At The Ballyard ... with Steve Weissman

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Oops! Theo's Gone, and Boston Has a Problem

Well what do you know! Turns out yesterday’s reports that Theo Epstein was remaining as Red Sox GM had it wrong, as a team news release last evening stated that the primary architect of last year’s championship “has declined the club’s offer to extend his contract for future years and thus will step down from his post.” Whether the issue was money (seems not) or independence and control (seems so), Epstein’s departure is a blow to the Red Sox and its fan base, and has me again wondering if we yet will see the kind of organizational rip-and-replace the team’s owners have undertaken in the past (see my blog entry on the subject).

In some ways, such a bottom-to-top renovation has already begun, as team doctor Bill Morgan and physical therapist Chris Correnti both were surprisingly and abruptly let go. And now, Epstein has decided not to stay on, assistant GM Josh Byrnes – Epstein’s logical heir apparent – has left to assume the top job in Arizona, and 71-year-old special assistant Bill Lajoie resigned immediately after Epstein made his intentions known. So the environment is especially ripe for John Henry, Larry Lucchino, and the rest of the brain trust to do as they like without causing further ado, and even point to the sudden talent vacuum as the reason to do so.

But what could be the rationale for engineering such dramatic changes? Surely they could have kept Theo if they really wanted to, or dangled his job in front of Byrnes if they preferred him over Epstein. So just what the heck is going on here?

The Reason for the Season
The “new” Sox owners have been warmly embraced by Sox followers almost since the day they arrived, and they have done much good for the team and the ballpark in that time. But my theory is that this is also the root of the reason for the recent power play.

As newcomers taking over from a decades-old ownership lineage, Henry, Lucchino et al. to date have wanted to retain and maximize the community acceptance they received. And what could have played better than hiring a local kid to be GM? Especially since that kid was created by the very people who hired him!

But winning the World Series may have changed things irrevocably. Theo no doubt was left thinking – perhaps correctly, perhaps not – that he deserved more autonomy, and ownership may have been left feeling more free to do as they like, whether that’s jettisoning player-favorite medical staff, buying up properties in the neighborhood, or installing baseball executives that are more compliant than Epstein may have turned out to be.

Whatever happens, the club has several immediate problems to solve in that the general managers’ meeting opens in California next week and they’ve got no one in the official role, there are Sox free agents to be re-signed and others to be negotiated with, there is Manny either to deal with or to be dealt, and there is a public relations mess to be cleaned up. Is this the sort of situation San Diego GM Kevin Towers – who was elevated to that post by Lucchino in the latter’s Padre days – wants to step into? For all we know, that step was already a foregone conclusion, and thus enabled Lucchino to allow/push Theo to move on. Either way, Red Sox fans now clearly have a problem, for our man of the people has just been deposed, and uncertainty now rules the day.

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