Red Sox owner seeks to pepper Fenway area with high rises, take over public street

When John Henry bought the Boston Red Sox in 2002, as part of the three-way ownership deal that ended up with the Florida Marlins in the hands of Jeffrey Loria and the Montreal Expos eventually being moved to Washington, it was seen as a victory for opponents of tearing down historic ballparks and replacing them at public expense: The old ownership’s plan for a new, larger Fenway Park went out the window, and Henry instead set out to renovate the 1912 ballpark with mostly private money, though he did get $80 million in state and federal historic preservation credits.

Henry also set his sights on the Fenway neighborhood around the park, with an eye toward making money by expanding his team’s footprint outside the stadium proper. He bought several adjacent buildings, moving some ballpark operations into them, and struck a deal with the city to close down Yawkey Way (now Jersey Street because former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey was a racist jerk who was the last owner in MLB to bring in a non-white player) on game days for a pittance so he could use it as an outdoor concessions mall. And now Henry is preparing his biggest move yet, seeking city approval to partner with two development firms to build 2.1 million square feet of office, residential, and retail towers on eight acres of land near Fenway:

“The Project’s guiding principle is to allow the city fabric to envelop and embrace the historic ballpark and create welcoming, people-first places and buildings that contribute to the quality and vitality of the public realm in the heart of the Fenway neighborhood year-round,” WS [Development] wrote in its letter to the [Boston Planning & Development Agency].

They also plan to shut down Jersey Street — which today is closed on Red Sox game days but otherwise open to traffic — to create a permanent pedestrian plaza alongside Fenway Park. That would happen only after the extension of Ross Way — which today connects Boylston and Van Ness Streets — all the way through to Brookline Avenue. A mix of storefronts and taller buildings would line Jersey Street, according to images filed with the letter.

The project also calls for buildings on a large surface parking lot across Brookline Avenue from Fenway Park, and on the site of a squat garage along Landsdowne Street behind the Green Monster. Longer term, the group is considering building a so-called “air rights” development over the Turnpike behind that garage — though those highly-complex projects typically take years of careful planning.

Here are some renderings, complete with skyways and clip-art people enjoying leisurely strolls (with their bicycles, for some reason) along public promenades:

Is this a land-development-rights stadium scam, like is becoming all the rage these days? Not precisely: Henry doesn’t appear to be asking for public money, and there’s no quid pro quo where he’s threatening to leave town if he doesn’t get what he wants or anything like that. It’s just Henry behaving like other local developers who have taken advantage of booming real estate values to erect a ton of high-rise buildings in the Fenway area. (If you haven’t been to a Red Sox game lately, check out what’s happened to Boylston Street.)

Still, developer scams are a thing too, and this has all the hallmarks of one: Henry would almost certainly need to demand a rezoning to allow for higher development than would otherwise be allowed on land that he or his partners bought for a price based on lower zoning limits. Plus, there’s that bit about shutting down Jersey Street permanently, which while maybe a good idea from a pedestrian traffic-flow point of view, still amounts to a land grab to make up for Fenway Park’s small footprint by annexing his own version of Baltimore’s Eutaw Street.

As with the original Fenway renovation deal, I don’t feel the need to call out the pitchforks and torches — this could be so, so much worse for both Boston taxpayers and Boston fans of historic stadiums and historic neighborhoods. Still, it’s decidedly an indication of how billionaires, whether they own sports teams or not (but it helps), can leverage their way into redesigning entire areas of cities. In American capitalism, we get not the cities that we deserve, but the cities that our 700-pound gorillas think will make them the most money.

That time the Boston Globe said to raze Fenway Park because it was unfair to Jim Lonborg

It’s a slow news time, the interregnum between Christmas and New Year’s, so lots of news outlets are filling space with best-of lists and the like. We’ll get to those soon enough, but today I’d like to focus on the Boston Globe revisiting an article on its 53-year-and-two-days anniversary, about why the then-American League champion Boston Red Sox desperately needed a replacement for Fenway Park.

