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Winning formula

Feeding the Monster How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top Seth Mnookin Simon & Schuster: 448 pp., $26

July 09, 2006|Steve Almond | Steve Almond is the author of the short story collection "The Evil B.B. Chow" and a former sportswriter for the Peninsula Times-Tribune.

FULL disclosure: I hate the Boston Red Sox.

A portion of this hatred is due to the fact that I root for the Oakland A's, who lost a heartbreaking playoff series to the Sox a few years back. But the lion's share is the simple result of having lived in Boston for the last decade and thus suffered the daily imprecations of the team's perpetually aggrieved fan base.

It would be fair to say, then, that I am not quite the reader Seth Mnookin had in mind when he wrote "Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top."

The book is basically highbrow Red Sox porn, a thorough, if not especially probative, account of the events preceding and following the team's epochal 2004 World Series win. (For those who have been living underground, the championship broke the so-called "Curse of the Bambino," an 86-year-old dry spell dating back to the team's ill-fated sale of Babe Ruth to the nefarious Yankees.)

No one can complain that Mnookin, whose first book plumbed the scandals at the New York Times, scrimps on details. The book weighs in at 448 pages and contains nearly that many footnotes.

Sox fans will adore "Monster" because it documents so lavishly the team's recent soap operas. Will management trade petulant superstar Nomar Garciaparra? Will wunderkind General Manager Theo Epstein abandon the team he led to the promised land? Will outfielder Manny Ramirez ever grow up?

The easy answers to these are: yes, yes (but was subsequently lured back) and a resounding no.

Such dramas are by now old hat to the citizens of Red Sox Nation (many of whom, I confess, are friends of mine). No matter. Inexhaustible fascination is one of the central symptoms of fandom.

Publishers know this, which is why we've seen a glut of Sox lit in the post-curse era: It comes with its own built-in audience and media machine.

Of course, the true measure of a sports book is whether it packs enough narrative punch to win on the road.

After all, I was destined to love "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis -- it featured my A's. But the book became a hit nationwide because it had a brilliant leading man (A's General Manager Billy Beane) and because Lewis was able to convey precisely, even elegantly, why Beane was such a revolutionary thinker.

Alas, Mnookin's volume lacks such a defining character. He focuses, in the main, on the trio of out-of-town businessmen who bought the Sox in 2002. To be sure, they've been an improvement on previous owners. Still, it's hard to view multimillionaires as terribly heroic, particularly when they have the second-largest payroll in baseball at their disposal.

And there are moments, frankly, when Mnookin's account flirts with corporate hagiography. The Red Sox, he observes early on, "had what was commonly described as the smartest front office in the business and an ownership group that seemed as devoted to fielding a winning team and giving back to the community as it was to making money."

I'm not sure how charging the highest ticket prices in Major League Baseball -- more than double the average -- qualifies as "giving back to the community."

The book is most compelling, actually, when it steers away from the executive suites and revenue streams and into the sweaty precincts of the locker room. Mnookin, for example, provides a fascinating disquisition on the code of conduct reporters must follow when dealing with freshly showered ballplayers. (Quick hint: Do not approach the subject if he is naked.)

Covering the Sox, it turns out, is a lot like what it must be like to cover the Bush White House: "If a beat reporter were ever to print any truly salacious detail, he would be frozen out and would find it almost impossible to continue to cover the team."

Fortunately, Mnookin is under no such restriction.

And there are moments when he does a wonderful job of exposing the absurdities of the milieu, such as Sox skipper Terry Francona repeatedly ducking questions about his pampered All-Star, Ramirez:

"Francona ended the conversation without ever answering what he knew was [the] real question: Does it bother you that the team's $20 million a year left fielder can't be troubled to run out a bases-loaded grounder in the middle of a pennant race? Francona, who made about $600,000 in 2005, couldn't answer, because if he had, the answer would have to have been yes."

We also get astonishing snippets like the following, in which Sox slugger David Ortiz regales the press:

"Ortiz stuck his head into the manager's office to give his take on how that afternoon's contest would unfold. 'We're going to kick their ass, drink their beer, and rape their' women, Ortiz announced. From another player, such a pronouncement would have come off as an uncomfortable attempt to appear either thuggish or cool. Ortiz, with his youthful glee and broad smile, seemed more like a wanna-be pirate. The room full of reporters burst into laughter."

Yo-ho, yo-ho and a bottle of Rophynol!

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