Way, way west of Coolidge Corner -- in the days when a twentysomething Theo Epstein was working his way up from an aide in the media relations department to a key administrator in the baseball operations office of the San Diego Padres -- he was a fixture at the home of Kevin Towers, the team's general manager. "Theo was a regular over at our house for `Monday Night Football,' " Towers said. "I'm a huge Raiders fan and Theo, of course, is a Pats fan. He'd be there on the couch, in his Adam Vinatieri shirt, and every time the Raiders would attempt a field goal, Theo would be -- I kid you not -- leaping up off the couch to make the block. The first couple of times, it scared the heck out of me."
Such intensity was another side of the bright-eyed, self-assured young man from Brookline who would become the youngest general manager in baseball history (28) when the Red Sox promoted him Nov. 25, 2002.
It was with that same passion the following November that Epstein courted free agent pitcher Keith Foulke, even selling him on the Boston sports scene while the two attended a Celtics game, and ace Curt Schilling, spending Thanksgiving with the Schilling family in Arizona in an attempt to persuade the Diamondbacks righthander to waive his no-trade clause.
And it was with that same boldness that, a little more than eight weeks ago -- in the midst of what quickly was turning into a season of dashed hopes and dreams in the Hub of Hardball -- Epstein struck with startling force when he dealt Sox icon Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs.
Less than two years into the job, the 30-year-old Epstein traded the face of the franchise for a pair of near-faceless entities in shortstop Orlando Cabrera (via Montreal) and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz (via Minnesota). The wonder of the hour was: What in the name of Red Sox Nation was the wunderkind GM doing? Later that night, hours after stepping to a podium inside Fenway Park to announce the controversial deal, a little bit of that wonderment even washed over the wunderkind.
"To be honest, that burden of, you know, trading Nomar the icon didn't factor into the equation in the midst of doing it --that sort of hit me after the fact," Esptein said prior to a recent home game, as he watched batting practice from a corner of the Red Sox dugout. "We made the trade, had the press conference -- that felt a little like an inquisition at times -- and it wasn't until I got back into my office, several hours after the deal, with all the T's crossed and I's dotted, that it hit me."
Specifically, as reality began to blend with near-surrealism, it was a crawl on ESPN -- "Red Sox trade Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs" -- that underscored the weight of his deeds.
"Really, that's when it sunk in, and I said to myself, `Holy cow, what did I just do?' " recalled Epstein, realizing this wasn't some fan's daydream he'd just conjured at the end of the Brookline High (class of '91) bench.
Justifying the deal
Alone in his bunker that night, Epstein countered his simmering sense of panic with all the logic that he and his staff had applied to the deal. There was the input from the scouts -- persistent questions regarding Garciaparra's game of late, as well as their promising reads on Cabrera and Mientkiewicz -- and the never-ending streams of statistical data that Epstein & Co. compute like lab techs at MIT. The hardest numbers to read were Boston's errors and unearned runs, all adding up to what the GM felt was a "fatal flaw" in his club's defensive composition.
On top of that, there was Epstein's lingering belief, for myriad reasons -- including failed and somewhat bitter negotiations in the offseason with Garciaparra's agent, and the star shortstop's lingering ire over nearly being replaced by Alex Rodriguez -- that it was time for Garciaparra to go. Not that Epstein had been here for the Red Sox' nothing-in-return swan songs of Messrs. Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn, but their free agent adieus also entered into the equation. Garciaparra's market worth was down dramatically over the course of only a few months, because of his injury and impending free agency.
A commodity was falling. A season was sinking. It was time to act. Deal done. But not before Epstein called Garciaparra in the clubhouse in Minnesota to inform him of the deal.
"Ten or 15 seconds went by there while [manager] Terry [Francona] went in the clubhouse to bring him to the phone," recalled Epstein. "Those were long seconds, and I was thinking, `I don't want to screw this up, say the wrong thing.' I wanted to treat him with the respect he deserved. Looking back, I think I did the best I could with it, and I'm going to keep most of that conversation private. But I thanked him on the behalf of the organization, and on a personal note I told him how much he'd meant to me. Then I told him we were making a move, and that he was involved. I wished him well."
