The Babe Is 28-year-old Theo Epstein--the youngest G.M. in history--ready for one of baseball's most scrutinized jobs, running the Red Sox? He'd better be

December 23, 2002

Nine days into the job, he sits in his cluttered second-floor
office at Fenway Park, sifting through a sea of spreadsheets and
attempting, out of politeness to his guest, to ignore the
regular bleating of his telephone and the insistent pings of
instant messages on his computer. "My life changed
instantaneously," says Theo Epstein, Boston's freshly minted
28-year-old general manager. "Having been an assistant G.M.,
having been in the room when trades were done and contracts were
negotiated, it was easy to anticipate what it might be like as
the G.M., when my voice was the final voice. It's much more
difficult to anticipate: What will it be like when I'm no longer
anonymous? What will it be like when my free time is all of a
sudden nonexistent?"

Like this: Epstein has been working 16-hour days, rarely leaving
Fenway before midnight. He has cheerfully, if wearily, complied
with the scores of interview requests spurred by the novelty of
his being the youngest G.M. in baseball history, and a Beantown
native to boot. He has become the subject of instant hagiography
across New England, his family history and childhood in Brookline
tirelessly mined for quirky detail. (Did you know that his
grandfather Philip and great-uncle Julius cowrote the screenplay
for Casablanca?) He has pleaded with his father, Leslie, to "stop
telling spanking stories," but it was tough for reporters to
resist asking for comments, especially when Leslie delivered such
sound bites as, "At Theo's age Alexander the Great was already
general manager of the world."

The result is that Epstein has witnessed the immediate and
essentially complete fusion of his private and public selves; he
has become the common property of Red Sox Nation. "The hard
part," he says, "has been finding time for baseball."

This afternoon the baseball talk in Epstein's office revolves
around a National League player rumored to be on the block.
Epstein is scrolling through a half-dozen scouting reports,
poring over the page with the player's record in the Stats, Inc.
handbook--the manual of sabermetricians (named for the Society
for American Baseball Research) that is never far from Epstein's
right hand--and highlighting lines on the thick statistical
printouts that indicate why this player, whose name Epstein does
not want to mention publicly, is such an attractive proposition.
"Plus-plus walk rate, plus-plus isolated power," he says.

This is the vocabulary of the new-school G.M.; Epstein, like the
Oakland Athletics' Billy Beane, 40, and the Toronto Blue Jays'
J.P. Ricciardi, 43 (both of whom passed up the Boston job before
it fell to Epstein), is a true believer in the value of
statistical evaluation. All three subscribe to the notion that
crunching minor league numbers is as likely to unearth a prospect
as a scout's keen eye. But these front-office stat geeks--as it
has become de rigueur to dub them--discount traditional numbers
like batting average, RBIs and stolen bases, instead prizing
on-base and slugging percentages as more reliable indicators of a
hitter's ability to generate runs and as signals of potential
breakout players.

"I'm still kicking myself in the pants," San Diego Padres general
manager Kevin Towers says of the recommendation he failed to act
on two years ago when Epstein, then director of baseball
operations for San Diego, urged him to claim shortstop David
Eckstein off waivers. "I told Theo he was too little, but Theo
said no, look at his numbers, he's an on-base machine." Last
season Eckstein hit .293 with a .363 OBP for the world champion
Anaheim Angels and finished 11th in the American League MVP race.

Epstein's Red Sox have developed a series of metrics that further
adjust those statistics by factoring in such things as a player's
age, home-ballpark configuration, minor league region and level,
and so on. It's not groundbreaking thinking, but for a franchise
characterized of late mostly by its willingness to just throw
piles of cash at underperforming free agents--running up a $108
million payroll, the second highest in baseball--it's positively
radical. "Baseball operations is in a transition here," says Red
Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, who last month hired statistical svengali
Bill James as a senior adviser. "We will never desert the
traditional approaches, but we will mix them into an amalgam that
has more modern, quantitative, sabermetric approaches. Undeniably
part of the appeal of Theo was to move in that direction."