The writer, Harold Kaese, who had been a Boston sportswriter long enough to have covered Babe Ruth when he played for the Boston Braves, started off with the list of reasons not to approve a new stadium bill, which was then up for consideration by the legislature:

No open bidding on contracts, the secret books of the Turnpike Authority, the right to acquire land without compensating anybody except the BRA (Boston Redevelopment Authority), no provision to compensate Boston for taxable property lost to the stadium, and so on.

Those are some intriguing reasons! But Kaese was bringing them up only to dismiss them, because he was readying a volley of justifications for a Fenway replacement that should be familiar to any modern sports fan:

Why does Boston need a new stadium?

Because other cities with empty ones may steal the Red Sox and Patriots from us.

Because the Turnpike Extension needs more traffic.

Because the city’s hotels, motels, restaurants, taxi cabs, and parking lots need more business.

Because Fenway Park is an antediluvian playground, inadequate in its capacity, parking facilities, and dimensions.

That’s pretty much one from every category of the stadium playbook in Chapter 4 of Field of Schemes: the move threat; the promise of economic riches; the warning that the old place is “obsolete,” defined as whatever you feel like. And it adds the bizarre rationale that the Mass Pike needs more traffic, which I guess was because the toll road wasn’t generating enough revenue, even after large swaths of greater Boston had been seized and demolished to make way for the highway.

Kaese was just leading up to his main point, though, which was that Fenway Park needed to be razed because it was unfair to Jim Lonborg:

The best pitcher in the American League last season, not only because the baseball writers said so, but because he won the most games (22), had the most strikeouts (246), hit the most batters (19), and competitively was the toughest, was Jim Lonborg of the Red Sox.

But in earned run average, Lonborg rated 18th with his 3.16 runs allowed per game, which was 1.10 runs per game behind Joe Horlen of the White Sox.

Was Horlen 35 percent more effective a pitcher than Lonborg, as the ERA indicates?

Nobody who followed the American League last season will say so. Rather than say Horlen was 35 percent better than Lonborg, it would be more accurate to say that Comiskey Park, Chicago, is 35 percent easier to pitch in than Fenway Park, Boston.

So very much to unpack here! First off, there’s the common old-baseball contention that the best pitcher is the one who wins the most games, even though it’s just as easy to win games by having a team that scores lots of runs for you than by stopping the other team from scoring yourself. Lonborg won the A.L. Cy Young Award largely on the basis of those 22 wins, which came thanks to the 4.48 runs per game that the Sox scored in his starts that season; league average was 3.77 that year, but Boston had the best offense in the league, thanks partly to Fenway but mostly to Carl Yastrzemski, who won the triple crown with one of the best hitting seasons in baseball history despite playing under an expanded strike zone against pitchers standing atop a 15-inch mound.

Second, there’s the idea that Lonborg was the best pitcher in the league because he hit a league-high 19 batters, which … I guess was supposed to be an indication that he was a tough competitor or something, but mostly seems to have had to do with the fact that he threw hard but had terrible aim. (Lonborg walked 83 batters, just missing the league’s top ten.)

As for the rest of Kaese’s argument, thanks to living in the distant future with our computers and our flying cars, we are now in a great position to see whether Lonborg was indeed a great pitcher who was being held back from recognition by his home park, notwithstanding that he had just been recognized with the biggest pitching award baseball had to offer. Modern baseball analysis has come up with something called Wins Above Replacement, which combines various stats to estimate how many more wins a team got thanks to having this one player instead of some random schlub from the minors. (There are several different ways to calculate WAR, but let’s go with Baseball Reference’s, which is a common standard.) Lonborg in 1967 was worth 4.0 WAR, which compares to other American League pitchers that year like so:

1. Merritt • MIN 6.5
2. Chance • MIN 5.9
3. Horlen • CHW 5.5
4. Hunter • KCA 4.6
5. Siebert • CLE 4.6
6. Boswell • MIN 4.6
7. Tiant • CLE 4.6
8. Hargan • CLE 4.5
9. Downing • NYY 4.5
10. Kaat • MIN 4.2

Lonborg doesn’t even make the top-ten list, and look who does: Yep, Joe Horlen of the Chicago White Sox, that guy who only won the ERA title thanks to his fancy run-suppressing home park. It turns out Horlen actually did pitch better than Lonborg in 1967, as did a whole lot of other guys. (WAR takes into account how hard it is to score in a pitcher’s home stadium.) WAR, in fact, suggests that the real best A.L. pitcher of 1967 was Jim Merritt, who struck out 161 batters while walking only 30, but got zero Cy Young votes and didn’t even make the All-Star team thanks in large part to only going 13-7 in win-loss record, while the Minnesota Twins only scored 3.96 runs per game for him. Maybe the state of Minnesota should have passed a bill tearing down Zoilo Versalles?

