Red Sox Nation bids Mike Ross adieu. For 14 years Ross served on the Boston City Council and represented District 8, which includes Fenway Park. In a literal and figurative sense, Ross was city councilor to the Nation from 2000 through 2013.
City council work is not glamorous. Budgets, ordinances, regulations, and constituent services are the crux of it. All of it was conditional, in Ross’ era, on “kissing the ring” of an autocratic and insecure mayor.
Ross, 43, handled it with style and grace, and more tangibly, with innovation and accomplishment. Thanks to Ross, the city has dog parks, food trucks, recycling for apartment buildings, a revitalized Boston Common, monitoring of — and limits to — off-campus housing for students, and a contract with the firefighters union. He was the first Jewish councilor since the early 1950s (the son of a Holocaust survivor), served a term as council president, and in 2013 fell short in the mayoral prelim.
But Red Sox Nation won’t remember Ross for any of that. It should remember him because, in 2000, as a rookie councilor, he saved Fenway Park. If you enjoy how the ballpark has evolved over the last decade, with its new features and multiple uses — as well as multiple championships — you should know that it might not have happened without Ross.
Plans to tear down Fenway Park and build a new ballpark were near fruition when Ross took office. His opposition, and his tactics, are detailed in his unpublished memoir, in a chapter called “Save Fenway Park”. (I was his ghostwriter after I covered him at City Hall for the Boston Herald.)
I am the city councilor of Red Sox Nation, literally. The borderless baseball empire of passion, pain and triumph is anchored in my district. As sure as John Henry is the owner, and David Ortiz is Big Papi, Fenway Park is in District 8. As a fan I love the Red Sox, and as a city councilor I try to help them be good neighbors and citizens. But our relationship did not start out smoothly…
At a candidates’ forum prior to my first election in 1999 I was asked a question that, unlike most, required no equivocation.
“What is your position on a new Fenway Park?”
I might as well have been asked my positions on motherhood and apple pie. Why on earth would anyone want to replace Fenway Park? Not only did it share the distinction, with Tiger Stadium in Detroit, of being baseball’s oldest park, it is one of Boston’s most popular tourist destinations. Fenway Park is a New England icon, like lobster, baked beans, and bad drivers.
The proposal to tear down our beloved ballpark and replace it with a new “megaplex” stadium would dominate my first term in office and put me at the nerve-wracking intersection of development, neighborhood activism, and public funding of private enterprise.
My connection to Fenway Park is deep and emotional, as it is for many New Englanders. At age seven my father took me there for my first baseball game. Like generations of kids before me, I thrilled to see the green field emerge as I walked up the ramp from the concourse. I remember how close I felt to the field – a feeling that would repeat itself upon every visit no matter where I sat.
There is something magical about Fenway Park. The sight lines bring you into the action; the 37-foot-high Green Monster wall in left field casts a majestic spell, and if you’re in the bleachers on a sunny afternoon it’s better than any beach you’ve ever been to. Tradition and history are tucked into every nook and corner, from Pesky’s Pole in right field to the “triangle” in right center to the left field foul pole Carlton Fisk tattooed to win Game Six of the 1975 World Series. Fenway had Babe Ruth before Yankee Stadium, and it had a rivalry with the Yankees that came down through time with a force and passion unequalled in sports.
I grew up a proud citizen of Red Sox Nation, and now, in 2000, I was the Nation’s city councilor, swept up in a game of political hardball.
In May 1999 Red Sox CEO John Harrington announced the club’s intention to build the new stadium, at a cost of $545 million, a figure that later inflated to $627 million. The stadium was to be built close to the existing site, and it would require land takings as well as about $275 million in public infrastructure investment.
Harrington, a onetime college accounting professor, had been hired as treasurer by owner Tom Yawkey in 1973, and had run the team as caretaker of the Yawkey Trust following Jean Yawkey’s death in 1992. Throughout the 1990s Harrington maintained that a new stadium was necessary to keep the Red Sox economically competitive.
When he unveiled his blueprint in 1999, his plans to sell the team were a secret. A new stadium with millions pledged in public investment would make the club vastly more valuable on the open market, but when Harrington went to the State House and City Hall to line up support nothing was said about selling the club. No, the talk was about ensuring the team’s long-term viability and improving the Fenway neighborhood.
