“I’d like to see how smart Theo Epstein is with the Tampa Bay payroll. You got Carl Crawford ‘cause you paid more than anyone else, and that’s what makes you smarter?” — Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter
You know, as much as I want to give Showalter credit for trying to motivate his club by firing shots at Theo Epstein — who’s made the Red Sox the clear favorite in the division where Showalter’s Orioles are the clear favorite in the “All-Star break managerial change” sweepstakes — I have to take several exceptions to what he said here.
First and foremost, because he sounds like the least fun guy named “Buck” I’ve ever heard of in my life. Second, because Epstein, by signing Carl Crawford and swinging the epic Adrian Gonzalez trade, is just doing his job. No, I’ll go it one better: He’s doing what we demand of him. The reason Theo can spend money on baseball talent like Charlie Sheen can spend it on porn actresses is because we foot the bill. Sox fans deserve a grotesquely large payroll is because we pay the most ridiculously high prices in all of baseball, and yet Fenway hasn’t seen an empty seat since 2003.
Third, the last I looked, neither Showalter’s boss, Peter Angelos, or the Rays owner his heart bleeds so much for, Stuart Sternberg, were taking side jobs as Wal-Mart greeters in order to make ends meet.
But the larger point Showalter is missing is that, regardless of what his budget is, Theo did what he set out to do this winter. He flat out, unequivocally, without question, won the 2011 offseason.
Granted, that’s not everything. I’m the last guy to celebrate before the champagne starts stinging retinas. After all, I was the kid in '86 who refused to celebrate with the Sox up two runs, two outs away and the bases empty while all of my friends were awkwardly man-hugging.
Without trying I can cite a half-dozen clichés about celebrating before you’ve accomplished your goals, including one about counting chickens, another about another about birds in hands, one from Bill Parcells about putting guys in Canton, and my favorite: the unprintable one from Winston Wolf in “Pulp Fiction” warning Jules and Vincent not to start [bleeping] each other’s [bleeps] just yet; there was work to do.
But there’s no denying that right here, right now, with the 2011 major league season about to start, that the Red Sox absolutely had the best offseason of any team in baseball.
For a biased, unrepentant, unapologetic Red Sox fanboy, this Opening Day is a moment to be cherished. Because it’s rarely been this way for us. Most years the Sox have at most the second-best offseason. Not to go all Showalter on you, cry poor-mouth and wallow in my own pathetic self-pity, but there have been more years than not when the Yankees landed the big fish at the winter meetings and we’re left with the scraps.
Not this year. I concede that nothing means anything until we’re months into the season. But right here, right now, hours away from teams taking live fire in games that actually matter, that same insufferable swagger and intolerable arrogance that has been a registered trademark of Yankees fans for most of our lifetimes belongs to us right now.
And the credit belongs all to Theo. In that big singles bar that is the winter meetings, he outfoxed everyone. Every guy in the club was falling all over himself trying to scoop up the hottest girl in the place, Cliff Lee. Especially the Yankees' aptly named Brian Cashman, who walked around flashing his bankroll trying to impress them all. But Theo worked the classic wing man move of leaving with the second-best chick in the bar (Crawford) while also prying the real keeper of the group (Gonzalez) away from a committed relationship (the Padres). It was bold. It was clever. And days away from the season, it was an unqualified success.
In fact, right now, before a pitch has been thrown, I’m already willing to put Theo Epstein’s winter of 2011 up with the all time great offseasons any Boston GM has ever had. Or at least within the last 30 or so years, since, A) That’s my frame of reference, and, B) I’m too lazy to do the research any further back.
So what I’ll do is rate Theo’s 2011 against the best Boston offseasons of my lifetime, and rate them on a scale named after the GM who practically invented the great offseason: Red Auerbach. A quick story to explain the logic, a story that may or may not be apocryphal, but I’ll assume it’s true, just because I want to believe it. It was the year Red fleeced the Suns, practically stealing Dennis Johnson for Rick Robey. A criminal was found guilty in an Arizona court and was going to jail. The judge asked him if he had anything to say, for the record. And allegedly, the perp said, “Yes. Tell Jerry Colangelo not to make any more trades with Red Auerbach.”
My rankings of the best Boston GM offseasons of the past 30 years:
10. 2006 Peter Chiarelli. This one doesn’t rank higher because to date it hasn’t produced a title. Or anything close to it. But coming out of the debacle that was the Bruins’ failed attempt at an 2004-05 lockout plan, this was not a bad recovery. Chiarelli signed Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard, drafted Milan Lucic, Phil Kessel and Brad Marchand, and swung the Tuukka Rask trade.
