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When the Boston Red Sox last month allowed Johnny Damon, their popular centerfielder, to defect to the New York Yankees with hardly a fight, the return of erstwhile general manager Theo Epstein became a matter of time. That time arrived last Thursday, when Boston, ever obsessive about matters of the media, rushed an announcement that the 32-year-old was returning, timing it to blunt the impact of a forthcoming newspaper column critical of the team's front office dysfunction. So what if Epstein's exact role and title had not yet been decided?
Damon's departure was important because it confirmed that Epstein got his wish: a philosophical change by the franchise that it would cease its creeping Yankeeism--committing too many years and too many dollars to aging players, as New York continues to do in the nuclear AL East race. The Yankees still have company when it comes to doling out long-term deals to veterans, as the New York Mets and the Toronto Blue Jays showed this winter. But Boston's new business model more closely resembles those of the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians, who continually fold young players into their roster. The buzzwords in Boston now are "payroll flexibility," "player development," "younger" and "athletic." That's great for Epstein, but his philosophical victory comes with a string attached in baseball-mad Boston: He'd better be right.
Epstein, who became Boston's G.M. in 2002, left the Sox on Oct. 31, exiting Fenway Park in a gorilla suit to avoid the insatiable media, a commentary on the pathological interest in the team that was soon trumped by the gorilla suit's being auctioned for $11,000. Epstein left not, as reported, expressly because of personal conflicts with Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, his mentor, but more because he didn't like where the team was headed as its passive owner John Henry deferred the steering of the franchise to Lucchino.
What worried Epstein was an institutional bias toward putting "name players" (read: older, expensive) at every position to feed the beast that is Fenway. Epstein didn't like the idea of having four of the eight every-day players ( Damon, shortstop Edgar Renteria, catcher Jason Varitek and leftfielder Manny Ramirez) locked in at a combined $50 million per year through 2008 while aging through their 30s.
Epstein's departure jolted Henry, who blamed himself for losing his best baseball executive, a man whose philosophy he shared; Henry had just been too deferential to impose it. Henry (and chairman Tom Werner) talked frequently with Epstein during his sabbatical. Epstein also kept in contact with the friends and former lieutenants who succeeded him as co-G.M.'s, Jed Hoyer, 32, and Ben Cherington, 32. Epstein's fingerprints were all over Boston's winter maneuvers.
Renteria, 30, was dumped on Atlanta for third baseman Andy Marte, a top prospect. Damon was offered $40 million over four years with the hope he would do better elsewhere. (The Yankees obliged, giving him $52 million for four years.) Boston's blueprint now includes signing free-agent shortstop Alex Gonzalez to a one-year deal as insurance until sure-handed rookie Dustin Pedroia, 22, is ready to take over the job; a proposed trade for Cleveland centerfielder Coco Crisp, 26 (perhaps at the cost of Marte); giving first base to Kevin Youkilis, 26; and fielding a rotation by the end of the season that includes Josh Beckett, 25, Jonathan Papelbon, 25, Jon Lester, 22, and Bronson Arroyo, 28, while grooming Craig Hansen, 22, as the closer. That kind of youth will free up money that will allow Boston to spend on free agents who are not beginning to decline (as the Sox believe Damon is). Potential 2006 targets include pitchers Barry Zito and Mark Mulder and first baseman Derrek Lee.
"Looking back, before Oct. 31 obviously we were not all on the same page when it came to the vision of this organization," Epstein told SI. "That's been resolved in the last 10 weeks. That shared vision goes a long way in creating a harmony throughout the front office. I believe that we were not going to get to that point without Oct. 31 happening."
In addition to serving as an unofficial, unpaid Red Sox consultant, Epstein spent his 10-week hiatus vacationing in South America, raising money for his charitable foundation and rejecting the possibility of G.M. jobs with the Los Angeles Dodgers (because of an even more chaotic front office) and the Washington Nationals (due to its barren farm system and ownership uncertainty). Now, back with the team and philosophy he wanted, Epstein is front and center again, the successes and failures of the ball club never ascribed more to him than they are now.
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