Asked how Garciaparra responded, Epstein held up a hand, seemingly a gesture of resignation, and said, "It was tough. He handled it well, I'd say, given the circumstances. But it was tough."
And later that night, the crawl . . . "Red Sox trade Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs . . ."
"Now, I know what your next question is going to be," said Epstein, who during his days at Yale (class of '95) flirted with a career in journalism. "You're wondering if I slept that night."
Rest assured, he slept. He made his way back to his condo on the Prudential side of Fenway Park, his mind circling the bases like Rickey Henderson in a pair of Air Jordans, and for the first time in his life he took a sleep aid, Ambien, to turn off the noise.
"My mind was racing," recalled Epstein, who has slept soundly ever since, the Sox the hottest team in Major League Baseball since the landmark swap and this week headed to the postseason for a second straight year as the wild-card entry in the American League. "OK, things that might have happened: Well, Nomar goes on to hit .400 and the Cubs win the World Series. Hey, I'll admit it. I'm human enough that those things crossed my mind."
A big admirer in Towers
From 3,000 miles across the country, Towers has been impressed, but not surprised, by his protege's success, and credits Epstein's daring in regard to the Garciaparra deal.
"We talked a little before he did the deal -- he let me know he was thinking about doing it," said Towers. "Just one of the things I've always loved about him is that he sticks to his convictions. A trade like that, if he thought it would help his club, then I know him, that's it. Regardless of the PR involved, he's going to do the deal. "I mean, talk about a high-stakes poker game. Nomar, you're talking about one of the most popular Red Sox players of all time! But that's conviction, boy, to be able to step back, when you think it's right, and say, `He's a big name, but you know what, I'll stick my neck in the noose over this one and if it doesn't work, it doesn't work -- I'm doing it because I think it's right.' Tell you what, I applaud him.
"And one thing I'll say about trades -- any trades -- is this: If the players you get do what they're supposed to do, then the [doubters] forget everything they said."
Towers could see early on that Epstein, recruited to San Diego by Larry Lucchino (now Epstein's boss with the Red Sox) after beginning his career as a PR intern in Baltimore, soon would become a prominent player in a front office. Towers was taken by Epstein's intelligence, work ethic, and even his cockiness, a trait that works in his favor, said Towers, because it is centered not in arrogance but in self-assuredness and belief in his diligent work.
Towers was especially impressed by Epstein's intelligence, and by his wiliness, during the days when Epstein was working his way up the career ladder with the Padres while at the same time taking courses at the University of San Diego Law School.
By Towers's account, Epstein, then in his mid-20s, sharpened his trading skills, in part, by recruiting fellow law school students to take detailed class notes in exchange for free Padres tickets. While his pals labored in school, thrilled over the quid pro quo of notes for ducats, Epstein remained at the ballpark, opting for shorts instead of torts.
"And not only did he finish near the top of his class, but he passed the California bar -- and the exam's tough out here -- on his first try," said Towers. "Not bad, huh?"
It was no surprise to Towers, then, that a top area law firm only a few months later had a limo waiting for the young graduate in the Padres' front office, who Towers said was making about $50,000. The firm wined and dined Epstein in full-recruit fashion.
A few hours into the glossy tour, recalled Towers, the phone rang in his office, an animated Epstein barking at him from the other end of the line.
"He says, `Dude, you won't believe how these guys are treating me,' " recalled Towers. "You know, it was the five-star restaurant, the cigars . . . who knows what else, I can't imagine, the full-court press. And then he tells me, `And they say they're going to start me at around $160,000 -- can you believe it, $160,000?"
What's a boss to say? Towers was happy for his friend, but he was also staring at a potential huge void in the Padres' front office.
"Wow, Theo," Towers recalled saying, "that's great. But let me ask you, is that what you want?"
The dude at the other end of the line, by Towers's description, immediately changed his tone.
