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Epstein's image improves after many shrewd moves

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Theo Epstein has a deal for Billy Beane. As the rival general managers prepared yesterday for the first postseason showdown between the Red Sox and A's since Epstein walked the halls of Brookline High in 1990, the Sox GM considered dangling a friendly wager in front of his friend and former boss.

Yes, former boss. Remember when Epstein worked for Beane? The job lasted about one bizarre rotation of the Earth last November after Beane agreed to bolt the A's to become the 11th general manager of the Red Sox. Epstein was an assistant Sox GM, and their working relationship lasted long enough for Beane and Epstein to begin laying plans for the current team.

"He was tough," Epstein recalled only half-kiddingly. "He's a slave driver."

Beane's abrupt snub of the Sox owners (he reneged a day after he agreed to a five-year, $12.5 million pact) cleared the way for Epstein's ascent to his dream job -- and ultimately convinced Epstein his wager might be safe.

"We could bet the Red Sox GM job on it," Epstein said of the best-of-five series that opens Wednesday in Oakland.

Beane no longer is interested in the Sox job, of course. And Epstein has no intention of yielding it -- not after a memorable rookie season in which he reshaped the Sox into a playoff team and emerged as a top candidate for Executive of the Year.

The Sox GM is a star now, a former front-office prospect who has turned into a Beanesian wunderkind, at least in the baseball world. In the goofy world of entertainment journalism, he has shot from the shadows of apprenticeship into the white heat of celebrity, a wild transformation in which he recently was projected, for instance, as a potential replacement for Ben Affleck in J-Lo's affections. Such is Epstein's lot for surrendering his anonymity and thrusting himself into the crucible of one of the most high-profile -- and second-guessed -- jobs in all New England.

Beane decided he wanted no part of it. But after he bailed on the Sox brass, he quietly helped Epstein resolve his final concerns about leaping into the fire. Epstein was only 28 when the opportunity arose.

"A lot of what happened that day with Billy only increased my respect for him," Epstein said. "We gave each other advice and learned a lot about each other. I think he made his decision for all the right reasons to stay true to what he was, and he helped me think through some things I needed to reconcile in my mind before I was ready to take the job. He was very helpful."

The two have maintained their camaraderie despite the heat of competition. When the A's clinched the American League West, Epstein was among the first to phone Beane and congratulate him. And Beane waited no later than the fifth inning of Boston's wild-card clincher Thursday to call and salute his pal.

"He was pretty consistent in rooting for us this year," Epstein said. "I think he felt a bit of a connection having been so involved during the offseason, and I think he was rooting for me in my first year."

Piecing it together

Strange world. Ten months ago, Epstein was hunkered down in a hilltop hotel in the desert on the outskirts of Tucson, absorbing his first lesson in working for one of the game's most celebrated and successful general managers. Beane was still in Oakland after accepting the job offer, but the wheels of the Beane/Epstein machine already were turning as they prepared to confront some of Boston's most compelling questions, such as the futures of Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra.

Now comes the showdown. Now comes Martinez, whose $17.5 million option for next year Epstein exercised long before he needed to as a good-will gesture, opposing one of Beane's renowned aces, Tim Hudson, in Game 1.

"This is probably the last thing either one of us would have envisioned during that brief period last November when he was my boss," Epstein said.

But the rookie GM learned well, not just from Beane but from his primary mentor, San Diego general manager Kevin Towers, and others such as Sox CEO Larry Lucchino. With superb offseason acquisitions -- Bill Mueller, David Ortiz, Todd Walker, and Kevin Millar -- Epstein helped to build one of the most potent lineups in baseball history, a wrecking crew on pace to finish the regular season today by matching or surpassing the slugging percentage of the 1927 Yankees.

Yes, the '27 Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, otherwise known as Murderers Row. Oh, and known, too, as World Series champions.

"The issue here was never a lack of superstar talent," Epstein said. "I thought the issue was fielding quality throughout the roster and building a 25-man team that made sense."

