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A monkey off Theo's back

The most expensive gorilla suit in the world hangs in the window of Ace Ticket in Brookline, Mass.

When Jim Holzman plunked down $11,000 for it at a January charity event in Boston, he was buying publicity for his broker business, sure, but more than that, he thought it was a down payment on good karma, if such things are for sale.

"Peter Gammons was on stage," Holzman said last week, "and he said if anybody bids $5,000, he guarantees Theo will come back to the Red Sox. I was in then."

Theo is Theo Epstein, the second most famous person from Brookline – the first was named John Fitzgerald Kennedy – and he was the Boston Red Sox's general manager until Halloween last year, when he walked away from the team's offices in a King Kong costume.

For the next 80 days, Boston was paralyzed with fear that Theo was gone, and it illustrated the essence of Epstein: Not that the Red Sox hired him at 28 years old in 2002 to shepherd their franchise and not that two years later he brought them their first championship in 86 seasons and not that he might actually leave his dream job, but what he commanded by being himself.

By the time Epstein returned, he had maintained the unmitigated adoration of a city while securing the power of one of sports' renowned franchises in what the business world might have deemed a reverse takeover. And here he is, less than six months later, atop the org chart of the first-place team in the cutthroat American League East, ahead of the rival New York Yankees, against whom the Red Sox begin a three-game series at Fenway Park tonight.

"Everything's great," said Epstein, now 32. "We went through a very difficult 10-week process. Things couldn't be better."

Such a maneuver could have been executed by a cunning few, and by now we know, unequivocally, to count Epstein among their ranks. Though Epstein declines to talk in detail about the past, the scene these days at Fenway Park paints the picture in bright colors: Larry Lucchino, the Red Sox president – formerly an often-seen, often-heard presence around Yawkey Way – rarely, if ever, shows his face, and he talks even less. Three newspaper stories have quoted him since opening day. In the first six weeks last year, he talked on at least a dozen occasions.

What this means, in the simplest terms, is that this ship is Epstein's to sail or sink. The outcry over Epstein's departure softened owner John Henry – "Maybe I'm not fit to be the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox," he said the day Epstein left – and gave Epstein the weight of Moby Dick.

So far, so good. Epstein took the reins back from two of his lieutenants, Jed Hoyer and Ben Cherington, and a week later pulled the trigger on the Coco Crisp deal they'd spent weeks consummating. He signed David Ortiz to a four-year, $52 million extension. He moved Jonathan Papelbon, the Red Sox's top pitching prospect, into the bullpen, where he's been unhittable.

He also traded starter Bronson Arroyo, who, at the season's quarter pole, has been the National League's best pitcher with Cincinnati.

"Baseball," Epstein said, "is a humbling game."

Part of Epstein's charm is his willingness to admit fallibility. He points to the player acquired in the Arroyo deal, Wily Mo Pena, who plays all three outfielder positions, is hitting .327 with 18 RBI in 101 at-bats and, most important, is only 24. Next season's free-agent class is the worst in years, and to secure middle-of-the-lineup potential was, for Epstein, worth the sacrifice of a starting pitcher.

Decisions such as these made his reputation, and they're the same ones that could break it.

"It's hard to stay up with teams that can gear up for a two- or three-year run," Epstein said. "We had to fight our asses off to win 95 games and get in the playoffs last year. It's hard to build a bullpen that can succeed in the pressure of Boston. This isn't easy."

That pressure forced the Red Sox into putting Papelbon in the bullpen. If not for the threat of an early deficit in the standings due to possible shakiness from Keith Foulke, why would the Red Sox shoehorn a potential 200-inning pitcher into a 75-inning role?

Because in Boston, the today is yesterday and the tomorrow is now.

"We work hard enough and have enough of an idea how to do things that we're not behind," Epstein said. "We don't fool ourselves into thinking we have all the answers. Even when things are going well, we look for ways to get better. Things change quickly.

"We're trying to build a self-sustaining baseball operation that can get into the playoffs on an annual basis. That was the goal when we took over at the end of '02. We want in eight out of 10 years. And to win a couple World Series during that time."

It's admirable the way Epstein touts the we, how he delegates responsibility. The new regime is not the same as the old regime, though, because now everything filters through him. Epstein is the organization's face and its brains and its heart.

Which is just what Boston wanted. The city trusts Epstein like it would a friend. He was at the auction that January night, where part of the money went to his Foundation To Be Named Later, and he sat there smiling as Papelbon egged on the bidders.

"After it passed $10,000, it was going to take something," Holzman said. "Jon Papelbon is up on stage, and he said, C'mon, man, I'll give you the sweater off my back.' He took the sweater off, threw it across the room, hit me in the face. I knew I had to go $11,000."

Holzman laughed.

"Theo's back," he said, "and I'd like to think we did our little part."