THT Book Review: Feeding the Monster

Seth Mnookin, a lifelong Red Sox fan and former senior writer at Newsweek, has written a definitive account of the Red Sox from the moment John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino bought the team in 2002 through the beginning of the 2006 season. It’s called Feeding the Monster, a fitting image for the management, players, media and fans who have to deal with perhaps the most intense fan/team relationship in baseball.

Mnookin had open access to the Red Sox organization during the 2005 season, and it shows. The quotes and comments in the book indicate that management was very open with him, as were many of the players. The result is an in-depth, behind-the-scenes telling of a story that you probably know well already, but not this well.

Here’s an example of some of the tidbits I learned:

  • Tom Yawkey owned a whorehouse during many of his years as Red Sox owner (you can read about it here).
  • When the Red Sox were wooing Billy Beane for their open general manager position, Werner’s girlfriend-at-the-time Katie Couric called Beane’s wife on her birthday and sang Happy Birthday to her.
  • The first thing Bill James did when hired by the Red Sox was initiate a study of plays lost due to “failure to hustle.” You get one guess as to who led the list (first name, Manny; second name starts with an “R”).
  • The Athletics wanted Atlanta’s Charles Thomas in the Tim Hudson deal because they thought he was a defensive whiz, but it turned out that his zone ratings were inflated.

I left out the more controversial inside player stories (hint: Nomar Garciaparra is one paranoid dude) because those may get the headlines, but that’s not what this book is about. It’s a serious chronicle of what happened to the Sox during four very interesting years, and why.

The Contents

Mnookin starts with a 35-page history of the Red Sox, from their inception in 1871 to being put up for sale in 2000. He tries to set a few things straight in this section, exploding the myth that Babe Ruth was sold to finance No, No Nanette. He also tries to expunge the perception created by Dan Shaughnessy’s book, The Curse of the Bambino, which called the sale of Ruth “baseball’s original sin.”

Shaughnessy emerges as one of the villains in Feeding the Monster. As Mnookin writes of Shaughnessy, “Ever since the success of The Curse of the Bambino, he’d been associated with the relentless negativism that defined so much of the local press’s relations with the Red Sox, and was known as being a reporter who wasn’t afraid to get into it with ballplayers.” And the press’s influence on the sale of the Red Sox was frightening, almost making it impossible for the Yawkey Group to conduct due diligence during the sale.

In fact, I found the “For Sale” section of the book the most interesting. “For Sale” documents the sale of the Red Sox to John Henry in great detail. For fans who already know the Red Sox story, this section will probably provide the most drama in the book. The way Henry, Werner and Lucchino came together and won the bidding process is enthralling. The behind-the-scenes stories, the personalities, the power brokers (inlcuding Bud Selig), the sheer money and the process itself had me turning the page rapidly to see how events unfolded.

The rest of the book is split into four sections, one for each of the seasons from 2002 through 2005. In each section, the story unfolds on several levels: what occurred on the playing field, how the players’ personalities and contract demands affected the club, how the media handled the news and influenced people, and how upper management managed and worked together.

It’s easy to forget how many events and players involved the Red Sox during this time. Remember, Boston courted Billy Beane, hired Bill James, sort of implemented the Bill James bullpen model, hired Grady Little against John Henry’s misgivings, fired Little, tried to trade for Alex Rodriguez (Scott Boras doesn’t come across well in this book, either), tried to trade Manny Ramirez, yearly, traded Nomar Garciaparra, bloodied Curt Schilling’s ankle, cowboyed up and dumbed down (idiots). Other colorful characters include Pedro Martinez, Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar, Lucchino, Epstein and lots of reporters and politicians with thick Boston accents.

As the book proceeds, it focuses on two parallel universes: management and players. The Manny/Nomar/Pedro soap operas are covered well, and the pettitness of some of these players is amazing.

