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A different kind of 'next year' in Boston
by Alan Schwarz
NEW YORK--Anyone who mourns the death of book publishing should be reassured by the Red Sox wing of their local Barnes & Noble. There's "Faithful" by Stephen King and Stewart O'Nan, "Why Not Us" by Leigh Montville and "Idiot" by Johnny Damon. "Curse Reversed," "Believe It!," "Finally!" and more line the walls. Then there's the disturbingly dubbed "Surviving Grady," which encourages fans to listen in as various fans-turned-writers "drink their way through the greatest baseball season ever."
No doubt, the Red Sox' 2004 championship came along just when New England--as well as the thousands of fans across the country who now wear their B hats in public--was about to blow. No professional sports franchise, for so long, so determined the mental state of its populace, whose release from psychological bondage required memoirs to confirm the separation, just before they started eating each other's limbs.
Making it all the sweeter was how it was one of their own, Brookline native Theo Epstein, who, perhaps more than anyone else, broke into the prison and turned the iron key of freedom. Though of course he had help from above (owner John Henry) and below (other front-office members, the players themselves), it was Epstein whose decisions so gleefully rewarded the most passionate baseball city around.
What a strange place, then, for baseball's most dispassionate front office to operate.
Of ships and rudders
Make no mistake, there is emotion; the sight of Epstein and his crew spraying champagne throughout the Sox clubhouse last October confirmed that these guys are nowhere near stat-crunching automatons.
Yet when your owner has become a billionaire Wall Street icon by trusting cold philosophy more than public sentiment, you have the freedom to subordinate feelings to fact. To go to your office, close the door, and monkey with a team that just won the World Series--and if the fans don't like it, well, mood swings are a luxury you can no longer afford.
"I honestly wouldn't know any other way to do it," Epstein says. "If we were simply another ship in the emotional sea, we'd be screwed. I'd feel like we didn't have our rudder . . . I think it's other peoples' jobs in the organization, and they do it very well, to understand and cope with the public's response.
"The way I cope with the public reaction is to make our goal to make them happy at the end of October. Not in January, not in February, not in July."
The champagne smell on Epstein's loafers was barely stale before he began reworking his 2005 roster. Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe were out, Matt Clement and David Wells in. Goodbye, Orlando Cabrera; hello, Edgar Renteria. All decisions were made with an eye toward objective analysis, not sentimentality.
That same approach jettisoned Nomar Garciaparra last July, when the team had played .500 ball for three months. The switch from Garciaparra's bat to Cabrera's glove was interpreted as the organization reluctantly waving a white flag to defense, but at its core it was an exhibition of the front office's charge to identify a problem, fix it forthrightly within the larger framework, and worry later about all the kids with GARCIAPARRA 5 jerseys.
"John Henry's best advice to me was that when things aren't going well, he's seen two different reactions," Epstein says. "People who go in the opposite direction, and those people inevitably fail; and people who, in times of adversity, believe even stronger in their philosophies, and adhere to them even more strictly. He said that those people inevitably turn things around.
"He said, 'What you guys do is right, stick to it, and over time things will be fine.' And he was right."
The other side of fate
It's easy to forget now, but before last year's victory, when entering the playoffs was merely prelude to Red Sox torture, one of this front office's mantras had always been, "Anything can happen in a short series." It was less excuse than analysis--acknowledging the postseason's sadistic whimsy, and trying to reassure fans that the goal is to make the playoffs, where the best team rarely wins.
What does finally emerging as champion now mean? Does tasting the benefit of these imperfect playoffs somehow undercut, however slightly, the Red Sox' belief system, like a Christian Scientist after an appendectomy?
"It shouldn't take anything away from the teams that win--certainly much more than luck contributed to the Red Sox winning their last eight games," Henry says. "Over a three- or seven-game series anything can happen. Therefore, getting to the postseason is your primary goal. A season's worth of 162 games remove a lot of chance. After that . . . "
After that, you can indulge yourself in some emotion, knowing it can't last very long. Next thing you know the next offseason is upon you, with more tough choices, more uncertainty, more refinement of an approach that so few understand.
It should be noted that the best book about the Red Sox, Epstein's, will not be on shelves this spring, even though publishing scuttlebutt estimates one to be worth about a million bucks. Something about running a ballclub.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.