Missing: Accountability for Theo Epstein
His record as the Red Sox's general manager doesn't stand up to scrutiny right now
In the past, the plot of a baseball movie has followed an arc as predictable as a Western. Either an underachieving team finds inspiration and overcomes its talent deficiencies to achieve a rousing, once-in-a-lifetime victory or a singular, heroic figure's dashing ability simmers then rises to a crescendo, typically in a slow-motion, bottom-of-the-ninth climax. Either way, the movie's game was played on the field.
But today, when real-life heroes are often tarnished by labor struggles or performance enhancers and the public's identification with and allegiance to power seems stronger than ever, baseball's new protagonists don't stand in the batter's box. They sit behind a laptop.
Appropriately, "Moneyball" finished No.1 at the box office last week.
In this case, art doesn't imitate life. It is life. Baseball at the millennium belongs to its general managers, and thus, it is only fitting that Billy Beane, and not Roy Hobbs, is the biggest baseball star in Hollywood. The GMs have become more important than the players, and yet receive less scrutiny. If this were Wall Street in the 1980s, the general managers would be the new masters of the universe.
So total has their reign become over the past 15 years that GMs are rarely criticized when their plans go astray, even though the measures of their success -- wins and losses over a period of time, balanced against the amount of money they've spent -- are as easily quantifiable as the final score. (Only a small handful of Beane's vaunted Moneyball prospects ever made the major leagues; Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry had spent $977.6 million on players since the 2003 season, reaching one National League Championship Series, and had fired four field managers before finally being relieved of his duties.)
The most telling sign of the GM's gilded status is that, even as the game now belongs to them, it is the manager -- minimized into a mid-level bureaucrat -- who still takes the fall. Hollywood knows this. Once, the movie manager was a respected, big league leader of men (Vincent Gardenia in "Bang the Drum Slowly," Wilford Brimley in "The Natural"). Today, he is reduced to Phillip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of a befuddled Art Howe.
It happened in Boston last week, when Terry Francona was shown the door, accompanied by the usual ex post facto analysis of all that he did not do. For the last several years, the Red Sox have been a team in transition, and it was clear that in 2011, the human beings on the field wielded far more power than the sum total of whatever statistics showed up on a front-office spreadsheet. Francona and the front office declared that his departure was a mutual decision, but clearly he was encouraged to leave, especially as he said he was never quite convinced of management's support.
Meanwhile, Theo Epstein, Red Sox general manager, finds himself equally in the news -- not however for his role as the chief architect of a 2011 Fenway Park disaster film, but for where his next big job and next big payday will be. Whether Epstein stays in Boston or takes another job, he will be handsomely compensated, essentially for presiding over the biggest regular-season collapse in recent memory. The expectations for this Red Sox team were sky high, set by big offseason spending and a summer during which it was the best team in the game for four months. For the last two, it was the worst.
In September, Boston won only one game -- one! -- when scoring fewer than six runs. Worse, the clubhouse fractures were seismic from the beginning, starting when the team signed Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million contract and dumped him deep into the batting order 48 hours into the season and lowlighted as well by John Lackey, the worst front-line starting pitcher in baseball this season, staring down his manager, unaffected by his status as the proud owner of a 6.41 ERA.
In eight years, Francona never felt fully appreciated by upper management, and with good reason: They didn't fully appreciate him. He eventually hollowed after covering for players (Mike Lowell, Lackey, a declining David Ortiz and, most of all, the dreaded Manny Ramirez) who did not seem to be grateful his protection, all of whom made his job more difficult and less enjoyable. Allowing some of his pitchers to drink in the clubhouse on their off days was an obvious sign that Francona had lost his effectiveness or his zeal, or both.
Epstein, meanwhile, generally has escaped accountability, benefiting from the nearly decade-long narrative that the Red Sox blueprint is somehow more a tribute to his superior acumen and planning rather than ownership's willingness to dip into its superior checkbook. The Red Sox have spent $1.18 billion on player salaries in Epstein's nine years, the Yankees $1.74 billion, according to payroll figures reported by AP every spring.
Epstein and the Red Sox have been aided tremendously by a press and fan base that fell completely for the false perception that Boston is somehow baseball's virtuous non-pollutant, simply because it spends less than the Yankees. The truth, of course, is that the Red Sox spend more than everybody but the Yankees.
