Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi was home in Worcester Friday, about to play catch with his kids on a tease of a winter day. But first he was doing something embarrassing that dads sometimes do: He was attempting to sing.
''I'm back without a trace," Ricciardi began over the phone. ''You should have changed those stupid locks. Now I'm back without a trace.
''Who sings it? Is it Gloria Gaynor?"
It is Gloria Gaynor, but the lyrics to the 1979 disco hit ''I Will Survive" are decidedly different. Ricciardi's point? Theo Epstein, 80 days after leaving Fenway Park sheathed in a gorilla suit, is back. The club intends to detail Epstein's return sometime this week.
''You weren't surprised, were you?" Ricciardi asked.
The answer would be no. In fact, conversations with a handful of general managers and agents indicate that Epstein never completely left, inasmuch as co-GMs Jed Hoyer and Ben Cherington regularly consulted with Epstein and operated this offseason much as he would have, with the exception being some tactics employed by president/CEO Larry Lucchino in the Johnny Damon negotiations.
Furthermore, the perception widely held within Red Sox Nation that the team's baseball operations department was rudderless is not an opinion shared by San Diego GM Kevin Towers, Oakland GM Billy Beane, Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro, Ricciardi, and prominent agent Scott Boras, all of whom have dealt with the Sox this offseason.
Rather, Hoyer and Cherington have come off as capable and creative executives in the mold of Epstein. Remember, Ricciardi said: ''These guys have done a lot of work to help with the success Theo had."
Beane, who dealt with the Sox at the winter meetings, called Hoyer and Cherington ''outstanding in our brief dealings. That shouldn't be any secret. Both are class acts and smart guys. It wasn't a major difference."
Boras worked with Hoyer on the Damon negotiations and with Hoyer and Cherington when the Sox made a brief but concerted run at pitcher Kevin Millwood.
''One of the things I found to be a very helpful part of the Red Sox is their availability and objectivity to ideas, Jed and Ben both," Boras said. ''We had many late nights. I think a lot of what Jed and Ben did, their approach, was largely because of the approach Theo and I took in the past. That working relationship was extended."
At times, Boras said, it did take longer to do business.
''With Theo, I knew he had the authority to the level of being able to do deals in one phone call," Boras said.
Efforts to reach Shapiro last week were unsuccessful, presumably because of the sensitivity of talks between the Sox and Indians centered on potential Damon successor Coco Crisp. But, in a telephone interview last month, Shapiro praised the Hoyer-Cherington operation for being ''well run, responsive, creative."
''I've been very impressed with their creativity and attention to detail," Shapiro said. ''I think that too many teams you deal with, out of fear or limited vision, have an inability to keep working to get a deal done that is mutually beneficial.
''In my dealings, they're responsive and open in an effort to find the way to make it work. You can work, and you can work productively, and they're working productively."
And, in almost all instances, Hoyer and Cherington were working in line with Epstein's philosophy.
Consider: Epstein, in his meeting with the media the day after the White Sox ended Boston's season in Game 3 of the American League Division Series, vaguely questioned the team's offensive decline over the closing six weeks of the season.
''We weren't the same offensive team in September/October that we were the first five months of the season," Epstein said. ''It's important to figure out why. Is it fatigue? Is it age?"
That statement indicated Epstein's intent to reshape the team. He wouldn't bring back Bill Mueller or Kevin Millar. He'd have a limit come the Damon negotiations and would thoroughly explore contingencies. He'd make the team better defensively, restock its bullpen in particular and its pitching depth in general and, if the right deal came along, add the top-of-the-rotation starter the Sox lacked last season.
Almost all of those things came to pass without Epstein present but with Hoyer and Cherington strongly considering his input. Had Epstein been in place all along, would he have done things exactly as the Sox have, specifically with regard to Damon and Edgar Renteria?
''I would say yes just knowing those guys share the same philosophies," Ricciardi said. ''There's a lot of uniformity running through those decisions."
Perhaps too much for Epstein not to have been regularly involved.
''I wouldn't doubt Theo was in the background the whole time, aware of what was going on," Towers said.
Added Ricciardi: ''There's no way these [three] guys didn't have conversations."
Ricciardi used his own career path as a means of backing up that statement. Ricciardi worked under Beane for years in Oakland before becoming Toronto's general manager. Similarly, Hoyer had worked immediately under Epstein for Hoyer's entire career in major league baseball.
''My first year in Toronto, I talked to Billy Beane every day," Ricciardi said. ''My second year, I talked to Billy Beane every day. My fifth year, I talked to him almost every day. It's not a matter of asking him for advice. That's where your comfort is."
Still, there must have been moves the Sox made this offseason that caught by surprise these general managers who know Epstein so well.
