Future Sox GM was a student of the game
First in a two-part series of excerpts from "Reversing the Curse," by Dan Shaughnessy (Houghton Mifflin). Copyright 2005.
The Red Sox equipment truck pulled out of Fenway Park on Monday, February 16, two days after the Nation was stunned by the news that the Yankees had traded for Alex Rodriguez. Across the land, Sox players were issuing diplomatic quotes about the unfortunate development. They knew it would affect the competitive balance in the American League East. They also knew it would dent the fragile psyche of a fan base still in shock from the season ending in October. It was not the boost the ballclub wanted at the start of the 2004 season.
Still, Theo Epstein wasn't panicking. His whole life -- all 30 years -- had prepared him for this moment and he felt ready for the challenge. He'd never quite get over the way it ended in 2003, but the feeling-sorry period had long expired.
Epstein and his twin brother, Paul, were born on December 29, 1973, the same year that the American League introduced the designated hitter. The boys were the proud progeny of Leslie and Ilene Epstein, and grandsons of Philip Epstein, who wrote "Casablanca"
with his identical twin, Julius. Leslie Epstein is a novelist and the director of the creative writing program at Boston University. He moved to Boston in 1978, just in time to witness the great Red Sox fold. He is also an avowed Yankee-hater, not above taking a few broadsides at Steinbrenner. He has said that rooting for the Yankees is like voting Republican. Theo's mom, Ilene, is also a twin, and runs The Studio, a fashionable women's clothing store in Brookline's trendy Coolidge Corner with her sister, Sandy, and their friend Marcie Brawer. Theo is fond of telling people he saw a naked woman for the first time at The Studio. Theo's older sister, Anya, is a screenwriter who wrote scripts for the NBC series, "Homicide: Life on the Street." She is married to a Yankee fan and their daughter, Theo's niece, wears both Red Sox and Yankee garb. Taller and balder than his famous twin, Paul Epstein is a social worker at Brookline High School. Children of learning, children of some privilege, Theo, Paul and Anya grew up in a spacious apartment on Parkman Street in Brookline, not far from the Beals Street birthplace of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It was closer still to Fenway Park, where the Red Sox of the 1970s featured sluggers named Rice, Lynn, Fisk and Evans. The twins attended about 15 home games per year, earning citizenship in Red Sox Nation before it was recognized in the UN Charter. When they couldn't go, they watched on television and their sister remembers battling for TV time to view her one hour of "Little House on the Prairie."
It was not unusual for Theo and Paul to disrupt the neighbors downstairs during a game. More than once the folks in the apartment below banged on the pipes to get the twins to calm down. One such night was Saturday, October 25, 1986, when the Red Sox were on the verge of beating the New York Mets to win the World Series. The twins were 12 and Leslie and Ilene were down the street at a dinner party while the boys watched in the den, waiting for that final out.
"We'd been to Game 3 of the World Series and Game 7 of the ALCS," remembered Theo. "We were biting our nails with every pitch. In the last inning, when we got the first two outs, we talked about what we'd do for the final out. The plan was to be in mid-air, unconnected to this earth. We had a little couch against the back wall of the den and we stood on that, waiting for the final out. We figured it would be a popup or something like that and we could be in mid-air for the celebration when the ball came down. We were on that couch for about 40 minutes, and when the ball rolled through Buckner's legs we just crumbled to the floor, holding our stomachs in disbelief. We sat for a few minutes and then the phone rang and it was my dad's cousin Jimmy calling from California to taunt us."
The twins never had a yard because the Epsteins didn't live in a single-family house. They could walk to the Amory Steet playground, but more often they improvised, creating a ballpark out of the back lot of the nearby Beacon Street Holiday Inn near their home. Sam Kennedy, who would later join Theo in the executive offices at Fenway, was a boyhood pal who found joy in the parking lots of tony Brookline. The boys played in the standard youth baseball leagues and were Brookline Pony League city champs playing for a team called the Yankees. It was in soccer that Theo enjoyed athletic success in high school. The Brookline Warriors made it to the state tournament in Theo's senior season (1990-91). His baseball career was just about over by then. He was a .250 hitter on Brookline's JV teams at Amory Street but at the varsity level he was usually on the bench, occasionally pitching or sometimes subbing in the middle infield for his pal, Kennedy.
"Mostly he coached third base," recalled Kennedy.
In the fall of 1991, Epstein enrolled at Yale, continuing on the path which led to him becoming the youngest general manager in the history of baseball and the architect of the 2004 Red Sox. He claims his greatest athletic accomplishment was kicking a wind-aided 53-yard field goal while goofing around with Padres associates at La Jolla High School.
To understand Theo, one must know something about two institutions and two individuals: Yale University and the Baltimore Orioles, and Larry Lucchino and Dr. Charles Steinberg. These places and people seem unrelated but the learning curve of Theo Epstein connects the dots, making them the places and people most responsible for his development.
