|Young GM has made lasting mark on Red Sox|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 18 October 2007 11:35|
The New York Yankees might be Boston's fiercest rival, but they know a thing or two about winning.
``The goal is to play a small part in helping the Red Sox become an organization that can have sustained success,'' Epstein said this week. ``We had been in the postseason only twice in seven years going into '03. We set a goal of trying to be a team like the Yankees or the Braves, a team which you can almost count on to be in the playoffs every year.''
So far, Epstein and the Red Sox are doing a pretty good job. They ended that 86-year drought by winning the World Series in 2004, and have made the playoffs four times in the past five years.
Boston won its first AL East crown in 12 years this season and advanced to play Cleveland in the AL championship series. The Red Sox trailed the Indians 3-1 in the best-of-seven series entering Game 5 on Thursday night.
Boston was a better-than-average team when John Henry and Tom Werner led a group that bought the club in February 2002, with some of the most loyal - and die-hard - fans in sports. The Red Sox had only six losing seasons in the previous 35, and were the team most likely to challenge New York's dominance in the East.
But Henry and Werner's group spent a record $700 million for the Red Sox, Fenway Park and the team's TV network - more than double the previous high for a franchise. No one spends that kind of money for a perennial runner-up.
Just 28 when he was hired in November 2002 - then the youngest general manager ever - Epstein immediately set about shaping the Red Sox into a powerhouse. In his first few months on the job, he hit the jackpot when he took a chance on slugger David Ortiz, and bolstered the bullpen with reliever Mike Timlin. Epstein also added infielders Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller.
After the Red Sox lost to the Yankees in a seven-game ALCS in 2003, Epstein pulled off his biggest coup, talking Curt Schilling into coming to Boston. Schilling had a no-trade clause with Arizona, and initially said he would only go to the Yankees or the Philadelphia Phillies. But Epstein won him over, flying to Arizona to make his pitch over Thanksgiving dinner with the Schillings.
Epstein also signed closer Keith Foulke that offseason and hired manager Terry Francona.
The boy wonder GM hasn't been afraid to let people go, either. He sent Nomar Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs at the trade deadline in 2004 in a four-team deal that brought Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz to Boston.
Three months later, the Red Sox were world champs, with Mientkiewicz catching the final out.
``The most rewarding thing is to win while also setting the organization up for the future,'' Epstein said. ``Building a real foundation for the organization through young players and through a strong scouting department, a strong player development department, so you know the winning isn't a fluke. That, hopefully, there will be more good times ahead.''
But a World Series title doesn't lessen the pressure, it raises it a couple of notches. No sooner had the champagne dried when Epstein was trying to figure out how to do it all over again.
Pedro Martinez left as a free agent, and Epstein gave catcher and clubhouse leader Jason Varitek a big new contract. Boston also added Edgar Renteria, David Wells and Matt Clement.
The Red Sox tied the Yankees atop the AL East, but New York won the division on a tiebreaker. Still, it was Boston's third straight year in the playoffs, a franchise first.
``The expectations are still there and they've grown since we did win. But you come to expect that,'' Timlin said. ``If you're eating a Hershey bar and instead of eating the whole thing, you just got a corner of it, what are you going to do? You want some more.''
The wild-card Red Sox were swept by the Chicago White Sox in the first round in 2005, and a bizarre offseason followed. Johnny Damon left for the Yankees. And after a falling out with his mentor, Larry Lucchino, Epstein walked away from the club when his contract expired on Halloween. Ducking out of Fenway in a gorilla suit, no less.
Less than three months later, the hard feelings had been patched up - publicly, at least - and Epstein was back.
He declines to talk about his sabbatical, saying only that he's ``absolutely'' happy that he returned.
``This game is very humbling,'' he said. ``As soon as you think you've figured out what works in any given situation, that's when it doesn't work. It's a dynamic exercise. The market changes, players change, teams change, chemistry changes. You have to constantly grow as an organization to stay up to par with the other organizations that are up there trying to do things better.''
Last offseason, he outbid everyone else for right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, paying $51.11 million for the right to negotiate with the Japanese phenom and then giving him a $52 million, six-year contract. Though Matsuzaka's second-half struggles have continued into the postseason - he's 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA - Epstein said he looks at the pitcher's rookie season as a success.
Matsuzaka went 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA and 201 strikeouts, pitching an eight-inning gem the night the Red Sox clinched the AL East.
``He accomplished a lot this year while making significant adjustments to being in a new way of life, inside and outside the clubhouse,'' Epstein said. ``The disappointments don't outweigh the accomplishments. ... We really feel like he'll go home this winter, process it all and come back even better.''
The same could be said for the rest of the Red Sox. Schilling, Timlin, third baseman Mike Lowell and versatile pitcher Julian Tavarez are eligible to become free agents (so is Eric Gagne, but that experiment hasn't worked out so well).
But the core of the team returns, and an increasingly productive farm system gives Epstein options to both plug holes and make trades. Clay Buchholz, who pitched a no-hitter in his second major league start; closer Jonathan Papelbon; left-hander Jon Lester; second baseman Dustin Pedroia; first baseman Kevin Youkilis; outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury; and reliever Manny Delcarmen are all homegrown products.
``Every year it's a challenge, and in every aspect of the industry. Not just the big league team but the draft, the international market, player development,'' Epstein said. ``There's always something that can be done better.
``It's not easy, but there are a lot of people in this organization working hard to make sure the Red Sox hopefully have one of those periods of sustained success going forward.''