The message I left with Larry Lucchino’s secretary was I was calling to speak to him about the Evil Empire. He called back unusually quickly. The Boston Red Sox chief executive officer and I go back 10 years on the subject.
“I hope you get to write something about ‘Evil Empire,’” he said, “because it took you to get me talking about my deeply held feelings.”
Having just lost a bidding battle to the New York Yankees for a Cuban defector, pitcher Jose Contreras, Lucchino expressed his frustration when I called him on Dec. 24, 2002.
”The evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America,” Lucchino said.
The comment instantly grabbed a hallowed spot in the lexicography of baseball lore, spreading rapidly throughout the sport and the news media.
It returned to prominence last week when it was disclosed that a three-judge panel of the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board in Washington, D.C., ruled for Major League Baseball’s opposition to an attempt by a private business, Evil Enterprises, Inc., to register a trademark for the phrase “Baseball’s Evil Empire.”
The Long Island, N.Y., company wanted to promote and sell Yankees’ merchandise linked to the designation Evil Empire.
But the Yankees learned of the company’s plans, advised Ethan Orlinsky, baseball’s senior vice president and general counsel for legal and business affairs, and he opposed the company’s trademark application on behalf of the Yankees, who prevailed.
Without citing the origin of the designation, the ruling noted the widespread use of the term over the years in major newspapers throughout the country “referring to the Yankees as the EVIL EMPIRE. These articles, dating back to 2002, show that a broad segment of the population has been exposed to the use of the term EVIL EMPIRE to refer to the Yankees.
“Based on the evidence, the term EVIL EMPIRE certainly has achieved a level of fame such that most baseball fans would recognize the term as a nickname for the Yankees. We have no doubt that EVIL EMPIRE, in the world of baseball at a minimum, has become famous in identifying the Yankees for purposes of likelihood of confusion. EVIL EMPIRE, thus, is entitled to a broad scope of protection, especially since applicant markets its goods to opposer’s baseball fans.”
The decision produced two interesting reactions, one from Lucchino. “It fits the dictionary definition of ironic that the Yankees have taken this position,” he said.
Indeed, after Lucchino uttered the remark, the Yankees didn’t embrace the designation and certainly never applied it to themselves. George Steinbrenner, who was alive at the time, was the team’s owner and never would have referred to his band of warriors, as he liked to call some of his players, in what he would have considered a derogatory way.
In addition, he viewed Lucchino as a wicked adversary and would never have capitalized on anything he said, no matter how beneficial it might have been to the Yankees. The owner, on the other hand, would have fought any attempt to use the Yankees for personal financial gain. Steinbrenner, to say the least, might have found himself in a quandary had someone tried to start such a business while he was on the job.
The Yankees, of course, have never called themselves the Evil Empire, never will. They do acknowledge the “Star Wars” movies with music at Yankee Stadium, but it’s the good guys’ music.
The other reaction to the trademark decision I referred to was mine. As I noted earlier, the whole thing began in the Times a decade ago. The Times, however, practically ignored the story about the trademark judges’ legally anointing the Yankees as the Evil Empire (in all capital letters yet).
The Times has a modesty policy of not heralding its own stories; these days the newspaper just quotes reports that have appeared in or one other publications. In a recent staff memo about the naming of two deputy sports editors, the new sports editor touted one of the new guys, saying “he keeps the competition envious with imaginative stories and he keeps us out in front with scoops on athletes who dope.
The Times, however, hasn’t had a doping scoop since one of its reporters induced lawyers and/or law clerks to violate a judge’s order that sealed records of drug tests that were supposed to be confidential and that were the subject of a legal dispute between the union and the government.
As for imaginative stories, the Times had one handed to them and did less with it than any of the dozens and dozens of newspapers and Web sites I came across via Google.
The Times didn‘t even write the story it used. It ran a one-paragraph Associated Press report on the Evil Empire decision and, at that, buried it at the bottom of page 6 of last Sunday’s 12-page sports section, squeezing it between Derek Jeter’s return to the field for practice and the auction sale of Curt Schilling’s bloody sock from the 2004 World Series.
It was the Times’ story, but the trademark decision was as brief as a brief can be. Fifty words on the Evil Empire, 2,000 words on snowboarding.
The Times ran the story matter of factly, no attempt at humor by a humorless paper. The Times, incidentally, was first with a copyright on the phrase Evil Empire because the entire paper is published under copyright.
Had his comment been premeditated, that is, planned, Lucchino could have copyrighted it. After Pat Riley led the Los Angeles Lakers to a second consecutive National Basketball Association title in 1988, he copyrighted the term “three-peat,” and I’m told he has made a lot of money from it.
I asked Lucchino if he had thought about copyrighting “Evil Empire.”
“I’ve heard that from a lot of fans and lawyers,” he said. But he didn’t think about it and didn’t do it. Instead, he left it for the Yankees. Lucchino actually comes out better that way. He, in effect, forced the Red Sox archrival Yankees to admit that they are the Evil Empire.