Designated winner

He might hit; he might strike out. But Boston Red Sox leader Theo Epstein - lead-off batter in pro baseball's new lineup of number-crunching general managers - may carry the heaviest expectations for any team in sports.

It's just what the New Englanders escaping to City of Palms Park in Ft. Myers, Fla., have been waiting for. Not only have they packed the park for a spring-training baseball game on an ideal March day - 74 degrees with only an occasional cloud - but broad-shouldered Ellis Burks, back on the Red Sox roster after a dozen years playing elsewhere, has just launched a rocket into the palm trees beyond left field. The crowd leaps to its feet, applauding the towering home run, and perhaps thinking giddy thoughts about what Burks's bat could add to this season's lineup.

But not quite everyone lets loose their emotions. Seated behind home plate, amid scouts bearing radar guns, sits Theo Epstein, arms crossed, wearing the inscrutable look of a poker player.

Yet Theo (Mr. Epstein seems too formal even for those who don't know him) perhaps had more reason to cheer than anyone: As general manager (GM) of the Red Sox, he had hired Burks over the winter - just one more piece to a puzzle that, when solved, would mean the first World Series championship for the Red Sox since 1918. That is a year carved into the hearts of Sox fans along with 1946, 1967, 1975, and 1986 - all frustrating losses in the World Series. Together, they make for one of the most memorable records of Sisyphean futility in all of sports.

So perhaps it was the weight of Red Sox history that kept Epstein in his seat. By taking over in November 2002 as the youngest GM ever in baseball (at age 28 years, 11 months), Epstein shouldered the hopes of Boston fans, known as Red Sox Nation, as they seek to end 86 years in purgatory. Standing in the way are the New York Yankees, the mirror opposite of the long-suffering Sox, perennial world champions funded from the bottomless pockets of their owner, George Steinbrenner.

Epstein also has become the most visible specimen in a new breed of baseball executives who use statistical analysis to crunch baseball's hallowed numbers in new ways, trying to shine fresh light on a century-and-a-half-old game.

Billy Beane, GM of the Oakland Athletics, is the high priest of the movement, squeezing unexpected success (though no championships) from his low-budget, small-market team. Other acolytes include J.P. Ricciardi, GM of the Toronto Blue Jays, and 31-year-old Harvard graduate Paul DePodesta, the newly appointed GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But those franchises are rebuilding - no one expects 2004 championships. The special torture inflicted on the Sox, who opened this season with a loss Sunday, has been to have consistently good teams that are never quite good enough. Fans care little whether Epstein peers into a computer screen or crystal ball, just as long as he wins - now.

Theo wasn't always a sober-minded executive. His relationship with the Red Sox was much different back in 1986, when the team last reached the World Series. Then he could be just a fan.

"I was 12, and my twin brother and I were watching the [final game] in our living room" in Brookline, Mass., Epstein recalls, sitting in his office at the Ft. Myers ballpark. "The Red Sox were a strike away, an out away [from winning].... So we got up on the top of our couch against the wall and decided that, as the last ball settled into the glove [and the Red Sox won], we'd jump off the couch and be in midair, not attached to the earth. We were on that couch for about 40 minutes, and then the ball rolled through [first baseman Bill] Buckner's legs, [the Sox lost], and we collapsed to the ground. It was the most pathetic sight you could imagine."

Theo had arrived in the Boston area in 1978 at age 4 when his parents, Leslie and Ilene Epstein, moved their three children (Theo, twin brother Paul, and older sister Anya) to the suburb of Brookline. Though he was born in New York, and first put a bat to a plastic baseball in Riverside Park, he has no Yankees roots, Leslie Epstein is quick to point out: Both parents came from Brooklyn and were avid Dodgers fans until that team moved to L.A.

Epstein comes from a family of achievers. His grandfather Philip and great uncle Julius wrote Hollywood screenplays, including "Arsenic and Old Lace" and Oscar-winner "Casablanca." Leslie, a former Rhodes scholar, is a successful novelist and heads the creative writing program at Boston University. Anya writes TV scripts for shows like "Homicide: Life on the Street." Twin brother Paul is a soccer coach and guidance counselor at Brookline High School, a role the Epsteins say makes them proud.

Ilene Epstein says Theo set his direction in life early on. "When he was 8 or 9, he said if he didn't end up doing something in sports, he probably wasn't going to be a very happy person," she recalls. "When he was in high school, all the boys knew he kept all the stats and could give good advice.... But [even] in his very early years, in school reports and conferences with teachers, it was very clear that he had great leadership skills."

In high school, Theo and Paul played soccer and baseball. Theo was a pitcher until he hurt his arm throwing curveballs. "Yeah, which is basically code for I wasn't very good," Epstein says today with a grin. "But I did hurt my arm."

He had to decide whether to follow his father to Yale, or attend a smaller school like Williams, where Paul was headed. "I couldn't turn down Yale," Epstein says, even though "I would have had more fun going to Williams and playing [baseball]."

