SBJ/Nov. 18-24, 2013/Opinion

Sizing up Boston’s sports scene with D’Alessandro

A couple of stories to share with you this week, and one of them has nothing to do with sports business.

> CONVERSATION WITH D’ALESSANDRO: I recently caught up with former John Hancock CEO David D’Alessandro in Boston. D’Alessandro was an outspoken executive when it came to sports marketing, especially around the Olympics, in the late 1990s up until his retirement in 2004. We had a fantastic lunch at his restaurant, Toscano, in Boston’s Beacon Hill, and he talked of his life today, which is largely spent consulting and writing. I’ll share more of my conversation with David in a coming issue.

We met on Wednesday, Oct. 30, the afternoon of Game 6 of the World Series, which the Red Sox would win that night as David and his wife watched from their seats behind the visitors’ dugout along the third base line at Fenway. He was a limited partner of the Red Sox until 2007, and I asked him whether he missed being part of the team, which was hours away from being the first Red Sox team to win the World Series at Fenway since 1918. He responded with a story:

“I loved being a partner. But after we won the World Series a couple times and the team skyrocketed in [value], there was a lot of money on the table that I thought I could use in a different way. But John [Henry], Tom [Werner] and Larry [Lucchino] and I couldn’t have a better relationship. I got to know John and Tom in particular during the sales process in 2001. Their group was seen as outsiders and was being vilified by some of the reporters at The Boston Globe and a local cabal that was feeding that. I gave them advice on the city and, less about the sales process, but about how to win the city over. Everyone tried to tell them what a difficult and unique city Boston is. My attitude was, all cities are pretty much alike that have major league teams. Learn some of the idiosyncrasies and learn that this city actually expects you to make the playoffs. It’s kind of simple, actually. So we had a lot of discussions about that. You needed to keep it local. It was just a campaign.

“John Henry did something for me that has never been written about. It doesn’t matter what anybody says about John Henry, I’ll always support him. At the 2004 World Series, Game 4 in St. Louis, I went at the last minute with my son. I did not tell the other partners I was coming. I didn’t fly on the partner plane. I went down separately because my son couldn’t get out of school or something. I did get tickets from the team, but I wasn’t sitting with the other partners. So I’m sitting in like the 25th row between third base and left field. And old Busch Stadium was a big stadium. … They had these really long rows of seats, and it’s about the seventh inning, and I’m looking around, and there is John standing at the end of the row. They are within six outs of winning the World Series, and John Henry is standing there in a trench coat waving at me. I don’t know how he knew I was there, because it’s a full stadium. You would think he has better things to do. So I went over and he said, ‘You were great to us when we were trying to buy the team and we wouldn’t be here today without you. I want you to sit with me for the last six outs.’ So I went down and I sat with him in his box, and that’s where I watched the end of the World Series when the Red Sox won. So John, he can do no wrong in my book.”

D’Alessandro said he has talked to a connected group of executives in Boston that is exploring a bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is among those studying a bid. “I told them they are crazy,” he told me. “Because there are just so many hidden costs to the Games, especially when you have to start guaranteeing so much of the Games infrastructure. And most of the important things don’t get funded into the community. These community efforts and programs might need ‘X,’ but the city can’t afford it because the Olympics are coming. So you have this underlying set of priorities that get underfunded because you have to build a new tunnel. Your transportation priorities go up and some of your social programs, city needs, etc., go down. And it only creates temporary jobs.”

David and I talked sports, business, the Olympics and corporate leadership over two hours, and I’ll have more of this conversation down the road.

> ON LIFE AND LIFESTYLES: I’m going to be shameless and steal a page from many columnists who write about the people they come across in their travels. Most of my time on airplanes is devoted to catching up on reading, with hopes of dozing off for a few minutes. That was my hope in flying down to the MLB Industry Meetings in Orlando, where I was to be on a panel discussing media coverage of baseball.

I was in my window seat on the exit row when a young man sat next to me. The first thing I noticed were his hands. Not that I have a habit of staring at the hands of the passenger next to me, but his had dirt deeply embedded in his fingernails, with Band-Aids wrapped around four fingers. I figured he was a worker, or maybe a fighter. I hoped the former.

My plan of reading and falling asleep quickly materialized, but we were both startled awake when our baggage bin unexpectedly came open. After that we exchanged small talk, and it quickly turned into one of the most fascinating discussions I’ve had. I inquired about his plans in Orlando, and with a big smile, he told me that he and his family — his wife and three children all spread out throughout the plane — were taking their first vacation in more than 11 years. They were dairy farmers, working a farm with more than 200 animals about 25 minutes outside of Harrisburg, Pa.

Having grown up in Vermont, I am familiar with the brutally hard life of a dairy farmer, and most of the families I knew sold and moved on. My habit of asking questions led to some amazing stories. Joel told me he was the son of an air-conditioner repairman and the family at one time lived on a dairy farm, where Joel fell in love by watching farmers work the land. He went to Penn State for all of five days before leaving to follow his passion of farming. He met his wife at church, and together they rented farmland near Harrisburg before buying their own extensive farm, from which they provide mostly milk to local cooperatives.

I pressed him on the work hours, and his eyes filled with passion as he described waking up at 4:30 for milking, taking 30 minutes to walk up to the house for lunch, and then finishing up anywhere between 8:30 and 10 p.m., when he sits down for dinner and helps his children with their homework before doing it all over again. Seven days a week, 365 days a year. Hence, the first vacation in 11 years. His wife works the farm with him. His children go to public school and then come home and work the farm from afternoon till dinner. This was their first commercial flight.

I kept coming back to, “How do you keep this up? When do you take a break?” His smile grew wider, “I love it, we work together as a family and we all love it.” He said they didn’t take time for movies or TV. “Do you ever watch sports?” I asked. “No, not much into sports.” “So on Sunday, you won’t watch the Steelers game?” “No, we’re working right up till around 9 on Sundays. If we get done early, we may have friends nearby come over for a late dinner.” “What about the holidays? What will you do for Thanksgiving?” “We’ll work and have some lunch and then go out on the farm and work again.” I couldn’t fathom this schedule, and said there must be a guilty pleasure, somewhere, somehow, where he treats himself. “Oh sure, every Sunday afternoon I take a 45-minute nap. If I don’t have that nap, I’m dragging the entire week. And, yeah, I’ll occasionally make some of the freshest homemade ice cream you’ve ever had.”

I was literally in awe of this man’s pride, passion and love of family and life. I pride myself on my work ethic, having watched my parents work in my dad’s dental practice six days a week to get seven kids through college. But even they had a day of rest, or better yet, house and yard work. Joel and his family represent a different type of work ethic.

I walked off the plane with him and he introduced me to his family, all wide-eyed with excitement and anticipation for their trip to Disney, but with a clear look of fatigue, for they had been up since 3 a.m. to do their farm chores before heading to Harrisburg airport. I doubt I’ll ever see Joel again; I hope I do. I wondered if I could last a weekend on his farm. But for 60 minutes on that Sunday afternoon, few people have made me think more — about life, lifestyles and perspective — than he did.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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