Epstein's speedy arrival at the G.M.'s desk is a product of his
single-minded desire for advancement. While attending Yale as an
undergrad in the early 1990s he worked summers in the Orioles'
p.r. department, and when Lucchino, Baltimore's president and
CEO, moved to the Padres in '95, Epstein followed him after his
graduation that year. In '99 he was promoted to director of
baseball operations, and last spring he was named assistant G.M.
in Boston. Though he was a successful student at Yale, Epstein
didn't knock himself out. "He was an American Studies major,
which was the athletes' major, kind of a joke," says his older
sister, Anya, also a Yale grad. "He was remarkably unconcerned
about his grades." But Epstein threw himself into his baseball
jobs. During his first summer internship with the Orioles,
Epstein, who knew no one in Baltimore, hatched the idea of a
Negro leagues players' reunion; organized almost solely by him,
it became a main event at the '93 All-Star Game.

Urged by Towers and Lucchino to round out his resume with a law
degree, Epstein enrolled at the University of San Diego, grinding
out credits despite missing virtually all of his lectures.
"Supposedly he was going to law school, but he was putting in 70
hours a week with the Padres," says San Diego assistant G.M. Fred
Uhlman Jr. "There was always a time around the end of the
semester when he would disappear for 10 days to study. And of
course he passed the bar on his first try." It still rankles
Epstein that because he was a part-time employee, he was earning
only $8.75 an hour despite performing the duties of the director
of baseball operations; the Pad Squad cheerleaders, he notes,
made $12 an hour. He was most productive late at night at
Qualcomm Stadium, and when he did go home, Epstein would play his
guitar to unwind, then call Uhlman at all hours of the night,
strumming the folk-rock songs he'd composed.

Along the way he cultivated a conservative, frugal approach to
personnel moves, one well-suited to the cost-cutting mandate
imposed by John Henry's ownership group, which took over the Red
Sox last February. "Most approaches today are risk-averse,"
Epstein says. "Resources are finite, and any one mistake leaves
you shorthanded. You can have the best scouts writing the best
reports; you can have Bill James and the best objective analysis,
but even when you find the right deal, you cannot make the odds
80--20 in your favor. There's inherent risk in injuries and
randomness. So maybe you change the odds from 50--50 to 55--45.
Over time, the trend will favor you."

Epstein's first three moves since taking over in Boston on Nov.
25 fit the pattern of minimal risk with a good chance of at least
a modest return. On Nov. 27 he claimed righthander Ryan Rupe off
waivers from Tampa Bay to bolster the Red Sox bullpen; despite a
5--10 record and 5.60 ERA last season with the Devil Rays, Rupe
had a 2.7to1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 6.7 K's per nine
innings, above-average totals in areas that are strong indicators
of future performance.

Last Thursday, on the eve of the winter meetings, Epstein dealt
two minor leaguers to Cincinnati for second baseman Todd Walker,
who will replace Rey Sanchez, a .286 hitter with a subpar .318
on-base percentage and only 16 extra-base hits last year. In
Walker, Epstein obtained a superior OBP (.353) and a two-hole
lefthanded hitter who will aim his opposite-field power stroke
(11 home runs among 56 extra-base hits) at the inviting Green
Monster in left.

Then on Sunday, Epstein acquired Jeremy Giambi from the
Philadelphia Phillies for mid-level pitching prospect Josh
Hancock. A power-hitting lefty with extraordinary plate
discipline--4.52 pitches per at bat and one walk every five plate
appearances last season--Giambi gives Boston a first baseman with
pop, and his .414 OBP dramatically bests the .348 of incumbent
Brian Daubach.

None of those moves rocked the Hub as did, say, the eight-year,
$160 million contract former G.M. Dan Duquette bestowed on
outfielder Manny Ramirez two years ago, but blockbusters aren't
Epstein's style.

Boston's new G.M. will face unique challenges, because his age
and relative inexperience will breed resentment among some
executives. "You're always going to have people in the business
who are jealous," Towers says. "Boston is one of the more
attractive jobs in the game, and Theo's 28 and he's never run
anything." Although Epstein has moved in executive circles, he
does not possess a playing, coaching or scouting background, a
deficiency that could hurt him.

