It is 14 years ago next month that Larry Lucchino, as smart a baseball man as I've ever met, hired 28-year-old Theo Epstein to be the general manager of the Red Sox. Two years later, the Red Sox ended 86 years of waiting, won their first World Series since 1918. Now, Epstein runs the Cubs. By next week, they may have won their first World Series since 1908, at which point Epstein will be as big a star as any executive has ever been in American team sports.
And whether the Cubs win or not, Epstein -- because of his body of work before he turns 43 at the end of the year -- has already helped change baseball history. Lucchino hiring Epstein was the baseball front-office equivalent of lowering the drinking age, or lowering the voting age, or the age that allows you to get behind the wheel of a car. Theo wasn't the first young guy to get the chance that Lucchino, who'd first met Epstein when he was working summers in the Orioles' public relations department, was giving him. He was still a month short of his 29th birthday when Lucchino had the vision and nerve to persuade John Henry, the guy who had put up the most money to buy the Red Sox, that it was all right to hand him the keys to the car in Boston.
And ever since the Red Sox did win it all in '04, so many other organizations have been looking for a kid just like Theo. They've started wondering if the next Theo is one of the kids in their analytics department, nose buried in a laptop screen, looking like a teenager, looking for something on that screen with on-base percentages or WAR that somebody else might not be seeing.
Now Theo tries to change history again on the North Side of Chicago, now and for all time. And if the Cubbies do win it all, Epstein will feel as if he won the lottery twice, even though there was no luck involved, just the gift for being a baseball man that Lucchino saw, fully, before anybody else did.
I asked Lucchino on Monday, the day before the Cubs played Game 1 of this World Series against the Indians, about what he thinks is Epstein's greatest strength.
"Intellectual firepower" was the answer.
Then I asked him this: "From the first?"
Lucchino: "Yes. That is how I presented him to my partners [Henry, Tom Werner] who were understandably concerned about his age and experience, at 28 years and 11 months. And we knew he would be bold."
It wasn't just Epstein in Boston. It never is, no matter how much power you are given, even at a young age, and how much money you are allowed to spend. Before Epstein was given the general manager's job, Henry and Werner and Lucchino had showed themselves to be the perfect ownership group, justifying the confidence that Bud Selig, then Commissioner, had shown in them before they got the team. And out of all of them, it was Lucchino who set the tone with the organization, as the Red Sox reset their rivalry with the Yankees. It was as if Lucchino was saying to everybody: Listen, we can't win the past off the Yankees, they've already won the past, they're the all-time champions of the past in baseball and everything else. But we're picking a new fight with them, starting now.
Of course it was Lucchino, with a throwaway line, who produced the greatest line in the history of Red Sox vs. Yankees when he described the Yankees as the "Evil Empire" after the Yankees signed Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras and the Red Sox certainly did not.
But from the time Henry and Werner and Lucchino got the Red Sox, it is the Sox who have won three World Series -- and were thinking they might be on their way to a fourth before they got clipped by their old manager's team in Cleveland -- and the Yankees that have won just one, back in 2009. So Epstein, who has changed the culture with the Cubs, comes out of that culture at Fenway Park.
The year his Red Sox finally did end their curse, he hardly scared the baseball world at the Trade Deadline. Oh, he was bold, as Lucchino predicted he would be, trading away Nomar Garciaparra. But here were the players he added to a team that would finally win it all: Orlando Cabrera, Dave Roberts, Doug Mientkiewicz.
In the 2004 American League Championship Series when the Red Sox came from 0-3 down against the Yankees, Cabrera had 11 hits and ended up batting .379. Cabrera finished up that postseason with 17 hits and 11 RBIs. Roberts? All he did was provide the most famous and important steal of second base in the history of the postseason: ninth inning, Game 4, pinch-running for Kevin Millar. The Yankees thought they had him. They didn't. Bill Mueller singled past Mariano Rivera. The Red Sox tied that game. The rest, well, you know, is history.
And Mientkiewicz, whom Theo wanted for his glove? That glove ended up with the ball in it that ended the World Series against the Cardinals and ended all the waiting in Boston. Theo finally left Boston. Maybe there was a part of him thinking that he'd already made the best history he would ever make there and, let's face it: Who would dispute that? Maybe he wanted to get out from the shadow of that history. Maybe he knew it was time to have the kind of power, as president of a team, that Lucchino had in Boston. Maybe, and most likely, it was all of those things.
When Epstein did become GM of the Red Sox, the team was coming off a 93-win season. It would be a little different in Chicago with the Cubs. Just because, well, they were the Cubs. Now here they are and here he is, with the most complete team in his sport, whatever happens over the next week against Terry Francona's Indians, even if Francona makes the kind of history in Cleveland that he and Epstein made together in Boston. There is so much talent and depth with the Cubs, just in the regular lineup, people are already wondering who gets moved where when Kyle Schwarber is again ready to play a full season in 2017. The Cubs have dazzling young talent at every position in the infield alone .
But they also have a 39-year-old catcher, David Ross, who was one of the guys behind the plate when the Red Sox won their last World Series in 2013. Nobody could have thought Ross would ever be this important on another World Series team. But he is. Nobody knew Cabrera and Mientkiewicz and Roberts would be as important as they were to the '04 Red Sox. Sometimes it is even more than just intellectual firepower. It is the same kind of feel for the game, from upstairs, that great managers have in the dugout.
This is what Epstein said in a New York Times interview in '02 after he had become the youngest general manager in baseball history, talking about the organizational structure already in place at Fenway:
''It fits my management style. I tend to solicit opinions from all those around me. I like to hear opinions and the rationale behind it from everybody in the room. Perhaps it's the result of going to law school and using the Socratic method.''
They probably weren't talking about the Socratic method in Chicago the last time the Cubs won the Series. Or even the last time they played in the Series. Nobody cares about truth or beauty or philosophy right now on the North Side -- just winning four more games. It was just five years ago that Epstein showed up in the Cubs' front office. You know what Cubs fans think right now? They think it was like Jordan walking through the door.