"He comes back with, `Absolutely not,' " recalled Towers. "Just like that, `Absolutely not.' He said, `No, I'm going to take my chances, work for you, and see where this baseball thing goes.' "
The ride, for the short term, was worth $30,000 and a change in job title. Towers bumped Epstein's pay to $80,000 and promoted him to director of baseball operations.
"I can't say enough about the guy," said Towers. "You won't ever find a more gracious, thankful, dependable guy -- and those are hard things to find, in baseball or anywhere. My wife and I, when Theo left to go back to Boston, it was like we lost one of our first-born."
Slices of life
For all the initial success he has had on Yawkey Way, where the Sox this year sold every ticket in the regular season for the first time in club history, Epstein doesn't envision himself growing gray on the job -- at least not by the standard aging process. Away from the job, he remains in a long-term relationship, something he prefers to keep private, and he figures the day will come when building a baseball team and building a family won't be practical under the conventional 24-hour clock.
He kids that his tag -- youngest GM in baseball history --essentially disappeared in the rocky start of the 2003 season, only some six months after replacing Dan Duquette just weeks shy of his 29th birthday.
"That's when everyone went from calling me the youngest GM ever to the GM who couldn't put together a bullpen," he said. "I guess in some ways I'll be happier when I'm the oldest GM, because that'll mean I've been around for a while. Not that I want to do this forever.
"I mean, to be the oldest, I'd have to have done it for something like 40 years, and right now my goal is to play some part, a small part, to help the Red Sox win a number of World Series. Once we're there, I see myself taking a step back, playing a more complementary role, having a family, spend more time with them. To do this job right, it's tough to have a life outside of the game."
But by his own account, it is not all just work and games. Epstein has his escapes, a couple of them centered on music, including his love of playing guitar (self-taught) and going to concerts. When the Sox clinched the postseason berth last Monday night in Tampa, he rewarded himself with a return to Boston to take in a couple of Pearl Jam concerts at the FleetCenter. He and some pals have an amateur band, Trauser, and sometimes they jam.
"We're still together, but we're looking for a drummer, I guess," he said. "Our drummer exploded -- that's a `Spinal Tap' reference -- and took off for Maine."
The music acts as a stress-reducer. Epstein keeps a guitar in his office, and sometimes, mindlessly, he picks it up for a strum while reading a report or contemplating a roster move. (Makes one wonder what the beat would have been for "Ode to Nomar" on July 31.) Otherwise, he has an ample sporting goods supply that, beyond the obvious baseball paraphernalia, includes a football, a basketball, even golf clubs.
Sam Kennedy, the Red Sox vice president/sales and corporate partnerships, has been one of Epstein's best friends since their days as freshmen at Brookline High. He likes to kid that he was the BHS third baseman while Epstein was the squad's standout third base coach. "Actually, he pitched a little and played some second base," said Kennedy. "But most of the time he was at the end of the bench, studying OBP." That's on-base percentage -- part of the guiding mantra on Yawkey Way in the Epstein Era.
Not long ago, recalled Kennedy, Epstein got a little too much of a golf shot from his office and it ricocheted once or twice before it nailed an unsuspecting Ben Cherington, the club's director of player development, in an adjacent office.
"Not a bad drive, but I sliced it," said Epstein, who describes his overall golf game, the outdoor version, as torturous. "Ben had his head down, and it was kind of like the Larry Bird commercial, you know, the ball bounced around, and Ben was reading a game report or something, and it nailed him in the head. Blood everywhere. It was an ugly scene."
Some 86 years gone by since their last World Series win, there are no mulligans accorded the Red Sox front office. Epstein, the shot-blocking, guitar-strumming, slice-hitting general manager of the Olde Towne Team, no doubt knew that -- long before he took the job, and before he told Garciaparra to take his glove to Chicago.
"No matter what the trade is, you have to trust the process," said Epstein. "I'm proud of that process, and the people we have involved in it as an organization. We try to ask the right questions, do the research, and make the right decision."