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Dan Shaughnessy

Any way you write it, it’s still a success story

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / October 23, 2011

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It happens all the time when you get to be a cagey old sportswriter. You’re in a press box for a college game and a nervous, skinny kid with clear eyes and not-so-clear skin bounds up the steps, introduces himself, and tells you he wants to be a sportswriter after college. Sometimes he hands you the school rag and asks you to let him know what you think of his stuff.

That’s how I met Theo Epstein.

It was Nov. 20, 1993, and I was in the press box at Yale Bowl in New Haven when the 19-year-old Epstein came over to say hello and show me his latest entry in the Yale Daily News.

Appropriately enough, Epstein’s column was a rip job on legendary Yale coach Carmen Cozza. The Elis were staggering through a 3-7 season and the headline over Epstein’s column was, “Is It Time for Carm to Go?’’

Epstein’s well-crafted piece blasted Cozza’s motivational tactics, claimed the coach “just doesn’t get it,’’ and offered, “his lack of passion has reached a new low.’’

Epstein also wrote, “Cozza isn’t the man to bring the program out of its problems. More and more it is becoming clear; Cozza is responsible for the problems . . . Class, integrity, and genuine feeling for one’s players doesn’t win championships these days - only respect.’’

Hmmmm, I thought. This boola-boola kid has a nice touch. Might really amount to something someday. Maybe I’ll let him bring me some coffee and fetch a few postgame quotes from the Bulldogs.

Less than 11 years later, Epstein was hoisting the World Series trophy from the front of a duck boat and I was begging him to return my phone calls.

Now he is saying goodbye to Boston and we are saying goodbye to him.

The Midnight Rambler Red Sox made it official late Friday, issuing a joint statement with the Cubs to announce, “Theo Epstein has resigned from the Red Sox in order to become new President of Baseball Operations for the Cubs.’’

The release was issued at 9:52 p.m., a mere three days after the Sox sent out an 11:04 p.m. statement to tell the world that their pitchers were not actually drinking beer in the dugout during games in 2011.

Midnight confessions, indeed.

We all remember that Epstein resigned once before here, in 2005, and it’s hard not to be struck by the difference between then and now.

When Epstein walked away in October 2005 because of a breakdown of trust between him and Sox CEO Larry Lucchino (Epstein’s mentor), there was shock and fury in Red Sox Nation. It was as if we all woke up one day and someone had knocked down the left-field wall.

It’s different this time. Nothing abrupt or surprising about this one. The Cubs rumors started over the summer, and Epstein never killed them. Then came the Sox’ 7-20 finish and the unraveling and the finger-pointing and the cacophonous media riot.

Epstein’s departure this time came in the form of a slow bleed. Death was inevitable. Everybody just wanted to make it official so the Sox and their fans could get on with their lives.

The pros and cons of the Epstein Era will be debated for a long time, and we won’t have all the data until the players on today’s roster (and those in the system) have finished their time in Boston. Just as the impact of Dan Duquette was still felt in 2004 (the much-maligned Duke gets credit for about half of that championship team), Epstein’s history with the Sox will linger long into this decade - certainly until 2017, when Carl Crawford is in the final year of his $142 million contract.

A lot of people are mad at Epstein now, but we need to remember that the Sox won two World Series on his watch and made the playoffs six times in nine seasons.

Sure he had a big budget, which enabled him to make whopping mistakes (Edgar Renteria, Julio Lugo, Mike Cameron, John Lackey, Matt Clement anyone?) without destroying the team, but he made good on his pledge to emphasize player drafting and development.

Epstein and the minions gave us Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Daniel Bard, and Clay Buchholz. When the Padres had to deal Adrian Gonzalez, Epstein had prospects Casey Kelly and Anthony Rizzo to make the deal attractive to San Diego.

Not all the free agents were busts. David Ortiz worked out pretty well. So did Keith Foulke and Bill Mueller. Trading for Curt Schilling worked out pretty well, and getting Jason Bay for quitter Manny Ramirez was a short-term coup.

The best and boldest move of Epstein’s career came in his second year on the job, when he traded Nomar Garciaparra, triggering the midsummer makeover of the ’04 Sox. Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Dave Roberts wound up making significant contributions, and the subtraction of fan favorite Nomie kick-started the Biblical turnaround.

Epstein was a rock-star GM. He was the best and the brightest, Boston baseball’s John F. Kennedy.

He was 28 years old when he got the job, just a week after Billy Beane turned down John Henry’s five-year, $12.5 million offer. Less than two years later, the Red Sox won the World Series, breaking an 86-year-old curse. Now Epstein goes to Chicago (for $18.5 million over five years), where the Cubs haven’t won since 1908.

We knew it wouldn’t last forever, but this was a fun ride.

Thanks, Theo.

Oh, and good move getting out of the sportswriting gig. You had potential, but this baseball job seems to be working out well for you.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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