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ON BASEBALL

Who's on deck? One name to circle is Towers

People have changed their minds before. Billy Beane was Red Sox general manager for about 48 hours before deciding he preferred to remain on the West Coast. Ken Macha rejected a contract extension to manage the Oakland Athletics, then came back a week later and decided the job wasn't so bad after all.

So maybe the Red Sox' search for a successor to Theo Epstein begins with Theo Epstein.

''I still don't believe it," said J.P. Ricciardi, the Toronto Blue Jays general manager, West Boylston native, and Epstein friend, about Epstein's shocking decision to reject the Red Sox' offer to return as GM, his tenure ending after just three years.

''I'll believe it when I'm at the general managers' meetings next week in Palm Springs and he's not in his chair. It's like a Mafia hit. You don't believe it until you see the guy at the funeral."

But other friends and business associates of Epstein saw no indication that he had any intentions of reconsidering his decision to leave; at least two said they would not be surprised if Epstein sat out a year and pursued other interests rather than enlisting as a candidate for any of the GM jobs currently available -- with the Phillies, Dodgers, Devil Rays, and possibly the Nationals, if that team is sold.

One highly placed source in the Sox organization said he wondered all along whether Epstein wanted to return.

''In the beginning, evidently, it was about money early on," said another member of the Sox inner circle, ''but in the last couple of days it became more than that. I think Theo felt he was 31, single, no kids, a chance to make a decision he believed in -- and he made it."

Epstein, remember, ''won" his negotiation with the Sox. They offered him a three-year deal at $850,000 a year when this last round of negotiations began, and by the time he said no yesterday, they had met his asking price of $1.5 million a year for three years. So, clearly, Epstein's dissatisfaction over his working relationship with CEO Larry Lucchino, and his inability to have a semblance of a normal existence away from the job, weighed more heavily in his decision.

The issues with Lucchino and his management style, it should be emphasized, are nothing new. They've long been part of the terrain, which is why so many people on both sides of the table thought in the end Epstein would stay. On Sunday, his aides were making suggestions on how the Sox should reshuffle their baseball operations after Epstein's top assistant, Josh Byrnes, left to become Arizona GM. It was a given that Epstein was staying.

Epstein himself insisted, when ''chain of command issues" were raised, that he was not attempting to circumvent Lucchino and report directly to principal owner John W. Henry; he understood, he said, that it was within Lucchino's purview to hold him accountable.

What Epstein had issues with was Lucchino's insistence on being involved in every decision, from such relatively minor moves as whether the team should keep Damian Jackson or Lou Merloni -- Lucchino insisted on Jackson, according to one team source, over the objections of the baseball ops people -- as to the now widely dissected aborted Kelly Shoppach trade with the Rockies.

You can be sure of this much: You will not catch Epstein speaking ill of Lucchino. The same holds true for Epstein lieutenants who choose to leave, like baseball lifer Bill Lajoie, who resigned out of loyalty to Epstein and at 71 is bringing an end to a distinguished career.

So then, where do the Sox turn? Beane signed a long-term extension with the Athletics last April that included an ownership stake; he's staying put. Ricciardi signed an extension in Toronto and was informed this past summer that ownership is loosening the purse strings. ''I'm not going anywhere," he said yesterday.

Ricciardi, like Beane, was on the Sox' short list of GM candidates before Epstein was hired, though Ricciardi never interviewed for the job, signing a five-year deal with the Blue Jays before it got that far.

Beane has an Epstein-like assistant in David Forst, the former Harvard baseball captain. Forst is on the fast track to becoming a general manager, but he recently turned down an offer to become GM of the Diamondbacks, a job that went to Byrnes, and appears in no hurry to end his apprenticeship with Beane. There is a good likelihood, in fact, that Forst winds up as Athletics GM in another year or so if Beane moves upstairs.

Lucchino could duplicate what he did with Epstein three years ago and promote another young up-and-comer from within, like Jed Hoyer, the team's director of baseball operations, who figured to replace Byrnes as Epstein's top assistant. But Hoyer, while widely respected within the organization, does not yet have Epstein's cachet. Very few do.

A more likely scenario is that Lucchino will turn to someone he also wanted for the Boston job three years ago but knew he'd never get permission to interview: Padres GM Kevin Towers, who was the team's scouting director when Lucchino promoted him to GM in 1995. Three years later, the Padres were in the World Series, and though they were swept by the Yankees, Towers has solid credentials.

Lucchino had no shot at him three years ago because of the falling out he'd had with Padres owner John Moores. But the terrain has changed. Sandy Alderson left the commissioner's office and became Padres president. Alderson is very much a hands-on baseball man, and it was clear Towers would not enjoy the same autonomy he once had. So, even though he has a year left on his contract with San Diego, he was given permission to interview for the Arizona job.

And though he has strong West Coast ties, the Boston job would appear to have great appeal to him -- and do not rule out, by any means, the possibility of Alderson wooing Epstein to San Diego if Towers winds up with the Red Sox. While Alderson, like Lucchino, is a strong CEO, his management style may be much more to Epstein's taste.

''I can't see anybody else coming in there other than Kevin Towers," said a longtime baseball man with ties to the Red Sox.

Towers, who did not return phone messages yesterday, knows the dynamics of working with Lucchino. He also worked for Sox chairman Tom Werner when Werner owned the Padres.

''One thing about Larry," Towers said in a Globe interview three years ago. ''He was very, very driven. Very driven, from the first day he came on board to the day he left. You'll have a hard time finding anyone who works harder.

''He's tough. I'd be lying if I say he was an easy guy to work with. When he has new people around him, it takes a while before he has trust in those people. You have to show him what you can do before he relies on you.

''You had to have justification for everything you did, from a waiver claim to a minor league deal to a trade. He made you always think, always be on your toes."

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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