Saturday, March 7, 2015

Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts and Nerve Took a Team to the Top by Seth Mnookin

Why I Read It: The time had come; the book had been around since 2006, and I've been a Red Sox fan since 1975.

Summary: An embedded writer's view of the 2002 to 2005 arc of the life of the Boston Red Sox, including the building and crashing of the 2004 World Series champions.

My Thoughts: My initial gut reaction to the book told me that this book was going to be heavily pro-management, but I let it ride. The book opens with a history of the Red Sox and then profiles of the big three owner/executives - John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino - before getting into the story of the world championship.

The beauty of a book like this, in which somebody spends the time to look deeply into the details of a story that unfolded right before our eyes is that the layers are exposed. As a thirty-something American male, I was deeply ensconced in my work and social lives at the time; I caught the general flow of information out of Fenway Park, and probably knew more than the average Bostonian, being a devotee of sports radio. But it would be impossible, in my situation, to know every detail of every story related to the 2004 World Series champs, especially since much of what is in this book was published for the first time in its pages. (For example, I had no idea owner Tom Werner had a ticket on Flight 11 on September 11, 2001, but, because a meeting got out early, he flew out early; or that a Red Sox pitcher was caught cheating with a Northeastern student when she posted a picture of them cuddling in a dorm on a social media site). The depth of the research and then the reflective nature of the interviews Mnookin conducted in the aftermath make for a fantastic combination.

Still, as I  read, I couldn't help but feel a bias forming. Perhaps it simply was, as Mnookin professed it would be, the truth. He and Henry agreed that the book would not be slanted in any way, but in the end Henry comes off as the most likable individual in the story. Many players and even other journalists are given negative personae through the tone in which they are presented, but, again, we get the softened, filtered version through our regular media. Mnookin had as close a seat to the action as anyone will ever have. If you read this book, expect to have some heroic facades (as heroic as we make our athletes out to be) crumble. Expect, too, to do some self-reflection, if you are a Boston sports fan.

The book culminates not with the Sox defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in October of 2004 (I was in Norfolk, Virginia, when it happened; where were you?), but with the schism between Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein and then the tenuous rebuilding of their relationship. And it's funny knowing the future beyond the book. This tale ends in 2005, projecting 2006. In 2007, the Sox won it all again. I wonder if Mnookin felt a twinge of regret, that perhaps an opportunity had been missed. But then, who can predict baseball futures? Bill James?

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