By Ron Donoho
“My life is an open book. Just don’t read it in front of me.”
So says Larry Lucchino. You’ve asked permission to watch him play Padres CEO for a day. For some reason, he consents.
You show up at the appointed hour. Lucchino immediately puts you to work as an unpaid consultant. Your task: Sit in on final interviews with three companies bidding to create graphics and signage for San Diego’s planned downtown baseball park. Cool, huh?
Surely, at some point, Lucchino will tell you to scram. Or ask for a private minute so he can cuss out paid consultants and graphics bidders. Right? Wrong.
You’ve read that hunky former Padres slugger Ken Caminiti, now with the Houston Astros, recently told Bloomberg News Service: “Larry Lucchino has no people skills. He’s the money man. He’ll do anything for money. It’s around the whole [Padres] clubhouse. Larry puts a damper on things. A lot of people are unhappy.”
So you wait for an outburst. A sign of poor social grace. Or bad people skills. You see or hear nothing of the man Caminiti described.
You are watching intently. Except for trips to the bathroom (one for him; two for you), you’re with Lucchino for an uninterrupted nine hours. If he’s acting, call the Academy. We’re talking Oscar. He comes off as brilliant, organized, funny, personable and a reasonable human being—even when he thinks you’re not watching. And you’re well aware he’s watching you watch him.
Nine hours. This guy does more in nine hours than most CEOs do in nine days.
When the 5 o’clock whistle blows and crowded interstates are being navigated by homeward-bound masses, nobody connected to Lucchino is going anywhere. On this day, he calls for a 6 p.m. meeting—to make the final decision on who gets the graphics contract. Even you will not be dismissed. Visitor input will be required.
“Larry has a saying, ‘We have our work horses, and we have our show horses,’” says Padres general manager Kevin Towers. “If you leave the office at night before 7:30, you’re a show horse.”
Towers adds this about his boss—who parted company with former GM Randy Smith over the issue of contrasting work styles: “Larry delegates very well—but he still keeps his thumb on you.”
“Work Horse” Lucchino graduated from Princeton University in 1967; Yale Law School in ’72. It wouldn’t have been hard to predict double Ivy for this steely Pittsburgh product of a working-class neighborhood. Young Larry rarely missed a day of classes. As Rose Lucchino tells it, her son awoke one school morning to find the neighborhood blanketed by 3 feet of snow. All over Pittsburgh, kids ran to get their Flexible Flyers. Not little Larry. He dressed for school, insisting 36 inches of frozen rain wasn’t going to keep him from first grade. (He probably left a Lincoln Log model of a new Pirates ballpark in his school desk.)
At Allderdice High, Lucchino was a scholar-athlete before the term came into vogue. Says longtime friend David Bachrach, who now works for the Padres as visiting-clubhouse manager at Qualcomm: “He would study intensely, and he would practice basketball intensely.” Sometimes, he adds, Lucchino would do both at the same time, holding a book in one hand and dribbling a ball with the other.
At Princeton, Lucchino relaxed just enough to separate his studies from basketball practice. The result: In 1965, on a squad led by future New York Knicks and Olympic basketball star Bill Bradley, the Tigers went to the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament. During Lucchino’s senior year, the team lost just three of its 28 games.
“He was a good basketball guard,” remembers Bradley, a former U.S. Senator and current Democratic presidential candidate, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch before an April Padres game. “He wasn’t as quick as our other guards—but he always worked hard at his game. I never saw him slack off.”
After law school, Lucchino was recruited and eventually became a partner at earth-scorching Washington, D.C. law firm Williams & Connolly. Lucchino’s mentor was renowned trial lawyer Edward Bennett Williams. The firm’s client list included Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Sinatra and Sugar Ray Robinson. Williams also was a close associate of the Kennedy clan. And before she wed muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger, NBC-TV’s Maria Shriver dated Williams’ dashing young protégé. One friend says Lucchino was never in better physical shape than when he was dating Shriver. These days, Ah-nold and Larry do not exchange Christmas cards.
