Boy wonder: The hopes of Red Sox fans rest on Theo Epstein’s ’95 shoulders



FORT MYERS, Fla. — Critics didn’t take long to begin questioning Theo Epstein’s ’95 maturity. Especially after rumors that Epstein, the youngest general manager in baseball history, had punched a hole in a hotel wall.

In November, Epstein took over the Boston Red Sox’s front office at age 28. By December, when he lost out on bids for free agent infielders Edgardo Alfonso and Jeff Kent, rumors floated that Epstein had damaged a hotel’s drywall.

Then, after seeing Cuban defector Jose Contreras sign with the Yankees, a rumor floated that Epstein, in his rage, had broken a hotel chair. Reports later exonerated Epstein and claimed that Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had planted the story in response to Red Sox president Larry Lucchino’s LAW ’71 branding of the Yankees as the “Evil Empire.”

“I don’t know if my age worked against me or not,” Epstein, now 29, said. “I don’t know, maybe — maybe if I was 89 they might have said I fell off the chair. Who knows? I haven’t thrown a chair since senior year in college at Lynwood at about 3 in the morning.”

Since that time, Epstein has tried to balance his youth with professionalism while using his wealth of baseball and media experience to deflect the public’s scrutiny. Epstein and his bosses try to downplay his youthful image, but despite their best efforts, his meteoric rise to the head of the front office combined with the new, statistical-based approach the Red Sox are employing have made him the poster-boy for the Red Sox’s next generation.



A new philosophy

One of the major stories surrounding the Red Sox this off-season has been its decision to rely on a more mathematical approach to player evaluation. To that end, Boston hired statistician Bill James as a consultant. James’ Baseball Historical Abstract uses a statistical formula called sabermetrics to evaluate players, and the team has pledged to adopt new ways of scouting players mathematically in addition to traditional methods.

Epstein said the statistical approach is not a be-all, end-all but will work in conjunction with more conventional methods. James has also pledged to blend traditional methods of scouting with his sabermetrics system.

“I put stock in having all the information,” Epstein said. “Usually I like to say we rely 50-50, but it depends. If we’re looking at a high school player coming out of the draft, we don’t use statistics at all. If you’re signing an established big league ballplayer with a track record, if you send someone out to scout him, you’re not going to count the one-day scouting report as much as you are his 10-year track record. So you balance it.”

The Red Sox organization adopted this balanced philosophy before Epstein’s promotion, but Epstein has become the face of this new line of thought simply by being amenable to new suggestions and having his promotion coincide with the first off-season that employs the new scouting tactics.

Rob Neyer, a columnist for ESPN.com and a long-time proponent of sabermetrics and other statistical analyses, said the visibility of Epstein’s position has brought the issue into greater focus.

“I’ve seen more stories on the Red Sox philosophy in the last three months than on the Athletics’ in the last three years, and they’re comparable” Neyer said. “Theo [Epstein] is very articulate, and he’s a good story, but a lot of [the notoriety] came not from him being young and good looking but from being the general manager of the Boston Red Sox.”

Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy said he fears having a Yale graduate as the poster boy for this new philosophy might alienate some Red Sox loyalists.

“Fans will be suspicious because baseball people are generally not intellectuals,” Shaughnessy said. “A lot of fans don’t trust the statistical orientation, the inexperience, the Ivy League feel. It’s daunting for a lot of the fan base.”

Neyer said the “organizational place in the standings” will outweigh “organizational philosophy” when it comes to drawing fans, and the Red Sox nation should be receptive.

“The Red Sox aren’t in any real danger of alienating the fans,” Neyer said. “They’re going to fill up Fenway Park year-in and year-out, even if the team isn’t that great.”

Aside from the changes on the field wrought by the new administration — nearly half of the team’s 40-man roster is new to the team — Epstein has helped remake the image of a team long known for its strained relations with players and fans.

A traditional trademark of the Red Sox organization has been inaccessibility. When the team was sold to Lucchino and partner John Henry’s group before the 2002 season, this trend changed almost instantly. Henry, previously principal owner of the Florida Marlins, moved out of the club seats to a perch along the first-base line. Both owners have been open to suggestions for improvement from both fans and players.