''No," said Towers, Epstein's boss during his formative years in baseball in the Padres organization. ''Though I was a little surprised to see Damon leave. Not that they walked away. But there's been more downtime between him leaving and them not replacing the center fielder.
''Theo wasn't afraid to walk away from a superstar, but he always had a counter move. You could see why it happened. Theo was one to counter within the next 48 hours. Boom, this is why."
Boras, in revisiting the Damon negotiations, said, ''The dialogue was good. There was nothing about the Damon decision that had to do with communication or one party not giving notice to the other."
Furthermore, Boras added, ''I don't think anybody made a decision they didn't want to make."
Epstein, according to a team source, would have made the same best offer to Damon: four years, $40 million. In fact, Epstein, on the rare occasions that he has spoken publicly, has commended Hoyer and Cherington and said he'd have made similar decisions.
However, even if Epstein would have offered Damon the same money, Boras hinted at a philosophical difference in how Epstein approached a big-ticket negotiation vs. how Lucchino/Hoyer/Cherington did.
''I felt Theo was very sensitive to players' needs and the letter, the first letter Johnny got, by Johnny's account, it upset him -- the three-year offer [for $27 million]," Boras said. ''To say that letter would have been done differently by someone else, I can't say.
''I just know in our negotiations [with Theo] there were always concerns about how to best transact this while making sure the player wasn't negatively affected by the club's desire to negotiate."
Translation: Boras believes Epstein would have gotten to his best number sooner and would have done everything possible to keep Damon feeling happy, informed, and wanted.
Boras went on to laud Hoyer and Cherington for their handling of the Millwood courtship. Boras and Millwood traveled to Boston the same day Damon was introduced as a Yankee. Despite the lingering sting, Hoyer and Cherington and Terry Francona met with Millwood and Boras. Millwood then left for home, while Boras, Cherington, and Hoyer worked into the early morning hours of Christmas Eve day. The Sox offered three years and more than $30 million but were blown away by Texas's stunning offer of five years and $60 million.
Boras said Millwood was pleased that Hoyer and Cherington included Francona.
''Because Tito was at the meeting, it was a relaxed conversation," Boras said. ''I felt they had a handle on how to deal with a stature player in a free agent recruiting process."
If anything, dealing with the Sox may have taken slightly more time. The Braves, for instance, apparently dealt most with adviser Bill Lajoie, who was the de facto GM at the winter meetings, where the Renteria deal was consummated. Craig Shipley, an assistant to Epstein before Epstein left, was an important contact at the winter meetings. Hoyer and Cherington became major players in mid-December. Towers even met with Lucchino over Thanksgiving to discuss possible deals.
''Although I may have talked to different people, the right hand always seemed to know what the left hand was doing," Towers said. ''They had 2 or 3 o'clock update meetings every afternoon. By the end of the day every day they were all of the same mind.
''It wasn't bad at all. But those guys got tired of hearing: 'How it is over there, Jed?' 'How is it, Ship?' It was business as usual. Everyone on the outside felt it was disarray. They felt tired of wasting time to shoot that down."
Despite the many voices in the room, the Sox landed Andy Marte (who replaced Hanley Ramirez as a top position-player prospect) and Beckett. Epstein, had he been the GM and had he felt comfortable with Beckett's medical reports, probably would have done that deal. Had he been the GM and not been comfortable with the medical reports, reason stands to suggest that he would have had more leverage to argue against the deal than those working in his absence.
Both Ricciardi and Towers, independent of seeing those medical reports, gave the Sox high marks on the Beckett deal.
''Getting somebody like Beckett, that's a tremendous addition," Tower said. ''They have a lot of depth with their pitching, which is a strength now. They've tried to create some playing time for guys like Kevin Youkilis. They want to blend younger players.
''That's what Theo's wanted to do all along.
''It's not Opening Day. I'm sure they've got their sights set on a free agent shortstop or a trade, and a center fielder as well. And they've got enough pitching depth to do [a deal]."
So, had Epstein been here all along, making the same decisions, would the team's offseason moves have received a notably better reception than they have?
''I think there's some truth to that," Towers said. ''The success Theo had there gained him a great deal of trust with the fan base."
''I would say probably yes, because of the credibility Theo has," Ricciardi said. ''I'll say this about Theo: He's always had guts. He's going to continue to have guts. What these two guys did in his place, whether he was informing them or not, took guts."
And now Epstein is set to reemerge after 11 weeks away, his title and exact job description to be announced.
''When I see Theo," Boras said, ''I'm going to tell him, 'You need an agent. If you're going to take a vacation, at least get paid for it.' "
The sad irony of that statement: The Sox did not permit Epstein to use an agent in his negotiations in October, leaving raw issues to be laid out between Epstein and Lucchino, a process that people close to Epstein believe was a plan doomed to fail.