"The obstacle Theo will have to overcome is that he's not in the
good-ole'-boy network," Ricciardi says. "There's sometimes the
idea in baseball that if you didn't play or manage in the bigs,
you don't know what a big league guy has to be." Epstein's
thorough knowledge of the personnel in other organizations,
however--with San Diego, he annually produced depth charts of
each club's 40-man roster and its top minor league
prospects--will give him credibility at the bargaining table.

Finally, Epstein must disabuse doubters of the notion, which has
acquired some currency, that he's a puppet of Lucchino,
well-known as one of the game's most hands-on chief executives
and the man responsible for each of Epstein's moves up the
ladder, from Baltimore to San Diego to Boston. "They're dead
wrong," Epstein says of those who assume he'll take his marching
orders from Lucchino. "We have very healthy debates. On baseball
issues we disagree more often than we agree. I don't think he
exercises any more control over me than most presidents do over
their G.M.'s."

After Epstein's hiring there was disbelief, followed by
skepticism and, hard on its heels, envy. Twenty-eight is no age
to take over the Boston Red Sox, not even if the kid grew up a
mile from Fenway, game always on the tube. Not when he
leapfrogged a crowd of baseball lifers, front-office men who've
been doing deals since he was in diapers. And not in a city thick
with amateur aspirants to the post, shouting in the Southie bars
and on WEEI's phone lines how they could do it better. Yet here
is Epstein, an overachiever or a born winner, take your pick.

"No, I'm neither of those things," he says. "The best way I can
explain it--and I'm not trying to be immodest, because I don't
think this is anything special--but I remember going down to
Baltimore on spring break in February of my freshman year, to
interview for a p.r. internship with the Orioles. It was 9:15 in
the morning, and I remember finding a bathroom somewhere, tossing
some water on my face to prepare myself, looking in the mirror
and saying, This might be your one chance to break into baseball.
Don't f---it up.

"That's being honest. This was very, very important to me. It's
really hard to break into a front office, and I knew I wanted to
work in baseball for the rest of my life."

So now Theo Epstein, the youngest general manager in baseball, is
working on becoming the oldest.

B/W ILLUSTRATION: O'MAHONEY/PATRIOT LEDGER COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER GREGOIRE HARD-HAT ZONE Epstein has his work cut out for him in a city where the fans and the press (opposite) won't be gentle. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON SNAP DECISION The new G.M. must weigh the value of Garciaparra, one of four key players who will be free agents in 2004.

THEO'S to-do list

Boston's new G.M. has already been hard at work, swinging three
trades in his first three weeks on the job and taking three
players in Monday's Rule 5 draft of minor leaguers. But he has
more pressing tasks ahead.

--Decide about Pedro. The Red Sox have a $17.5 million option on
Pedro Martinez for the 2004 season. The righthander, 87--24 with
a 2.27 ERA in five seasons with Boston, is worth the price--if
he's healthy. Shoulder and rib cage muscle injuries have landed
him on the DL four times since '99.

--Resolve the impending free agency crisis. In addition to
Martinez, shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, righthander Derek Lowe and
catcher Jason Varitek will be free agents after the 2004 season.
Operating under budget constraints, the new general manager might
prefer the compensation that one or two of those players could
bring in a trade. According to an executive from another team,
Epstein offered Lowe to the Reds for outfielder Adam Dunn before
the winter meetings but was turned down; he'd still like to
acquire a power hitter.

--Round out the bullpen. Last year's 40-save man, Ugueth Urbina
(and his $6.7 million contract), was not offered salary
arbitration and won't be back, and Epstein is comfortable with a
closer by committee, headed by hard-throwing lefty Alan Embree
(2.03 ERA, 81 strikeouts in 62 innings). Even so, one or two more
reliable arms are needed to complement Willie Banks, Bob Howry
and Ryan Rupe.

--Restock the farm. Boston's minor league system was given a
grade of D by Baseball America last month. No Red Sox first-round
selection since 1994 (when Garciaparra was taken with the 12th
pick) has reached the majors, and only one (2000 pick Phil
Dumatrait, a Class A starter last season) is still with the
organization. Expect Boston to go for college players--Epstein's
preference--in the June draft and implement an organizationwide
instructional philosophy stressing plate discipline for hitters
and high strike percentage for pitchers.

"Some people will be jealous," says Towers. "Boston's a great
job, and Theo's 28 and has never run anything."

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