A match made in heaven goes awry

A match made in heaven goes awry

Three years ago, Theo Epstein became the youngest man ever appointed general manager of a Major League club.

Monday evening, he became the youngest man to ever walk away from an MLB dream job.

Strange days, indeed, when matches that appeared made in heaven wind up on the rocks.

In the spinning-out-of-control soap opera that is Red Sox Nation, this is one of the oddest, most heart-wrenching twists yet.

This is the job Epstein had fantasized about while growing up in Brookline, Mass. This is the job he was given when he was 28, barely off the Yale University campus. This is the job he performed historically.

And it's the job he just walked away from.

Why? Right now, we're too busy trying to raise our slacked jaws to even imagine. But, for certain, we will soon know, because nothing seems to remain behind the curtain too long in Beantown.

In the simplest sense, Epstein was motivated to flee by the same forces which make Manny Ramirez a habitual trade-seeker and which have also prompted David Wells to seek a way out.

Wells has pitched, and gotten in enough trouble, in New York City. But even he found the Boston fishbowl both invasive and manipulative.

Lack of any privacy had Epstein, by nature a reserved and introspective guy, on the edge. He was pushed over by published details of his intricate relationship with club president Larry Lucchino.

That weekend report couldn't sway the ongoing negotiations between Epstein and the club; the parties had essentially already reached a verbal accord -- for the annual $1.5 million Epstein had sought.

In fact, multiple news outlets had reported the deal as done. And maybe this was something else which Epstein resented - he didn't want to be predictable, refused to let others call his shots.

Most critically, Epstein felt the reports set an unfavorable mood for three more years on Yawkey Way. So he decided his peace of mind wasn't for sale, not even at the price he had set.

And how about the conflicting developments, in a matter of days, for Billy Beane's "Moneyball" stable? On Saturday, the Los Angeles Dodgers pull the rug out from underneath one disciple of the Oakland GM, Paul DePodesta. Now another, Epstein, takes his rug home with him.

Interestingly, DePodesta will be paid $2.2 million over the next three years to not general manager. Epstein was offered "only" double that to work -- but finances had nothing to do with this split (a raise of more than 400 percent over his old salary of $350,000 thrilled Epstein).

In the end, turning his back on his met demands only heightened the satisfaction Epstein must've felt in telling the Red Sox he was leaving. Isn't that the ultimate last word?

There are no heroes or villains in this episode. The principals can both step into either role with ease.

Epstein did a sensational job, ached for an appreciative pat on the back that never came, and finally flipped out ... Epstein is a conceited yuppie, the Red Sox needed him more than he needed them, leaves convinced other clubs will now fight over him.

Or ...

Lucchino identified Epstein's talents, took a chance on the kid, put him in a position where he could make a difference ... Lucchino meddled behind the scenes, was too quick to address Epstein dismissively in meetings, was too smug to assume Epstein would not walk.

That walk was made infinitely easier by Epstein's track record. Face it, engineering the Red Sox's first World Series championship in 86 years is gonna look good on the resume. As does the fact the Red Sox appeared in the postseason in each of his three seasons -- the first threepeat in club history.

And there is no argument against Epstein's role in this peak. He took risks, made the unpopular move, repeatedly went against convention -- and was right an inordinate share of the time.

He inherited a talented team -- the 2002 Red Sox had won 93 games. They also had gone home after the 162nd game for the third straight season, so Epstein buttoned down his white collars and got busy.

Only six of those 2002 Red Sox remained by 2005: Jason Varitek, Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Trot Nixon, Doug Mirabelli and Tim Wakefield.

The rest of the team was remade on guile (David Ortiz), guts (Nomar Garciaparra) and guesswork (Bill Mueller, Mark Bellhorn and/or Tony Graffanino).

In the process, Epstein healed the image of a Boston front office which for years had been viewed by the rest of baseball as borderline dysfunctional.

While Beane's view may have been a bit biased, his assessment of the Epstein-run Red Sox is still worth noting.

"The scary thing is that Boston is now a very, very well-run team," Oakland's GM had said. "Before, we felt we had an advantage because we felt we were well-run. But with the resources they have, they're a formidable opponent. Theo's one of the best in the business already.''

Theo liked hearing that. Who wouldn't? He may have liked to hear it a little more in the corridors of the Red Sox offices.

That may not seem like a deal-breaker to most of you. But unless you've walked in a man's shoes, you can't pass judgment on his motivation.

And as the youngest general manager of a World Series champion, Epstein's glass shoes have never been worn by anyone else.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.