Epstein all about business

11/23/2004 - Boston Red Sox

He grew up almost in the shadow of Fenway Park. As a middle schooler, he attended Game 1 of the 1986 World Series and vividly remembers the playoff disappointments of 1988, 1990 and 1995.

In other words, Theo Epstein's fan credentials are in order. When he became the general manager of the Red Sox two years ago next week, he didn't parachute in as an outsider.

No one had to explain the significance of the one red seat in the right field bleachers or give him a guided tour of the ballpark.

He understood.

But Epstein stopped being a fan the day he took control of the baseball operations. He didn't forget the history or the tradition or his own memories. What he did was lose the sentiment.

That had to be cast aside, like his allegiance to the San Diego Padres, his former employers. On the job, there was no room for personal favorites or following your heart.

This was business, pure and simple.

That much was evident last winter when Epstein boldly placed Manny Ramirez on irrevocable waivers, hoping that someone would claim him and give the organization more financial flexibility.

It was evident when he spent half of last offseason attempting to deal Ramirez to Texas for Alex Rodriguez. And it was made painfully obvious last July 31 when Epstein dared to deal off shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, only the most popular Red Sox player of his generation.

In the hours after consummating the trade which reshaped the Red Sox roster and started them on their magical late-season run, just down the street from Fenway, Epstein was angrily confronted by fans, irate that "Nomah'' had been sent packing. But his conviction didn't shake.

Epstein understood that both the club's dynamics and its leaky infield needed upgrading for the Sox to have a chance at postseason success.

A fan wouldn't have made such a risky deal. An objective, detached executive, freed from the bonds of partisanship, did.

Now, fresh off the franchise's first championship in 86 years, a new set of challenges confront Epstein. His team has 16 players pointed toward free agency, including four stars -- three-time Cy Young Award-winner Pedro Martinez, catching stalwart Jason Varitek, shortstop Orlando Cabrera (the key to last summer's Garciaparra swap) and Derek Lowe, arguably (and improbably) the team's best pitcher in the postseason.

It would be easy -- if very expensive -- to sign all four players and retain basically the entire core of a team which will go down as the most beloved in franchise history, the same ones who were greeted by more than three million when the team took its victory lap around the city three days after winning the World Series.

But Epstein isn't blinded by his affection -- or that of the fan base -- for the players.

It's not personal; it's business.

  • If Martinez isn't interested in returning for basically the same deal given to Curt Schilling last November, then Epstein will turn to Carl Pavano and/or Brad Radke.

  • If Varitek won't be content with a three-year deal with an option for a fourth year, or won't come off his demand for a no-trade clause, then the Sox will deal for Washington's Brian Schneider or pursue other catching alternatives.

  • If Cabrera is satisfied with a short-term deal, he'd be welcome back at shortstop, serving as a bridge to prospect to Hanley Ramirez, projected to be ready no later than the 2007 season. Otherwise, the Sox will find other solutions while Ramirez develops further.

    Like an office-holder given a solid mandate at the ballot box, Epstein now boasts plenty of political capital, having accomplished in his second year what so many other general managers failed to do for decades.

    He intends to spend it as he sees fit. There'll be no pandering to the masses, no displays of contractual largesse lavished upon the players who helped last week or last month or last season.

    Roster churn is a fact of life in baseball. Even the best teams turn over their personnel from one season to the next. The Red Sox will be no different.

    Let others develop emotional ties to the players who made history. That's for the fans.

    Though he may be a native, Theo Epstein doesn't live there anymore.

    Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.