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Sunday, August 1, 2004
Updated: August 3, 1:00 AM ET
DePodesta, Epstein stand strong

By Peter Gammons
Special to

Aug. 1

Neither man is old enough to be president, played even in the minor leagues or chewed tobacco. They are Harvard and Yale, draped in the perceptual gowns of "Moneyball," educated in the baseball academies of Dan O'Dowd, Mark Shapiro, Billy Beane and Kevin Towers and together have less combined professional service time than Julio Franco.

And now, Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta and Red Sox GM Theo Epstein are faced with the shrapnel from friendly fire in two of the game's four most significant and traditional fan bases. "To say I'm getting killed is an understatement," says DePodesta, "but we did what we did to try not just to make the postseason, but to go deep. In this job, you have to do what you believe is right."

Paul Lo Duca
Trading Paul Lo Duca wasn't a popular move in L.A.

"We knew that our process would entail things getting ugly because the fans, understandably, get attached to great players," says Epstein, who is faced with the public glare as free agency beckons four players who are New England icons of various degrees. "It's ugly right now, but we addressed a situation and our most glaring need. I do not think we could win in the postseason with our defense, as it was. I think we have a better chance now."

From the time he was hired as general manager over more veteran "names" this spring -- by an owner from Boston who was hardly Southern California's choice and sometimes is referred to as "the parking lot attendant" -- DePodesta has been viewed with a wary eye.

That the team was surprisingly in first place gave him a period of grace, but on Friday, when he traded the team's most popular position player and All-Star (Paul Lo Duca), the league's best setup man (Guillermo Mota) and outfielder Juan Encarnacion to Florida for pitcher Brad Penny, first baseman Hee Seop Choi and minor leaguer Billy Murphy (oh, you read Moneyball? Yeah, he was one of those computer draft chips), DePodesta's honeymoon ended. OK, he got another 24-hour window to see if that trade turned out to be Randy Johnson and Steve Finley, but when Johnson didn't happen and Finley was the final piece, no Bob Shrum address or photo-op could save his poll ratings.

And then on Saturday night, Darren Dreifort stepped into Mota's role in the eighth inning with a 2-1 lead against the Padres ... Cue up "Hell's Bells." It could not have been a worse start to the post-trade era. Dreifort gave up two runs in the inning, and the final result: Padres 3, Dodgers 2.

Epstein's honeymoon had lasted for more than a year and a half. The majority of his first-year moves worked, the Red Sox made it to the seventh game of the ALCS and when they lost, fans and ownership fingered former manager Grady Little rather than players or management. Epstein went out last offseason and got Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke. But when he tried to trade Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez for Alex Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, then saw his bosses pull away after weeks of public negotiations, he knew that at some point there would be decisions that would be made that would shut down the switchboard at radio station WEEI in Boston.

On July 31, minutes from the trading deadline, Epstein looked at the Red Sox's 27-29 record since May 26 and made his choice. He traded No-Mah and one of his best prospects, outfielder Matt Murton, to the Chicago Cubs for two players who weren't with the Cubs, were each batting under .250 with a combined eight home runs and did not bring any of the glitz that Red Sox fans had grown accustomed to loving since Tom Yawkey bought the team in 1932 and turned the Old Towne Teame into a franchise driven by star individuals who never found the right turn to a championship.

While Epstein was in the middle of a situation where his star player was forcing his way out of town -- knowing he wouldn't be in that town that he actually loves at the end of the season -- DePodesta made a far more daring trade. "I am trying to make the Dodgers a team that can go deep into the playoffs," DePodesta says. "What this team has done is remarkable, but in my judgement we needed another front-of-the-rotation starter and more offense. To do that, we had to make some difficult choices."

Critics say the Dodgers, a team notorious for bad chemistry, were a magical club. They were 20-6 in July at the time of the trade. They had the best bullpen in baseball. But DePodesta weighed regular-season success against what it takes to win in October, and made his decision. "We think we upgraded our rotation with (Brad) Penny, who is 26 and someone who proved last season what he can do in October," DePodesta said. "We needed that." (You noticed? Jose Lima, Wilson Alvarez just weren't the answer.)

"We needed to upgrade the offense, and I look at it this way: Finley is an upgrade (over) Lo Duca, Choi is an upgrade from Encarnacion and Brent Mayne and Dave Roberts are somewhat of a standoff." Of course, originally the idea was to get Charles Johnson from the Rockies, who would pay $9 million of his salary, but Johnson passed on catching in a pennant race and demanded a $3.5 million extension, folly.

Milton Bradley apparently agreed to move to left field for Finley, and Jayson Werth is an invaluable asset at all three outfield positions as well as first base, as Choi struggles against left-handed pitching.

DePodesta is gambling that the extra innings that Penny brings and the additional offense will make up for the loss of Mota.

We needed to upgrade the offense, and I look at it this way: (Steve) Finley is an upgrade (over) (Paul) Lo Duca, (Hee Seop) Choi is an upgrade from (Juan) Encarnacion and Brent Mayne and Dave Roberts are somewhat of a standoff.
Paul DePodesta, Dodgers GM

"We believe Dreifort, who has been throwing very well, can pitch the eighth inning. Duaner Sanchez has also been very good, throwing 95 to 97. What is overlooked is Yhency Brazoban. We have wanted to get him to the major leagues for a while. We thought about (bringing him up straight from) Double-A, then he went to Triple-A and had 17 strikeouts and one walk (in 12 1/3 innings pitched). He could be an important part of our bullpen down the stretch. That gives us four pitchers at the end of our bullpen who throw 95 or better, and it could be that when Edwin Jackson returns, he could move into the bullpen."