At 32, Lucchino became counsel to the Washington Redskins football team. At the time, the Redskins had Bobby Beathard (now the Chargers’ general manager) in the front office. Prior to following Beathard to Southern California, Lucchino made a career stop in Maryland. Before becoming president, CEO and a minority owner of the San Diego Padres in 1995, he held those titles with the Baltimore Orioles baseball team.
In Baltimore, Lucchino was the preeminent force behind the creation of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Talk about a legacy. The 48,000-seat, retro-design ballpark seamlessly mixes baseball history and modern convenience. Camden Yards is the toast of a town. Lucchino was the devil involved in nearly every detail. “When I got out of law school, I never thought I’d be spending time designing baseball usher uniforms,” he says now.
Camden Yards is worshiped by the professional baseball community in and out of Baltimore. Most folks might die happy with such an accomplishment on their résumés. Not Lucchino. Having gained voter approval in November 1998, another Lucchino-inspired creation is on track for a 2002 opening in San Diego.
Camden Yards is in danger of becoming passé. It was the model for retro-style parks subsequently built in Cleveland, Denver and Arlington, Texas. But San Diego is not about to follow in lockstep; Lucchino is not about to repeat himself.
The concept here will be a “Park at the Park.” Lucchino believes a city is the “palette” for a sports facility. Retro worked for Baltimore. It wouldn’t work here, he thinks. San Diego offers the most gorgeous palette around, he says. As unmacho as it may sound, the downtown Ballpark District is going to remind you of a nice flower garden. Look for palm trees, fruit trees and rows and rows of colorful flags in the design.
San Diego has come to know Lucchino as multifaceted and driven. The press has reported he’s “mellowed” since moving
west. Yes, he wears fewer ties to the office. But mellow is relative. Moving to Southern California hasn’t created a Larry “Laid-Back” Lucchino any more than breast reductions produced a Pamela “Wallflower” Anderson. Look at it this way: If Jabba the Hutt lost 100 pounds, he’d still be an obscenely large Star Wars antagonist.
“Larry is a little calmer now when the team loses,” says Sandra “Rocky” Rockhill. She should know. Four years ago, her friend, lawyer Brian Monaghan, introduced her to the never-married Padres president. Rockhill and Lucchino became an “item” shortly thereafter. “It used to be painful to watch him react to the team’s bad play,” she says. “It’s not as painful anymore.”
You may have heard that when Lucchino moved to San Diego, he rented a waterfront house next door to his old pal, Bobby Beathard. And that Lucchino bought a surfboard. That part’s true, confirms Beathard, a surfing enthusiast. It was bought at a charity auction. “But I don’t think Larry ever put the board in the water,” he says.
Before moving on to the future, one more chapter from Lucchino’s past bears consideration: the cancer. It was 1986. He was working in Baltimore. He and pal Jay Emmett returned from a motorcycle trip in southern France. Lucchino’s constant coughing fits became a concern. A chest X-ray found non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
On the recommendation of Senator Edward Kennedy, Lucchino checked into the Dana Farber Clinic in Boston. For more than a month he underwent an excruciating new cancer therapy. He received bone-marrow transplants—from his own marrow. At the time, the survival rate for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was about 5 percent.
No one can say what parts drive and fortitude play in these matters. But in 1986, Lucchino cheated death.
“It left an impact,” says mama Rose Lucchino, whose husband, Dominic, died of cancer late last year. “It lets you know you’re not going to be here forever. At the time of Larry’s cancer, he slowed down, and looked around. But he’s right back at that grind now.”
Lucchino fixates on his watches. He loses them with frequency. The president of the Padres owns several watches—none purchased for more than $20.
Your big day with Lucchino is about to begin. It’s Wednesday, 10 a.m.—time for the weekly staff meeting. Oh, sorry, it’s only 9:59. There’s still a minute left before Lucchino has to leave his office and convene with 20 staffers in a meeting room down the hall on the fourth floor of Mission Valley’s Hyundai Building. Can you imagine getting to a meeting a minute early and having all that down time? Lucchino can’t.