He majored in American studies which, he says, meant "writing papers about baseball and music and things that you like." He served as sports editor of the Yale Daily News and created a stir on campus by calling for the resignation of legendary football coach Carmen Cozza. "Yeah, that was my evil media incarnation," says Epstein, who now faces reporters on a daily basis. "That was bad.... I determined that [sportswriting] was a lonely, fruitless existence and moved on to other pursuits."

But Yale also gave him a connection to baseball. As a freshman, he sent his résumé to Yale alumnus Calvin Hill, a former pro football star who worked for the Baltimore Orioles. According to an interview in the Yale Daily News, Hill was impressed with Epstein because he reminded him of a young Bart Giamatti, the onetime Yale University president who later became commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Epstein won a series of three summer internships with the Orioles.

"It was clear from the first day I met him, which was in 1992, that we were seeing an exceptional mind," says Charles Steinberg, who was director of public affairs for the Orioles and now is a vice president for the Red Sox. "There was no doubt this was one of the brightest people I'd encountered in my then 17 years in baseball.... He had a command of English and a lucid oral presentation that were remarkable for an 18-year-old or for someone of any age.... [H]e was going to go all the way, if the good Lord was willing."

After college, Epstein followed Steinberg and executive Larry Lucchino to the San Diego Padres. There, he earned a law degree at night while rising to become director of baseball operations. Then, in early 2002, new owners bought the Red Sox and invited Mr. Lucchino to become president and CEO of the team. He quickly asked Epstein to come along as assistant GM. When the new owners jettisoned GM Dan Duquette later that year, Epstein rooted for the Sox to hire Beane away from Oakland, Leslie Epstein says.

"When Billy Beane didn't get it, we had our suspicions that they would turn to Theo," the senior Epstein says. "So it was not like a bolt from the blue."

Indeed, no wail of protest arose from the rabid Boston sports press. "Baseball being the industry it is, it's kind of a tight-knit group," says Dave Wallace, who was interim GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers at the time and now serves as the Red Sox pitching coach. "It was quite apparent that he was among the top young executives in the game. That was common knowledge."

"Everyone was making so much of him being young," Leslie Epstein says. "I said, 'What's all the fuss about? When Alexander the Great was Theo's age, he was already general manager of the world.' "

The callow GM wasted no time, beginning by bringing in unheralded players he felt were undervalued. Third baseman Bill Mueller had hit only .266 with the Chicago Cubs in 2002, but Epstein figured the switch-hitter was perfect for Boston's Fenway Park, where he'd tattoo the short left-field wall from both sides of the plate. He was right. Last year Mueller hit .342 at Fenway and .326 overall to win the American League batting championship. Epstein also brought in Minnesota Twins castoff David Ortiz, who was named the best designated hitter in the league in 2003 and finished fifth in the balloting for the league's Most Valuable Player.

Epstein's "done an amazing job," says Don Orsillo, now in his fourth year as the team's principal play-by-play announcer. "This is a guy who sort of took some diamonds out of the rough and made some incredible stories last year.... It speaks for how well prepared he was for this job."

Mystifying the local press, Epstein also pursued Kevin Millar, a little-known player for the Florida Marlins. The reason wasn't just batting statistics, Steinberg says. "What Millar brought was so much sunlight into the clubhouse, and David Ortiz the same way," he says, calling them "influential personalities that opened the clubhouse and made happiness, fun, smiling part of the culture. Key, key elements."

In all, Boston led the major leagues in nearly every offensive category last season, including batting average, hits, runs scored, and slugging percentage. But the team finished second in their division to the Yankees for the sixth consecutive year. Still, the Sox made the playoffs for the first time since 1999. After beating Oakland in a tight five-game series, they faced the Yankees. With Boston leading the final game with five outs to go, Manager Grady Little decided to leave tiring ace Pedro Martinez in the game - and added another memorable moment of failure to Red Sox history when the New Yorkers rallied to win the World Series bid.

Once more, Charlie Brown had had the football snatched away. Even the stoic Epstein needed to vent a little."We had to set a rule to limit how miserable we could be," he says. "I was sitting around with the staff, and we decided to have a 24-hour rule where we could dissect the game and go over it pitch by pitch and do 'intelligent' things like scream 'five more outs!' and then we'd move on." It didn't work. "We actually had to extend that to make a 36-hour rule. But then after that we were good, and we didn't lament the loss any longer.... We really used it to motivate us to work harder in the off-season."

Epstein turned to shoring up the pitching staff and making bigger moves. He wooed Curt Schilling, one of the top pitchers in the game, away from the Arizona Diamondbacks, impressing Schilling with his persuasive arguments and his passion, which included spending Thanksgiving dinner with Schilling and his family. In December, he signed Oakland pitcher Keith Foulke, one of baseball's top closers. "I spent a little time with him when I went up to Boston, and, you know, I talked to him about the game and just about life in general," Foulke says in a locker-room interview. "I like how he does things, you know. He's a smart guy, and he knows the game."

But the biggest news of the winter was the one that got away. After endless hours of negotiation, Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez, generally considered the best player in baseball and also the highest paid, had a handshake agreement with Epstein to join Boston until the player's union ruled that he could not take a salary cut. The Yankees, with no such qualms about money, then signed A-Rod.

