The joy (and stress) of setting up a champagne celebration

Red Sox clubhouse manager Tom McLaughlin gives a behind-the-scenes look

It’s Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS and the Yankees, up 4-3 on the Red Sox in the ninth inning, are on the verge of clinching a trip to the World Series.

Mariano Rivera is on the mound and, nearly 100 percent of the time, he’s automatic. The game should be over.

Yankees fans are confident. Yankees players, watching from the top of the dugout steps, are confident. New York is three outs away from a wild celebration in Boston’s visitors’ clubhouse. The Yankees can almost taste the champagne.

Back inside the bowels of Fenway Park, Red Sox visitors’ clubhouse manager Tom McLaughlin is watching. He’s waiting.

Sure, the Yankees could win … but they also could lose. His crew doesn’t want to roll out the plastic and tables and booze too early in case the Yanks blow the lead. They also don’t want the team to parade back into the clubhouse and have nowhere to party, nothing to rejoice with. It’s a hard spot for any clubhouse attendant or manager to be in.

“It’s the worst,” McLaughlin, now the Red Sox home clubhouse manager, told me in a recent phone call. “I don’t know if we’ve ever had a 10-0 lead leading into a clinch game. It’s always tied or one run or close enough to where you really don’t wanna make that decision too early, right?”

Tom McLaughlin, behind manager Alex Cora, nervously looks on during a stressful, late-inning World Series game in 2018 (Image via Bret Saberhagen’s Instagram)
McLaughlin has been working with the Red Sox since the late 1980s. His brother-in-law, a city cop, used to work in Fenway’s clubhouse and asked if McLaughlin wanted to help out one summer. Thirty-six years later, he’s still there and loving it.

“It’s a great opportunity,” McLaughlin said. “I’m not sure if I’d be in the position to travel to Japan, the Dominican and London and be part of what this game has offered me — even just seeing the country the way we’ve seen it over the years.”

The Boston native and lifelong fan has various duties around the ballpark. He keeps tabs on equipment, he loads up the trucks for Spring Training, he even brokers deals for prized home-run balls. But one of his major tasks, especially this time of year, is preparing his clubhouse for the wild, clinch-party celebrations. It’s stressful and, well, kind of a rush at the same time.

“Yeah, we have a lot of help from my staff,” McLaughlin told me. “And now that it’s become such an event, facilities gets involved, as far as helping us with any plastic and any prep work we can do ahead of time.”

The plastic, of course, is key. It protects the players’ clothing and gear from getting sprayed with alcohol. It can also, in very rare times, serve as a show curtain for managers — like Jim Leyland — to moonwalk through.

But is there a fear of putting it up too soon when a team is on the verge of clinching, then suddenly loses and comes trudging back into the clubhouse? Or maybe there’s a chance it could be put up too late?

“We have a nice setup, where if we’re anticipating something will happen, we can install a lot of our plastic ahead of time,” McLaughlin said. “It’s fastened up on top of the lockers and tucked way back, so we’re able to attach plastic in anticipation of a clinch and fold it back where nobody can see it. Nobody knows it’s there.”

McLaughlin said his crew does have to still put plastic over TVs, roll in the alcohol and move out the furniture, but that can generally be done rather quickly if it’s at the last minute. If the team doesn’t end up clinching and sees all the furniture removed, the clubhouse personnel can also say they were just clearing space out for media. Teams that clinch also tend to stay out on the field a bit longer than they used to.

All of that made the 2004 Yankees’ near-clinch in the ALCS a little bit easier to deal with. Still, it was tense.

“Once it looked like [the Yankees]were gonna win, people from the league office start coming down, families start coming down,” McLaughlin recalled. “They start moving T-shirts in, they bring hats into the back room to facilitate that stuff going out into the field and being passed out as guys come off. … Luckily, [the game]got to a certain point where we didn’t have to worry about it. We didn’t have to clean up a mess. We didn’t have to take the plastic down. It got tied, it got late in the game and those decisions weren’t final yet.”

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There was one other famous, incredibly intense series a young McLaughlin was part of very early in his career: He was a clubbie for the Red Sox when they visited the Mets for the 1986 Fall Classic.

With the Sox winning by two runs (and up in the Series, 3-2) in Game 6 with two outs in the 10th inning, everyone thought it was over. NBC crews came in to the Red Sox clubhouse, hung up plastic, placed World Series hats on player stools and set up podiums and audio equipment for interviews. But then, well, things took an abrupt turn. More from the Chicago Tribune:

“Three straight two-out singles pulled the Mets to within a run, and the protective covering was pulled back, and the commemorative hats were collected. And then Bob Stanley threw the wild pitch that tied the game and someone in the NBC group yelled, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ And then the platform was dismantled, and everyone in that group grabbed something, and they all rushed for the door. And then one of them looked over his shoulder, and he noticed that they had left a single item behind: the championship trophy. And then two Mets maintenance men removed the trophy …”

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“Yeah, Game 6, the plastic was down and the champagne was in the room,” McLaughlin, who wasn’t so involved then as he is these days, remembered. “That was a time they tore it down and got rid of the plastic and champagne.”

Although, not all of the bottles of alcohol went to waste: McLaughlin was able to snatch up a special souvenir before he left Shea Stadium that night.