During the spring games, Epstein has followed suit and taken a seat directly behind home plate among the scouts with radar guns, stopwatches and notebooks. He plans to keep this spot during the regular season. His primary intention is to monitor whoever is on the mound, but it is also likely to be viewed as another significant institutional change.

“I don’t deserve any of the credit for the lack of aloofness,” Epstein said. “With the new ownership group, that went out the window the day they got the team, so they deserve all the credit for that. I sit in the seats behind home plate because it’s the only place you can evaluate the pitcher. You watch every game from down there, and you’ll know the whole league’s pitching backwards and forwards.”



Dealing with the press

At Yale, Epstein was sports editor of the Yale Daily News, and he said being on the other side of the coin has given him insight as to how to deal with the notoriously intrusive Boston media. He said he tries to help the journalists do their jobs in a way that also helps him with his time management and does not force him to reveal more than he desires.

Even with that knowledge, Epstein said the extent to which media scrutiny has compromised his private life has been surprising. With the Red Sox players being nitpicked just as intensely — superstar outfielder Manny Ramirez has refused to talk to the media since last September after being lambasted for not running out a ground ball — Epstein and his staff had a closed-door meeting with the players early in spring training to discuss how to handle the media.

“We recognize that dealing with the media is difficult for some of our players because the Boston media is so intense, so we had a session where we offered some tips on ways to deal with the media again quickly, in a facile way, that won’t interrupt their jobs,” Epstein said. “We told them basic stuff like, ‘Only say what you want to say. You don’t have to answer their question per se. They can only use your answer so say what you want to say and don’t worry about the question. Be accountable. Distribute credit to your teammates, but stand up and take the blame.'”

Shaughnessy said the changes in media relations, like the changes in so many other aspects of the Red Sox organization this year, started with Lucchino and have trickled down throughout the organization.

“The owners are very PR conscious and accountable, they reach out to the community, and they tell the fans they appreciate them,” Shaughnessy said. “They don’t have the same institutional arrogance. They were in San Diego where they couldn’t give away tickets, and so they can’t believe it here. They’re very appreciative of the rabid fan base.”



Youth on the job

Over the winter, Epstein appeared on-stage at Peter Gammons’ Hot Stove, Cool Music Benefit for the Jimmy Fund, a Boston-based charity that helps support cancer research. Playing guitar and backed by his band Trauser, Epstein performed a brief set, covering Pearl Jam’s “I Am Mine” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

“I’m a novice guitar player and I love to plug it in and play loud and so the chance to do it in front of 700 people was too good to pass up,” Epstein said.

Only a month after being named the youngest general manager in baseball history, Epstein was somewhat nervous about projecting an unprofessional image to his established colleagues. Ultimately, that wasn’t enough to stop him.

“Everybody reminds you of how young you are so you’re trying to fit in with the other GMs and that’s probably the last thing you’d want to do to seem professional and look like a general manager, but I really don’t care,” Epstein said. “The thing you have to do when you get this job is not care what people think. If you listen to talk radio, if you listen to what people say about what you should or shouldn’t be doing, especially with your free time, you’re gonna drive yourself crazy. I just act the way I want to act and hopefully it’s good enough to win a World Series. And if not then I’ll be looking for a job some day.”

Epstein said he hasn’t let his youth deter him from making his stamp on the team.

“When you’re assistant GM you have ideas and maybe one out of every 10 of them gets implemented,” Epstein said. “When you’re GM, if you want, you can do 10 out of 10, so that’s the neat part of the job. I grew up second guessing Red Sox general managers so I’m not going to complain if people second guess me.”

Raised in the heart of Red Sox country — he graduated from Brookline High School, three stops on the Green Line away from Fenway Park — Epstein benefits from his status as local-boy-made-good. But burdened by the weight of an 85-year World Series drought, he is also keenly aware that his success hinges on his ability to end the years of misery that define Red Sox nation.

“Yeah, [the fans] do like the local guys,” Epstein said. “But basically, everyone in Red Sox history who has contributed is remembered fondly because fans love the team so much. But the one thing our players talk about is that one team that does win it all, everyone will have a special place in history down to the bat boy.”

Because of his age, Epstein already has a special place in Red Sox history. If all goes according to his plan, he will ultimately be remembered for a championship ending rather than a youthful beginning.

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