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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Intentional walk

Relationship reached its breaking point

Not a good day. Not a good day at all. One of the brightest minds ever to grace the Red Sox front office is gone. Theo Epstein was instrumental in delivering Boston's first baseball championship in 86 years and now, at the age of 31, after only three years on the job, he is gone because he no longer feels he can work with CEO Larry Lucchino.

Blame me if it makes you feel any better, though it seems pretty ridiculous that Theo would break away from a man he worked with for 14 years because of a few lines he read in a column in the Sunday Globe.

The column contained a lot of history between the two executives, including one item that possibly reopened an old wound.

Here's how it played out:

Late last week, it was pretty clear that Epstein's contract negotiation was coming to full boil. It seemed that the parties were getting close, and after much haggling about money and power, they were ready to announce a deal. I left messages with both parties Friday and that night they made a joint call to my home, insisting (on the record) that they were in radio silence and would have an announcement probably early this week.

Off the record, there was quite a bit of conversation, and it seemed genuine and convivial. Epstein and Lucchino talked about mutual respect and working out differences and both indicated there probably would be a positive resolution Monday. Theo even made a joke about cleaning out his desk and Larry made a joke about Theo thinking he was Henny Youngman.

I believe that the deal was effectively done. If you could hear the tape, you'd say the same thing.

So what happened?

Possibly it goes back to their differing versions regarding a midsummer deal involving the Sox and Colorado that was squashed by Sox ownership -- Lucchino. The Orioles and Rockies had worked out a preliminary trade in which Eric Byrnes went to Baltimore and Larry Bigbie to Colorado. The Rockies made that deal because they thought they had a deal with Boston to send Bigbie and Ryan Shealy to the Sox in exchange for Adam Stern, Abe Alvarez, Kelly Shoppach, and another minor leaguer.

Then, according to the version put forth by Epstein's camp, Lucchino killed the deal unilaterally, damaging Epstein's reputation with the Rockies and other clubs. Lucchino was routinely trashed by (among others) national baseball scribes Peter Gammons and Tracy Ringolsby.

In Sunday's column, I offered the version held by Lucchino's camp (three sources): that the deal had been made by Theo's assistant, Josh Byrnes (who took over as GM of Arizona Friday), but Theo preferred to make a different trade with Arizona and asked Lucchino to invoke the ownership clause, squash the deal, and take the hit -- a role Lucchino is accustomed to.

It's certainly possible that Theo saw that version in the Sunday Globe and had second thoughts about a future of working with Lucchino. This was the popular version put forth last night on WEEI and in a Herald blog. Again, I choose to believe that Epstein is smarter and more mature than that. Much smarter. And much more mature.

There's been a lot of talk about cartels, smear campaigns, and taking sides, but the fact is that only two men know the truth about the proposed Rockies trade: Lucchino and Epstein. And both know that one of them is spinning a story in an effort to make himself look good and the other look bad. The Epstein camp had its version out there all summer. Lucchino's camp responded Sunday. Still, no one has disputed the version put forth by the Lucchino camp, and one could view that scenario in a positive fashion -- an example of two men who can make things work without worrying about who gets credit or blame. Couldn't we say the story illustrates harmony rather than acrimony?

Most Sox fans no doubt will come down on the side of Theo, and why wouldn't they? He's one of our own and he's brilliant and he got the job done and we were all looking forward to more years of Theo as GM. Theo walks on water in this town and probably always will. But John Henry is the one whose opinion counts in this matter and he appears to have sided with Lucchino.

What a waste. In the end, it had nothing to do with money. It was all about power. And it appears Theo decided he no longer could work with Larry. Maybe he'd be happier getting total control of Frank McCourt's Dodgers. Coincidentally, that job opened up Saturday afternoon when Paul DePodesta was fired.

I'm still hoping that it can be fixed. Theo knows everyone in Sox Nation wants him back. Lucchino wants him back. They're both smart people. They've been through a ton of life experiences in Baltimore, San Diego, and Boston. Maybe Henry can broker a truce. If Sox fans had their way, they'd watch Henry fire Lucchino and bring back Theo.

Theo has been the John F. Kennedy of Boston baseball, a shining prince. He was born and raised to be GM of the Red Sox and should have stayed in the job forever. Halloween '05 goes down as a sad day in Boston sports history. Pumpkins smashed and hopes dashed all over Yawkey Way. The worst trick of all.

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

recap the theo saga
Photo Gallery the theo files:  2005  |  2004  |  2003
Archives A trail of missteps in Epstein talks (Boston Globe, 11/3/05)
Archives ON BASEBALL: World of opportunity awaits upon his exit (Boston Globe, 11/3/05)
Archives JACKIE MACMULLAN: Sox must be answerable for this
Archives ANDREW ZIMBALIST: How much is Theo worth?
Message Board DISCUSS: Blame game Poll What now?
 DAN SHAUGHNESSY: Intentional walk
 BRIAN MCGRORY: Diminishing returns
 ON BASEBALL: Who's on deck now?
Web Log BOSTON SPORTS BLOG: Theo's trick on Sox
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