April 15, 2024

Larry Lucchino, baseball’s great rebuilder, deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame

BOSTON — Larry Lucchino, who was 78 when he died early Tuesday morning, should be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He should have been given his day in the Cooperstown sunshine years ago, and by acclimation.

Lucchino falls under the category of “executive” for Hall of Fame purposes, or, as they are often called, “builders.” And, OK, sure, from his days with the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres, to his late-in-life adventure as owner of a Triple-A club called the Worcester Red Sox, Lucchino had a long, long run as an executive and builder.

And yet neither term does justice to Lucchino. He was only an “executive” if you use the term as a synonym for “hardheaded,” “combative and “bulldozer.” As for being a builder, he was no such thing. He was a rebuilder is what he was, a man who literally tore baseball’s physical spaces apart and in doing so gave the game a look and a feel that had been missing for years.

It all began with Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which was breathtakingly shoehorned into the Baltimore urbanscape, opening in 1992. Lucchino was president of the Orioles at the time, and, like everyone, he had recognized it was time for the team to move out of the oddly-shaped, out-of-the-way Memorial Stadium and into new digs, preferably in the vicinity of the city’s fast-growing Inner Harbor.

Lucchino and his team of smarties had a vision: If we’re going to build a ballpark, then, damn it, let’s build a ballpark. What was designed, then, was a place with nooks and crannies, with exposed brick and exquisite green, and, best of all, an ancient and oversized mountain of bricks called the B&O Warehouse out there in right field. Lucchino’s team rescued the warehouse from the wrecking ball and enlisted it to proudly stand guard over Camden Yards for all coming time.

During the summer of 1990, when I was working for The National Sports Daily, my boss, the late, great Frank Deford, sent me to Baltimore to write a piece on the new ballpark’s construction, which was barely underway. It was just a great, big hole in the ground at the time, but Deford, a proud Baltimore native, wanted to know what was going on. He told me to ring up John Steadman, a revered columnist for The Baltimore Sun who might have a thing or two to say about this new ballpark.

Did he ever. See, Steadman hated, hated, hated the mere thought of incorporating the B&O into the ballpark’s design, believing that to do so would spoil a view of the Inner Harbor. In making his case to me, Steadman reached deep into his playlist and came up with some obscure passages from from H.L. Mencken, the famed early 20th-century journalist and, especially important for this discussion, a native of Baltimore.

So there. Not only was Steadman lined up against Lucchino, he dared to enlist Mencken to help the cause.

Lucchino & Co. forged ahead. Today, the B&O Warehouse is an instantly identifiable baseball postcard. On the day Camden Yards opened, Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., took a look at the place and said, “It’s hard to believe baseball wasn’t being played here 100 years ago.”

Soon enough, there was a clamoring throughout baseball for new ballparks. Pretty much every city wanted a Camden Yards. Pretty much every city got one — including San Diego, thanks to Larry Lucchino moving out west to take over the Padres for a few years.

But it wasn’t just ballparks he rebuilt. When he came to Boston in 2002 to serve the Red Sox as president and CEO after a group headed by John Henry and Tom Werner bought the team, Lucchino needed to rebuild two things: 1) the organization, and 2) the mindset.

Lucchino was a smart man who happened to have an eye for smart people. Beginning in Baltimore, and continuing in San Diego, and continuing now in Boston, Lucchino identified and developed a dream team of people who were placed in places where they could excel. Charles Steinberg, a Baltimore dentist who used to keep stats in the Memorial Stadium press box, turned out to be a whiz at creating the perfect ballpark experience. Theo Epstein, an intern in Baltimore, an assistant to the assistant of media relations in San Diego, wound up as general manager of the Red Sox. Sam Kennedy. Adam Grossman. The list goes on and on. Lucchino also looked at the existing flowchart when he took over the Red Sox and kept the people he identified as the goods, which is why the likes of Larry Cancro (marketing) and the late Dick Bresciani (media relations) flourished under new management.

“We’re in the yes business,” Lucchino liked to say, which came as shocking news to the old Red Sox guard.

And then there is Fenway Park. For all its beauty, for all its history, Fenway was a dusty and stodgy place when Larry Lucchino arrived in Boston. What irony: The man whose vision inspired city leaders throughout the county to tear down their various Riverfronts, Qualcomms and Candlesticks turned out to be the man who saved Fenway Park.

Lucchino in 2003 with Terry Francona and Theo Epstein. (Jessica Rinaldi / Getty Images)

Lucchino saw beauty where other people, like me, complained that from a lot of seats you couldn’t even see home plate. He saw Fenway partly through the lens of history but also as box office: Renovate the place, and, to borrow from “Field of Dreams,” people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come. For tours, no less.

Janet Marie Smith was another of Lucchino’s smart people who were placed in positions to excel. A key player in the shaping of Camden Yards and San Diego’s Petco Park, she came to Boston to clean up and renovate Fenway Park. “Do no harm,” was Lucchino’s only rule, and over the years no harm was done other than to charge big money for the bleacher seats that were placed on top of the Green Monster.

If Lucchino’s administrative skills waned over time, which led to his being eased out the door in 2015, he still had the vision and the moxie to head up the group that bought Boston’s Triple-A Pawtucket club. When the state of Rhode Island wouldn’t help him build a ballpark that would have been a gem, he moved the team to Worcester, Mass., which now has a gem of a ballpark.

Back in 2004, the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years. Epstein assembled the roster and Terry Francona ran the dugout, and they are both headed for the Hall of Fame.

Larry Lucchino should be there with them. The man rebuilt baseball, and baseball owes him everything.

(Top photo: Jared Wickerham / Getty Images)