He pulled together an all-star team of lobbyists and consultants, who methodically cultivated business leaders, unions, media, and most politicians.
People tripped over themselves to line up behind the plan. Curious things happen in politics when everyone starts rowing in one direction. It can be amazingly constructive, such as in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Other times you wonder about rowing in the wrong direction. This was the latter.
Fenway Park was to be bulldozed, and moreover, the public was to pay for it. Harrington and his team of lobbyists had somehow convinced the town that the only feasible option for the park was to tear it down. No one could tell him otherwise. Every study he had commissioned, independent, or otherwise had reached the same conclusion: the park was too old. Or so we were told.
With the Governor, the Speaker of the House, the Senate President, and the Mayor all supporting the plan to replace Fenway Park, I found myself a lone political voice asking the question, “Do we really want to do this?”
I wasn’t completely alone. A group of die-hard residents and fans – called Save Fenway Park – joined forces to fight the plan. Together with the Fenway Community Development Corporation, an agency that supports affordable housing creation, and Fenway Action Coalition, a radical citizen group, the activists and I set out to block Harrington’s plan.
In politics there are two kinds of fights. The fights you know you might not win and the fights you can’t afford to lose. There’s some logic to this, after all, not everything is a battle, usually there’s room for compromise. Too much was at stake to lose this fight. For starters, I had promised during the campaign that I would do everything in my power to save the ballpark. This served as my very first test in public office.
I recognized it could be political suicide to cross Boston’s beloved baseball team. Realizing that I could not win the fight alone, I looked to my council colleagues for help. This would not be easy; some already had pledged their support for the new plan. Two of my colleagues, Paul Scapicchio and Steve Murphy, went so far as to propose a lottery scratch ticket to help the Red Sox finance the plan. (A few years later, on the heels of a world championship victory and a successful ballpark renovation, the Massachusetts Lottery would launch a Red Sox scratch ticket with a top prize of season tickets for life.) One edge I had as a new member was that I had yet to form alliances, and with the election for council president approaching, many of my colleagues would seek to cultivate my support.
I decided to invite the other city councilors on a tour of the Fenway neighborhood to show them why residents opposed the plan. Together with ten of my colleagues, including then-Council President, Jim Kelly, we boarded an Old Towne Trolley and headed out to Fenway. On a beautiful summer day I took to the microphone and described, in detail, our journey. We saw a vibrant residential neighborhood with people at outdoor cafes and restaurants; a verdant park with a basketball court, jogging track and athletic fields; gardeners working the community gardens; and seniors entering a community center. To many of my colleagues, this was their first glimpse of a neighborhood that for decades they had only associated with a ballpark.
Next, we drove up Boylston Street, which then consisted of fast food restaurants, gas stations and surface parking lots, but today is alive with newly constructed housing, retail emporiums and thriving restaurants with outdoor, al fresco, dining. Under Harrington’s plan it was doomed to serve as the outermost edge of the proposed stadium, as a sort of fringe buffer zone. After driving the footprint of the proposed plan, my colleagues were shocked by its enormity, relative to the tiny neighborhood. One councilor commented, “it was like trying to squeeze a size eleven foot in a size eight shoe.”
The tour of the neighborhood caught the attention of the media, and also of the political establishment. Boston is a small town. You might draw attention bucking the system, but usually you won’t get very far. When a major initiative is underway, the establishment does not look kindly to roadblocks, especially when they’re made by a rookie city councilor.
Initial criticism came from an unexpected source, WEEI, Sports Radio, one of the highest-rated sports radio stations in the country and the rights holder to Red Sox broadcasts. I had expected it to be the last to climb aboard the new stadium bandwagon, but I probably was naïve, considering its lucrative deal with the Red Sox.
