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Cherington sounds like the ideal choice

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  October 25, 2011 03:04 PM

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The new guy sure sounds an awful lot like the old guy, doesn't he? And not just in terms of voice, cadence, inflection, or sense of humor, but what's most important for the Boston Red Sox going forward: organizational philosophy.

Three hours after the old guy -- and yes, that is meant entirely in the figurative sense when it comes to 38-year-old Theo Epstein -- had what sure came off like a coronation as the Chicago Cubs' president of baseball operations, officially ending his excellent but hardly flawless nine-year run as the Red Sox' general manager, his successor was introduced at Fenway Park.

And though Ben Cherington's tenure with the Red Sox dates to 1998, four years before Epstein arrived beneath Lucchino's wing via Brookline, Yale, Baltimore, and San Diego, his similarity to his friend and predecessor in all of the aforementioned ways was striking and reassuring all at once.

Cherington, who was hired by fellow Amherst alum Dan Duquette in 1998, is hardly unfamiliar to Red Sox fans, particularly those who have been known to bury their nose in a copy of Baseball America. But he kept a low profile during his brief stint as co-GM with Jed Hoyer in 2005, and so if today's festivity was your formal introduction to him, you had no choice but to come away impressed with the Red Sox' new GM.

Just as Epstein did three hours earlier in Chicago, he owned his press conference, presenting himself as prepared, focused, confident and informed, but with appealing asides of self-effacing humor, such as when he noted that, no, he does not own a gorilla suit, Epstein's famous disguise during his escape from Fenway during his 2005 hiatus. And anyone who begged his mom to buy the Sunday Globe as a kid so he could read the baseball notes is all right around here. Me, I stole it from my dad.

Cherington may not play guitar, but he hit all the right notes. He spoke of collaboration with the baseball operations staff, of hiring a manager willing to have tough conversations with players who flout the rules, of striving for a unified, diverse clubhouse (a hint at a pursuit of Yu Darvish?), and of having similar theories and principles to Epstein in roster building, whether it comes to finding well-rounded position players, developing a "core group of young players,'' and emphasizing player development.

It was impressive, and it struck me sometime in the middle of the press conference that the Red Sox are incredibly fortunate to be able to have it both ways here. They get a seamless transition to a well-rounded, dedicated executive that Epstein said today he began preparing to be his successor in 2010. And they also get a new voice and face of the organization after the humiliating September collapse and the aftermath.

I was skeptical that such change was necessary. In a perfect little Red Sox world, Lucchino and Epstein could co-exist, Terry Francona's personal issues wouldn't have emboldened a rudderless clubhouse that turned irresponsible, and the manager/GM tandem that led the Red Sox to their greatest run of prolonged success in most of our lifetimes would still be here. Watching Epstein win over the softball-tossing Chicago media today with his poise and familiar words and philosophies was a bit melancholy; it was the formal end of a rewarding era.

If you find your way to this corner of Boston.com more often than the occasional accident when you meant to click on the Tom and Gisele gallery, you're probably aware that I'm an unabashed admirer of the job Epstein did during his nine seasons as the general manager.

Of course he wasn't flawless. There have been too many burdensome long-term contracts lately, though in a couple of instances they were awarded to high-quality, proven players who faltered beyond anyone pessimist's worst expectation. And he constructed a 2011 team that at the brutal end felt like it was paying a 10-year-anniversary tribute to the miserable 2001 club.

But with the nine years considered in historical context, it's impossible not to come to the conclusion that he did one hell of a job running the team he rooted for as a boy. I disliked Julio Lugo, too, and dislike isn't a strong enough word when it comes to John Lackey, but there were many more good times during the Epstein Era than bad. I'll remember him well and wish him well, and that's what he deserves.

He was the general manager who found the supporting players -- the Ortizes, Muellers, Foulkes and Millars -- to support the Pedros and Mannys that Dan Duquette left behind, who delivered six playoff berths in nine years and two championships in four, who desired to collect the most information possible -- whether it was from sabermetricians or scouts -- before coming to a decision, and who lived up to his November 2002 vow to build a "player development machine." Other than the events that led to a pair of parades, the latter accomplishment may be his lasting legacy.

Watching the deftness with which Cherington handled the transition today, I'm now wondering whether an era really ended. I am -- well, not worried, but at least wary -- of what Lucchino's role in baseball matters going forward. His jousts with Epstein led to the GM's brief departure following the 2005 season, and I've always wondered if his daring swap of Hanley Ramirez and prospects for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell was as much an attempt to take the focus off the front-office follies and put it back on baseball as it was a move made solely for the ball club's benefit. (It ended up being a prime example of a win-win trade.)

He's extraordinarily accomplished and bright in his own right, but his lawyerly gifts for putting spin on any curious situation leaves even an occasional skeptic with the sense that there's an ulterior motive or double meaning to just about everything he says. So when he makes a prolonged and somewhat uncomfortable introduction of Cherington that notes he's a "team player'' who "eschews the spotlight and accolades,'' it's fair to wonder if those are taken as direct shots by the former protege now being celebrated at Wrigley. They have, after all, seemed to poke at each other recently with a duel of compliments that may or may not have been delivered with a hard backhand.

It was Lucchino who noted that Cherington was the member of the front office who fought to sign Adrian Beltre -- currently starring on the World Series stage -- to a one-year deal before the 2010 season. It's a mild upset that he didn't suggest that Cherington is the one who actually discovered that John Lackey needs Tommy John surgery, essentially putting the recurring villain-in-residence's sneering face out of sight and out of mind next season, and that he's so darned versatile that he'll perform the operation himself.

But there did not appear to be any puppet strings attached to Cherington today. While Lucchino was touting his attributes, Cherington actually went out of his way to acknowledge that he was a strong proponent of the signing of Carl Crawford, a perceived disaster one season into the deal. Kudos to him for both the honesty and the clever way of letting Crawford know he has his advocates in the organization after owner John Henry's too-candid comments on The Sports Hub recently.

It was a subtle bit of damage control, something you could see Epstein doing. It was also a reminder that new beginnings don't always mean an era has ended.

Epstein has found a sweet home in Chicago. And yet when all of the microphones were turned off, it felt like a good day for the Red Sox.

Never thought his farewell would feel that way, at least right up until today's second press conference, when his successor sounded so familiar, another savvy young baseball man more than ready to take advantage of a chance he deserves.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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