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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Sox must be answerable for this

I really have only one question:

Why did they wait so long to try to sign Theo in the first place?

As the free fall of the Red Sox front office rolls into today, the most obvious lament is that it never should have come to this.

Think back to spring training in Fort Myers, when the sun (in addition to the Favorite Son general manager) was hot, and all things were possible. The first thing pitchers and catchers should have been advised about upon reporting was that Theo Epstein had signed a long-term extension that ensured he would be a critical part of the team's future.

Theo earned that privilege. He showed courage in rolling the dice on personnel (see: the Nomar Garciaparra trade), shored up the farm system, revamped a team on the run, and exhibited the kind of poise and maturity that eliminated any reason to dwell on his tender age.

His team also won the World Series.

If Larry Lucchino and John Henry ever emerge from their bunkers, I'd ask them why they let days turn into weeks, then months, without locking up one of their most coveted assets. Let's not confuse Epstein with any of his free agent ballplayers. He's not represented by Scott Boras, wasn't asking for a fourth or fifth year to pitch on a frayed shoulder, and didn't embarrass his team with any late-night antics.

He was grossly underpaid by the time Year 3 of his dream job rolled around, but he never spoke of that. He just assumed he would get his. The GM who helped eradicate 86 years of baseball misery should have been strolling through the park with a smile permanently affixed to his young face, but the truth is Theo never looked particularly happy this past season. He was far less visible in 2005, and little hints that he and Lucchino had strayed from the same page were dropped like bread crumbs along the basepaths.

There were subtle reminders that Epstein did not create the championship Red Sox by himself. This is true. Lucchino is an intelligent, innovative man who has brought great energy to this team. He is a marketing whiz, a champion in the world of philanthropy, and a baseball enthusiast who devised a master plan. He put the right people in the right jobs -- including taking a huge gamble by entrusting his team to an untested Theo -- and fulfilled the dreams of generations of Red Sox fans.

Epstein delivered, too. He felt his success should have earned him more money, more independence, more respect. Somewhere along the line, Lucchino began wondering whether the kid really appreciated all the opportunities Lucchino had afforded him.

It gets complicated when you mold someone into something greater than yourself. When a guy starts out fetching your coffee and paper for you, maybe it's impossible to ever view him as your equal, or, even more horrifying, someone who has surpassed you in stature and reputation. Human nature being what it is, maybe this split was inevitable.

And yet, it's still shocking that these two men who have known each other for 14 years couldn't find a way to coexist. The abrupt ending of their partnership is disconcerting, and it is yet another messy chapter in our local annals.

There appears to be no such thing as a graceful exit in Boston sports. We're not happy unless we're pointing fingers and assessing blame.

Look no further than Bill Parcells and Robert Kraft, who started out together as one of the most dynamic combinations in the NFL. Under their leadership, the Patriots went to Super Bowl XXXI, but they imploded on game day as news of the unraveling relationship between the coach and owner undermined their efforts. Parcells was the leak in this scenario, and it has dogged him to this day.

In the wake of that debacle, you had to declare whether you were a Parcells guy or a Kraft guy. No waffling allowed.

I never understood that. What's wrong with recognizing the considerable attributes (and stubborn blind spots) of both sides? Each played a part in the team's success -- and in the ultimate demise of their relationship.

It was similar, to a far lesser degree, in the dwindling days of the Celtics dynasty, when Larry Bird and Kevin McHale struggled to deal with their own physical mortality after injuries robbed them of their elite skills. Two unidentified teammates criticized Bird for being unwilling to accept a reduced role. McHale later admitted he was one of them. In their final days together, The Big Two were barely speaking. Celtics players and personnel were pressed to declare their allegiance: Kevin or Larry.

Ask Jim Paxson (and the ''yellow stripe" that Bird implied went down his back) how that worked out.

Now it's Theo Epstein or Larry Lucchino. The line has been drawn on the Fenway lawn, and Lucchino's side could use a little muscle. His name is mud, in part because of perceived leaks that revealed private accounts of his working relationship with Epstein.

It was unseemly to read about such petty details as whose fault it was for a botched trade with Colorado and who played more Pony League ball just as Theo was on the brink of signing an extension. Dan Shaughnessy's Sunday column has been unfairly targeted as the deal-breaker (don't shoot the messenger, people), but the timing of it did little to convince Epstein he could trust Lucchino when it mattered.

We can only imagine what it feels like for Lucchino and his people to watch all the goodwill they have stockpiled over the past 3 1/2 years become obliterated in a matter of hours. The unceremonious departure of Boston's Boy Wonder has left their fan base feeling angry and betrayed.

Theo will speak today at a news conference and no doubt will take the high road, as he always has, and wish the Red Sox luck as he moves on.

Come out, come out, wherever you are, Larry. You, too, John Henry. You have some questions to answer -- on the record, if you please. These negotiations were a disaster, and it's on your heads.

When Lucchino does finally step up to the microphone, I'm guessing he'll tell us he wanted Theo to stay all along.

If he really wanted us to believe that, he should have signed him last April.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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