With the exception of ESPN’s Peter Gammons, an influential voice with a long history in Boston, most sports media supported the plan. Like many Bostonians, I had listened to sports radio for most of my adult life, however, when I first heard my name mentioned on the show I nearly drove off the road. The criticism came after I had publicly commented on a proposal to renovate and rebuild Fenway Park, a plan most stadium opponents favored. Without thinking, I suggested that the team could, for the short term, relocate to Nickerson Field, at Boston University. It had been the home of the Boston Braves, until they left town in 1953, and also had served as a temporary home to the football Patriots. I figured, since the University had recently discontinued its football program, the field could temporarily be outfitted to hold the Red Sox for one season.
It was one of those comments that I wished I could have taken back as soon as it left my mouth. It wasn’t implausible; but it shouldn’t have been tossed off casually without first researching it. This was one of many on-the-job learning experiences. I’ve since learned to be more thoughtful in proposing ideas.
Like it or not, I had become the voice of opposition to the new plan, or, as I liked to think of it, a voice for what the people really wanted. Indeed, polls taken at the time, even the ones conducted by the proponents, consistently ran in favor of renovating or saving the ballpark. I worked on a more coherent message, and ultimately developed two key points: that tripling the size of the ballpark hurt my constituents by precluding future development on Boylston Street; and from a public policy perspective I could not support the use of public resources for private purposes.
Development in Boston is a story unto itself…but suffice to say, the community was crying out for new residential housing. In particular it wanted home ownership, given Fenway’s owner occupancy rate of less than ten percent – among the lowest in the city. Boylston Street was in limbo, literally waiting for the Red Sox to make the first move. Property owners within the proposed footprint of the new stadium were waiting to be purchased, taken by eminent domain, or in some cases ignored altogether. None could secure a development permit. This freeze had gone on for years, as both City Hall and the team prepared a plan. Consequently, property was artificially devalued, and owners were angry and frustrated.
Boylston Street languished in stark contrast to an area one-quarter of a mile away, featuring some of the most expensive real estate in Boston. Supporters of the plan perversely used this fact against stadium opponents, claiming the new park was needed to spur redevelopment of an intractable street.
Harrington’s plan carved out small retail, bars and restaurants along Boylston Street. But those were not what the neighborhood wanted. A group of residents joined with the not-for-profit Fenway Community Development Corporation in calling for an “Urban Village” along Boylston Street. Their plan featured new housing, small retail, a school and a community center, clearly not what the Red Sox were proposing.
I also was opposed to the use of public resources for a ballpark, as it had become increasingly clear, in other cities, that it wasn’t sound economic policy.
The 1997 book, “Sports, Jobs and Taxes”, by economists Roger Noll and Andrew Zimbalist, stated that the local impact of sports teams and stadiums is either nil or negative, and that public funds are more efficient as an economic stimulus in other areas. The new ballpark in Phoenix, for instance, was built with $240 million in public funding and created 340 jobs. That worked out to about $706,000 per job, or 10 times the amount of some other public works projects.
Plan opponents made three arguments. One, a renovated ballpark would create just as many jobs as a new one would. Two, new ballparks do not generate more spending on entertainment; they merely redistribute it from other outlets such as restaurants and theaters. Three, most new jobs created at a ballpark are low-paid and short-term and have little impact on the local economy.
This is not to say that public funding for infrastructure is not valuable. The state was going to spend $100 million on transportation infrastructure near the new ballpark. But the city’s $212 million share was for land taking and a garage, which was a private enterprise.
Some states and cities through their elected officials decide the cost is worth it. Maryland spent nearly $200 million on Baltimore’s ballpark, Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It costs residents roughly $14 million a year for an economic benefit estimated at $3 million. Yet, Camden Yards proponents argue that its benefits can’t be entirely measured in dollars. There is a shared cultural fabric that is invaluable.
Baltimore, which lost its NFL football team to Indianapolis, had reason to worry about losing the Orioles if it did not build a new ballpark. But that wasn’t the case in Boston. Realistically, the Red Sox would never be permitted by Major League Baseball to leave. They didn’t have the leverage of teams in other cities, nor did they need it. They sold out Fenway Park for virtually every game, and they were among baseball’s top five revenue-producers. There simply was not a compelling economic reason to build a new ballpark, or to dun the public for funds that could be better used elsewhere – such as filling potholes in District 8.