Certainly Yale needs no introduction, not even in a book about baseball. Founded in 1701, it ranks on any list as one of the five top universities in America. Both presidential candidates in 2004, George W. Bush and John F. Kerry, graduated from Yale. Moreover, Yale has some impressive baseball tradition. Thomas A. Yawkey, who rescued the Red Sox in 1933 and rebuilt Fenway Park, graduated from Yale in 1925. In 1948, a dying Babe Ruth visited the campus to donate his papers to the university. There's a familiar photo of the great Bambino presenting his documents (no one seems sure what Babe's "papers" would be -- hot dog wrappers, perhaps?) to Yale's captain and first baseman, George Bush, who went on to become president of the United States in 1988. In 1989, George H.W. Bush invited baseball writers to the White House before the postseason and talked hardball in the Roosevelt Room for an hour. Asked about the photo op with Ruth, the president recalled, "I was captain of the ballclub, so I got to receive him there. He was dying. He was hoarse and could hardly talk. He was hollow. His whole great shape was gaunt and hollowed out. I remember he complimented the Yale ballfield. It was like a putting green, it was so beautiful."
A. Bartlett Giamatti, seventh commissioner of baseball, graduated from Yale in 1960 and served as its president for seven years before he took a job that represented his true love. It was Giamatti who said, "The ultimate purpose of baseball is to bring pleasure to the American people." Like John F. Kennedy's, Giamatti's term in office was cut short by an early death, but his days as commissioner are remembered fondly by all who embrace baseball. He wrote lovingly about the game and was an incurable Red Sox fan. He died near his home in Martha's Vineyard in 1989, just a few days after banishing Pete Rose from baseball.
Longtime major league pitcher Ron Darling is another Yale man. Darling's 11 innings of no-hit pitching in a 12-inning, 1-0, NCAA tourney loss to Frank Viola and St. John's is still considered one of the best-pitched games in college baseball history. Played in May 1981 and witnessed by Smoky Joe Wood, the game was immortalized in The New Yorker by Roger Angell. Darling went on to pitch for 13 years in the big leagues and was the starting pitcher in the seventh game of the 1986 World Series.
As a college freshman, Theo didn't have to look far to find a team with roots in New Haven. The Orioles were owned by Eli Jacobs, a Yale man. Another Yalie was in the Oriole front office, former NFL running back Calvin Hill. Hill, an African-American, had been hired by Edward Bennett Williams after Al Campanis' racist interview on "Nightline" in 1987. As vice president of administrative personnel for the Orioles early in 1992, he walked into the office of Dr. Charles Steinberg with a letter from an 18-year-old Yale freshman. Jacobs and Hill were happy to promote a Yale undergrad.
Steinberg had no agenda. He'd gone to the Orioles in 1976 as a 17-year-old intern from the Gilman School in Baltimore, recommended by Jack Dunn III. Dunn was the grandson of Jack Dunn, who originally signed Baltimore orphan George Herman "Babe" Ruth to his first professional baseball contract. Remarkable. The grandson of the man who signed Babe Ruth signed Charles Steinberg, who gave Theo Epstein his first job in baseball. Like reading a mystery with too many clues, tracking degrees of separation was always part of New England's obsession with the Curse of the Bambino.
While earning his high school diploma, a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Maryland, and a doctorate from its dental school, Steinberg worked for veteran Oriole public relations director Bob Brown -- perhaps the best and most innovative baseball PR man of his time. Steinberg's first important task was keeping statistics for Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver. Today major league ballclubs' data banks overflow with information, but in the 1960s Weaver pioneered in the field by keeping index cards of how his batters fared against pitchers from other American League teams. It was left to Steinberg to compile the numbers. An unimposing, bespectacled figure, Steinberg went virtually unnoticed in the Oriole offices until the night of the first game of the 1979 American League Championship Series, which featured Jim Palmer starting against California righty Nolan Ryan. Late in the game, the Angels summoned reliever John Montague. Weaver found no Montague card in his file. The veteran reliever had been picked up late in the year and Steinberg had neglected to put his numbers into the stack of cards. The Oriole dugout placed a call to Steinberg in the press box and the intern quickly produced the numbers, which were relayed to Weaver just in time for John Lowenstein (who had the best numbers against Montague) to hit an extra-inning walkoff homer. In the winner's clubhouse, Weaver toasted Steinberg and gave him credit for the win. He even offered him a beer. Alas, Steinberg was only 20.
It is therefore no surprise that Steinberg took an interest in the young Theo Epstein. By 1992, he was the Orioles' director of public affairs, overseeing four departments. He'd reviewed 10,000 resumes and interviewed more than 1,000 young candidates when Epstein went to see him during spring break in 1992.
