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JACKIE MACMULLAN

It's time Red Sox stepped to the plate

The baseball meetings are three days away and the Red Sox still don't have a general manager. This continues to surprise officials from other ball clubs. Yet what amazes them more is the dearth of candidates to run one of the most storied teams in baseball.

In spite of this, Boston made one of the more significant offseason acquisitions by reeling 25-year-old pitcher Josh Beckett into the fold. That deal was pulled off, we are told, by a multiheaded group of internal Sox officials, a mesh of young bucks and old guards who have joined forces while the search continues to fill the void left by Theo Epstein.

There has been the temptation in the wake of the Beckett-Mike Lowell-Guillermo Mota trade to chortle, ''So who needs Theo, anyway?" The Red Sox do, but that's dirty water under the bridge. Suffice to say as exhilarating as the Beckett-Lowell-Mota trade was for the psyche of this team-under-siege, the search for a general manager has been underwhelming. A succession of interesting and promising candidates withdrew from consideration, leaving us to wonder why this franchise went from a hot commodity to a radioactive proposition.

You really have to wonder how it has come to this.

Step back to a year ago, for a moment. The Red Sox were the envy of major league baseball. The team won the World Series, the front office was heralded as a model example of guile and guts, and the off-the-field good will crafted by a wily public relations staff was at an all-time high.

How could it disintegrate so quickly? Epstein's departure was a public relations nightmare, botched at every turn by the involved parties. CEO Larry Lucchino was portrayed as a jealous, overbearing tyrant. Theo was painted as an arrogant elitist who became drunk with power. Suffice to say both claims have likely been exaggerated. This much, however, was crystal clear: The betrayal of trust appeared to be rampant on Yawkey Way.

Principal owner John W. Henry emerged to publicly question whether he was fit to run his team, promised he would be more communicative and involved in the day-to-day happenings of his ball club, then retreated to the same bunker where he ordered Lucchino -- who was assigned the black hat and handlebar mustache by an infuriated public -- to set up shop.

They have been entrenched there since, suffering residual backlash as they try to put their hierarchy back together. Epstein is gone. The talented Josh Byrnes and Peter Woodfork have packed up their creativity and moved on to Arizona. Those who remain have been ordered to keep their mouths shut. The tension is palpable.

These are difficult times for Lucchino, who has painted himself into a corner with this GM search. Team sources say Lucchino was poised to name Jim Beattie general manager last week, but received a tepid response from within the organization. The trepidation is understandable. Beattie's recent track record in Baltimore is not what you'd term awe-inspiring. Re-signing Sidney Ponson was a disaster. Ditto for bringing in Sammy Sosa and reliever Steve Kline. Some quick fact-checking at Beattie's former address reveals he wasn't the type to burn the midnight oil in pursuit of improving the Orioles, either.

That leads us to Boston's current quandary. If not Beattie, then whom? There are strong feelings for the Gang of Four and the work they've done, but the general consensus appears to be that neither Craig Shipley nor Jed Hoyer is ready for prime time -- yet. There has been some talk of Epstein loyalist Bill Lajoie stepping in, but he has suggested his health concerns would prohibit that.

That leads us to an alternate scenario of giving the job to longtime baseball man Jeremy Kapstein for one year, with the young guys continuing to have significant input. Kapstein has already said he will do it for short money.

With that option, how can Lucchino hand the job to Beattie, who wants three years, and, in all likelihood, something in the neighborhood of $1 million per? He can't -- or at least he shouldn't. There's a reason Beattie hasn't been given this position by now. The reservations are there, maybe in Lucchino's mind, as well.

In the meantime, the multiheaded front office machine rolls on. There are matters of great importance to decide and the Red Sox continue to do their due diligence. Boston is aware the Yankees plan to wade into the Johnny Damon negotiations, which has led them, league sources said, to begin exploring the possibility of Juan Pierre as Plan B.

Then there's the matter of finding Manny Ramírez a home, whether it's moving him to Anaheim, which needs protection in its lineup for Vladimir Guerrero now that Paul Konerko is off the market, or to the Mets. Count me among those who hope Boston can convince their enigmatic hitting genius to downsize from the Ritz to a more subtle townhouse in the Back Bay and give this Boston experience one more go. Forget talk of Manny to the Phillies. He is a 10/5 guy, which means he can veto any trade, and he knows Philadelphia can be just as cold as Boston -- both on and off the field.

The Red Sox, burned by unsavory leaks during the Epstein negotiations, have handed down a decree to their employees to cease and desist from chatting with the media. The silence has been deafening over there -- except for Kapstein, who has been around too long for anyone to tell him to shush. He made his case for the job in a brief flurry of media appearances earlier this week.

Lucchino knows Kapstein well, having tapped his baseball expertise for years, both in San Diego and Boston. In spite of his extensive contacts, there's no doubt Kapstein is an unorthodox choice. He does not fit the visual bill of a public relations conscious franchise that likes polished people out front. Kapstein prefers windbreakers and shirts purchased at Wal-Mart. Of course, if it's image the Sox are worried about, that's nothing a haircut and a nicely cut suit (from somewhere other than Wal-Mart) can't fix.

So do it, already. Stick with the group that brought you Beckett, Lowell, and Mota, and the first bit of positive spin you've had in weeks. Give Kapstein the GM title for a year, let the young guys continue to grow, and revisit your future next fall. Maybe you'll get lucky and Mark Shapiro will win a World Series in Cleveland, freeing him to come home and fulfill his dream of running the Red Sox.

In the meantime, the clock is ticking, and the multiheaded front office group needs to morph into a singular voice, the kind that resonated in the winter of 2004, when the Red Sox were the standard of success and stability.

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

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