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ON BASEBALL

World of opportunity awaits upon his exit

Funny, all this time some thought Larry Lucchino, whose power base originated in Washington, might be the one drawn back to the nation's capital. How ironic would it be if his protege, Theo Epstein, wound up being the front man for the Washington Nationals once a new ownership group is selected, which could happen as soon as the major league owners' meeting in Milwaukee mid-month. Imagine what a coup that would be for the new ownership group, to introduce Epstein, the brightest star in the galaxy of general managers, as its front man. Dinner for two in the White House, anyone?

But that's getting ahead of the story, although it was pretty apparent from yesterday's press conference at Fenway Park that a six-month mission to Burundi probably does not top Epstein's to-do list. ''I have a tremendous passion for the game," Epstein said. ''I believe I will find myself in a position of leadership with an organization again in the future, but I have no immediate plans."

Check back with him in about three weeks, when the Nationals may have new people in charge. The Dodgers already contacted Epstein through a third party, but given the chaos of the Dodgers' situation, where owner Frank McCourt has fired three of his first four hires -- general manager Paul DePodesta, a marketing head, and his communications director -- Epstein probably will steer wide of Chavez Ravine.

But while John Henry bemoaned Epstein's departure as a ''great, great loss," he could not have been more outspoken in his defense of Lucchino, who was conspicuously absent. Also missing was Lucchino's longtime aide, Charles Steinberg, the executive vice president of public affairs, who under normal circumstances is the maestro of major media gatherings.

''I felt it was important for someone to speak the truth and stand up for Larry," a grim-faced Henry said. ''I didn't feel it was appropriate for him to come here and defend himself over this issue. There have been things I have read over the last couple of weeks that are off base and I felt I should come."

Lucchino has been cast as a heavy from the time the new ownership arrived, Henry said, ''blamed for everything under the sun. I don't know how anyone can legitimately think that the principal owner is not ultimately responsible . . . how can you give the principal owner of any baseball team a free pass?"

He's right, of course. While this was not, as Henry contended, ''Larry Lucchino pushing Theo out," it was Henry who decided that Lucchino should conduct negotiations with Epstein. Henry made it clear during the Alex Rodriguez affair, when he described his discomfort at coming to A-Rod's door with an offer, that he is not a negotiator. But negotiations with a general manager should never be this hard.

''First of all," one veteran GM said this week, ''you feel good about your general manager and want him back, you never let him go into the last year of his contract, because you know people try to do things behind the scenes, and you also don't want to risk losing continuity in your organization.

''And these things usually don't take long to get done. There's no agent involved, so you usually just sit down and settle it."

On the night the Red Sox won the World Series, Epstein, in the flush of that glorious moment, turned to a member of his baseball operations team and said, according to his companion, ''You know, they should have made me an offer right now and I'd have signed it, no matter what it was."

But the Sox brass didn't. Did they want Epstein back? Of course. But when Lucchino tried to sign him for a hometown discount, that may have been the moment the disillusionment first surfaced for Epstein, who felt slighted that his bosses valued him at 20 percent of what they'd offered Billy Beane.

The money issue eventually was settled, which is why ownership and some members of Epstein's team were convinced that he would stay. But in the course of negotiations, Epstein apparently grew agitated by a series of media leaks he perceived to be coming from the ownership side. In several instances he was badly mistaken, but there was an erosion of trust that evidently peaked last weekend and culminated with Epstein informing the club he was leaving Monday afternoon. The trust issue alone did not trigger Epstein's departure; but in combination with the other sources of his disaffection -- and he acknowledged philosophical differences and an up-and-down relationship with his boss -- it may have cinched the deal.

Was Henry oblivious to the possibility this could happen? ''No," he said, ''I wasn't blindsided."

But he wasn't pinning it on Lucchino.

''I didn't hear Theo blaming Larry Lucchino," Henry added, ''and it's unfair."

Epstein didn't have to blame Lucchino. There are enough people doing that for him, so he can safely lay claim to the high road.

There were a ''multitude of reasons" Epstein left, Henry contended, but he refused to enumerate them, saying that was for Epstein to do.

But he insisted, repeatedly, that Lucchino wasn't one of them.

''Larry Lucchino is not the root of the problem," Henry said, citing many of Lucchino's achievements as CEO, including but certainly not limited to, hiring Epstein in the first place.

Is it possible that Epstein was looking for reasons to leave? Only he knows, and he wasn't saying, though one of his biggest supporters wondered if he was ''nitpicking" in the end. Henry, who expressed enormous affection for Epstein even as he stood up for his CEO, said this was hardly the way he imagined it would end.

''Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think this was going to happen," Henry said. ''I had this romantic notion Theo was going to be our general manager for the rest of my life."

Now Theo's gone, with a world of possibilities at his feet. Next stop, Washington? Don't bet against it.

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