Moving lessons forward

Lucchino spearheaded new ballparks and rebuilt organizations his way, one step and one question at a time.

By Bill King
JetBlue Park opened in 2012, keeping Red Sox spring training in Fort Myers, Fla.Brita Meng/Boston Red Sox

On an October night in 1986, in a makeshift party area in the bowels of Memorial Stadium, a handful of Baltimore Orioles executives and staff hosted a World Series viewing party for a cadre of local business leaders known as the “Designated Hitters,” who had signed on to cajole contacts into purchasing season tickets.

 

As he watched a series that featured the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets, contrasting the wondrous, historic quirks of Fenway Park with the soulless uniformity of Shea Stadium, Larry Lucchino began talking about what he envisioned as the next home for the Orioles, who until two years prior had shared dual-purpose Memorial Stadium with the NFL’s Colts.

There had been rumblings that it might be time for a new stadium in Baltimore, with modern suites and clubs and other amenities. The assumption was that the Orioles and a new NFL team would share it.

Lucchino, who ran the team for owner Edward Bennett Williams, said he didn’t see it that way. He wanted two projects: A stadium for the NFL team and a ballpark for the Orioles.

“Larry, you’re nuts,” said his friend Charles Steinberg, who headed communications for the O’s. “There’s no appetite in this city for one ballpark, much less two.”

 Lucchino stuck to his guns.

“You’re going to see. You’re going to see,” he shouted. “One for baseball. One for football. A ballpark is different from a stadium. A ballpark is intimate. Irregular. Asymmetrical. Angular. It’s got eccentricities. Football stadiums are big, generic, multiuse, multipurpose and often circular. And you don’t even know what city you’re in.”

Lucchino grew up in Pittsburgh, going to games at Forbes Field before the Pirates left it for the multipurpose doughnut hole that was Three Rivers Stadium.

He remembered the difference.

■ ■ ■ ■

Camden Yards, which Lucchino self-deprecatingly refers to as his “one original idea,” changed the face of baseball and the place of sports facilities in U.S. cities, begetting a wave of ballparks, often serving as anchors to downtown revivals.

The renovation of Fenway Park while he was president of the Red Sox not only preserved one baseball landmark, but led to a reconsideration of what was possible for another, Wrigley Field.

Petco Park, which he shepherded between those two, kept baseball in San Diego.

JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, aka Fenway South, unlocked the economic potential of spring training.

So thick is Lucchino’s gilt-edged ballpark portfolio that his latest project, landing a $160 million ballpark for the Class AAA team he now owns in New England’s second largest city — constructed during a pandemic and opened as the region emerged from it — feels a bit like a recognition that, at 75, it may be time to start slowing down.

Ask Lucchino most anything about Worcester’s Polar Park and he is likely to lead you out a door and onto a concourse, pointing here and waving there, showcasing what is and explaining what is still to come.

He is not an architect or an urban planner. He doesn’t even watch HGTV. He is a lawyer with a knack for persuasion and a feel for leverage, both of which are essential to getting these projects funded and started. He also harbors an unbridled drive to get things done.

Lucchino was fortunate that Camden Yards had Maryland’s governor, William Donald Schaefer, as a champion. “You guys keep winning games,” Schaefer told Lucchino. “I’ll take care of the politics and money.”

But it doesn’t often work that way. The public portion of funding for the new ballpark in San Diego came through a referendum, so it was mostly about marshaling voter support. Saving Fenway would require a preservationist’s eye and sophisticated engineering, but it also was a math problem: Solve for the revenue that each expensive renovation could produce to pay for itself. Pawtucket, which led to the move to Worcester, was a case of classic ballpark politics: a club wrestling with the local municipality for funding for years, progressing and then regressing, until finally finding a competing suitor willing to strike a deal.

■ ■ ■ ■

Boston’s negotiation for its spring training complex played out similarly, but with Fort Myers eventually finding the money to keep the team in town.

“You cannot approach any of these thinking that you’ve already done this before,” Lucchino said. “Every city has a different culture, a different ethic, a different political scene. So I do not mean to suggest that these have been the same. But there are certain similarities.

“You’re always fighting about money and how much it all has to cost.”

At this, Lucchino is adroit. He traces it back to his training as a lawyer, and advice from his mentor, the Orioles owner and famed litigator Williams, who might rage against an opposing position one day, and then plaintively propose a compromise the next. “If you don’t have more than one gear you won’t make it in this world,” Williams once told him.

“He meant it as a lawyer,” Lucchino said, “but it applies in general.”

 So too did the lawyerly reminder that the bounds of either side’s position are never clear until a clock is ticking. “People have to know what that deadline is,” he said. “The key to negotiation is knowing when. Not what. When.”

To limit Lucchino’s credit to a ballpark’s preface would understate his role in the work. He did not simply want a baseball-only park for Baltimore; he wanted one that harked back to those cut into neighborhoods, updated to provide modern amenities and fertile revenue sources.

“He is extraordinarily good at strategic thinking and the big picture,” said Janet Marie Smith, the Los Angeles Dodgers executive vice president of planning and development, who worked closely with Lucchino on all but Petco Park. “But Larry has always cared about the details and the nuances and the little things that go into creating an artful composition. And I don’t just mean the visual composition, but a behavioral composition. It’s a rarity to have someone who operates at both ends of the spectrum like that.”

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