“Rigid, methodical people have a tough time working for Larry,” says Padres executive vice president for public affairs Charles Steinberg, who followed Lucchino to San Diego from the Baltimore Orioles front office. “Larry will come in like a gust of wind and change things you’ve planned. Things get better when he calls an ‘audible,’” like a football quarterback changing the play. “But it can throw you off if you’re used to a traditional corporate mentality.”
Then again, don’t try messing with Lucchino’s schedule.
At 10:05, he’s sitting at the head of a wooden conference table. He wears a button-down shirt (no tie), green slacks and cowboy-style boots. At 54, the hairline is receding. Black locks are surrendering to gray, especially in the mustache.
Something you notice in the meeting—and throughout the day: Lucchino never sits still. Staffers make attendance projections. They talk about game-day promotions. Marketing. Media coverage. Lucchino listens in perpetual motion.
Classic Lucchino pose no. 1: elbows up, hands behind his head. He appears to do this unconsciously. When he realizes he’s assumed this cavalier-looking posture, he quickly repositions.
Classic Lucchino pose no. 2: balancing on the back legs of a chair. Teachers must have cautioned him. The warnings didn’t take.
Classic Lucchino pose no. 3: a surreptitious glance at that watch. Again, it appears to be reflexive. Lucchino sometimes combats this arguably “bad people skill” by taking the watch off his left wrist and placing it on the table. Within easy eyeshot, of course.
The meeting ends precisely one hour after it begins. From here until the end of the business day, the meetings are go-go, the activities flow-flow.
There’s a friendly powwow with fund-raisers from the Bill Bradley for President campaign (Lucchino is on his ex-teammate’s fund-raising committee). This segues into a meeting with 10 staffers regarding charitable deductions by the team (and by Lucchino).
Now, off to the War Room, a cluttered office where the new ballpark model sits on a table. Schematics, photos and blueprints are layered on the walls. The first graphics-company interview begins. Exactly one hour later, at precisely 12:05, Lucchino ends the meeting.
Next stop, Qualcomm Stadium—a mile up Friars Road. Quick check inside the sales office. Then a tête-
à-tête with “Super Dave,” a construction foreman who’s converting stadium space into a concession stand. Congenial curses are exchanged.
Out to the ticket window now. There are 50 people in line. Hero-turned-rich-villain pitcher Kevin Brown and the Los Angeles Dodgers are coming to town. Tickets are going fast. Lucchino works the line as if he —and not Bradley—were running against Al Gore. Lucchino hands out Padres schedules. Answers questions about the new ballpark. Describes to a North County man the best way to enter Qualcomm on game days.
The drive back to the office in Lucchino’s blue convertible Mercedes SL 500 is brisk. The second War Room graphics-company meeting begins at 1:15. Before it starts, he apologizes to all for the lunch he’s about to eat (tuna salad platter, Doritos, caffeine-free diet Sprite). Less than 60 minutes later, he’s back in his office.
Bud Selig, commissioner of Major League Baseball, is calling. There’s a problem in Orange County. Three recent Padres games have been broadcast there. The Anaheim Angels feel their geographic fan base is being infringed upon.
Lucchino (on the phone): “Well, what about the thousands of their games and Dodgers games that are shown in San Diego County?”
Silence. You can’t hear Selig’s half of the conversation. Lucchino stands up at his desk. He moves behind the chair and begins spinning it. Around and around goes the chair—much like the conversation, it seems. It ends. Lucchino hangs up. He’s still standing. He leans down toward the cradled phone receiver. In a Corleone-like half-whisper, he utters a bad-people-skills word.
On to the last graphics-company interview. It’s over before it starts—but is officially halted before 4:30. The entire front office is supposed to drive to the stadium for a quarterly meeting at 4:30. Lucchino is standing at the elevator bank. A female employee notes that she’s not as late as she thought, since Lucchino is still here. “I’ve got 4:29,” says Lucchino. Everyone in this crowd of a half-dozen looks at his or her watch. A male employee has 4:32. One woman reports she’s got 4:26. “I’ll take that, then,” says Lucchino. If time is money, Lucchino has just saved three minutes’ worth.