Dumb 1967 baseball analysis aside, this should stand as a reminder that there has always been dumb newspaper writing about stadiums and why they should be replaced at public expense. (The cost of a new combined baseball and football stadium was estimated at $97 million, the equivalent of $747 million today.) And while both Horlen’s and Merritt’s home stadiums had been demolished by 1991, Fenway Park survives to this day, and is one of the most lucrative in baseball, thanks to both its popularity with fans and that antediluvian capacity, which enables the Sox to jack up ticket prices thanks to the relative scarcity of tickets.

Not that that’s stopped calls for Fenway Park’s replacement, most recently from Globe sportswriter Kevin Paul Dupont, who is old enough to have watched Lonborg pitch in 1967 while in high school. Earlier this month, Dupont wrote that Fenway needed to be razed because, and I am 100% serious about this and apparently he was too, the Cleveland Indians were deciding to change their name because it was racist:

If we were suddenly Cleveland, and the term “Red Sox” was deemed a pejorative and socially unacceptable (it came close here in the early ’60s), what would be harder, to see the team have to surrender its name or give up its ballpark?

Would it be easier on the heart and soul to accept the Boston Americans (or other new name) still playing at the existing Fenway, or the Red Sox, operating under their same name since 1908, playing in a dazzling new park, with 42,000 seats, dynamic views, sparkling bathrooms and enough electrical outlets to bring Nikola Tesla to tears?

I didn’t call attention to this at the time, because frankly, it didn’t even seem to have enough argument to it to be worth debunking. (Electrical outlets?) But now that the Globe has seen fit to dredge up an equally half-baked column from 53 years ago … is this the beginnings of a drumbeat to replace Fenway? Or just a newspaper sports department really bored by a team that’s going nowhere just two years after winning the World Series, and desperate for something new to write about? I just wrote 1300 words on this, so I’m probably not one to judge; but maybe let’s keep one eye open for warnings about declining toll revenue on I-90, just in case.

Owner says Red Sox will move out of Fenway by 1972

I hate Throwback Thursday to the extent that I’ve made a Social Fixer tab to hide all references to it in Facebook, but someone sent this along on Twitter, so I thought I’d share:

“I don’t care who you are or how much money you have- you can’t lose a million or so each year.”

“Sometimes I wonder why I have continued (to take losses) for as long as I have. Maybe it’s been too long,” he said with a slight smile, “I really don’t know.”

“When I look at it from a business standpoint a man would have to be:

“A. Crazy

“B. Like to lose money

“C. Like to continue to lose more money.”

“And no one — at least that I know of — is like that.”

That was Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, in 1967, explaining why there was no way the Red Sox would still be playing in Fenway Park by 1972. In addition to saying it would be “almost impossible to exist financially in Fenway Park,” Yawkey dropped a reference to the Braves moving out of Boston to Milwaukee, and was described (by longtime Boston Globe reporter Will McDonough) as having exhibited “tremendous generosity in all phases of his operation over the years,” which will come as a surprise to all the African-American ballplayers he refused to employ on his club.

Anyway, go read it, it’s a great blast from the past. And then have a look at this.

Boston columnist compares Red Sox playing in Fenway to baseball’s history of segregation

I’ve been a newspaper columnist myself, so I get what they’re for. At their best, they combine insightful reporting with the kind of personable, entertaining writing that isn’t usually allowed on the news pages. (I’m not sure that distinction will hold up in the age of blogs, but it’s been useful for newspapers.) At their worst, they’re just people who are paid a lot of money to gush opinions that aren’t any more sensible or well-researched than those held by any random person on the street, but which for some reason go out to millions of readers.

