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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Change of heart

Passion returns but confusion remains at the top of the order

Do they really think they've solved their little internal problem here?

The Red Sox issued a press release just before 7:30 last night announcing that Theo Epstein is coming back. Happy day, happy day. The white knight is riding back to Fenway on his high horse. According to the press release, the man who resigned Oct. 31 will have another full-time job with the club's baseball operations department, ''details of which will be announced next week."

Details of which will be announced next week?

That's code for, ''We have no idea where he'll rank on our flow chart, but we wanted to make this announcement before anybody wrote that we are being held hostage by Theo and that we are weak and don't know what we are doing."

Here's an inside look at how it works over at Fenway these days. The Red Sox are afraid of what is written about them in the newspapers and what is said about them on WEEI. That's why we got this vague, preemptive strike just after the dinner hour last night. Nothing has changed since Theo left and no one knows how the new arrangement is going to work, but owner John W. Henry figured it was better to put out a press

release saying ''all is well" than to read more speculation about weakness at the top.

Embarrassing. The people in baseball operations were working hard as usual late last night, trying to plug the team's holes in center field and shortstop, when Epstein called them and told them there was going to be an announcement that he's coming back next week. No one knew quite what to say to their former boss. There's been no discussion about who will report to whom. No one knows how this is going to work, and Theo has burned some bridges with his own people. But John W. Henry loves him. So he gets to come back. The only certainty is that Theo will report to CEO Larry Lucchino, according to Henry.

Henry and Lucchino were in Phoenix yesterday at the owners' meetings. I spoke with Henry late in the afternoon before he boarded a jet to fly home to Boston. I told him the same thing I had told him in December. I thought it looked as if he could not make a decision. I thought he should either fire Lucchino or tell Epstein to get lost. Nobody was going to buy the idea of Theo walking back into the same situation he walked away from in October. Why was Theo still hanging around, talking to co-GMs Ben Cherington and Jed Hoyer? Why was the light still on if there was so much friction between Epstein and Lucchino?

''We're all pretty much on the same page," said Henry. ''I don't see anything odd about our GMs speaking to the previous GM who is working with the club to perhaps return. I don't think there's anything strange about taking his advice. I don't see how his helping us is holding us hostage. How does he hold us hostage? . . . We're about to reach a resolution."

Little did I know that conversation would lead to a quick resolution. The Red Sox limited partners (some of whom don't like Lucchino) will be meeting with Henry and Co. today and tomorrow at Fenway, and the owner said he did not want to make any announcement about Epstein until after those meetings. But he changed his mind sometime shortly after our conversation. At 7:13 p.m., I got an e-mail from Henry that read, ''I want to give you a heads up that we are going to make an announcement tonight."

Ten minutes later, the strange statement was released to all media while Henry was (presumably) still in the sky between Phoenix and Boston.

In our earlier conversation, Henry assured me that no one was going to be fired. He said Epstein would not return in a higher position than he had before. He also said no announcement would be made until after a meeting with the limited partners, but obviously he changed his mind. The press release was drawn up while Theo told his stunned once and future co-workers that he was coming back . . .

. . . with a job description to be named later . . .

So exactly what has changed since Theo quit Oct. 31?

Far as we know, nothing. Lucchino is still in power. Epstein will still report to the piñata CEO.

''There was more than one issue," Henry said before the announcement. ''There are issues between Theo and I that no one ever talks about. Everybody takes as fact things that are said as speculation. Everybody wants to blame Larry. I don't understand it. I get criticized for sticking by Larry."

And how is the Larry-Theo relationship?

''Good," said Henry. ''They've been able to work together. That's been happening."

(For the record, this 17 percent cartel correspondent has not spoken with Lucchino, Epstein, or Dr. Charles Steinberg since before Christmas.)

If you are a Red Sox fan, you love Theo Epstein. He was just about the greatest thing that happened to the franchise. A brilliant young man who grew up a mile from Fenway and spent much of his youth in the bleachers, Theo became general manager of the Sox when he was only 28 years old and delivered the franchise's first World Series victory in 86 years.

In Theo You Trust, just as you worship at the altar of Bill Belichick. These men are above criticism and woe is the loner who'll question anything they do.

That said, can anybody explain how Theo's been helping the Red Sox with his behavior since Halloween? For 2 1/2 months, the situation has been ridiculous. Watching Theo leave on Halloween because of his feud with Lucchino (and/or the direction of the ball club) was traumatic for Sox fans. It was hard to swallow, but in the end most folks had to concede that it was Theo's decision to make. We had to respect an accomplished young professional who could walk out on his dream job (not to mention $4.5 million over three years) over general principle or issues of trust. And so Theo was glorified in departure -- like Elliot Richardson, who resigned as Richard Nixon's attorney general rather than carry out orders to fire an honest special prosecutor.

Unfortunately, there wasn't much honor or glory in Theo's comportment after he left Fenway in that gorilla suit Oct. 31. Rather, he undermined the credibility of the entire Boston front office by straddling the fence regarding his place in the organization. He repeatedly refused offers to return, but would not rule out coming back. He revealed himself to be every bit the cutthroat politician Lucchino is. He's been at best, immature and at worst, duplicitous.

With his silence and refusal to take himself off the map of Red Sox Nation, Epstein allowed himself to be put in a no-lose situation -- at the expense of everyone else currently toiling in baseball operations at Yawkey Way. Through his unofficial spokesman from ESPN (the inimitable Gammons), we heard Theo was behind deals the Sox made. He got credit for the good transactions, whether he deserved it or not, but would never be blamed if any failed.

Like a character from Camelot, Theo remained forever young, forever brilliant, forever the man who brought a championship to Boston. And as long as he operated in the shadows, or allowed us to believe he was still involved, he couldn't lose. This dynamic made Theo less than popular with some of his hard-working friends in baseball operations.

The situation was unfair to Henry, Lucchino, Epstein, and especially new co-GMs Cherington and Hoyer. If Theo is announced as some kind of ''consultant" (remember that's the phony title Bill Parcells was going to hold with the Jets when he was feuding with Bob Kraft to get out of his contract), it will further undermine and impede the not-ready-for-prime-time co-GMs. Please, Mr. Henry. Don't insult the intelligence of your fans by telling us that Theo is going to come back and report to the shotgun wedding co-GMs.

So Theo is back, and maybe he never really left. But damage has been done inside the walls of old Fenway. And if you're the GM of another big league team, who are you going to call if you want to deal with the Red Sox?

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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