Downstairs, walking out the front door, another employee bets Lucchino she’ll beat him to the stadium. Lucchino laughs. Then he quickens his pace toward the Mercedes.
Someone once said of Lucchino: “He could make a competition out of a paper route.” Ask him if he’s as tough and mean as reputed, and he replies, “I am aggressive, and I’m assertive in stating the needs of the Padres.”
The stories of his bulldog side are widespread. In downtown’s East Village, where some 27 residences and 69 businesses are being uprooted in favor of the Ballpark District, some refer to Lucchino as “Luciano,” as in Italian mobster Lucky Luciano.
“Let me say this to start—he’s one of the worst dressers I’ve ever seen,” says Lin Martin, co-owner of the Candy Factory lofts in East Village. Whether or not sartorial style is an issue, Martin’s lofts are to be demolished to make way for the ballpark. He is not happy about that.
“Don’t get me wrong; he can be very charming,” Martin says. “But I see him more in the mode of being tough. He’s usually in the dominant position of facing down landowners. He’s a real kick-ass guy looking down from the backing of the city and the huge fortune of his and of [Padres majority owner] John Moores. But I could be a kick-ass guy too, if I had that firepower.”
Mayor Susan Golding, who has negotiated toe-to-toe with Lucchino, concedes “he does have a temper.” And that negotiations with him are difficult: “He wants to negotiate every word and every period. I think that’s the lawyer in him.”
But Golding likes Lucchino. Even admires him. “He has the capacity to understand the other side’s view—even if he doesn’t agree,” she says. “It’s so much easier to negotiate with principals in a deal, especially ones who understand the details. He understands the details. I think he cares about the city. I think he is funny and has a good heart. People give John Moores a lot of credit for being generous with his money and for really caring. But I don’t think Larry gets that kind of credit, which he deserves.”
Says Moores: “This good cop–bad cop perception people have of us is wrong. Larry is clearly the details guy. But a lot of times, it’s Larry who’s calm while I get emotional.”
Rick Slone has been Lucchino’s friend since the two were Pittsburgh preteens. They discovered each other while scalping tickets in the parking lot before University of Pittsburgh football games. Slone, a writer, lives in Ketchum, Idaho, but visits his old friend frequently, always staying in Lucchino’s La Jolla mansion.
“In general, when it comes to the public’s perception of sports team owners caring only about the bottom line, they’re correct,” says Slone. “But the people in San Diego need to realize how lucky they are in this case. Larry’s heart is in making a successful team. He’s not ignorant of the bottom line. But a competitive spirit is his reason for existing.
“Among his friends, we all have an idea what we’d do if we led Larry’s life. I’d include more golf,” Slone says. “But Larry’s enjoyment comes from work. The only pleasure he takes from that house in La Jolla is having his friends stay in it. The man isn’t a saint, but he really has little interest in what his money buys.”
The quarterly front-office meeting at Qualcomm Stadium has ended. Now you’re back in the War Room, where Lucchino gathers with the consultants for that 6 p.m. confab. Before discussion begins, Lucchino decides we’ll play a secret-ballot game. He asks everyone to write two names on a piece of paper. Everyone must pick which graphics company they like best, and which company they think will get the contract.
Someone cracks: “Are we gonna do some democratic-vote thing so Larry can override it?” Everyone laughs.
After reasoned discussion, the votes are counted. The room seems evenly split between two companies. It’s fairly obvious Lucchino favors a group led by David Ashton & Associates. Lucchino and Ashton worked together on Camden Yards.
But since no consensus is reached, a final decision is put off. References will be checked; everybody will sleep on it.
Before the meeting is adjourned, the eight secret ballots are tallied. Yes, your ballot counts, too. Ashton comes in second in a 4-3-1 tally of best-liked company. But Ashton wins, 7-1-0, as the company likely to get the contract.
You speak to Lucchino a week later. He confirms it: Ashton got the contract. You figured.