That is not to say that all public investment in loss leaders should end. Convention centers are supported by taxpayer funds in many cities – Boston has two. But cities should be extremely wary before opening the door to this type of expenditure, particularly when, as here, private funds exist to do the very same job.
In the fall of 2000 I was joined by seven members of the council in issuing a written statement that we would not support public resources, including the use of eminent domain land takings, for private uses. The statement was a rare show of force for the council, which typically caved against the more powerful mayoral administration. To the proponents of the new stadium, the council’s meddling was becoming more than just a minor nuisance; it was threatening the plan itself. I was about to get a lesson in the reality of politics.
Boston’s ‘strong’ mayor system enables the mayor to run roughshod over the council most of the time. The 13-member council can check the mayor’s power if it acts in unison, but usually just the opposite occurs – it is divided and conquered.
Now, with a new ballpark at stake, the mayor was intent on having his way with the council.
Thomas M. Menino, in his seventh year and second full term as mayor, had the city in a vice-like grip. A former 10-year member of the city council, he had won a special election in 1993 when former mayor Raymond L. Flynn was appointed ambassador to the Vatican. Menino spent his first term cultivating an image as a kindly “urban mechanic” while consolidating his support among city employees, developers, unions and the business community. So effectively did Menino harness his power that he ran unopposed for re-election in 1997. As the city’s budget grew by leaps and bounds in the late 1990s, buoyed by the high-tech boom, Menino’s power grew with it. The new ballpark fit well into his plans.
My own relationship with the mayor at the time was ambiguous. I had grown up politically within his administration. My first job out of college was a position in the technology division, setting up the City of Boston website, featuring the mayor’s smiling mug.
An “insider” label I had fought against during my first campaign was still hanging around my neck when the ballpark issue heated up. In conservative districts, such as South Boston or West Roxbury, being an “insider” is considered a political asset. But District 8, with its eclectic and liberal constituency, is known for its fierce independence. It wants an independent councilor who won’t cave in to City Hall or be pressured by the mayor. The ballpark issue presented me an opportunity to demonstrate my independence – though at some cost.
City Hall gave me the cold shoulder. Calls from department heads were not being returned. Special requests were not being accommodated. Not to mention, I was a 28-year-old freshman, and as a new councilor I had not forged enough bonds in the city work force to circumvent the mayor’s political bosses. In the mayor’s political calculus my district was among the lowest in voter turnout – he could afford to neglect me.
A Public Works employee explained the situation to a staff member in my office.
“Look, I’m not really sure how to say this, so I will just come right out and say it. We are under direct orders not to help Mike Ross’s office with anything – anything!”
Not the words a newcomer to politics wanted to hear. But I did not realize just how personal the fight could get.
Prior to being elected to office I had begun business school at Boston University. In lieu of property taxes B.U. gives tuition credits to the city for the use of its workforce. I had accessed the credits while working in the city’s technology department. When I ran for office, I took a leave of absence from my classes, with the intention of continuing after my election.
After I took office I submitted my application for the tuition credits. Imagine my surprise when I received a call from Pat Harrington, the mayor’s organizer on the ballpark proposal.
“Your application was rejected,” Harrington said.
“Mike, I honestly can’t tell, you. I guess we don’t reimburse elected officials.”
A convenient rule, but not one I was buying. The rejection almost ended my studies at B.U. I had spent all of my money getting through my first campaign. And I literally had no money to pay for a semester at pricey Boston University. On an intellectual level I recognized the reality of political payback. But on a gut level, I detested the actions of the administration and thought it to be petty and cowardly. I remember how awful I felt at that moment, and I promised myself, if the situation ever were reversed, I would not stoop as low.
It was around this time that I became aware of the two sides of politics. There’s the “outside” game, played out in the pages of the newspapers and at the various community meetings throughout the district where populist messages are delivered and praised. And there’s the “inside” game, or what many, quite appropriately, call “inside baseball.” Both sides are important, and neither can be ignored. On the outside, I was doing quite well. My constituents saw me as fighting for their interests, and aside from WEEI, I was well-regarded by the media, even earning the title “Best Politician” from a weekly newspaper in my first year of office. Politicians can’t succeed without support from their constituents and to some extent, the media. But they often can’t win without the support of the establishment.
