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Harrington's home stretch

By Brian McGrory, Globe Staff, 04/11/00

He was sitting in shirtsleeves at his wraparound desk in the executive suite of the only decent sports team left in this town, his arm draped casually over the back of his chair in a way that belied the intensity he faces in the weeks ahead.

"It has to happen," Red Sox CEO John Harrington was saying. "We have to make it happen. It's the right thing. I can't even think of what's going to happen if we don't get it."

The Red Sox arrive home today, home to a time-worn Fenway Park at the beginning of what is being billed as the most promising season in memory.

And here's John Harrington, staring down the stretch run of his career, his legacy having little to do with earned run averages and attendance records and everything to do with his ability to navigate the treacherous shoals of state politics and swirling currents of public opinion.

The Red Sox need a new stadium. Take that as fact. To build a new stadium, they need public funds. To get public funds, they have to win the support of a notoriously prickly quartet - Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Governor Paul Cellucci, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, and Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham.

And in this effort, they have two major weapons - a long, bittersweet love affair with the community, and John Harrington, the man who embodies much of what the Red Sox try to project.

At first blush, the figures being bantered about are stunning if not stultifying: $600 million for a new stadium, $250 to $300 million in proposed public funding.

People the nation over are rushing to judgment. Ralph Nader has warned us not to spend a public dime. George Mitchell, who negotiated peace in Ulster, has taken on the more complex task of convincing state politicians that a new park is necessary.

And at the center of this is Harrington, more comfortable in the shadows than the glare. Ask any of the titans of Boston business what they think of Harrington and the answer is nearly unanimous: Nice guy, but barely know him.

You don't think he's tough? Ask Mo Vaughn or Roger Clemens.

He doesn't gallivant around to the self-involved charity events that unfold in hotel ballrooms almost every night of the week. He rarely presents his bulldog-like visage before the television cameras. He never seeks the adoration of fans in a way that, say, Patriots owner Bob Kraft typically does.

Harrington, who grew up five miles from the park and who owns just under 6 percent of the team as a limited partner, has never threatened to move the Red Sox. He has never called a press conference to apply undue public pressure on elected officials. Sitting in his office, he is even loath to use the pronoun "I."

"It's not going to get done because of me," he said. "This will get done because of the Red Sox image and its history and its meaning to the community for 100 years."

Then he said: "If it doesn't get done, it won't get done because of the complexity and expense. There are so many parties - city, state, landowners, Major League Baseball."

The words and actions are soothing to public officials - the lack of ego, the willingness to work within the system.

"He's a gentleman," Cellucci said in a phone call. "He's straightforward, easy to deal with. I have a lot of respect for him." Then he added: "Everyone's crazy about the Red Sox."

It's a far cry from the sentiment given the New England Patriots when the team seemed ready to leave the state last year. Finneran called Kraft a "fat-assed millionaire." The mayor could barely speak his name.

This time, Menino has set a laudable tone, recognizing the psychological and economic importance of the team to the region. He has rightfully insisted that the club sacrifice more for a new park, following Finneran's lead.

In the weeks ahead, there will be kneejerk cries of foul over public subsidies. Opponents will argue we are taking food from the mouths of children to make rich men richer.

But the typical arguments don't cleanly apply. There is no one multimillionaire who stands to increase his fortune. The single largest beneficiary will be the Jean Yawkey Trust, which owns 53 percent of the team and will get 53 percent of the sale proceeds. That trust will then transfer the funds to the Yawkey Foundation, which will distribute the money to charity.

The city, the region, needs this team. The team needs a new park. Trust John Harrington to bring it together, to keep this wonderful relationship intact for another century to come.



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