The Emperor Has No Clothes, part 6

Preceding installments of this series have traced John Harrington’s involvement with the Sox since 1970. Now it’s time to sum up: how does Harrington’s performance compare to his predecessors – and what does his continued control portend for the future?

To make the comparison easier I’ve divided recent Sox history into three eras: the final decade of Tom Yawkey’s rule (1967-76), the Jean Yawkey-LeRoux-Sullivan years (1977-86), and the years of Harrington’s effective control (1987-present). The accompanying tables show the Sox’ fortunes, on the field and off, since 1967.

TABLE 1: The Final Yawkey Years

 Year  Record  Final Position  Attendance  Rank  Media $  Rank
 1967  92-70  Lost World Series  1,727,832  1st  $690,000  7th
 1968  86-76  4th in AL  1,940,788  2nd  $689,000  8th
 1969  87-75  3rd in AL East  1,833,426  1st  $690,000  9th
 1970  87-75  3rd in AL East  1,595,278  1st  $700,000  8th
 1971  85-77  3rd in AL East  1,678,732  1st  $700,000  8th
 1972  85-70  2nd in AL East  1,441,718  2nd  $700,000  9th
 1973  89-73  2nd in AL East  1,481,002  2nd  $1,000,000  3rd
 1974  84-78  3rd in AL East  1,556,411  1st  $1,000,000  2nd
 1975  95-65  Lost World Series  1,748,587  1st  $1,500,000  1st
 1976  83-79  3rd in AL East  1,895.846  2nd  $2,000,000  1st

During Tom Yawkey’s final decade, the Sox were the third most successful team in the American League, behind the Baltimore and Oakland dynasties. They appeared in two World Series, never posted a losing record and never finished in the second division.

Boston regularly led the AL in attendance, slipping to second only when Detroit or the Yankees won. Local TV and radio money was less important in this era, but Yawkey gradually brought the Sox to the top of this category, too. Since Baltimore and Oakland never achieved the rabid popularity the Sox enjoyed, it’s fair to call Tom Yawkey’s last teams the American League’s model franchise of the era.

TABLE 2: The Jean Yawkey-Sullivan-LeRoux Years

 1977  Record  Final Position  Attendance  Rank  Media $  Rank
 1977  97-64  2nd in AL East  2,074,549  2nd  $2,000,000  1st
 1978  99-64  Lost AL East playoff  2,320,643  2nd  $2,400,000  1st
 1979  91-69  2nd in AL East  2,353,114  3rd  2,500,000  1st
 1980  83-77  4th in AL East  1,956,092  4th  $2,600,000  3rd
 1981  59-49  5th in AL East  1,060,379  6th  $2,700,000  4th
 1982  89-73  3rd in AL East  1,950,124  4th  $2,700,000  4th
 1983  78-84  6th in AL East  1,782,285  9th  $3,200,000  7th
 1984  86-76  4th in AL East  1,661,618  8th  $4,000,000  4th
 1985  81-81  5th in AL East  1,786,633  7th  $4,200,000  4th
 1986  95-66  Lost World Series  2,147,641  5th  $4,600,000  6th

During the era of divided control, the Sox basically stagnated. They still won more games than they lost, but made rhe postseason only once. That year was a bit of a fluke, too, as Roger Clemens carried the team to the playoffs on his back. Boston’s attendance fell after 1979 and never rebounded to its earlier level, even in 1986, while the Sox’ media money failed to keep pace.

TABLE 3: The Harrington Years

 Year  Record  Final Position  Attendance  Rank  Media $ (1987-89)/
Total Revenue (1990-98)
 1987  78-84  5th in AL East  2,231,551  5th  $6,500,000  4th
 1988  89-73  Lost in ALCS  2,464,851  4th  $6,600,000  4th
 1989  83-79  3rd in AL East  2,510,012  5th  Unavailable  n/a
 1990  88-74  Lost in ALCS  2,528,986  4th  $68,700,000  3rd
 1991  84-78  2nd in AL East  2,562,435  4th  $81,500,000  3rd
 1992  73-89  7th in AL East  2,468,574  6th  $90,600,000  2nd
 1993  80-82  5th in AL East  2,422,021  4th  $77,500,000  5th
 1994  54-61  4th in AL East  1,775,818  5th  $49,900,000  5th
 1995  86-58  Lost in playoffs  2,164,410  4th  $67,900,000  3rd
 1996  85-77  3rd in AL East  2,315,231  6th  $88,400,000  4th
 1997  78-84  4th in AL East  2,226,136  7th  $92,100,000  5th
 1998  92-70  Lost in playoffs  2,314,721  9th  $106,900,000  5th

John Harrington has run the Sox since 1987, when Jean Yawkey bought Buddy LeRoux’s general partnership. He obtained effective personal control of the team upon Jean Yawkey’s death in early 1992, and sole control after the 1993 season.