This was underscored in the 1998 Massachusetts’ governor’s race when Attorney General Scott Harshbarger ran as the Democratic candidate. He championed election reform, which played well with the public, but not the political establishment. The absence of a few key Democratic endorsements probably cost him the tight race against Republican incumbent Paul Cellucci.
I did not want to follow in Harshbarger’s footsteps. If I was going to survive in this business, I was going to need the support of both the outsiders and the inside crowd. But even as City Hall turned against me, the state legislature made matters worse, approving a financing bill for the new ballpark in July of 2000. Now all that stood between the plan and its fruition was the Boston City Council, or so I thought.
That’s when I learned yet another important lesson in politics: sometimes time is your best friend. Drag your feet and the world is your oyster.
In October, Harrington announced that the Red Sox were for sale. His announcement may have signaled his capitulation to the council’s opposition. Or, perhaps he just gave in to a growing consensus that the plan passed by the legislature was insufficient to build a new ballpark. I like to think he just got tired of waiting. Time had worn him down. Government time moves more slowly than private sector time. It’s the rare executive with the patience to outwait a bunch of stubborn city councilors.
By now the plan had become an albatross to all involved. Supporters were ridiculed as being “in the tank” of developers and of mortgaging future budgets of the city. Opponents were worn down by mayoral and union criticism. When the plan finally crumbled under its own weight, it was as if the city let out a long collective sigh.
Even the mayor became friendly to me again. I bumped into him at Veterans Day services at the city-run park in the Fenway, of all places. My father and I often attend veterans’ events to give thanks to the soldiers who liberated my father from a Nazi concentration camp. There was an uncomfortable silence until we were standing right next to each other.
“I admire you for standing up for your constituents,” he said.
“Kind of you to say so, Mr. Mayor.”
“But you didn’t need to do it so loudly.”
He made me laugh, the mark of a pro. This fight was over. We might need each other for the next one. It had been a tough year for me politically, and I was looking forward to mending fences.
On January 4, 2002, I was invited to attend the baseball writers’ dinner at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston. Seated to my right was former San Diego Padres CEO and President, Larry Lucchino – soon to be the new President and CEO of the Red Sox.
Lucchino, John Henry and Tom Werner comprised the new ownership of the Boston Red Sox. Long before their successful $700 million bid was announced, they had earned the respect of Save Fenway Park and residents for promising to try to preserve the ballpark. And they would eventually do so – without even having to temporarily relocate to Nickerson Field at Boston University. As I sat in the front row of tables and watched soon-to-be outgoing manager Joe Kerrigan introduce new centerfielder Johnny Damon to the hundreds of guests, I reflected on just how much had happened in the two years since I had taken office.
Twelve months earlier I would have been the last person sitting in that chair. Now I had won a second term unopposed. It was a sweet triumph especially after City Hall insiders had pegged me as a “one term councilor.” In the aftermath of the ballpark battle, many people, insiders and outsiders, commended me for my stand. It humbled me to realize I had represented not only my district, but also vast Red Sox Nation and its rich tradition.
That evening, watching the new era of owners and players, I sensed that the Red Sox were going to be okay. The ballpark that had nurtured them for 90 years was in good hands. My first year in politics was the fight to save Fenway Park. Sitting at that table, I realized, it was a fight we had won.
More than five years later, in October 2007, the Red Sox clinched their second world championship in four seasons. By then Fenway Park had undergone a brilliant expansion, with thousands of new seats, and the transformation of dim corridors and neglected concourse into glittering public spaces. A $55 million infrastructure infusion from the state triggered development on Boylston Street, which has become a new destination, with luxury housing, premium retail and office construction.
Each season, it seems, the Red Sox become more popular, and tickets more expensive and scarce. In 2004 the state Ethics Commission reprimanded several city councilors, including myself, and the mayor and governor for gaining preferential access to tickets. Now, unless we’re there for a ceremonial event, or are the guest of a relative or friend who does not have business with the city, we can’t accept tickets. That’s how it should be, but before the Red Sox became so successful nobody noticed.
Their success has uplifted millions of fans, but for me, the Nation’s city councilor, it has caused a few headaches.
