Boston bids kid hello

Posted: Tuesday, December 03, 2002

The kid was everywhere, always asking questions.

When he was on the public relations staff of the San Diego Padres, he'd corner Tony Gwynn and pick his brain about players and game situations.

The kid did that with everyone who could teach him something about baseball.

Then when Gwynn sat down with the Padres to talk about his last contract a few years ago, there was the kid again, in the same room with owner John Moores and president Larry Lucchino.

''I'm not going to lie,'' Gwynn says. ''I thought, 'What the heck is he doing here? Why is he in here on this?' After I left that meeting, it dawned on me that his goal was to someday be a general manager. So it made sense for him to be there.''

Players and fans will keep wondering about Theo Epstein, who last week became the Boston Red Sox general manager at age 28 -- the youngest GM in baseball history.

''Players are going to question him and challenge him,'' Gwynn says. '''How much baseball knowledge do you have? Who are you? You've never done this.' He's going to hear all the negative stuff that there is to hear. He's going to have to be thick-skinned.

''Boston is a tough sports town and he will be scrutinized more than any other general manager in baseball.''

Epstein has already heard all the jokes about his age and his own father's comment that, as dizzying as the new job might be, ''At Theo's age, Alexander the Great was already general manager of the world.''

Lucchino, who became the Red Sox president and CEO when John W. Henry bought the team last winter, mentored Epstein's development at San Diego and Baltimore and calls him ''a gifted person'' who will be surrounded by experienced people.

Epstein's first move, the day after taking over, was to hire 68-year-old former Detroit GM Bill Lajoie as his special assistant.

In Boston, The Kid has meant only one person for more than six decades -- Ted Williams. Now, less than six months after Williams died, the Hub is welcoming the new Kid, a clean-cut Yale graduate who grew up a mile from Fenway Park. The Red Sox, he says, ''are very much in my blood.''

He thinks like Boston fans, knows how much they yearn for a World Series championship after 84 years of futility, and speaks their language, as he showed in giving his support to manager Grady Little: ''He is the manager of this nine.''

Epstein set the bar high for himself when he boldly declared that the Red Sox would win a World Series. He didn't say when, but he doesn't come across as someone who is looking ahead too many years. He rose quickly and clearly expects the Red Sox to do the same.

Cynics might have been suspicious that his appointment was based on family ties, maybe family money. They would have been wrong. Epstein comes from a family of writers and teachers, not corporate bigwigs or baseball insiders.

Sometimes what you know matters more than who you know.

Epstein's strong suits seem to be brains, organization, imagination and an inclination to work hard -- traits he inherited or learned early on.

His father, Leslie, heads the creative writing department at Boston University. Epstein's sister, Anya, writes screenplays and TV scripts. His twin brother, Paul, coaches girls soccer at Brookline High and is a guidance counselor and social worker at the school.

His grandfather, Phillip, collaborated with twin brother Julius to write the screenplay for ''Casablanca.'' Their Oscar is in the den of Epstein's parents' home.

''Nothing would ever trump that,'' Epstein says. ''But I think we can make room for a World Series trophy.''

Epstein, who was the sports editor of the Yale Daily News and manager of the school's hockey team, got his start in baseball as a summer intern in the PR department of the Baltimore Orioles in 1992. He impressed people there, and kept impressing them when he followed Lucchino to San Diego in 1995.

At Lucchino's urging, he went to the San Diego Law School while working for the Padres. He skipped a lot of classes but earned his degree and passed the bar exam on his first attempt.

Now, after 12 seasons learning the game from different vantage points -- he scouted 200 games a year and operated the radar gun to measure pitchers' velocity for three years -- Epstein is in the position that seems to have been part of his plan all along.

Brains and talent aside, though, Epstein is still at the mercy of the Red Sox's record.

''All the brains in the world do not mean a thing in baseball if you don't win,'' Gwynn says. ''He will ultimately be judged by W's and L's, just like everyone else. If they get to the World Series, he'll look good. If they don't, well, a 28-year-old general manager, what did you expect?''

Steve Wilstein is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org



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