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Larry Lucchino, feisty force behind retro ballpark revolution and curse-busting Red Sox, dies at 78

BOSTON (AP) — Larry Lucchino, the hard-driving force behind baseball’s retro ballpark revolution and the transformation of the Boston Red Sox from cursed losers to World Series champions, has died. He was 78.

Lucchino, who was a three-time cancer survivor, died early Tuesday morning of congenital heart failure. His death was confirmed by his family and the Triple-A Worcester Red Sox, where he had most recently been the primary owner and chairman — the last project in a career that was also linked to three major league baseball franchises and one in the NFL.

“Larry leaves behind a giant baseball legacy full of historic accomplishments with three different organizations,” said Theo Epstein, who worked for Lucchino in Baltimore, San Diego and Boston — the latter when he became the youngest general manager to that point in baseball history. “For me and for so many of my best friends in baseball, Larry gave us our start, believing in us and setting an enduring example with his work ethic, vision, competitiveness and fearlessness. He made a profound impact on many in baseball — and on the game itself — and will be missed.”

Lucchino was remembered with a moment of silence before the WooSox home opener on Tuesday at Polar Park — his fifth and final ballpark project, and “the baby of his ballpark family.” Lucchino was also acknowledged before the Red Sox game in Oakland.

The Padres also honored Lucchino with a moment of silence before their game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Petco Park. Before the video board went dark, it showed a picture of Lucchino holding the 1998 NL championship trophy during a parade through downtown a few days after the Padres were swept by the New York Yankees in the World Series.

A Pittsburgh native who played on the 1965 NCAA Final Four Princeton basketball team captained by future U.S. senator and basketball Hall of Famer Bill Bradley, Lucchino went on to Yale Law School and worked on the House Judiciary Committee investigating the Watergate scandal. He landed a job with Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams and soon found himself working on Williams’ sports teams, the Baltimore Orioles and the Washington NFL franchise now known as the Commanders.

Lucchino rose to president of the Orioles, and led the effort to replace Memorial Stadium with a downtown, old-style ballpark that ended the fad of cavernous, cookie-cutter stadiums surrounded by parking lots. Camden Yards became a trend-setter, and Lucchino himself would follow up with a new ballpark for the Padres, whom he served as president and CEO.

As Padres owner John Moores’ right-hand man, Lucchino led the push for Petco Park — another downtown ballpark — allowing the team to leave aging Qualcomm Stadium, which they shared with the NFL’s Chargers. The Padres ended a 14-year playoff drought by winning the NL West in 1996, and then won the NL pennant in 1998.

Lucchino’s next stop was in Boston, helping to assemble the new ownership group led by John Henry and Tom Werner that bought the franchise in 2002. Their decision to update Fenway Park rather than replace it — bucking another trend — preserved one of baseball’s jewels, which will open its 113th season on April 9.

“We didn’t know that we were going to ignite a revolution in ballpark architecture,” Lucchino told The Associated Press in 2021 as the WooSox prepared to open their new home. “We just wanted to build a nice little ballpark.”

But an even bigger overhaul was taking place in the Red Sox front office, and on the field. After hiring as GM the 28-year-old Epstein, who’d started with the Orioles as an intern and followed Lucchino to the Padres, the Red Sox ended an 86-year championship drought — vanquishing the archrival New York Yankees, whom he dubbed “the Evil Empire” along the way.

They won two more World Series in his tenure as president before an aborted attempt to retire in 2015. Instead, he became the front man for a group that purchased the Pawtucket Red Sox, eventually moving them from Rhode Island to central Massachusetts.

“Larry was a winner,” said former Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who played for the team from 2006-19, winning three championships. “Didn’t matter if it was a contract negotiation, saving Fenway, asking players what we need to compete. Larry was going to work until the job was finished. He had a presence and an attitude that wouldn’t be denied. He was a tone setter for our organization.”

The lawyerly Lucchino was known for an aggressive, often adversarial approach that came off as antagonistic but was designed to hone arguments and squeeze out a plan’s tiniest imperfections. It also inspired a loyalty among his cadre of followers, including Worcester Red Sox President Charles Steinberg, who also worked with Lucchino in Baltimore, San Diego, Boston and Pawtucket; architect Janet Marie Smith, who worked on Camden Yards, Petco Park and Fenway Park; and current Red Sox President and CEO Sam Kennedy, who followed Lucchino from San Diego to Boston along with Epstein, his high school friend.

“There are so many of us who were given our start in baseball by Larry,” Kennedy said. “He instilled in us, and so many others, a work ethic, passion, competitive fire that we will carry forever. His legacy is one that all of us who were taught by him feel a deep responsibility to uphold.”

Steinberg, who worked with the feisty Lucchino for 45 years, called him “Earl Weaver in a suit — with a better vocabulary.”

“Boss, coach, mentor, friend,” Steinberg said. “How do you thank someone for a life and a lifetime?”

Ex-Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez said Lucchino’s combative exterior camouflaged a caring friend.

“My heart goes out to the Lucchino family. They lost not only a great man, but a visionary with the biggest heart,” said Martinez, who was the ace of the pitching staff that led Boston to the 2004 World Series title. “Even though he tried to cover it playing shy and trying to hide away from people’s eyes … but not me; he didn’t fool me.”

Lucchino was said to be unique in his possession of five World Series rings — having collected one with the Orioles in 1983 and another in 2018 as the Red Sox president and CEO emeritus — a Super Bowl ring from Washington in ’83 and a Final Four watch. He was also active in helping Major League Baseball spread internationally, taking trips to China and Japan and as an early supporter of the World Baseball Classic.

“Larry Lucchino was one of the most accomplished executives that our industry has ever had,” baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said. “He was deeply driven, he understood baseball’s place in our communities, and he had a keen eye for executive talent.”

Lucchino was also a chairman of The Jimmy Fund, the charitable arm of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“To us, Larry was an exceptional person who combined a Hall of Fame life as a Major League Baseball executive with his passion for helping those people most in need,” Lucchino’s family said in a statement. “He brought the same passion, tenacity, and probing intelligence to all his endeavors, and his achievements speak for themselves.”

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AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb

By JIMMY GOLEN
AP Sports Writer

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