Boston’s overall record under Harrington has been worse than in either of the two previous eras. The Sox have had more losing seasons in the last seven years than in the previous 25. Their last appearance in the ALCS came at a high price: Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen

Under Harrington and Dan Duquette, the Sox have been remarkably inept at public relations. They botched negotiations with Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn, angering both men, and nobody’s believes that Harrington’s efforts to remove vendors from the area around Fenway were motivated by anything but a desire to keep fans from buying cheaper food and other items (including BOSTON BASEBALL) outside the park.

Yet even though the Sox have taken a hard line with their own star veterans, they’ve done more than any other club to drive up player salaries. Harrington let Roger Clemens, the best pitcher in franchise history, leave for Toronto rather than match the Blue Jays’ offer of $8 million/year for three years. The next year, after the “washed up” Clemens had won his first of two Cy Young Awards with the Jays, the embarrassed Sox signed Pedro Martinez for $72 million over six years. The Martinez contract -- twice as long as Clemens’ deal, for 50% more money each year -- immediately became the benchmark for future superstar salaries.

The Sox have also raised the bar for younger and lesser players. 1997 NL Rookie of the Year Scott Rolen was rewarded with a four-year, $10 million contract from the Phillies; the Sox gave his counterpart, 1997 AL Rookie of the Year Nomar Garciaparra, a five-year, $22.25 million deal.

Chills went through executive suites around Major League Baseball when the Sox signed Jose Offerman for four years and $26 million. While Offerman’s high on-base percentage makes him more valuable than his other numbers would suggest, no one could imagine why a player who’s never been confused with a superstar could command $6.5 million/year.

The key to the Sox’ future, however, is contained in the final column of the table. Despite baseball’s highest ticket prices, and despite playing in one of the AL’s largest markets and maintaining a rabid fan base throughout New England, the Sox take in less money than the Yankees, Orioles, Indians and Rangers. Harrington’s drive to replace Fenway is motivated by his desire for the added luxury-box money which has catapulted Baltimore, Cleveland and Texas into the ranks of MLB’s aristocracy.

But unlike these three clubs, the Sox can’t count on major public subsidies for a new park. Neither Harrington nor any independent analyst has identified how the Sox can finance their estimated $350 million share of construction costs without crippling the club with long-term debt. The solution could well involve personal seat licenses, which require season ticket holders to ante thousands of dollars just for the right to buy similar seats in the new park -- a move guaranteed to raise howls of outrage among the club’s most devoted fans.

Harrington’s long-term control of the Sox raises a larger, more philosophical issue. Why should a man who never invested a dime of his own money in the Red Sox be allowed to run the club for as long as he wants? Harrington’s not accountable to anyone except the Yawkey Estate, which he also controls.

In March, the Boston Herald charged Harrington with mismanaging the Yawkey Foundations for his own interest. An investigation by the state Division of Charities found no wrongdoing, but the fact remains that Harrington’s continued control of the Sox creates at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The Foundations were created to give away the Yawkeys’ money, not to run a baseball team. Unlike the situation in Kansas City, where Ewing Kauffmann’s foundation has owned the Royals since his death to ensure that the club isn’t moved to another city, the Sox aren’t going anywhere and have no shortage of potential local buyers. Although Harrington has said he doesn’t want to sell the club until the new park is ready, the deals he’ll have to cut to finance New Fenway could make the Sox less attractive to bidders. So why not cash out now and let the new owners decide how to build and pay for New Fenway?

Harrington should put the Sox up for sale after the 1999 season. If he wants to stay in baseball, his friend Bud Selig should be happy to create an administrative position for Harrington to fill. But, having decided that Fenway must be replaced, John Harrington should let new, better-financed ownership make the decisions it will have to live with for the next thirty years.

Copyright © 1999 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the September 1999 issue of Boston Baseball.

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