But the primary battle of personalities, the one that gives the book its tension, is that between Theo Epstein and Larry Lucchino. Mnookin does a good job of documenting the misunderstandings—primarily involving who took the blame or credit for player transactions, such as the Garciaparra deal, the Larry Bigbie trade and the A-Rod debacle—that drove the two apart. Henry was unaware of the increasing tension between them, and Epstein and Lucchino let it fester for too long.

Epstein, as the junior management person, was affected the most and rebelled against the franchise’s need to succeed year after year without developing its young players. Lucchino was usually the one who wanted to keep the franchise players regardless of the cost; Epstein was the one willing to let them go. As tensions increased, it wore down Theo. Mnookin says that one reporter told him that watching Theo Epstein in 2005 reminded him of watching Nomar in 2004. One of the problems with publishing the book at this time is that the Epstein/Lucchino drama is still unresolved.

The 2005 section is also a primer on what happens to teams that succeed in a fishbowl like Boston baseball. Bob Kraft, the owner of the Patiots, warned Henry “about the infighting and unhappiness that often follows victory.” Henry didn’t quite believe him, but Mnookin describes the sniping, largely absent in 2004, that appeared in 2005. Kevin Millar had t-shirts printed in 2005 that said “F*** ’em All — 2005 Sox — All We have Is Each Other.” Doesn’t that kind of say it all?

Mnookin touches on some of the major issues in Major League Baseball, but only to the extent they impact the Sox. For instance, the issue of steroids is relegated to a footnote, in which he says that most executives assumed, in the second half of last year, that players had quickly figured out a way around the testing program.

At the end, Mnookin captures the current plight of the Red Sox faithful poignantly: “The devotional aspect of being a Red Sox fan dissolved, the sense of purpose and the promise of redemption implicit in each new season was no more.” Without that sense of “original sin” what do Red Sox fans cling to? The question is left hanging in the air.

The Impression

I enjoyed Feeding the Monster very much and learned a lot from it. The book has many things going for it, including a potential place among the all-time important baseball books, but I’m concerned that Mnookin may have undermined its importance by presenting a biased view of events.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

As a writer, Mnookin sometimes has a good eye, saying, for instance, that David Ortiz bears a passing resemblance to the cartoon movie monster Shrek. And the book is well-organized. But fundamentally, his writing style is pretty straightforward, a reporter’s perspective.

Of course, there are some mistakes but, as far as I know, they are very minor. APBA wasn’t founded in the 1930’s and Joe Cronin may have been a good fielding shortstop in his younger days, but describing him as a “slick-fielding two-time All-Star” when the Red Sox acquired him is sort of missing the point. Still, I’m nitpicking. I didn’t spot any important errors (Red Sox fans may find some).

One of the problems with Feeding the Monster is that most of us know this story very well. Mnookin adds insight and inside stories but, unless you’re a Red Sox fan, I don’t know how much you’ll get out of those anecdotes.

On the other hand, it occurs to me that this story, with its four-year arc covering a progressive ownership and rich, spoiled ballplayers, may serve as an account of an important transformation in baseball. Major league owners have a higher profile than ever before, and have to act more responsibly as businesspeople. Public access to financial information and player statistics is far beyond anything in the past. The stakes keep getting higher and higher, and Henry’s fan-friendly approach and openness to new perspectives could serve as a blueprint for future owners and students of baseball.

But Mnookin’s familiarity with Henry, Werner and Lucchino (Henry, in particular) shows. Many of his descriptions take the Red Sox’s management point of view as gospel truth. Episodes such as exchanges with the media and agents, the Kim situation in Arizona, the bullpen experiment, the Damon and Martinez negotiations, etc. etc. are all described from management’s point of view. And that point of view comes across as the only legitimate one in much of the book.

Only when tensions increase within management ranks do we get a sense of relative viewpoints (between Henry, Lucchino and Epstein). But that’s the only time. It feels as though Mnookin has bought the party line and is passing it on. That’s too bad, because it will diminish the long-term influence of his tome.

A compelling story and a fine read, only a biased perspective really mars Feeding the Monster and keeps it from making my “important baseball books” list.

Dave Studeman was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Follow his sporadic tweets @dastudes.

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