Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Better man

A little more than a year ago today, there we were in baseball heaven, still picking the confetti out of our hair, basking in the afterglow of the Red Sox's first World Championship in 86 years and raising a glass or three to the boy wonder general manager who helped make our dreams a joyous reality.

This morning, here we are back in that old familiar baseball hell, the one that so often comes with the territory of Red Sox fandom. The architect of the what Curt Schilling so memorably toasted as "the greatest Red Sox team of all time" is gone, the Nation has taken a collective wallop to the gut, and the magical autumn of 2004 couldn't feel longer ago.

Theo Epstein should have been an enduring icon in this town, the general manager of the Boston Red Sox for seasons to come if not decades, the Red Auerbach of his time. Instead, he simply walked away from the job he'd dreamed of holding since he was a boy, stunningly rejecting a three-year, $4.5 million deal late Monday afternoon, his longtime boss and one-time mentor apparently too overbearing to tolerate longer at any price.

And the fans, so satisfied just a year ago, are left shocked and saddended and clinging to the thin hope that it was all a terrible misunderstanding, that he'll have a change of heart, pull a Billy Beane and decide he wants to stay. But deep down, in our scarred little hearts, we know better.

Theo's gone for good. And so too is the modern golden era of the Boston Red Sox.

It is not an exaggeration to say that is the most devastating personnel news to hit Sox fans since . . . well, when? Clemens heading for the Dallas suburb of Toronto after the '96 season? Fisk changing his Sox in '80? The sale of Babe Freakin' Ruth to the You-Know-Whos eight-plus decades ago?

Theo is arguably the greatest general manager in the history of the franchise, and I say arguably only because he was on the job for but three years. In all honesty, I have no doubt he was the best. He was progressive and respectful, open-minded and articulate. He gave an ear to both the sabermetric pencil necks and the old-school call-'em-as-I-see-'me scouts. He was the ideal general manager in this time and place in baseball history, in this time and place in this city. For the first time in a long time, the Sox had the right man for the job. That he was one of us only made the Brookline kid's ascent all the sweeter.

We don't need a copy of his resume to recite his accomplishments. He was fearless, trading Nomar Garciaparra, the face of the franchise, in the midst of a pennant race, and he dared to challenge protocol if it meant securing a player he coveted, which is how Kevin Millar ended up as a media darling/team leader/occasionally productive hitter in Boston rather than Hanshin.

He vowed to make the long-barren Red Sox system into "a player development machine," and as Jon Papelbon's dazzling debut and the rave reviews from the Baseball America types suggest, his promise is about to bear plenty of fruit.

He was the youngest general manager to win a World Series. Among his acquisitions were 2004 postseason heroes Keith Foulke and Curt Schilling, 2003 batting champion Bill Mueller, and the greatest clutch hitter/free agent bargain in franchise history, David Ortiz. His teams never missed the postseason, and dammit, do I hate writing about him in the past tense.

The timing of this could not be worse. Theo always managed to plan for the future without compromising the present. Now, at the moment, both appear severely jeopardized. The general managers meetings are not too far around the bend. Free agency is two weeks away. At the moment, the Sox have no first baseman, no second baseman, a third baseman who's a free agent, a left fielder who wants a trade but maybe doesn't, a center fielder who is up for the highest bid, a bullpen that's current state falls somewhere between "flammable" and "scorched" and a starting rotation that could use one premier starter, if not two. Theo's obviously not solving this now, and his second in command, the well-regarded Josh Byrnes, left for the Arizona GM job this week. So who's going to piece all of this together? Will it be Lucchino? Kevin Towers? Huh? Who? Hey, maybe Dan Duquette's available.

It just seems so - well, disappointing - that he's leaving the Red Sox at age 31. It never should have come to this. Theo's contract should have been done months ago, before so many second thoughts seeped into his mind. The Sox p.r. minions could reveal that Theo keeps a pet Gimp in the basement of his office and was prepared to trade Big Papi to the Yankees for Felix Escalona and a bucket of Jason Giambi's old syringes, and still they would be miles from justifying today's news. What happened today is inexcusable.

In the end, maybe his departure is one more reason to admire him. It wasn't about the money; the Red Sox eventually offered him what he wanted, even after forcing him to see his name in the same sentence as Chuck LaMar's a few too many times. Maybe it was about lifestyle. Maybe Theo, who by all accounts is as grounded as he is bright, was tired of being the rock star, tired of the suffocating public. Maybe he just wants to go out for a nice quiet dinner with a friend on Newbury Street without having every camera phone in the restaurant aimed his way and a play-by-play of the entire evening showing up in the "Inside Track" the next day. Maybe he's burned out on baseball, in search of more meaningful or challenging things. Or maybe he'll hop in the car tomorrow, cue up Weezer's "Beverly Hills" and head west to run Frank McCourt's Dodgers.

Maybe, maybe, maybe. Theo's not the kiss-and-tell type, and we may never know his entire motivation. But it seems clear at the moment that the main factor in his departure was an increasingly strained relationship with Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, the man who brought Theo into this business and apparently still liked to think he could take him out of it. Lucchino's reported meddling in personnel matters and the power struggle between mentor and protege has been well-documented in the last few days, and we're reluctant to get into that any further here except to say this: Few of us would have the integrity to walk away from a boss whom we believe breached our trust.

Whatever Theo's private thought process was, I know this much: I do not want to hear Sox management's perspective. I don't want to hear John Henry say anything but "I'm so sorry, fans." I don't want Dr. Charles Steinberg telling me it's all going to be okay because Wally The Green Monster tells him so. And I most certainly do not want to hear Lucchino's silver-tongued spin on this during the inevitable softball-tossing interview with "Dennis and Callahan." It's one thing when Nomar and Pedro find your negotiating tactics distasteful. It's another when an immensely capable person willingly abandons his dream job because you've made it into such a hideous nightmare.

It strikes me as remarkably telling that Brian Cashman decided he can put up with George Steinbrenner's bullying for three more years, yet Theo apparently couldn't take another millisecond with the man who was once his mentor. Does it mean Theo has stronger convictions than Cashman? Possibly . . . probably. But it also suggests that Lucchino is more tyrannical than even Steinbrenner, only he masks it better publicly. On this, a glorious day in the Bronx for sure, Steinbrenner's comment from a few years back rattles around in our mind. "Lucchino's a chameleon," Steinbrenner said. "Just wait. You'll see."

Today, sadly, we saw, and now the Red Sox are scrambling to recover. Maybe it's the first step of a public relations campaign geared toward saving face, or maybe they simply fear that a tar-and-feather-toting mob might be gathering outside of Fenway at any moment, but word is that Red Sox management - the remnants of it, anyway - is devastated by the turn of events. Really? Devastated? Well, now I feel better. I mean, c'mon, they'd damn well better be upset, and they'd better finally understand that being a Sox fan isn't all about patronizing membership cards and getting a chance to buy used sod and bleepin' Stones concerts during the stretch run and milking every last nickel out of the old ballyard.

Maybe now they'll understand that being a Red Sox fan too often comes down to this: Recognizing the right thing to do, believing it to be so obvious that not even the biggest numbskull in a suit could screw it up - then being overwhelmed with shock and anguish when those in power do just that.

Theo Epstein is gone today. So, too, is the modern golden age of the franchise. We'll always have 2004, and we're forever indebted to him for that. But as Theo walks away, we're left with a sadness that will linger for some time.

It was a wonderful three seasons. There should have been so many more.