Without the assistance of players such as Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, who were in place under his predecessor, Dan Duquette, as well as the performance-enhanced play of Ramirez (at least a two-time offender of baseball's steroid policy) and Ortiz (who has yet to make good on his vow to clear his name) and the availability of the wild-card berth (the Red Sox have won exactly two division titles over the last 20 seasons, while Tampa Bay has won two in the last four years), Epstein is just a smart person in a great job, no different than Brian Cashman or the deposed Hendry.
To be fair, Epstein has proven to be adept at trades (Orlando Cabrera, Jason Bay, Victor Martinez, Curt Schilling, Adrian Gonzalez et al) and minor league talent evaluation. (Jonathan Papelbon, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia rose through the system to became stars and World Series champions.) But after nine years, it is clear that free agency is the weakest part of his game. In fact, now that Hendry has left Wrigley Field, Epstein just might be the least accomplished general manager in the game at manipulating the free-agent market.
Since being named general manager in the winter of 2002, he has made 11 major, front-line, free-agent signings. The average A-list free-agent contract during the Epstein era is worth $49.3 million over four years.
The Epstein 11:
2003: Keith Foulke, three years/$20.5 million. (Stabilized the closer position. Closed out 2004 World Series.)
2004: Edgar Renteria, four years/$40 million. (Bought out after one dismal season for an additional $12 million. Renteria played in Boston for one year for $22 million.)
2005: Matt Clement, three years/$25 million. (An 18-11 record with a 5.09 ERA in two seasons. One All-Star Game.)
2006: Damon, allowed to leave via free agency after posting 197 hits in 2005. Replaced by Coco Crisp, three years/$15.5 million, who was ultimately replaced by the emerging Ellsbury.
2007: Daisuke Matsuzaka, six years/$52 million, plus a $52 million posting fee that did not count against payroll. (Won 2007 World Series. A .620 career winning percentage. Hasn't pitched 170 innings in a season since debuting in 2007. Has averaged five wins over the last three seasons.)
2007: JD Drew, five years/$70 million. (Average season in Boston: 121 games, .264 average, 16 HR, 57 RBI.)
2010: John Lackey, five years,/$82.5 million. (A 26-23 record, 5.26 ERA, 375 IP, 436 hits so far.)
2010: Mike Cameron, two years/$15.5 million. (A .219 average in 81 games over two seasons. Traded in July of this year. The team moved Ellsbury out of center field upon acquiring Cameron.)
2010: Adrian Beltre, one year/$10 million. (.321 AVG, 49 2B, 28 HR, 102 RBI, All-Star.)
2011: Carl Crawford, seven years/$142 million. (Dismal first season in Boston, but too early to pass judgment.)
It might appear at first glance that Ortiz, Epstein's biggest player acquisition score, is conspicuously missing from that list. Ortiz certainly became a star in Boston, but he was not brought there to be one. In December 2002 at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., during Epstein's first winter meetings as GM of the Red Sox, he jousted with the A's Beane over the true object of their affection, Arizona slugger Erubiel Durazo. Durazo went to Oakland and Epstein settled for Jeremy Giambi. When spring training broke in 2003, Ortiz was fourth on the depth chart, behind Giambi, Shea Hillenbrand and Kevin Millar.
Epstein might not be responsible for total authorship of every one of those deals. Ownership has its predilections, and general managers often make deals of which they disapprove. But in Epstein's nine years, those 11 major signings totaled $543.5 million; during the same period, the Tampa Bay Rays' entire payroll amounted to $315.8 million on 225 players.
Of those 11, only one, perhaps two -- Foulke and Beltre -- can be considered unqualified successes. The 2003 Red Sox introduced then abandoned a disastrous Bill James concept called the "closer-by-committee," the thought being that a real save situation might not occur in the ninth inning, but rather in, say, the seventh. That winter, Epstein signed Foulke, and Boston won the World Series a year later.
Beane is sometimes maligned for being lionized despite never winning an ALCS game (never mind advancing to the World Series), but there is no question he revolutionized the front-office game -- who gets jobs, how those jobs are done and what statistical and cultural values are important -- and transformed the position of general manager from anonymous to glamorous.
But if the position is now worthy of Hollywood and big money and credit for a team's architecture, it is only appropriate that accountability be part of the equation. If the man running the game from the dugout is now considered a "mid-level manager," according to the Moneyball doctrine founded by Sandy Alderson and perfected by Beane and by Epstein, maybe he isn't the one whose bags should be packed when the plan fails.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.