The Boston Herald’s Steve Buckley, at least, is up-front about what his opinions are: This is a guy who last summer called himself “the cranky guy who screams that Boston needs a new baseball park.” So we shouldn’t be surprised that with Boston talking vaguely about somehow building a stadium for the 2024 Olympics if it gets them, Buckley, who doesn’t want Boston to get the Olympics, has nonetheless turned it into an opportunity to scream that Boston needs a new baseball park:

Fenway Park isn’t going to last forever. As Red Sox principal owner John Henry said last spring, the aging ballpark has “an expiration date.”

When?

“I think we’re several decades away, a good 30 years,” Henry said. “Hopefully we’ll still be around, but we’ll leave that for the next ownership group. Someone at some point in the decades ahead will have to address the possibility of a new ballpark.”…

But if we left all our problems to be solved by future generations, we’d still be dumping raw sewage in the Charles River. Jackie Robinson never would have gotten into Ebbets Field without a ticket.

And there you have it, the kind of opinion trap that columnists all too often find themselves building and then falling into: The Red Sox continuing to play in Fenway Park is like swimming in filth and segregation. I really doubt that Buckley sat down to write that yesterday, but eventually he got to a point where he needed to figure out how to argue that the third-most-valuable team in baseball can’t live without a new stadium, just because the team’s owner said Fenway should be structurally sound for another three decades or more, but three decades isn’t until the end of time, now is it?

This is the kind of logic that an editor really should catch and send back for rewrites, but opinion columnists don’t generally have their ideas rejected just because their editors think they’re screwy. Unless somebody powerful objects to it, that is, in which case it’s bound for the circular file. Some ideas are more unacceptable than others.

Boston Finance Committee calls for halt to Yawkey Way deal, calls it “financially irresponsible”

Turns out I’m not the only one critical of the deal that the city of Boston cut to give the Red Sox perpetual rights to Yawkey Way in exchange for $7.34 million in payments over the next ten years: The advisory Boston Finance Commission has called on Mayor Thomas Menino to delay a vote on the plan, saying it will “shackle generations of Bostonians to an agreement that over time will prove to be financially irresponsible” and that the city should be negotiating to get a chunk of future revenues from concessions on the site.

The Boston Globe article on this revealed that the Boston Redevelopment Authority at least had some rationale behind its numbers: Since retail space in the neighborhood goes for $60 a square foot, and the Sox would only use Yawkey Way about one-third of the days in a year, the BRA settled on a price of $20 per square foot per year. And since annual rents are usually about 7 percent of land value, and Yawkey Way is 17,000 square feet, that came to a purchase price of just under $4.9 million. Add in air rights over Lansdowne Street (where the Green Monster seats were built) for another $2.5 million, and the total price tag came to $7.4 million.

This leaves out a couple of important factors: First off, Boston isn’t actually getting $7.4 million in present value — it’s getting $7.4 million over the next ten years, which is worth somewhat less than that. Additionally, one could argue that Yawkey Way should be valued at more than surrounding retail properties because it’s a unique location — it’s not like if the Red Sox didn’t like the price being charged they could just go and rent 17,000 feet of local storefronts 81 days a year in which to hold a giant open-air concessions concourse. (Though I suppose the opposite argument is true to some degree as well: If they weren’t renting to the Red Sox, the city wouldn’t have many other bidders to use the street — though it does have value as, you know, a public street, plus it’d be interesting to see what, say, a coalition of independent sausage truck vendors might have bid for the site.

Anyway, Mayor Menino has signaled that he’s going to ignore the Finance Commission and let the Yawkey Way easement proceed. But it’s a reminder that, even if the deal is better than the original one — which was crazy low because, according to the Globe, a real estate consulting firm based the Sox’ rent on “lease rates for pushcarts in shopping malls” — there’s still reason to believe that Boston may well be leaving money on the table in order to keep the Sox happy.

Red Sox replace old sweetheart deal on Yawkey Way with new sweetheart deal

The Boston Red Sox have cut a new deal to lease Yawkey Way — the street outside Fenway Park that they use as an open-air concessions concourse — from the city of Boston on game days. Under the new plan, instead of paying a yearly rent, the Sox will pay $734,000 a year over the next ten years to buy a limited easement on the street, after which it will own the rights and pay nothing.