Rating: 3.0 Reds
9. 1998 Dan Duquette. This is a tough call, since the previous year, The Duke produced the Great Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb heist. And a couple of years later paid the ransom on Manny Ramirez. And no question those moves paid off in spades. But in the offseason between '97 and '98 he pulled off arguably the biggest in Boston sports history, getting Pedro Martinez — the best pitcher of his generation — for non-descript nobodies named Tony Armas Jr. and Brian Rose. Without this trade we’d be staring down the barrel of 90 years without a championship and 10 more “Curse” books by Dan Shaughnessy.
Rating: 4.0 Reds
8. 2007 Bill Belichick/Scott Pioli. Again, this one hasn’t produced a championship. And one can fairly quibble with a draft that only produced Brandon Meriweather. But some of the mid-round picks from that draft produced Wes Welker and Randy Moss. And damned near the undisputed best team of all-time. (See you in hell, David Tyree.)
Rating: 6.5 Reds
7. 2007 Larry Lucchino/Jed Hoyer/Ben Cherington. Granted they stood on the shoulders of giants named Duquette and Epstein, but the trio pulled off the Hanley Ramirez for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell trade. Ramirez was a steep price to pay and it took the balls of a brass monkey to pull the trigger, but without a doubt it won the World Series.
Rating: 7.0 Reds
6. 2004 Piolichick. The foundation was already laid by earlier offseasons, but in 2004 the Patriots traded for damaged goods in Corey Dillon, who did nothing less than set a team record with 1,600-plus yards. They also drafted future cornerstone Vince Wilfork. And Belichick had Troy Brown practice at defensive back, a bizarre move that ultimately might have won them Super Bowl No. 3.
Rating: 7.0 Reds
5. 1985 Red Auerbach. The Celtics lost to the Lakers in the 1985 NBA finals in a series that really wasn’t close. So in the spring/summer of '85, Red added Sam Vincent, Jerry Sichting and Bill Walton and did nothing less than assemble the best NBA team I’ve ever seen.
Rating: 7.5 Reds
4. 2003-04 Theo. The post-Grady Little debacle started with Thanksgiving turkey with the Schillings. It continued with the hiring of Terry Francona, easily the best manager in Sox history. Then segued into the signing of integral part Mark Bellhorn. Then the end of the bullpen by committee fiasco with the acquisition of Keith Foulke. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Rating: 8.0 Reds
3. 2001 Piolichick. I will never forget my brother Jack and I going to Patriots training camp in Smithfield, R.I. The Pats were coming off a 5-11 season, hadn’t added anyone of note to the roster, and career disgruntled knucklehead Terry Glenn was faking an injury and winning the Tour de Sidelines on the stationary bike. I asked Jack to give me reasons to be cheerful (Part 3, my being a huge fan of Ian Dury and the Blockheads and all). And he cited chapter and verse to me about all the great role players they’d acquired that summer. No names like Roman Phifer, Mike Compton and Joe Andruzzi. Rookies like Richard Seymour and Matt Light. I hate to admit it when a brother is right, but he was right.
Rating: 8.5 Reds
2. 2007 Danny Ainge. It’s impossible to imagine that anyone could have more success with less luck than Danny did this year. Hoping for the first overall pick in the NBA draft lottery, or at worst, second, he got nothing and liked it. Technically, he ended up with fifth, and with the kind of salesmanship you’ll only find in a three-card Monte dealer, Ainge flipped that pick plus Al Jefferson plus God knows what else for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Then he signed Eddie House and pulled Glen Davis out of the magician’s hat in the second round of the draft. And I think I speak for everyone when I say I don’t want to contemplate what would’ve happened if the C’s had “won” the lottery.
Rating: 9.0 Reds
1. 2000 Belichick. Pioli. Dick Rehbein. I have no idea what else the Patriots accomplished during Belichick’s first year. Nor do I care. Apart from the fact that with the 199th pick they were debating between the skinny kid from Michigan who couldn’t hold down the starting job and Tim Rattay. And the late coach Rehbein talked the bosses into taking Tom Brady. Best offseason ever.
Rating: 9.9 Reds
Though if the Sox win multiple championships with A-Gon and Crawford, I’m willing to revisit the issue.
Follow Jerry on Twitter @jerrythornton1.