"I just got finished talking to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, all the Democratic presidential candidates," said Russert, shortly after bursting through the doors of the second-floor auditorium. "Guess what? This is the big time. This is the President of Red Sox Nation."
Observers got their share of surprises. Four of the final 10 candidates -- Peter Gammons (working for ESPN), Mike Barnicle (undergoing "testing"), Doris Kearns Goodwin (commitment in Minnesota) and Rich Garces (at home in his native Venezuela) -- did not show, prompting grumbling from those present, even the moderator.
Meanwhile, Cheryl Boyd, Sam Horn, Rob Crawford, Cindy Boyd, Jerry Remy and Jared Carrabis filled six podiums, each adorned with the seal of the President of Red Sox Nation. Still, as fans would soon learn, those absent would figure prominently in the debate.
"You notice, [no] Peter Gammons?" said Russert before he opened the program. "Couldn't stand the pressure. Mike Barnicle? No show. Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian: interesting statement coming. This is a true test, is who is the best-qualified person to lead Red Sox Nation."
The debate will air on NESN on Saturday immediately after the conclusion of Red Sox-Twins game coverage. Voting began Friday and ends Tuesday at 5 p.m. ET. A winner will be announced shortly thereafter.
The event was taped Thursday. Not five minutes had passed before the absent Goodwin dropped a bombshell with a video recording. In it, she recalled hearing a "moving speech" from one of her rivals at the Baseball Tavern last week.
"So persuaded was I by his appeal," Goodwin said, "that I hereby announce that I am withdrawing my candidacy for president, and ask anyone who might've supported me to support 'Regular' Rob Crawford."
"I am floored," said Crawford, who won over Goodwin with an appeal to increase ticket accessibility for kids. "I need some time to think about my reaction. I'm just stunned."
"That's a very regular reaction, Rob," Russert said.
Red Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy reacted differently.
"Once you have Dodger blood in you, it never leaves," said Remy, one of Goodwin's most vocal critics during the campaign.
Previously, Remy had likened electing Goodwin -- who recounted her childhood as a Dodgers fan in 1950s-era Brooklyn in the memoir, "Wait Till Next Year" -- to the absurdity of electing Tommy Lasorda, the former Dodgers manager, President of Red Sox Nation. Remy, a native of Fall River, Mass., said he "despised" Dodger blue when he broke into the Majors as a member of the California Angels in the late-70s.
"As long as Tommy Lasorda has something to do with the Dodgers and she has something to do with the Dodgers, she can endorse anybody she wants," said Remy, before Russert pointedly acknowledged Remy's "Angel blood."
That wasn't the only development afoot. Russert interrupted the debate to report that he had received an e-mail announcement from Barnicle, a longtime friend from political and media circles.
"In the process of getting ready for today's task, Mr. Russert vetted some of these candidates," read Barnicle's statement. "And as a result of this interrogation, I, Mike Barnicle, am withdrawing as a candidate for the presidency of Red Sox Nation."
Barnicle called himself a steroid user, adding that running would be a "clear violation of Major League Baseball rules."
"In the spirit of transparency," said Russert, reading Barnicle's statement, "I also informed [Russert] that I have been using human growth hormone for years -- largely, no pun intended, Dunkin Donuts. My waistline now exceeds J.D. Drew's RBI total for the year."
"But," he added, "I did not want to withdraw without throwing whatever weight or support I might have mustered to another of these candidates."
Barnicle's endorsement was down to two: Gammons or Remy. He picked Gammons.
Visibly chagrined, Remy was asked for a reaction. For the second time in 10 minutes, the NESN broadcaster and current "acting" president was denied an endorsement from a candidate.
"I don't see either one of them at the podium today," Remy said.
At times conciliatory and hostile -- throughout the debate, Remy and Sam Horn were at loggerheads -- the debate promised to give voters a fuller picture of each candidate. Horn talked about watching Game 7 of the 1986 World Series at Shea Stadium next to the wife of teammate Bob Stanley. Crawford talked about waking from heart surgery in 2001 to see former Red Sox first baseman Scott Hatteberg hit a grand slam on NESN.
Candidates were asked whether they would welcome likely free agent Alex Rodriguez to Boston -- "Absolutely not," said Boyd, the blue-blood descendant of famous fan Lib Dooley; "He'd blast 60 home runs over that wall," Carrabis answered -- and how they would react if they encountered Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter (all present said they'd shake his hand).
Remy, the incumbent, scored crowd points with his appeal to expand Red Sox Nation's global reach. He said he could act as a standard-bearer as he toured the country with NESN and the Red Sox, with the goal of turning Red Sox Nation into Red Sox World.
"We have not even come close," Remy said. "We're not even close to what it can be."
Remy, like other "famous" office-seekers -- "I'm not a celebrity," Horn said -- touted their credentials as "regular" candidates, skirting a question that "Regular Rob" has made his signature issue.
"The only difference between me and anybody else here is that I'm on television every day," Remy said, while promising to appoint a Vice President among the finalists to receive job perks like season tickets.
They pushed their proposals, Crawford for a set of "Red Sox Angels" who would distribute season-tickets like good samaritans; Brown for free admission after seventh inning at Fenway Park, as well as a cordoned-off Lansdowne Street; Horn for "Pesky Passes" at Fenway for concession-seeking senior citizens.
Horn ran into trouble when he revealed that Carrabis had asked to be his vice president.
Carrabis grinned sheepishly.
"That was before I made the top 25," Carrabis said.
Carrabis got his revenge by revealing that the Web site that Horn has touted, sawxheads.com, was actually created by himself. Carrabis also manages a Red Sox fan page on MySpace.com that regularly receives nearly 100,000 viewers.
"No cameras, no fans, no witnesses," Horn said during a commercial break. "I'm going to get you after this, Jared."
Despite the politicking, the grandstanding and the scheming, the President of Red Sox Nation candidates ended the debate on a conciliatory high note.
"However the vote comes out," Remy told his rivals, "if there's any way that I can be of any help to any of you, I'd be happy to do so."
"I feel like I've made five friends throughout this process," Brown said.
Alex McPhillips is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.