That’s better for the city than the $186,000 a year that the Sox have been paying, albeit not all that much better, since after the year 2023 they’ll be able to use the street for nothing, forever. And considering that the team brings in an estimated $5 million a year in additional revenues from using the street, $7 million and change over a decade is still a relative pittance.

So, crappy negotiating by Boston Redevelopment Authority director Peter Meade, who’d initially indicated that he’d seek a cut of Red Sox revenues from Yawkey Way, but instead decided to go for the “predictable revenue stream.” There’s some logic in that, but in either case the question is why Meade agreed to give up use of a public street for about 10% of its value to the team — especially when the Red Sox’ only option if Meade demanded more would be to lump it.

Red Sox president Larry Lucchino seemed to have that in mind with his statement: “If you’re looking for a short answer to ‘What’s in this for the city?,’ one answer is the preservation of Fenway Park.” So, if Boston had demanded a more equitable lease, the Red Sox were going to what, walk away from their hundreds of millions of dollars in renovations to Fenway and move out of town in a hissy fit over whether to cut the city in on sausage profits? Explain that again, Larry?

“It’s unlikely that if we were not able to make the kind of improvements that these two projects represent that we would have found a viable way to stay there,” Lucchino said.

So, double negative, past tense subjunctive, and we get … I think something involving Lucchino threatening to go back in time and kill his own grandfather. Phew — sure am glad we avoided that!

Red Sox owner buys Boston Globe, civilization ends

Boston Red Sox owner John Henry has agreed to buy the Boston Globe for $70 million, prompting a complete freakout by Globe sportswriters who are now worried about how to write about their new boss:

“This was the last circumstance anyone would want,” [sports columnist Bob] Ryan said Saturday of Henry’s purchase of The Globe and other media properties from The New York Times Company for $70 million. “It’s nothing anyone would wish. It’s scary, to say the least, for all involved.”

While it’s certainly worrisome to have a newspaper and the sports team that it covers share ownership, it’s hardly unprecedented: Not only did the Chicago Tribune own the Cubs for years, but the Times itself owned a share of the Red Sox for years while it owned the Globe. (Former Globe sportswriter Gordon Edes says, “I think this is different. This isn’t the newspaper owning the team. This is the team owning the newspaper.” Which doesn’t really seem all that different to me in terms of conflict of interest, but okay.*) And in any case, it doesn’t take shared ownership for a newspaper publisher throw his weight around on behalf of the local team, as we’ve seen both recently and not so recently.

If nothing else, it’s going to be interesting to see whether every baseball story in the Globe from here on out has to refer to “the Boston Red Sox (owner of this newspaper).” And, of course, whether it’ll still run occasional articles like this.

*UPDATE: Dean Starkman at CJR argues that “sad to say, the conflict of a baseball club owning a newspaper is even more acute than a newspaper owning a ball club. In the latter case, the newspaper was the more valuable asset and its very value at least provided an incentive not to take too many risks with the paper’s reputation. The incentives are reversed when the ball club is many times more valuable than the paper.” Maybe, though the fact that so many sports leagues have tried to turn their websites into semi-independent journalism outlets is at least somewhat heartening — it appears that the fear of independent competition is the main factor keeping owners from turning their papers into total shills for their corporate interests, and there are still some non-Red-Sox owned news outlets in Boston. More every day, in fact!

Did I forget to mention MLB teams shake down cities for spring training money? Oh, do they ever

Nice piece last night by Deadspin wunderkind Jack Dickey on the never-ending shakedown of Florida and Arizona cities for baseball spring training facilities. Key section:

About the Nationals’ current home: It’s Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., which was built in 1994 to keep the Marlins’ spring games in-state. It remained the Marlins’ home until Jeffrey Loria swapped the Expos for the Marlins in 2002, when Loria decided he’d keep Montreal’s newer spring digs at Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium, which opened in 1998. Loria happily forced the older stadium on Montreal’s new owners, MLB. Love that guy. In any event, the Nationals’ home isn’t yet 20 years old. But they’re still itching for a new one. For spring freaking training.

