’’ says Selig’s aide-de-camp, Dr. Charles Steinberg, another Lucchino protege.

“That’s true,’’ admits Lucchino. “I’m proud of the advocacy that I take for my partners for the franchise and for the fan base.’’

An equity partner in the Sox ownership group, the 66-year-old Lucchino is at the end of a 10-year contract and plans to sign on for another shift.

Henry did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story, but told 98.5 The Sports Hub that he’s ready to sign Lucchino to another contract.

Werner says, “If I was in a canoe, I’d want Larry rowing with me.’’

“I’ve told John and Tom I love being here,’’ says Lucchino. “I’m happy to go forward for more years and I look forward to sinking my roots more deeply in Boston.’’

The roots grow deeper each year. Lucchino still owns a home in La Jolla, Calif., but has lived in Brookline for 10 years. His wife, Stacey, is involved in numerous Greater Boston charities, and they have a son at Boston College and a daughter at Duke.

Restoring the Red Sox brand, on and off the field, represents Lucchino’s next task.

“This probably is the most adversity that we’ve encountered since we’ve been here,’’ he admits. “But it just creates a greater opportunity and a greater challenge.

“The team will be worthy of the support. I think we will get it right. There’s nothing that’s wrong with the Red Sox that can’t be cured by what’s right with the Red Sox. I think we have a set of challenges to come back from - this September collapse and the fallout thereafter. But with my best MacArthur-like resolve, I am convinced that we will return.’’

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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