Buried in a long, somewhat self-aggrandizing article by former Boston Red Sox PR agent Doug Bailey in this month’s Boston Magazine is this historical tidbit about the current ownership group’s much-lauded renovations of Fenway Park:
In 2000 — before the Henry/Werner group bought the team — the state legislature had approved spending more than $300 million on improvements around the park as part of the then-owner’s plan to build a new stadium. That plan fizzled, and with it the public funding, but now Henry, Werner, and Lucchino wanted to either revive the state’s financial incentives package or quietly win a new round of funding. The finesse with which this had to be accomplished could not be overstated. There were some around the table at these meetings who argued vociferously to simply tie the Fenway Park commitment to public funds. In other words: “We’ll only stay and renovate Fenway if we receive taxpayer assistance for infrastructure improvements.” [Larry] Lucchino overruled them. The Red Sox would make the commitment to Fenway Park regardless of the infrastructure issue. Gradually, a media plan emerged: The team would guarantee that baseball would be played in Fenway on its 100th anniversary in 2012; highlight all of the money the new owners had already spent — and were going to spend — on improving the park; and extend an offer to help the state with infrastructure improvements. Implicit in that offer, of course, was that the state would kick in money, too.
The whole thing was going to be laid out at a press conference at Fenway on March 23, less than a month before the start of the 2005 season. It was a solid plan and might have gone off without a hitch, but it was nearly sunk when an overeager associate decided to give an exclusive advance to Globe columnist Joan Vennochi in a wrong-headed attempt to win some positive press. Joan is a friend of mine and a true baseball fan, but she is a fierce opponent of public financing for professional sports teams. In fact, she’d been one of Kraft’s most dogged critics during his quest for taxpayer money to build a stadium in Boston. When the paper hit the door that morning, you didn’t even need to read the column to know what it said. The headline told it all: “No Public Money for Red Sox.” It would take months to recover from that blunder, which seriously set back the club’s plans for taxpayer support. In the end, the team got less than $100 million.
(Here’s the link to Vennochi’s article, though it’s subcriber-only.)
How seriously to take this story is hard to tell: The Red Sox owners’ announcement of staying put at Fenway came off the next day without a hitch, after all, and it’s not like Vennochi had had much success derailing earlier plans for public funding for a Red Sox stadium. (Bailey also gets the amount of the originally approved state subsidy wrong: It was $100 million, not $300 million; an additional $212 million in city funds was proposed but never approved.) Still, this is at least some indication that John Henry and Co. were planning to ask for more public subsidies for a Fenway renovation if they could get it — which, given Henry’s actions as owner of the Florida Marlins, really shouldn’t come as any surprise. To his (and Lucchino’s) credit, he backed off once it proved politically impossible, and went ahead with the renovations anyway — though given that he was able to, it’s worth wondering why the state of Massachusetts should have been chipping in to pay for it in the first place.