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Brains, balls, and a key to Fenway

How one writer tried to set the record straight on the Sox’ past five years
By MIKE MILIARD  |  July 24, 2006

IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR: Former Phoenix contributor Seth Mnookin has unprecedented access to the Sox for Feeding the Monster.
Years before he bought the team, Boston Red Sox principal owner John W. Henry played bass in a prog band called Elysian Fields, whose chief composition was a rock opera about aliens from the Cassiopeia constellation. Before the group’s elaborate stage shows (which Henry bankrolled with money he’d won counting cards in Vegas), he and his band mates would shave their eyebrows so they’d look more in character.

That’s just one of the more inconsequential nuggets Vanity Fair contributing editor (and former Phoenix contributor) Seth Mnookin uncovered in the year-plus he spent reporting his new book, Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top (Simon & Schuster, $26), a period during which he had a key to Fenway Park and virtually unfettered access to all layers of the organization, from the clubhouse to the baseball-ops bunker and the owners’ suite.

In the months he spent on Yawkey Way before, during, and after the Red Sox’ tumultuous 2005 season, Mnookin also learned that President and CEO Larry Lucchino subscribes to a “militaristic approach to life … called ‘contest living,’ ” which he learned from his mentor, legendary DC trial lawyer and Orioles and Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams. That, on 9/11, Chairman Tom Werner was one early-adjourned meeting away from sitting on American Airlines Flight 11. That on at least one occasion, “Terry Francona loudly berated [Boston Globe columnist Dan] Shaughnessy in view of other reporters, saying, ‘After reading what you wrote, I lost all respect for you.’ ” And that, despite disavowing the photo publicly, Jason Varitek uses the iconic image of his catcher’s mitt rearranging A-Rod’s face as a screen saver for his laptop.

Details like these enliven Mnookin’s tale of unprecedented access, which lays bare the workings of one of the biggest and most beloved franchises in sports, during one of the most epochal eras of its 105-year history. This is not to say, of course, that the author rifled through every financial document, or that his interview subjects didn’t keep some things off the record. But Mnookin’s reporting allows a rare up-close look at the on- and (especially) off-field melodrama that’s kept us so enthralled over the past five years.

One of Mnookin’s central theses is that, despite the three-ring circus atmosphere, the incendiary fan interest, and the breathless media coverage, the Boston Red Sox are just another baseball team, one dealing with the same issues — injuries, money, petulant players, the exhausting grind of a 162-game season, the perils of success — as so many other teams do, all across the sports world.

The difference, of course, is that in Boston and New England, where the Red Sox have become nothing less than a linchpin of our identity, we’re obsessed enough to allow these matters to take on a life of their own. (“Only in Boston could relations between a baseball team’s president and general manager become front-page news day after day,” read a recent Washington Post review, “and only in a book about the Red Sox could page after page be devoted to such a stupendously inconsequential matter.”)

Indeed, as Feeding the Monster winds down, Mnookin shows us how a concerted effort has been made by the team to bring the burner down to a simmer, lest all this hysteria do even more damage. (Witness a new approach to the press that’s more tight-lipped than ever, and the signing of workmanlike “professionals” such as Mark Loretta and Mike Lowell.) At the end of the day, after all, we’re talking about a baseball team. A very good one. And now that — hopefully — the hysteria of ’04 and the hangover of ’05 are safely in the rear view mirror, we can keep winning. That, after all, is the name of the game.

Two Sundays ago, as the 2004 World Beaters began a game against the reigning champs, the Chicago White Sox, that would last a grueling 19 innings, the Phoenix talked with Seth Mnookin over the phone from his home in New York City.

What is it with this team, anyway?
A big part of it is not that the team is so different from any other major-league team, or any other sports organization, but that the interest, both the media interest and the fan interest, is so unique and so intense.… Everything that happened in Boston seemed so magnified compared to most other cities. Even New York. If you look at Theo’s situation, and compare that to Brian Cashman’s situation, Brian Cashman can walk down the street pretty much unmolested. If people recognized him, they might say, ‘Hey, good job,’ or whatever. But it’s nothing like the frenzy that goes on with Theo. Theo is basically treated like he’s a member of the Beatles, circa 1964.

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