PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- He said it back in spring training in February, on the same day Red Sox chairman Tom Werner said he expected the general manager would have a job with the team as long as he wanted it.
''The team and its goals," Theo Epstein said that sun-kissed day in southwest Florida, ''are much more important than any one individual."
Nine months later, on a cool desert night in Southern California, Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, driving a stake through rumors that Epstein might still come back, delivered essentially the same message, with an unmistakable edge.
''I believe his place in the history of the club is positive and secure," Lucchino said, exhibiting not a whit of the remorse principal owner John W. Henry expressed after Epstein's leave-taking, ''but his departure does not terminate the history of the club."
And so the page is turned, although as a co-author of the story that declared Epstein was staying 11 days ago, I'm reluctant to traffic in absolutes.
This much, however, is almost certainly true: The focus of Red Sox fans already is gradually shifting from Epstein and back onto a team that next spring may bear scant resemblance to the bunch that toasted each other with a champion's champagne just 13 months ago.
Yesterday marked the end of the 15-day period of exclusivity teams enjoy with their own free agents. The Sox re-signed setup man Mike Timlin, but all their other free agents are now in play, including center fielder Johnny Damon, one of the biggest prizes in a flimsy market this winter.
First baseman Kevin Millar, who will probably have to wait until he's retired before disgruntled Sox fans finally recall all the good things he did while he was here, has a better chance of playing in Japan next year than he does in Boston.
Second baseman Tony Graffanino played well after coming over from Kansas City, but the Sox are considering other alternatives while tentatively penciling in a tandem of Alex Cora and rookie Dustin Pedroia.
Third baseman Bill Mueller was the epitome of a winning player while he was here and played Gold Glove-caliber defense last season, but unless he's willing to take a one-year deal, he's probably moving on, too, with Minnesota a possible destination, as Kevin Youkilis gets his chance.
Lefthanded specialist Mike Myers will be asked to come back, but he'll have a menu of options. First baseman John Olerud will be 38 next season and batted .154 over his last 19 games. Reliever Matt Mantei had an ankle injury that cut short his season; the Sox figure to consider healthier options.
Pitcher David Wells has asked to be traded, and the Sox will probably try to accommodate him -- there's no clubhouse that could contain an unhappy Boomer -- though they're not going to dish off a 15-game winner for somebody else's dross. Manny Ramírez has asked to be traded, too, and the Sox' brass have told his agent they'll work together to find him a proper landing place, though at least one of the prospective general manager candidates, if not all of them, would probably find the job a lot more attractive with Ramírez still in the middle of the lineup.
The Sox are a team in transition, which is pretty much the way Epstein planned it, even if he hadn't counted himself among those who would be leaving. That's why Epstein didn't believe in handing out contracts longer than four years. He wanted the flexibility to turn over the roster, and for the first time in years, the Sox will be going to camp with a number of kids who could be difference-makers. Jonathan Papelbon proved his worthiness down the stretch. Youkilis appears ready to play every day. Manny Delcarmen flashed his potential, and Pedroia does nothing to dazzle scouts except play the game right and play it hard.
Coming sooner rather than later will be lefty Jon Lester and top prospect Hanley Ramírez, and former No. 1 pick David Murphy, the Baylor outfielder who looked as if he were going to be left behind, finished strong in Double A and is thriving in the Arizona Fall League.
The new general manager will have a chance to shape the rest of the decade for the Sox, which is why this hire is so important. Hometown boy Jim Bowden, described yesterday by one observer as the Ozzie Guillén of general managers, is equal parts big talker and big dreamer. Bowden won in Cincinnati on shoestring budgets and after being fired by the Reds, won his way back into the baseball fraternity by taking a job few wanted, the GM position in Washington that figured to evaporate as soon as the team was sold. A self-promoter? Sure. But this Barnum delivered, keeping the Nationals in contention until deep into September.
Wayne Krivsky, who grew up in New Canaan, Conn., and played baseball at Duke, is barely known outside the game, but in 29 years in the business, 18 with the Texas Rangers and the last 11 with the Minnesota Twins, there are few things Krivsky hasn't done in the game, be it at the negotiating table or with a radar gun in hand. Arbitration cases? Krivsky was doing those back when a player and the club were fighting over the difference between $35,000 and $60,000. Krivsky is 50, making him old enough to be passing out allowances to the new breed of GM, but the next person to offer a bad word about Krivsky will be the first. And sitting beside Terry Ryan for the last decade-plus isn't a bad way to further your education.
Dayton Moore may be the wild card in the first round of negotiations, but by all accounts he is a star in the making, the product of an Atlanta Braves player development system that may be second to none, as the 18 rookies on the Braves' big league roster this season would attest. Moore, 38, is smart and serious and with a background in talent evaluation that has always attracted Lucchino. The biggest question with Moore is whether the Sox will be able to wrest him away from the Braves, who may promise him that he will succeed John Schuerholz, who will be 65 next season.
And this was only the first wave of interviewees. There will be others, beginning with Jim Beattie today in Boston, and could involve any of the Gang of Four, especially Jed Hoyer, who sat in with Lucchino and Werner when they met with Manny Ramírez's agent Wednesday.
A team awaits its new architect. Spring training is just over three months away.
Kirk Champion, the minor league pitching coordinator for the White Sox, is a finalist for the Red Sox' bullpen coach opening. Champion had dinner last night with the Red Sox baseball operations staff in Indians Wells, Calif. Three in-house candidates are minor league coordinator Al Nipper, Triple A pitching coach Mike Griffin, and Gulf Coast manager Ralph Treuel.