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Yanked Out

As success transformed the Red Sox into an Evil Empire, Theo Epstein came to see his dream job as an untenable position

With no other job in hand Theo Epstein turned down $4.5 million over three years to continue working in his hometown, where, thanks to being the general manager of the first Boston world championship team in 86 years, he was the kind of local celebrity who would never have to wait for a table for the rest of his life. What does that tell you about the institutional miasma within the Red Sox?

Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, who famously once referred to the New York Yankees as "the Evil Empire," would never admit it, but the Red Sox have become like the Yankees, fraught with Machiavellian upper management, players who want out of the smallest fishbowl in sports and a mentality that anything short of a world championship is a joyless failure.

(Wait a minute. In the Bronx, G.M. Brian Cashman signed on for three more years, getting more than $5 million and a promise from owner George Steinbrenner to keep the advisers in Tampa in check. Steinbrenner has had the same manager, G.M. and p.r. director for the better part of a decade. The Red Sox, for now, lead in the chaos standings.)

Though he absconded from Fenway in a borrowed Halloween gorilla suit to avoid reporters, Epstein, 31, took the high road on his way out, speaking in a kind of code Red Sox insiders understood but which left outsiders baffled. "To do this job you have to believe in every aspect of the job," Epstein said. "You have to believe in yourself. You have to believe in the people you work with."

He left, according to sources who spoke with Epstein, due to philosophical differences with what he considered a nettlesome Lucchino--the mentor who brought him into baseball in 1992--and the belief that passive owner John Henry was unlikely to change the dynamic. "He's a man of principle," said a team source close to Epstein. "He couldn't look himself in the mirror if he took the money and came back to the job the way it is."

So shocked by Epstein's departure was Henry that he nearly teared up and questioned whether he is "fit to be principal owner of the Boston Red Sox." Such a reaction underscored his detachment. Epstein's professional relationship with Lucchino had been deteriorating for months, and yet Henry left them alone when it came time to negotiate a new contract for Epstein. Henry needs to be more involved, at least as a liaison between Lucchino and baseball operations, though that would go against his quiet nature. The energetic Lucchino, 60, is a brilliant executive who has developed gold mines of revenue in and around Fenway Park. But, like the Yankees, the Red Sox are consumed with feeding the beast of expected success. "Tomorrow's newspapers" is a term tossed around regularly in the Fenway offices, the next headlines often the boundary of the vision.

These aren't your grandfather's Red Sox. Like the 1993-94 New York Rangers, who won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 54 years, the Sox have been altered by their championship. Calvinism has been replaced by imperialism. The fanatics who sit in $95 seats sipping $8 beers won't stand for a retrenching, will they?

Before he quit, for instance, Epstein conducted a cost analysis of the weak free-agent market and decided the Red Sox would be better off tweaking the team with trades and prospects. That didn't square with Lucchino, who knows if the Sox are to maximize revenues, they need big names and headlines. Then there was an embarrassing reneging on a trade with Colorado in July, which, depending on where you heard the story, was the fault of Lucchino, Epstein or Josh Byrnes, Epstein's assistant. Lucchino's version was leaked to The Boston Globe on Oct. 30, a terrible bit of timing considering that Epstein was then questioning his trust level with Lucchino.

Epstein simply decided the job wasn't worth having as is, with no reason to believe it would change. No longer just the protégé but someone who regards himself as a seasoned G.M., Epstein needed more latitude, and he worried Lucchino would never allow it. He may take a consulting job, perhaps with Arizona, where Byrnes is the new G.M., and use his downtime to visit family, do some social work and wait for the G.M. offers to come his way, perhaps from Washington, a year from now. (Forget the Dodgers, whose palace unrest puts Boston's to shame.)

The first order of business for Boston is to find a G.M. Luring an established one, such as the Giants' Brian Sabean, is tricky when the last guy went running from what was supposed to be his dream job. It might be easier to find another version of Epstein: young, smart, dynamic, eager to make a mark on the game--but without all that Biblical master-protégé baggage with Lucchino to gum up the works.

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The man who coached the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup admitted that he is illiterate. --FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 22