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Hometown ballplayer returns home after career on the diamond

J.P. Ricciardi was a hometown baseball hero who left the area to become a respected executive in MLB, but he always kept his Worcester area roots. Now, he returns to his roots
February 21, 2024

WORCESTER—J.P. Ricciardi is about to find out what summer is like in the heart of New England. Ricciardi, 64, has retired from a front office post with the San Francisco Giants after a long baseball career. Born and raised in the city, a graduate of St. Peter-Marian, Ricciardi eventually settled

WORCESTER—J.P. Ricciardi is about to find out what summer is like in the heart of New England.

Ricciardi, 64, has retired from a front office post with the San Francisco Giants after a long baseball career. Born and raised in the city, a graduate of St. Peter-Marian, Ricciardi eventually settled in West Boylston with his family but has always maintained his local roots.

He went from being one of Worcester’s best high school baseball players to being one of the most respected executives in Major League Baseball. Ricciardi’s most recent job description was senior advisor to the president of baseball operations for the Giants, but there have been many others through the years.

These career moves include eight seasons as general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, one of six big league organizations he has worked for. That list also includes the Mets twice, Yankees, Brewers and Athletics.

Ricciardi is still making plans for his newly found leisure time.

“I’ve been asked about writing a book,” he said, “but I don’t want to do that. I’ve been approached about being part of a podcast, and I’m leaning towards that.”

Ricciardi also wants to play more golf, which he may need some luck with given that golf may be the only game with more failure in it than baseball.

He was on the job with the Giants last year when he made the decision to retire. He recalls exactly where he was when he realized it was time to move on.

“I had originally planned to stay in the game until I was 66,” he said, “and I found myself in Philadelphia, staying in a gorgeous hotel, and I thought to myself — ‘What am I doing here? Is this satisfying?’ I don’t have to work. I don’t want to work just to work.

“What happened was that I just got to the point where I’m sick of traveling, and I didn’t enjoy my last five years. It’s a combination of the way the game is being run now, the way the game is changing. It’s a challenge for someone who’s been in the game as long as I have.”

Ricciardi drew his first baseball paycheck at age 20 in 1980 playing for the Mets farm team in Little Falls, NY, in the New York-Penn League. He got $700 a month, and that was just for the season. Ricciardi spent one more year in the minors, with Shelby, N.C. in the South Atlantic League, then was released.

The Yankees offered him a job in their farm system, then they cut back on how many teams they had. Ricciardi came back to Worcester and finished his undergraduate work at Worcester State and helped coach the baseball team.

In 1984, the Yanks called him back. On June 10, 1984, he married Diane DiPilato, whom he had known for going on 10 years. On June 11, the Ricciardis were off to Oneonta, NY, where the groom found himself hitting fungoes to Yankees minor leaguers.

The honeymoon came three years later in Hawaii, Oneonta, with pineapples instead of fungoes.

While Ricciardi has spent some 40 years in baseball, his time with the Athletics and Blue Jays is what he is best remembered for. He worked in Oakland from 1986 to 2001 and became one of Billy Beane’s most trusted advisors. Ricciardi was with the Athletics during the “Moneyball” years and has, of course, seen the movie.

The premise of “Moneyball” was simple. The Athletics didn’t have any money so had to be creative in assembling a competitive roster

“Some of it was accurate, some of it wasn’t,” he said. “The movie portrayed Billy very well and he was one of the best guys I’ve ever worked with. (Manager) Art Howe was a great guy and got a bad rap. The scouts got a bad rap, too.”

The fictional Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill, was modeled after A’s assistant general manager Paul DePodesta.

“I hired Paul DePodesta, not Billy,” Ricciardi recalled. “Billy didn’t even know who he was.” Ricciardi had met DePodesta when they were both at Fenway Park and thought he would be the perfect assistant for Beane. When Beane got done interviewing PoDesta he said, “That’s the guy.”

The model worked so well for the Athletics that other teams figured Oakland’s success might translate to their franchise. The Red Sox took an unsuccessful run at Beane. DePodesta became GM of the Dodgers in 2004. Ricciardi was hired by the Jays to be their general manager in November 2001.

It was a job he never sought and almost turned down.

“I didn’t even apply for it,” Ricciardi recalled. “I was working out one day and Billy called to say the Jays wanted to interview me and I told him I wasn’t interested. He told me I should go do it; it would be a great experience. So I fly up to Toronto. The interview was at 11 in the morning and 12:30 in the afternoon they offered me the job.

“I was like Ralph Kramden, not knowing what to say, because I never expected it.”

Ricciardi flew home to Toronto and talked things over with his wife. Their sons were 3 years old and 5. Both parents had great jobs they loved and the initial reaction was — let’s not disrupt everything. So they decided Ricciardi would turn the job down in the morning.

At 5:30 a.m., Diane woke up J.P. in one of those “Who died?” moments and told him, “You have to take this job. If you don’t take this job, you don’t know if you’ll ever have this opportunity again and you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

“So if it wasn’t for my wife, I would never have taken the job. Thank God for her and 40 years of marriage. She’s been the best,” J.P. Ricciardi said

He took over a team that wanted to cut payroll and had ownership, Rogers Communications, that lacked a little, well, intensity. Midway through one summer, the Jays beat the Yankees to take over first place in the AL East. Ricciardi bumped into team president Ted Rogers and relayed the good news.

Rogers responded, “That’s great. Do we play tomorrow?”

It says something about Ricciardi’s reputation throughout the game that he was never without work after Toronto. He was hired by the Mets, then the Giants, in front office roles. Ricciardi never got a second chance at being a GM but would have liked one.

“At some point, I thought I’d get one,” he said. “I would have done it one more time. There was so much I didn’t know when I got the (Jays) job. If I had done it a second time, I would have done a few things differently.”

Speaking of different, the way baseball has changed is a big reason Ricciardi retired at the relatively early age of 64.

“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “There is no more common sense, no more characters. I heard a great quote about that — ‘I’m not gonna miss the circus. It’s the clowns I’m gonna miss,’ but that’s what the game has become. It’s almost an Artificial Intelligence game. It’s not personal anymore. The game is pushing experience out. Everything has to be quantified. They have become very risk-averse in the game today.

“The big problem with baseball is, it’s played by humans. You’ve always needed data and will always need data but don’t take the human element out of the game. I don’t want to sound like that bitter old guy. I’m not. I love the game. It’s been so good to me. I’ve made an amazing life out of it.”

Ricciardi’s sons, Dante and Mariano, both followed their dad into baseball. Dante, 27, is a scout for the Red Sox. Mariano, 25, just retired after a minor league career that advanced as high as Double-A.

“(Dante) wants to be in baseball his whole life,” Ricciardi said, “and we’ve talked about it a ton. He was raised both old school and new school, and now he’s learning more new school stuff and he’s open minded to the new stuff.”

Major League baseball is five years older than the telephone. It features a lot of old stuff and as improbable as it seems, today’s new stuff will someday be old stuff.

Through the decades, it has been people like Worcester’s own J.P. Ricciardi that have kept it going.

Bill Ballou covered the Red Sox for the Worcester Telegram from 1997 through 2018. He has covered pro hockey in Worcester since 1994 and currently does a weekly column for the Worcester Red Sox. Ballou can be reached at [email protected]