ohn Harrington called it bittersweet when he announced yesterday that the Red Sox are for sale. But the news went down ever so smoothly with foes of the team's plan for a new stadium next to Fenway Park.
To some of the activists and property owners who have been fighting the proposed $352 million stadium for two years, the decision to sell sounded as though the Red Sox are beating a retreat.
''I think they know or knew there was no way the new Fenway Park as proposed could happen,'' said Boston Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich, whose two commercial buildings on Brookline Avenue would be taken to make way for the stadium.
Dan Wilson, a member of Citizens Against Stadium Subsidies, had a similar reaction. He saw the announcement as ''an admission that this ball park project is an awful lot more difficult than the Red Sox had initially anticipated.''
That's certainly not the way that Harrington, the team's lead owner, presented the decision at an afternoon press conference. Speaking of the drive to get the stadium permitted and financed, he said: ''We've pushed the ball way up the hill.'' And that progress, he implied, should enhance the value of the team when the 53 percent share owned by the Yawkey trust is sold.
Robert F. Walsh, who advised the Red Sox on their development plans until recently, later elaborated. He said the Legislature's recent approval of the stadium plan would transfer to a new owner and put that owner in a better position to carry out the project.
Walsh pointed to two parts of the legislation as particularly important: authorization for the city to pay the cost of acquiring and preparing the site and approval of state funds for a large parking garage to serve the new stadium and for infrastructure improvements around it. The Legislature approved a total of $275 million in public funds for the project.
Those elements add up to ''a pretty good package'' for a new owner to carry the park plan forward, Walsh said. He suggested that the time is right to sell because the value of the majority stake controlled by Harrington ''has never been higher.''
Asked whether it wouldn't be higher still when a stadium project is further along, Walsh said, no, because the team would have to take on debt to undertake construction.
Some of the opponents admitted to being uncertain what selling the team has to do with the stadium plans. ''It's hard to know what this means,'' said Rob Sargent of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, which has fought the public subsidy for the project. But Sargent suggested that the sale shows that people are realizing ''the emperor doesn't have any new clothes.''
Opponents have long argued that the $140 million budgeted to buy and prepare the 15-acre stadium site is but a fraction of what's needed. While the city's assumption of that cost would take a big burden off the team, the Legislature's insistence that the team cover any overrun is seen as an obstacle to winning private financing.
Peter Catalano, a Fenway opponent, saw the decision to sell the team as signaling that the stadium's progress has stalled, at least for now. ''An investor would have to be awfully dreamy-eyed to want to continue,'' Catalano said. ''No one can figure out how you make any money off that. It's just too expensive.''
Philip Cronin, an eminent domain attorney and valuation specialist at Peabody & Arnold, agreed. He saw yesterday's announcement as ''an admission of defeat'' on the stadium plan. The requirement that the owners pay for any overruns on site costs represents ''a huge uncertainty,'' Cronin said, that makes securing financing difficult if not impossible.