When the Sox promoted a Jimmy Buffet concert at the ballpark in September 2004 I had to be the party pooper. Buffet’s loyal fans, known as the Parrot Heads, expected to tailgate outside of the ballpark, with trucked-in beach sand, umbrella-laden luau drinks, and grass-skirted women. But Fenway residents cringed at the prospect of a Parrot Head invasion, and I opposed the tailgate plan. In the end the Parrot Heads partied at Kenmore Square bars, and enjoyed the concert just fine.
After their championship in 2007, they celebrated with a “rolling rally” on the Duck Boats through much of District 8. The parade route went down Cambridge Street, where fans trampled new plantings that had taken three years to get in the ground.
Part of me worries when the Sox win. I worry about the chaos, which can have tragic consequences, as in 2004 when an Emerson College student at a post-game street celebration was killed accidentally by a police pellet gun intended to control the crowd. Yet, I know how much Kenmore Square and Lansdowne Street businesses are hurt if they don’t win. A playoff series means a windfall of extra revenue for bars and restaurants.
Residents often complain about TV news helicopters hovering over the area, and I call the TV stations and ask that flight time be limited. Of course, Fenway residents should expect and accept some inconvenience, but for 86 years the fervor was less intense. Now there are limos stacked up around the ballpark, and more cars than there are spaces. It’s like a Los Angeles Lakers game – the place to see and be seen.
The Sox have become rock stars, and sometimes I feel like the stuffed-shirt hotel manager trying to keep their fans from busting up the furniture, only in this case, it’s a neighborhood I represent. It’s a thankless chore, but occasionally somebody does thank me. Two days after the Sox swept the Colorado Rockies in the 2007 World Series, they hosted a brunch for politicians and neighborhood leaders at Fenway Park. After eating, we went down to the field level, where manager Terry Francona and third baseman Mike Lowell made short speeches. As I listened, one of the activists from the Save Fenway Park campaign of 2000 came over and shook my hand.
“We wouldn’t be here today if not for you,” he said. “Thanks.”
The memoir is not a full account of Ross’ relationship with the Red Sox. It does not mention, for instance, the “sweetheart” deal the Sox cut with the city in 2003 to builds seats atop the Green Monster and to shut down Yawkey Way on game days. That deal, supported by Ross, netted the Sox millions in additional revenues, while it yielded the city a pittance.
Before he left office, Ross defended the deal.
“To accommodate the new ownership staying in the same place you had to accommodate what they wanted to do,” Ross said. “Those concepts and ideas were supported by the surrounding community — they were better than a large expansion.
“It worked for the most part. The community felt they were being heard, and the Sox felt they got done what they wanted.”
Ross’ final year in office was as eventful as his first. The Boston Marathon bombings, on April 15, took place on Boylston Street in Back Bay, in his district. As a long distance runner, Ross felt especially violated. He nearly was a victim himself, as the Jamaica Plain Gazette reported. In the aftermath, Ross contributed to the sweat and spirit of ‘Boston Strong’.
When the Sox claimed their third championship in his tenure, Ross was as thrilled as any fan. His role in saving the ballpark poses a provocative what-if : given the debt burden of a new stadium could the Sox have built three championship teams in the last decade? Does Ross deserve a sliver of credit?
“None,” he says. “I take no credit. I take pride as any Bostonian does. I’m pleased they were able to do it in a ballpark that wouldn’t have existed. That, I do take pride and credit in, along with the community group and a few city councilors willing to take a stand. I take great pride in the preservation of the ballpark.”
On December 18 Ross attended his final council meeting, as did three other lame duck councilors and nine incumbents. Fittingly, the meeting began with a presentation of the World Series championship trophy by a Sox legend, Luis Tiant, and a club executive, Larry Cancro. After 2 hours 37 minutes it was Ross’ turn to speak. He offered a message: that power comes from unified action, and from ideas. He thanked each councilor for their contributions and collegiality, and closed with a quote from Norman Vincent Peale, a 20th-century minister who championed positive thinking.
“No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see possibilities. Always see them, for they’re always there.”
See the possible, Ross seemed to say, as a rookie councilor saw Fenway Park when the wrecking balls came.