So why is it that Lee County won’t give in to the Nats? Have they finally gotten some sense about the economic ineffectiveness of publicly subsidized stadiums? Are they going to invest in infrastructure? Or schools?

Lee County, however, can’t afford anything close to that amount after taking on about $234 million in baseball-related debt over the past several years—borrowing $143 million to build a new stadium for the Red Sox and agreeing to take on another $91 million loan for improvements the Minnesota Twins want.

Oh, great.

This is nothing new, of course — though I don’t write about it here that often because I’m kept busy enough with major-league stadium news, spring-training subsidies have been a thriving business for years, if only because there’s effectively an unlimited number of Florida and Arizona towns who are able to host spring training, so the hosting merry-go-round is an endless bidding war. But it’s nice to see it all in one place. And by “nice” I mean of course teeth-gnashingly enraging.

Fenway Park and Tiger Stadium celebrate birthdays, one from beyond the grave

One hundred years ago today, two ballparks opened that would survive to be among the longest-lived in baseball history. One of them today gets wall-to-wall coverage, though the Boston Globe will only let you read it if you pay them. (Here’s a sampling of another paper’s commemoration of the anniversary, with a nice nod to the “stadium diehards” who helped convince the Red Sox to retain Fenway Park instead of demolishing it.)

The other stadium is remembered today by a photo gallery of what you’ll never see again. No mention of Detroit’s own stadium diehards who kept Tiger Stadium alive for a decade past when ownership wanted it gone, but then, history belongs to the victors.

As a personal note: The two are among my absolutely favorite ballparks that I’ve visited, for very different reasons: Fenway has its bizarre dimensions, the fascination of the Green Monster, and its unique (even for when I was growing up in the 1970s) single-decked structure, though its roof deck has slowly grown to make it more of a 1.5-decked building in recent years. Tiger, meanwhile, had a history even longer than Fenway’s (the site known simply as The Corner had been home to pro baseball since the 19th century), the famous overhang in right field that allowed fans to catch home run balls that otherwise would have landed in outfielders’ gloves, and most of all, an upper deck that was so close to the action that spending one inning there put the lie to claims that “intimacy” is solely the province of new stadiums with high-priced seats right next to the batter’s box.

Here’s what I wrote in 2009 as a judge considered a last-ditch effort to save part of Tiger Stadium from the wrecking ball. The effort failed, and the city of Detroit went ahead and completed demolition (though a band of baseball diehards still cuts the grass and plays pickup games on the old field, against city orders to leave it overgrown and unused). But I’d say the same today: Though Fenway Park (and Wrigley Field) remain historic baseball treasures, something of the baseball experience was lost with Tiger Stadium that will never be regained.

Sun-Times to Rahm: We know you want to pay for Wrigley reno, really we do

The Chicago Sun-Times just isn’t going to let go of these anonymously-sourced Wrigley Field renovation rumors. Yesterday, Chicago Mayor Rahm “Three-Fingers” Emanuel had this to say on the subject of a Cubs ballpark redo and who’d pay for it:

“Wrigley Field is a great field. The Ricketts [family] purchased it. They have a responsibility that comes with it. We may make changes so they can enhance it. But we’re not gonna do that without consciously knowing who I sit there representing — and that is the taxpayers. … The package that comes together will come together when it’s ready to come together. But I’m there to be a steward for the taxpayers not one for the Ricketts family — and I know the difference.”

And the Sun-Times turned that into this headline:

Emanuel opens door to helping Cubs get more ad, sponsorship money

Yuh-huh. The paper then goes on to cite some of the rumored changes that it had previously reported (more ad signs behind the bleachers, street closings for fairs on game days) and some it hadn’t (“‘gateway’ archways that welcome people to ‘Wrigleyville: Home of the Cubs’ from various directions”), none of it attributed to any source.

The growing talking of a “Fenway plan” for Wrigley, meanwhile, has Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rosenthal reminding readers that since Boston handed over Yawkey Way to the Red Sox to use as a sort of outdoor concessions concourse, team owners have pocketed $45 million from the deal, while the city of Boston has collected less than $2 million in rent. So as much as we often laud the Fenway renovation deal as a well-designed plan using mostly private money, it’s important to remember the “mostly.”