John Henry's Moment of Truth

In most respects, the new Sox ownership has been a major upgrade from the Harrington era. Soon, though, John Henry will face his moment of truth. He must decide whether to side with the best interests of the Sox and their fans, or with the man who rigged the sale of the Red Sox to him at a bargain price.

Nowhere is the difference between Henry and Harrington clearer than in their treatment of Fenway Park. Under Harrington, Fenway was a decaying, outmoded eyesore to be endured until a new park could be built. Henry has not only embraced Fenway and its history, but has opened it up to the community as never before. Can anyone imagine John Harrington inviting fans to walk on the field while the Sox are out of town?

Part of this may be realism. Henry knows that Boston taxpayers aren't about to build him a new park, and recognizes that building one himself makes little economic sense. A new ballpark won't generate enough additional income for the Sox, already one of MLB's highest-revenue clubs, to pay off the bonds needed to build it. Meanwhile, the 90-year-old New England landmark has a marketing advantage no new park can match. As the Detroit Tigers have learned to their sorrow, a new park can boost attendance in the short run, but once the novelty wears off fans won't keep coming back without a good team to watch.

Henry's battle to evict the vendors from Yawkey Way is less admirable. These vendors survive because fans prefer their sausages, peanuts, etc. to the inferior versions sold inside the park. Removing them would enrich the Sox at the expense of the vendors and their patrons. If the Sox want to run these vendors out of business, let them do so by selling better products at a lower price, not by chasing Aramark's competitors off a public street.

Now, though, another issue looms over the final third of the 2002 season -- the ominous specter of another potentially season-ending labor confrontation. At press time the players hadn't set a strike date, but have made clear that they do not intend to enter the 2002-03 offseason without either a new labor agreement or a promise by the owners to maintain the status quo during the offseason. The owners have refused to make such a promise. Unless negotiators can make a deal, the likeliest strike date is September 16.

Consider the impact of a September 16 strike on the Sox. Boston is chasing the Yankees for the AL East title, and embroiled in a battle for the wild card against whichever of Seattle, Oakland or Anaheim doesn't win the AL West. In their last four series of the year, the Sox are scheduled to host Cleveland, travel to Baltimore and Chicago, and finish by hosting the Devil Rays, the AL's most welcome guests. The Yankees have an equally easy schedule -- but out west, the Mariners, Angels and Athletics will all play more than half their remaining games against one another.

Those last two weeks of the regular season thus provide the Sox with a golden opportunity to pull ahead of their AL West challengers for the wild card. Once in the playoffs, the combination of Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe would make them a formidable opponent. Arizona showed last year just how far two dominant starters can carry a club.
Unlike 1994, the parties aren't that far apart. The owners and players have all but agreed on reforms to the amateur draft which will save the owners millions of dollars. They're within $70 million of one another on a revenue-sharing formula, and while the players oppose the owners' demand for a 50% "luxury tax" on payrolls over $98 milllion, they accepted a temporary 35% luxury tax in the last labor agreement. A reasonable compromise to avoid a strike is still possible.

But Bud and his buddies may not want a reasonable compromise. Selig, Jerry Reinsdorf and the other hard-line owners who forced the 1994-95 strike are still around...and there was a reason why Selig made sure that John Henry, not Charles Dolan or Myles Prentice, bought the Sox.

The hard-line position isn't in the best interest of the high-revenue, high-payroll Red Sox team. It's not in the best interest of Sox fans, who could be cheated out of a postseason berth. It's not in the interest of any fans who don't want a repeat of 1994-95.

Did John Henry's $90 million discount obligate him to sell out the Sox and their fans as part of a corrupt bargain with Bud Selig? Time will tell.

Copyright © 2002 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the August 2002 issue of Boston Baseball.

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