Not all his offseason moves paid off. Opting against re-signing 40-save closer Ugueth Urbina, Epstein gambled on a collection of traditional setup men as potential closers, none of whom excelled, most notably his top acquisition, Ramiro Mendoza. Epstein invested $6.5 million over two years on Mendoza, so far a bust.

Another offseason gamble, Chad Fox ($500,000), hurt more than he helped before he, too, found a home with the Marlins. Bobby Howry, a projected key member of the pen, was lost to injuries. Alan Embree started slowly with physical woes. Mike Timlin proved to be a valuable pickup, as did a couple of shrewd waiver claims, Brandon Lyon (from the Blue Jays) and Bronson Arroyo (from the Pirates). But the cumulative effect of the bullpen's inefficiency conspired to deprive the Sox of a clean shot at overtaking the Yankees in the AL East.

Epstein's decision to hold on to promising lefty Casey Fossum during the offseason rather than trade him for a costlier front-line starter also exposed him to second-guessing, at least in the short term. Fossum provided little help because of injuries and inefficiency before his season ended with an inning of work against the Yankees Sept. 6. Fossum's disappointing season, coupled with the bullpen's subpar performance, compelled Epstein to gamble part of the franchise's future (prospects Freddy Sanchez, Phil Dumatrait, and Tyler Pelland) at the trading deadline for starter Jeff Suppan and relievers Scott Williamson and Scott Sauerbeck.

But those moves, widely hailed at the time as ranking among the best in the majors this season, paled as difference-makers compared with Epstein's trade of Shea Hillenbrand to Arizona May 29 for Byung Hyun Kim, a deal that propelled Mueller and Ortiz toward spectacular finishes and helped to right the wobbling pitching staff.

Suppan, Williamson, and Sauerbeck have yet to pitch to their potential, but simply by acquiring them Epstein showed the players in the clubhouse that the front office was trying as hard to win as they were.

"There are a lot of things I would have done differently, but I have no regrets," Epstein said. "I think we're a very, very good team, but we're an imperfect team. That's just who we are."

Going to extremes

One of Epstein's greatest challenges has been maintaining his psychological balance during one of the most tumultuous seasons in recent memory in terms of brutal losses and exhilarating victories.

"I think the toughest part was navigating the emotional landscape," he said. "I wondered, `Was it just me, or did we have really high highs and really low lows?' I think that was the case and it wasn't just me, but learning how to deal with that and keep the proper perspective in making decisions and having enough patience to get through the year was the toughest adjustment."

Soon, Epstein will need to address manager Grady Little's future, deciding with ownership whether to exercise their option on him for next year, or sign him to a longer deal with a significant bump from the estimated $500,000 he earned this year. Anyone who has seen the two work together recognizes the respect Epstein and Little have for each other, and the GM never has wavered in his view that Little has the ideal temperament for managing the Sox.

"I think Grady has done a fantastic job," he said. "Baseball history is littered with the carcasses of managers who are too intense or too hands-on or micromanage too much. Grady has a real good touch to manage over the course of 162 games."

At some point, Epstein will need to address his own future. Asked his career goals, he said, "Win the World Series and retire and pull a Bill Clinton and give speeches and go to frat parties."

More seriously, he said, "Kevin Towers had a good plan I might want to copy one day. He wanted to be a GM for eight or 10 years then take a break and become a special assistant or a scout and watch younger players again. That's maybe when you could have a family or take some time to see a whole new generation of players in the amateur ranks. But that's getting way ahead of things. I want to be a Boston Red Sox as long as I live."

He has started well enough -- and conducted himself with such a fine balance of dignity, maturity, and lightheartedness -- that he generally has outgrown the jokes about his youth.

"I went through an evolution where the first couple of months I was called the 28- or 29-year-old," he said. "Then I became a GM who didn't know how to build a bullpen. Now, hopefully, I'm known as a GM of a real good team."

Kind of like his former boss.

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