"It was immediately obvious that this young man had unusual thinking," remembered Steinberg, now an executive vice president with the Red Sox. "And he could put it into words. I remember thinking, `Whoa, this one's unusual.' "
Epstein first interned in Baltimore in the summer of 1992, the Orioles' first season at Camden Yards. Young Theo arrived with a plan. He suggested a project that would pay tribute to the long-neglected Negro Leagues of baseball. Again, Steinberg was bowled over. "It was one of the most thoughtful, well-written proposals I had ever seen. He took the idea to a new level. He was impatient to get it done that summer, but we suggested taking an extra year and making it part of our All-Star celebration in 1993. And that's what he did. He came back the next summer and executed a five-day tribute to the stars of early black baseball. It was stupendous. And it resulted in Leon Day's getting elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame."
He could not help but get the attention of Larry Lucchino. A native of Pittsburgh, Lucchino loved old-timey ballparks. He had grown up rooting for the Pirates at ancient Forbes Field. He was a good high school baseball player and made All-City in basketball, which took him to the Ivy League. At Princeton, Lucchino played on a team led by Bill Bradley, which made it to the 1965 NCAA Final Four. Lucchino graduated in 1967 and went on to Yale Law School. In 1974 he worked with a law school classmate, Hillary Rodham, on the Senate Watergate impeachment committee.
Perhaps this is where he first earned the wrath of George Steinbrenner, who had been tagged with a felony conviction (later pardoned) that involved illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon. Lucchino joined the law firm of Williams and Connolly in 1974 and to this day he cannot speak for more than 10 minutes without bringing the name of his mentor, the late Edward Bennett Williams, into the conversation. Williams bought the Orioles for $12 million in August 1979 and made Lucchino club vice president and general counsel. Lucchino became president of the Orioles in 1988 and was a part-owner by the time Young Theo appeared in Baltimore.
When not working summers for the Orioles, Epstein was a sportswriter for Yale's student paper, and he wasn't afraid to tweak the athletic department and veteran coaches such as football legend Carm Cozza. In a preview of the 1993 Harvard-Yale game, Epstein wrote a gameday piece "Is It Time for Carm to Go?" He wrote that the veteran coach "just doesn't get it," and blasted his motivational tactics. Epstein wrote, "His lack of passion has reached a new low," and "Cozza isn't the man to bring the program out of its problems. More and more it is becoming clear: Cozza is responsible for the problems . . . Class, integrity, and genuine feeling for one's players doesn't win championships these days -- only respect."
The day of the game, Epstein bounded into the Yale press box, handing out copies of his story, and introduced himself to me -- I, who had been blasting Red Sox GM Lou Gorman for almost a decade. Young Theo said he had an interest in being a sportswriter and had read, "The Curse of the Bambino." Yale beat Harvard that day, 33-31, and Cozza did not retire until after the 1996 season. Two months after Epstein's diatribe, however, Gorman was replaced by 35-year-old Dan Duquette, then the youngest general manager in the history of the Red Sox. Less than a decade later, Epstein would replace Duquette and become the youngest general manager in the history of the game.
The Orioles were sold after the 1993 season and Lucchino joined the Padres a year later. In 1994, Epstein was a public relations intern for Steinberg in Baltimore. When Steinberg joined Lucchino with the Padres in 1995, he took Epstein with him. When Epstein graduated from Yale in 1995, he was hired by the Padres to work in the club's entertainment division. Steinberg made him promise to attend law school. Epstein said he didn't want to be a lawyer, but Dr. Charles explained that degree would help Theo get where he wanted to go. In his early days in San Diego, Epstein's duties included the goofy birthday messages and marriage proposals posted on the Jumbotron and monitoring the movements of a superfan named "Flag Man." Too busy spending his youth getting into baseball, he still didn't have a driver's license. Steinberg would pick him up in the morning, take him to
He got his driver's license in January 1997 at the age of 23. Independent at last.
In 1997, Padre GM Kevin Towers made Epstein a happy man by moving him into baseball operations. It was important that he work in baseball operations before getting a law degree: The reverse order would have made him a target of old-timey baseball people. Nobody likes a young lawyer sticking his nose into baseball operations. But the law degree would still be important. The best general managers don't like to rely on club counsel. So Epstein went to the University of San Diego law school while he was involved in the baseball operations of the San Diego Padres. He made the dual role work nicely, offering his classmates free Padre tickets in exchange for detailed notes of classes he was skipping. After getting his law degree and passing the California bar on his first try, Epstein was courted by the Anaheim law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which offered him a starting salary of $140,000 -- almost five times what the Padres were paying. That gave him the hammer to get a promotion: Towers made him director of baseball operations and bumped his salary to $80,000.
"I never had any intention of leaving," said Epstein. "I was a summer associate for two months and at the time I thought Popov was top-shelf vodka. The one thing I learned that summer was that other vodkas exist that are more expensive and taste better. I called Kevin when I was drunk and said, `They're offering $140,000. I don't know if this baseball thing is going to work out.' Then I told him I was kidding, but I asked him to try and get me more money. What I had been making was embarrassing."
When the Padres went to the World Series in 1998, Epstein, Steinberg, and Lucchino were a big part of the championship effort. Theo stayed on when Lucchino left after the 2001 season.
And then came the bag job of a major league franchise sale that ultimately brought Epstein back home to Boston.