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Monday, February 1, 2010
Updated: February 9, 8:03 PM ET
Red Sox well positioned for next decade

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

Editor's note: This is the third installment of a week-long series looking at the next decade in Boston sports.

Whatever the Red Sox do in the next 10 years cannot match what they accomplished in the first decade of the 21st century.

The Sox ownership group of John W. Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino did oversee two World Series titles, but there is one transcendent achievement from this past decade that cannot be duplicated: They saved Fenway Park, something the group's predecessor, John Harrington, had dismissed as an impossibility.

"It would be easier," Harrington said in 1999, when his campaign to replace Fenway appeared to have gained permanent traction, "to straighten the Tower of Pisa."

The Pisa landmark may still have its lean, but Fenway remains a living baseball museum, one that has never looked better as it approaches the 100th anniversary of its construction in 1912. The day after the group's ownership bid was approved in 2002, Lucchino announced that architect Janet Marie Smith had been entrusted with perhaps the most important salvage job in the city's history, one that rewarded the faith of unsung heroes like the Save Fenway Park! community activist group and Carl Koechlin, the head of the Fenway Community Development Corp., people who were in the vanguard of the preservation movement.

"We are convinced more than ever," Lucchino last week told WEEI radio hosts John Dennis and Gerry Callahan, who remain advocates of a new stadium, "that we did exactly the right thing."

Preservation, in this case, translated into progress, with a 10-year renovation plan that included Monster seats, right-field roof boxes, expanded concourses and increased seating capacity. All of it made Fenway more irresistible than ever. The Sox enter the new decade with the longest streak of consecutive sellouts in baseball history, 551 and counting, and Fenway remains the unchallenged center of a growing array of revenue streams that have allowed the team to remain competitive with the Yankees, despite New York's enormous financial advantage.

The gap between the Yankees' empire and the rest of baseball, including the Red Sox, will only grow bigger in the coming decade, now that the Yankees have moved into their new billion-dollar palace. When Henry complains about the disparity, as he did earlier this winter, he sounds whiny and jealous, as if Sam Walton of the Wal-Mart fortune were grousing about Bill Gates. It obscures the broader truth of Henry's remarks, that under baseball's current economic system, the Yankees have been spotted the equivalent of a three-run lead even before they come to bat.

Baseball's collective bargaining agreement is set to expire in 2011, and the uneasy labor truce that helped spawn a boom decade for the industry could be threatened if ownership decides that a major overhaul is needed.

In the meantime, Henry said, the Red Sox remain committed to putting a championship-caliber team on the field. "The hardest thing in sports," he wrote in an e-mail last week, "[is] to be truly competitive every year for a championship. Our goal is to keep that going for the next decade."

The pieces remain in place to do so, team chairman Werner writes.

"I believe that all of us in senior management -- which not only includes Larry, John, and me but also people like Sam Kennedy, Jon Gilula, Theo [Epstein], etc. -- feel we are working for a special organization at a special time," wrote Werner, who invoked his television background as a parallel experience.

"I felt the same way," he wrote, "when I first started working at ABC in the 1970s. A bunch of really talented people were there at exactly the same time: Michael Eisner, Barry Diller, Fred Silverman, Marcy Carsey, etc. And it was a creative, dynamic enterprise."

The Red Sox finished second in overall record to the Yankees in the first decade of the 21st century, their .568 winning percentage the franchise's best over any decade since 1910-1919. In that span, the Red Sox won all four World Series in which they played and had the American League's best record at 857-624 (.579) -- the only decade in which they played better than all of their AL competitors. Since then, the Yankees have had the best record in a decade seven times, including the last three, with the Orioles winning two (the 1960s and '70s).

Epstein's blueprints for the team on the field mirrored the success of Smith's vision for the ballpark, and it is easy to forget that his selection was perhaps even more serendipitous than the arrival of David Ortiz as the team's franchise player: Epstein was the fallback choice when Billy Beane changed his mind, just as Ortiz was originally envisioned as a part-time first baseman-DH instead of Big Papi, the Mr. October for a team that usually expired before the leaves turned.

The team enters the new decade with a payroll expected to be about $170 million, which ranks as the highest in franchise history. And the Sox's long-term plan, easily grasped by the team's knowledgeable fan base, is looking forward to the newest graduates of a farm system that in the last decade produced Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury and Daniel Bard. The new names are Ryan Westmoreland and Casey Kelly, Jose Iglesias and Ryan Kalish, Josh Reddick and Reymond Fuentes -- Epstein is delivering on his pledge to make homegrown talent the key to remaining perennial contenders.

"Regarding the direction of the team," Werner wrote, "it is hard to predict what it will look like. I think in the past couple of years we have placed more emphasis on pitching and defense. I will cherish the memory of [Manny] Ramirez and Ortiz of the 2004 season, but life moves on and hopefully we are well stocked in our farm system. If we stay healthy, I have high hopes for the immediate and long-term future here."

He adds one critical caveat.

"As long as this [management] team stays in place -- no easy feat -- we will continue to be successful," Werner said.

Epstein was the youngest GM in baseball history when he was hired at age 28 in November 2002. If he finishes out this decade, he will eclipse Joe Cronin (1948-58) as the GM with the longest tenure in team history. He will be just 45 in 2019, but it is an open question whether he will remain sufficiently engaged to stay in the job another 10 years. The man has options, whether it is the challenge of building another team elsewhere, moving into a more powerful position within the industry, or leaving the business altogether. It will be fascinating to watch.

Lucchino, though he expresses contentment with staying in Boston, may have one move left in him. His great track record of growing franchises in Baltimore, San Diego and Boston would still be appealing to teams in trouble. And his name may be in play for the commissionership of MLB if Bud Selig follows through on his pledge to retire in 2012.

Henry is building a home in Brookline, an unmistakable sign that he is putting down roots here. There is always the possibility that he will one day grow exasperated with an economic system of which he is openly contemptuous, but for now the thrill of the chase still engages him, and he can now share it with a new wife.

By 1919, it was taken for granted that the Red Sox would win -- and then they sold Babe Ruth. The Sox of the 21st century have inspired similar expectations -- and trading Manny won't change that in the coming decade.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.