April 15, 2024

Rosenthal: Remembering Larry Lucchino, a baseball visionary

We shared a cab together, Larry Lucchino and I, riding from the Baltimore Orioles’ hotel to the new Comiskey Park. The year was 1991. Lucchino was the Orioles’ team president. I was a sports columnist for the late Baltimore (Evening) Sun. And for the entire ride, Lucchino railed against the new Comiskey, describing its architecture as flawed, proclaiming how the Orioles’ new park under construction in downtown Baltimore would be so much different, so much better.

I thought, “Yeah, sure.”

Little did I know, Lucchino was right. Boy, was he right. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which opened the following year, established a new standard for ballpark construction, delivering an old-time feel in a sparkling new structure. Years later, recalling the opening of the park, Cal Ripken Jr. would reference the Orioles’ previous home, saying, “You immediately forgot about Memorial Stadium. Camden Yards already felt like sacred ground, and nothing had been played there.”

Lucchino, who died on Tuesday at 78, was the driving force behind Camden. And Petco Park in San Diego. And the renovations of Fenway Park in Boston. But his contributions to baseball extended far beyond his influence on ballparks, which transformed the sport. He was a titanic figure, a man who brought architectural consultant Janet Marie Smith into the game, mentored legendary general manager Theo Epstein, oversaw three World Series titles as president of the Red Sox and coined the term “Evil Empire” for the New York Yankees during his time in Boston.

Shortly after Camden Yards opened, a raging debate ensued over who deserved the credit for masterminding the project. Peter Richmond wrote a book, “Ballpark,” detailing all those who could lay a claim. Lucchino, Richmond wrote, originally opposed keeping the B&O warehouse, the building that became the park’s signature. But the sensibilities Lucchino developed as a young boy going to Pittsburgh Pirates games at Forbes Field informed his vision of what a ballpark should look like.

At one point before Richmond’s book was published, Lucchino invited me to his office, showed me old drawings of Forbes and explained how it led to the Orioles’ blueprint for Camden. I remember writing about it. I remember him being pleased that I did. But our conversations were not always pleasant. Those who knew Lucchino will remember him for his volcanic temper as much as the soft touch he could show, as evidenced most vividly by his role as chairman of the Jimmy Fund, the Red Sox’s official charity that raises millions for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Lucchino and Red Sox president Sam Kennedy with Jimmy Fund patients at Fenway Park in 2018. (Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

In 1985, Lucchino was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma. The disease was in an advanced stage. Lucchino underwent a bone marrow transplant that at the time was considered experimental. He spent 37 straight days in the hospital, according to Richmond’s book, unable to leave his room. But the transplant took, and he emerged a survivor. He later survived prostate and renal cancer as well.

If anything, Lucchino’s recovery only sharpened his competitive edge, made him downright feral in the practice of what his mentor, the famed attorney, Edward Bennett Williams, called, “contest living.” Lucchino did not suffer fools. He could be condescending, to reporters, to colleagues, to anyone who crossed his path. I remember hanging up on him one day, screaming, “You treat us like dogs!” He called me back seconds later, ready to continue litigating whatever complaint he had.

Bruce Hoffman, the former executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority who oversaw the construction of Camden Yards, told Richmond, “I never knew Ed Williams, but my impression was that he could turn it on and off. Larry can’t turn it off. He’ll get so angry he’ll start shaking. You never know which Larry it’ll be. He was a yo-yo.”

Lucchino’s polar extremes – his brilliant, creative mind and his intense, mercurial personality – were perhaps best embodied by his relationship with Epstein. The two initially met when Epstein was a public relations assistant with the Orioles. Lucchino then brought Epstein with him to San Diego and Boston.

It was Lucchino’s influence that led to the Red Sox’s hiring of Epstein at 28 as the youngest general manager in baseball history. And, as reported at the time by the Boston Globe, it was “issues of control and respect” between the two that led to Epstein’s temporary departure in November 2005.

Epstein’s infamous exit from Fenway in a gorilla suit came one year after the Red Sox ended the Curse of the Bambino by winning their first World Series title since 1918. He returned to his job months later, led the Red Sox to the 2007 Series title and remained with the team until October 2011, when he left for the Chicago Cubs and helped them end their own curse, winning the 2016 Series.

Lucchino stepped down from the Red Sox at the end of the 2015 season and later focused on the team’s Triple-A affiliate, moving them from Pawtucket to Worcester to play – naturally – in a newly constructed park. From time to time, I would hear rumors he wanted to be part of a new ownership group in Baltimore or Washington. But those efforts, if they indeed were substantive, never came to fruition. The Orioles since have been sold, and the Nationals have been taken off the market.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, have stagnated in recent years, finishing last in three of the past four seasons, drawing criticism for ownership’s failure to spend the way they did in the past. It’s reasonable to ask, would Lucchino have tolerated such a malaise? Or would he have pushed owner John Henry to keep the team at the highest level, engaging in “contest living” to the end?

Team chairman Tom Werner promised the Red Sox would go “full throttle” this past offseason, and ownership did nothing of the sort. Lucchino was always full throttle, and his legacy will remain vivid to all those who remember him. Through the World Series memories he helped create with the Red Sox. Through the magnificent ballpark constructions and renovations he helped conceive in Baltimore, San Diego and Boston. Through a transformative vision he trumpeted to a reporter on a cab ride, more than three decades ago.

(Top photo of Larry Lucchino on Opening Day at Fenway Park in 2015: Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)