Score one for what Sox president Lucchino (but not Epstein) calls "The Evil Empire." Months later, Epstein can take his usual coolly analytical approach to the situation. "When I saw A-Rod in a Yankees uniform" in spring training, he says, "I was just reminded of how good they are, how smart they are, and how rich they are."

That's why he looks for every advantage. "I tell our staff," he says, "if you can work harder and find one thing that 29 other clubs don't find, that could be the difference between us being a playoff team and having a chance to win the World Series, and we're all happy, or not being a playoff team, and we're all miserable for at least 12 more months."

Some observers say this amounts to a revolutionary approach to the business side of baseball. They point to the Red Sox hiring of Bill James, author of the annual Baseball Abstract and the man who coined the term "sabermetrics" to describe an approach that looks at obscure statistics like OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), RC (runs created), and PF (park factor, a numerical value for whether a ballpark favors hitters or pitchers). Sabermetrics is named after a group of serious fans who love to use statistics to analyze the game, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). "I remember reading the Abstract and thinking, ... 'after reading one book I've changed the way I look at the game on the field,' " Epstein told The New Yorker last year.

"Underpinning this whole revolution is the fact that there is, strange to say, new baseball knowledge," says Michael Lewis, author of "Moneyball: the Art of Winning an Unfair Game." "You can create it, and if you create it, you have an advantage. And the Red Sox are extremely aggressive in trying to create it.... By that I mean insights into the game that enable you to compete more effectively."

But in person Epstein plays down his reliance on sabermetric stats, saying that they're only one lens he uses to look at talent.

He isn't glued to a computer screen, Orsillo says. "You see him around the clubhouse a lot. I think one of the things that [former GM Duquette] did not do well, perhaps, was communicate with the players. I've been really impressed with how Epstein is sort of front and center, sitting in the dugout, available, and not hidden in an office someplace."

While Epstein commissions secret studies from Mr. James, he also listens to advice from Bill Lajoie, a former GM of the Detroit Tigers with 49 years in professional baseball. "One of the great things about baseball is that no one has all the answers, and there are certain things you can't know until you've been around the game for four or five decades," Epstein says. "Branch Rickey said, 'There's no such thing as a good scout under the age of 70.' "

"That's smart on Theo's part," says Wallace, who has put in more than 30 years as a player, coach, and executive. "This new way of technology and information is wonderful, but there's also the old-school guys who have their way of doing things. You combine those ... that's what it takes to be a successful general manager today."

Beyond the debate over objective versus subjective data, what Epstein brings is "a skeptical, bright, rational mind that's been given a general education [enabling him] to sort through arguments and see which make sense and which don't," Lewis says. "He's very interested in open discussion. He doesn't care who's telling him."

Not that Theo won't do a little SABR-rattling if given a chance. "It's essential to stay ahead of the curve," he says of using new techniques, noting that 10 years ago finding undervalued players "was like shooting fish in a barrel."

Now, other teams have wised up, even if few admit to using sabermetrics. The easy deals are over. But if you innovate - "and we spend a lot of time and money on research and development - today's innovation is tomorrow's competitive advantage," he says.

Much more can be learned, he says, estimating that "maybe 2 percent of the game has really been quantified effectively. There's so much out there that hasn't been." Topping his wish list are better ways to assess defensive play and to prevent injuries. But he knows that his run with the Red Sox will depend on his performance. "I've made a lot of mistakes," he readily concedes. He let A-Rod escape to the Yankees, bruising the ego of his own All-Star shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra, in the process. Some of his pick-ups - pitchers Scott Sauerbeck, Jeff Suppan, and Ramiro Mendoza, for example - have been busts. And he acknowledges he's had to be Machiavellian at times, releasing players who have given their all to the team but need to be replaced by a more talented player at a better price.

Meanwhile, the contracts for many of the team's biggest stars - Martinez, Derrick Lowe, Jason Varitek, Garciaparra, and Ortiz - all expire this year. Martinez created a flap on opening day Sunday when he left the park early, possibly signaling his displeasure with management. Theo's decisions about which players to keep and at what price will set the course of the franchise for years to come.

If Theo continues to succeed, the trickle of young Ivy Leaguers into baseball front offices may turn into a torrent. But don't count on easily cloning him, Steinberg warns. "He's one of the most extraordinary minds in the game, and I don't think his qualities are formulaic," he says. "He's most unusual."

Epstein remains media-phobic, though he's always willing to talk about the team. What he'd like to do, Steinberg surmises, is earn his accolades by winning. Theo turned down a request to appear on "The Tonight Show" the week he was named GM, Steinberg says, even though Massachusetts native Jay Leno is a big Red Sox fan.

"You would have been exploiting [Theo's] age without the associated achievement, and that's superficial," Steinberg says. "Now, if he's the youngest to ever win a world championship, I hope he'll do Leno, Letterman, and the rest, because [he'll have] achieved something that no one else has ever achieved."

And should the winning World Series out plop into a Red Sox glove in October, fans may look to see if Theo has climbed up on something and is finally taking his leap of joy.

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