Twenty-eight is not a pivotal age — unless you are Theo Epstein ’95, the youngest general manager in baseball history.
Epstein’s age has been the focus of every news article written about him since the Boston Red Sox announced his appointment Nov. 25. The headlines read: “Boston Bids Kid Hello,” “Boston Picks a Wonder Boy” and “The Rookie.”
“This is exciting for Yale,” said Calvin Hill ’69, former National Football League Rookie of the Year. “This is not a team in Hoboken that we are talking about, but one of the most storied franchises in all of sports.”
Hill introduced Epstein to the baseball industry in 1992 with the Baltimore Orioles.
For Epstein, a former Yale Daily News sports editor, the appointment is what kids dream about.
“I grew up a mile away from Fenway, so this is amazing,” Epstein said in a telephone interview last week. “A dream come true.”
Though the press is obsessed with with Epstein’s age, many baseball insiders consider the appointment wise.
“Good for him,” Arizona Diamondbacks General Manager Joe Garagiola Jr. said. “The Red Sox weren’t looking to make a statement. They were looking for a strong, capable leader and they found one in Theo.”
Garagiola had a similar experience in 1975 when George Steinbrenner hired 25-year-old Garagiola as the Yankees’ in-house counsel.
Epstein, who Red Sox President Larry Lucchino LAW ’71 says is “almost 29,” is younger than 22 of the 25 players on Boston’s 2002 opening day roster.
“This is no longer your father’s Oldsmobile,” Lucchino said. “This is not about public relations. Age is an arbitrary matter.”
From Holland to the New World
Epstein was born in New York City on Dec. 29, 1973, the last of three children born to Leslie and Ilene Epstein. He was delivered one minute after his fraternal brother Paul. And, for the record, his name is Theo, not Theodore.
“Theo was conceived in Holland, and we wanted to give our child a Dutch name,” said Leslie Epstein ’60 DRA ’67, Theo’s father. “Theo was popular at the time, and it also happened to be the name of Van Gogh’s brother.”
If lineage is any indication, Theo Epstein was destined for success. His relatives consistently found fame early in their careers.
Epstein’s grandfather and granduncle, identical twins Philip and Julius, won the Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1942 for Casablanca at the ages of 33.
Epstein’s father is a Rhodes Scholar, acclaimed novelist and currently head of the creative writing department at Boston University. Theo’s brother, Paul, is a Wesleyan graduate, social worker and a soccer coach at Brookline High School in Brookline, Mass. Elder sister Anya Epstein ’92 was a screenwriter and producer for NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Streets.”
Though Epstein’s pedigree is impressive, his childhood memories are more down-to-earth.
“When I think of my family, I think of my dad cooped in his office, writing about a sentence a day; my mom rushing home from work to make an unbelievable dinner in 30 minutes; my sister locked in her room listening to really bad pop music; and my brother and I beating the heck out of each other in the hallway,” Epstein said.
Arriving in Boston
In 1978, “the Bucky Dent year” as Theo calls it, the Epsteins moved to Brookline, Mass.
Leslie Epstein, who grew up following the Hollywood Stars, a minor league Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate, instilled a love of baseball, and more specifically a love for the Red Sox, in his sons.
Because Theo Epstein quickly became an avid fan, religiously watching games on TV, his father was forced to make a deal with him.
“I made him read for every minute he watched television,” Leslie Epstein said.
But his son, like any good fanatic, found a way to circumvent that rule.
“It wasn’t that hard to beat the system,” Theo Epstein said. “I would lock myself up in my room with a book, rustling the pages loudly while quietly listening to the game on the radio.”
Theo also played in Little League, becoming the first kid in his town to throw a curveball — a pitch that later blew out his arm.
At Yale, Epstein was an American Studies major, manager of the men’s hockey team and an employee in the sports information department.
“He wasn’t into grades,” his father said. “I told him, the one course he absolutely had to take was Scully’s history of art, and of course he didn’t do that.”
In college, Theo Epstein was vocal about his goals, telling friends about his dream to become Boston’s GM.
“I took Theo’s Red Sox GM bit much in the same vein as other students’ desires to be president or governor,” former Yale Daily News Editor in Chief Emily Nelson ’95 said. “What was imminent was Theo’s desire to contribute to a major league baseball team, and that he did.”
As a freshman, Epstein sent his resume to Hill, who was then head of human resources for the Orioles.
“One of the things that struck me was that he was a Yalie,” Hill said. “When he came down [to interview in person], he reminded me of Bart Giamatti, who was a close friend. Whoever I can compare to Bart, I find favorable.”
Giamatti ’60 is a former Yale University president and baseball commissioner.
Theo Epstein did consider a career in sports journalism, but his interest quickly waned.
“I found journalism to be a very individualistic pursuit,” Theo Epstein said. “It seemed too isolated and cynical for me.”
While working for the Yale Daily News, Epstein published a controversial piece for the 1993 Yale-Harvard football issue on the possibility of firing legendary coach Carm Cozza, the winningest coach in Ivy League history.
“Carm Cozza is a Yale icon, and criticism of his coaching tenure had generally been made sotto voce,” Nelson said. “To have the entire front page of the edition read ‘Is It Time for Carm to Go?,’ well, it caused quite a stir.”
After Yale won The Game that season, Cozza said, according to legend, “We ought to give that damn kid the ball.”
Though Epstein has just 10 years of experience in baseball, he has built an enormous reputation for himself in the industry.
When Lucchino made the transition from the Orioles to the Padres, Epstein followed as director of player development.
While quietly rebuilding San Diego’s farm system, Epstein also earned his law degree at the University of San Diego, upon Lucchino’s suggestion.
Last season, when Lucchino left San Diego to become president of the Red Sox, he brought Epstein along as assistant general manager.
Oakland General Manager Billy Beane and Toronto General Manager J.P. Ricciardi — Boston’s first two choices for GM — both told the Red Sox to offer Epstein the job. And since becoming Boston’s 11th GM since 1933, Epstein has entered the news with stories of his background, his love life and his every move.
“I knew there would be a lot of buzz because of the novelty of a young GM,” Epstein said. “But I guess I didn’t anticipate this degree of attention.”
Signs of Epstein’s appointment abound in Boston. Even bumper stickers read, “Our General Manager Was Student of the Month at Brookline High School.”
His father feels that Epstein might end up back in New Haven.
“Perhaps he’ll run the Yankee Doodle,” Leslie Epstein said. “After you’ve conquered the world like Alexander the Great, maybe all that’s left is making doodle dogs.”