FEEDING THE MONSTER
How Money, Smarts, and Nerve
Took a Team to the Top
By Seth Mnookin
Simon & Schuster -- 433pp -- $26
The Good A revealing, and largely flattering, account of baseball?s Boston Red Sox.
The Bad Granted loads of inside access, the author seems at times to feel too indebted to Sox management.
The Bottom Line Engaging, even for readers with little attachment to Red Sox Nation.
The front office was in turmoil. Just a season removed from its first World Series triumph in 86 years, the Boston Red Sox saw its dashing, thirtysomething general manager, Theo Epstein, resign with little explanation. As a protracted and unusually public spat continued between Epstein and Larry Lucchino, the team's demanding CEO, Sox fans were both enthralled and aghast.
What was really going on? Well, who better to tell us than a veteran reporter invited to nose around by the Red Sox lead investor himself? Seth Mnookin, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, cut just such a deal with John Henry, a billionaire commodities trader turned sports tycoon. Mnookin got largely unfettered access, as well as a desk at fabled Fenway Park. The result, Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top, closely tracks Sox history since 2000: business triumphs, blockbuster trades, the unlikely path to the 2004 World Series victory, and the dramas of 2005. It's a revealing and largely flattering account that should engage even readers with little attachment to Red Sox Nation.
There can be no doubt that the Red Sox owners have delivered the goods. For generations, the franchise had been the star-crossed darlings of New England, charismatic if luckless underachievers who could be depended on to implode when the going got tough. On the business side, performance was even worse. Past owners had allowed the 94-year-old Fenway to go to seed. There was little in the way of creative marketing, and relations with the Boston media were a joke.
Enter Henry, a pale, unathletic-looking man with a love of sports and a facility for numbers (as a teen in rural Arkansas, he avidly followed the St. Louis Cardinals on the radio and calculated batting averages in his head). He had been a serial investor in Major League Baseball franchises, starting in the 1990s with a 1% share of the New York Yankees. By 2001 he was controlling owner of the Florida Marlins and losing a long battle with state officials to win a taxpayer-financed stadium.
Henry sold the Marlins to Jeffrey Loria, owner of the then-Montreal Expos, allowing him to accept an invitation from Lucchino and TV producer Tom Werner to become the money man in their expensive pursuit of the Red Sox. The approximately $700 million sale of the Sox closed in January, 2002, but not before the trio had to trounce rival groups and win over skeptics in the rush-to-judgment Boston media.
Of course, the Red Sox sale was front-page news, and readers may recall at least some of the particulars. But Mnookin's insider status yields new details, including a last-minute demand by the sellers to keep their season tickets and luxury suites at Fenway Park. The attempted power play irked Henry, who wanted the prime seats for his partners. He had the last laugh: The Red Sox simply installed two rows of new, even better seats right in front of those of the old owners.
Feeding the Monster (a reference to Fenway's "Green Monster," the iconic 37-foot left field wall) delves deeply into the financial challenges faced by Henry & Co. They are forever under pressure to buy star players with salaries that can climb to $15 million a year in order to keep pace with the Yankees, their well-financed Bronx nemesis. This quest for dollars and fan loyalty drives the Red Sox owners even in the best of times. In four years since buying the team, Henry and partners have spent $100 million in Fenway improvements, including the addition of revenue-generating seats atop the Green Monster and right-field roof. But they have a seller's market: As of July 7 the Red Sox had sold out 263 straight regular-season home games, the second-longest streak in major league history.
Mnookin buys management's rhetoric that increased revenue-sharing, Commissioner Bud Selig's pet project, unfairly bleeds successful clubs. "In 2004, a year in which the Red Sox raised ticket prices, set attendance records, sold more merchandise than any year in their history, and won the World Series, the team lost money," the author says.
But it's hard to feel bad for the hugely wealthy Henry. If ownership is such a lousy proposition, why not sell out? Mnookin may feel a bit too indebted to Henry, who at times comes across as almost saintly. When Henry goofs -- as he did in allowing the Epstein incident to spin out of control -- Mnookin is slow to point a finger.
So what's the real story behind the Lucchino-Epstein tiff? The author writes that Lucchino expects unswerving loyalty and didn't feel the love coming from Epstein. For his part, the young GM, who returned to his job prior to the 2006 season, craved acknowledgment that he was more than a callow kid. In short, it's not that different from office politics everywhere. Only with the Red Sox, all of America is watching.
By Mark Hyman