For Theo Epstein, Maybe Boston Was Just Too Much

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - FILE: General manager Theo Epstein of the Boston Red Sox sits in the dugout before game two of the ALCS against the Tampa Bay Rays during the at Tropicana Field on October 10, 2008 in St. Petersburg, Florida. According to reports October 12, 2011, Epstein, who has one-year left on his contract with the Red Sox, has agreed with the Chicago Cubs to a five-year $15 million contract to join their front office, but compensation for the deal has not been reached between the two teams. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Was being a celebrity in his home town too much for Theo Epstein?

Last weekend I re-read Seth Mnookin's book, Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top, and while reading was struck by just how much of the recent drama surrounding Theo Epstein and his bosses is foreshadowed in Mnookin's book.

Which made me wonder about Mnookin's reaction to Epstein's leaving the Boston Red Sox for the Chicago Cubs. Mnookin's lecturing at MIT this year, and I reached him by phone in his Cambridge office.

One of the recurring themes in Feeding the Monster is the uneasy relationship between general manager Theo Epstein and CEO Larry Lucchino, which contributed to Epstein's temporary departure from the Red Sox after the 2005 season. Mnookin, though, doesn't see that relationship as being a prime reason for Epstein's recent exit.

"Theo and Larry are never going to vacation together," Mnookin says, "But from everything I have heard and all indications, they did find a way to work together and work together fairly well."

The Red Sox have certainly won a lot of games since 2005, with Epstein and Lucchino working together for six full seasons. I wondered back then if Epstein returned to his duties only after being assured by co-owner John Henry that he would have a bit more freedom to operate without worrying about Lucchino getting involved. (Oh, and a big raise probably helped some, too.)

As Mnookin says, "Even though I'm sure there were times when Larry wanted more control over baseball operations or Theo wanted things promoted in a different way, they were able to work together in a way that made sense for everyone."

So why is Epstein leaving? Perhaps someday he'll tell us. But another possible reason is presaged in Feeding the Monster. Within just a year or two of taking over as Red Sox GM after the 2002 season, Epstein was exasperated with the public nature of his position. And maybe he finally realized that the situation was just never going to improve.

"I definitely think that anyone who thought," Mnookin says, "he was going to go from someone who was driven so frustrated and crazy by all the attention to someone who would just let all that roll off his back was deluding themselves."

As John Henry said last week, "He never saw the general manager's role as longer than 10 years for himself. I mean, maybe he did early on, but certainly after a few years he knew the stress of this job was too much."

So perhaps it was always just a matter of time, and less time than most observers might have guessed.

In some cities, maybe 95 percent of the local fans could hardly pick the baseball team's general manager out of a lineup. And even if they recognized him, most would leave him alone.

Not in Boston, where for many reasons Theo Epstein became a major celebrity. And celebrities in Boston are not left alone. As David Wells said after his season with the Red Sox, "In New York, you can hide, you can go anywhere you want. In Boston, you can't go anywhere. We're all hermits because of the fact that if we try to go out, we just get bombarded with fans."

Epstein might actually have enjoyed his fame for a few years. After all, how many kids don't fantasize about someday becoming the king of their hometown? But that presumably does get old after a spell ... And especially after you've gotten married and are raising a child.

The baseball fans are passionate in Chicago, too. But as Mnookin notes, even if Epstein wins a World Series in Chicago, "It's not the same sort of mythic narrative. People will still be staring at him, but it won't be the same as it was in Boston."

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