Now, Johnson would have been nice, and he was willing to go to the Dodgers. But while the Diamondbacks assumed DePodesta would give up Penny, Jackson and Werth, they were wrong. When Arizona GM Joe Garagiola told the Yankees they were out earlier in the week, he told them that he could have a deal with L.A. But while DePodesta would have traded Penny and prospects, he could not give up Jackson and Werth, valuable players who are minimum salary guys in 2004-2005. "To afford Randy," says DePodesta, "we need (Jackson and Werth) at $300,000 (each)."

But while some point to the 179 point difference in first and second half OPS numbers the last three seasons, Lo Duca is a special player and leader, and his loss is something that can't be quantified. Can Dreifort throw three straight days? Is Brazoban ready?

That, we don't know. What we do know is that DePodesta has the guts to do what he believes is right.

Which is what we know about Epstein. While Nomar did love New England and was a crowd favorite for the way he played, his bitterness toward the ownership ran deep. He signed a below-market contract after his historic rookie season, then when he sat down with owner John Henry, team president Larry Lucchino, et al, in spring training, 2003, he rejected a four-year, $60 million deal. Last fall, that offer dropped to four years and $48 million, and not only was Garciaparra angry about that, but while he was on his honeymoon he found out he was all but traded. While Epstein constantly called to update him, Garciaparra was hurt. As someone who after his wrist surgery seemed increasingly angered by management and media issues, he became overly angry this spring.

Garciaparra did not hang out with teammates, and this season became increasingly distant as his body language became despondent. That he didn't play in Yankee Stadium in the July 1 classic when Derek Jeter gave up his body for an out got a little exaggerated, but veteran teammates constantly made private comments like "he is the biggest disappointment of my playing career -- I never knew what he was like."

Management had tired of his complaints. They blamed him for the grievance against the makers of the movie "Still We Believe," in which players insisted they should have been paid for their participation in the film. (Actually, it was several players, but ownership believed Nomar was the instigator.) In turn, Nomar had no use for Henry or Lucchino.

Nomar was bitter, he was embarrassed to not play as he wanted because of his heel injury (three teams that do statistical ratings of players had him as the worst defensive shortstop in the game, because of the injury). Then, when the Red Sox got to Minnesota this weekend, Garciaparra told trainers Jim Rowe and Chris Correnti that his heel wasn't right and that not only would he have to skip the weekend, he expected to have to go on the disabled list for most of August to be right in September. But when Epstein told Cubs GM Jim Hendry that there is a medical issue, Hendry said he wasn't concerned -- which led the Red Sox to believe that Arn Tellem, Garciaparra's agent, was telling the Cubs he is fine. Translated, as Warren Zevon would say, "Dad, get me out of this."

Understand, Epstein is not some professor sitting in front of his laptop 21 hours a day. He is a people person whom the players like and relate to; Foulke came to Boston because of what he liked about the general manager. So did Schilling. Epstein listens to players, and had the pulse of the way they felt about this situation. He also knows that while Derek Lowe is publicly portrayed as three bricks shy of Jimmy Piersall, the players wanted Lowe to stay.

" We knew that our process would entail things getting ugly because the fans understandably get attached to great players. It's ugly right now, but we addressed a situation and our most glaring need. I do not think we could win in the postseason with our defense, as it was. I think we have a better chance now. "
Theo Epstein, Red Sox GM

Epstein figured if Nomar had only 60 games left in a Boston uniform and he would play only half of them, he had to try to move him. The Cubs would have traded Matt Clement and Orlando Cabrera (who they would have first gotten from the Expos) for Garciaparra and Derek Lowe, but given the opportunity to get a great defensive first baseman, Epstein went for Doug Mientkiewicz and Cabrera and figures that Lowe will be a better pitcher with a vastly different defense.

Garciaparra should be back to his old self in Chicago, where it will be new, not stale, his contract will not be a media soap opera, Dusty Baker can make anyone feel good about playing, and he'll be playing behind a power staff. In fact, Nomar could get his star status back.

But unless the Red Sox were willing to re-offer the $60 million for four years, his time was up in Boston. No chance. Thus, see ya.

"I don't think we could have made the playoffs and, if we did, go anywhere because of (Nomar's) defense," says Epstein. "We built this team around pitching. We hope to build the franchise around pitching. But pitching doesn't win if you don't make plays."

In time, Epstein, Henry and Lucchino hope to change the Red Sox's culture, which has traditionally been to cater to stars. Once former manager Jimy Williams disciplined Pedro Martinez for reporting late for a start in 1999 and was overruled because Pedro was a star, Williams was done, and Pedro was given carte blanche to do what he felt like doing. Ramirez may occasionally sit himself, but while he has taken a lot of heat, he is liked.

In time, the Red Sox hope to have players who talk first about winning, then worry about their contracts. This year, in the wake of the bungling of the Alex Rodriguez deal, management underestimated how much the contracts were on the minds of players. Pedro wins because he is pitching for revenge. Jason Varitek never lets anything interfere with winning. Lowe, however, has been affected.

But Epstein believed the chemistry and atmosphere was clearly impacted by Garciaparra's anger, and when he went to the trainers and opened the door out of Fenway Park, the Red Sox GM pulled it wide open and handed him a plane ticket to Chicago.

A year from now, Epstein and DePodesta, who weren't even alive when John Kerry was marching with the Vietnam Veterans against the War, will have these two trades as frontpieces of their professional resumes. Polls or no polls, talk-show callers or no talk-show callers, unlike most politicians, each had the intellectual conviction to do not what was popular, but what each believed was right.