|Happier times: Theo Epstein gets a champagne shower after Boston wins the 2007 World Series. (Getty Images)|
If Theo Epstein is a smart guy, he's a smart guy because he got into Yale. He's a smart guy because he went to law school and graduated.
The Red Sox have averaged 93 wins and won two World Series in the nine years he has been general manager, but that doesn't make Epstein a smart guy.
That makes him a lucky guy.
General manager of the Red Sox in this era of Major League Baseball? That's one of the luckiest jobs in sports. Certainly you have to be smart to get that job, and as I've conceded, Theo Epstein -- Yale grad, Juris Doctor -- is a smart guy. But to win as the general manager of the Red Sox? You don't have to be smart to do that.
You have to be breathing to do that.
And yet Epstein has fan bases in two Major League cities anxiously awaiting his next career move. In Boston they want him to stay and to keep running the Red Sox. In Chicago they want him to run the Cubs. All of this because he's seen as a genius, and look, maybe he is. I'd need to see his transcript and his SAT score, but I'm willing to consider the possibility that Theo Epstein is a genius.
But a baseball genius?
I'm not willing to consider that. I'm not close. And let me go one step farther and say the following: Even if Epstein goes to the Cubs, and wins a World Series there within five years, I wouldn't concede that he's a baseball genius.
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What would make me concede Epstein's baseball brilliance? Win a World Series in Minnesota. Win one in Milwaukee. Win one in Oakland. Get to the playoffs at all in Kansas City. Do more with less. That's how you impress me -- more with less.
Two World Series in nine years in Boston? Not impressing me, Mr. Epstein. To borrow the best line from Dangerous Liaisons: One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat.
The way I see it, winning two World Series in nine years -- in these nine years -- is damn near the minimum a GM should do in Boston. These are not the 1940s or '50s or '60s or '70 or '80s or even the '90s, when talk of the Babe Ruth curse reached shrieking levels in Boston. Until the 1990s, payrolls were fairly even around the league, and even in the '90s the gap between rich and poor wasn't close to what it is now.
Here are some facts that will win my argument, so if you're inclined to disagree with what you've read so far, maybe you should turn away. It's about to get ugly for you.
In 2000, three years before Epstein became GM, Boston's payroll was fifth in baseball. That's a nice ranking, fifth, but there were nine other teams within $20 million. That's one-third of baseball, bunched there in the middle.
In 2004, when Boston won its first World Series title, it was second in payroll. There was no team within $20 million.
In 2007, when Boston won its second World Series title, it was second in payroll -- no team within $20 million.
And this makes Epstein a baseball genius? No. It makes him lucky to have one of the greatest jobs in baseball. And if he goes to the Cubs, he will again have one of the greatest jobs in baseball because the Cubs spend now -- they were third in payroll in 2009 and 2010 -- and they would spend more with Epstein in charge.
That's an assumption on my part, but it's a pretty good one: No way does Theo Epstein leave the Red Sox, who give him more tools -- better, sharper -- than almost everyone else in the game so he could slum it in Chicago and try to win with a rusted tool kit. No way, no how. If he goes to Chicago, it's because he will have received a guarantee of the resources required to win it all.
And bully for the Cubs if they give him that guarantee. It would be nice if fans of any large-market team -- the Cubs, Red Sox, Yankees, whoever -- would acknowledge just how unfair the current setup of baseball has become, rather than pretending their team has earned its unfair advantage by dint of, well, I don't even know how fans in huge cities fool themselves into thinking their team has earned its unfair advantage. That's crazy, and I'm not conversant in crazy.
But I'm fluent in common sense, and common sense screams out that Theo Epstein is overrated as a GM. And look, I like the guy. I even have a tweet to prove it! Last week the Red Sox announced they were parting ways with manager Terry Francona, and the press conference was televised. That was my first in-depth exposure to Epstein, and I was impressed. Smart guy? Obviously. Charismatic, too. As I tweeted, I really like the guy.
But he doesn't deserve a cult following. The guy running the Tampa Bay Rays, Andrew Friedman? Never met him, never even heard him run a press conference, but that guy's a baseball genius. He does more with less, and he does it every year. The guy who remade the San Francisco Giants after the Barry Bonds era, GM Brian Sabean? Not a genius, but very impressive. Frank Wren of the Braves? Very impressive. Doug Melvin of the Brewers? Very impressive.
But not as lucky as Brian Cashman of the Yankees. That's the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.