The Epsteins moved back to Boston for the start of the 1978 academic year at Boston University, where the family's father, Leslie, still directs the school's creative writing program. This was the summer his 5-year-old twins, Theo and Paul, were too young to understand the colossal collapse of the Red Sox, the angst of Bucky Bleeping Dent, the pall over Fenway Park. They were still too young to have hate in their hearts over the New York Yankees.
Leslie Epstein lived and died with the Sox that summer, leaving Manhattan's Upper West Side to do his mourning in the leafy Boston suburb of Brookline. The longer his family lived in New York, the longer Leslie worked at Queens College, the better the chance his boys would've escaped life as tortured Sox souls.
"I've always been a Red Sox fan," Leslie said. "I hated the Yankees so much. To me, rooting for them would be like voting Republican."
Over the winter, Leslie told Theo, "Be daring," when ownership offered his 28-year-old son the chance to be the youngest general manager in baseball history, a seat of power unparalleled in Old Towne prestige and pressure. Theo Epstein could be remembered as a New England icon, or end up as just one more carcass littered on the 85-year, championship-less trail.
"Take it and be daring," Leslie told Theo.
Now, Theo is taking it to the Yankees with his moves, the way his long-suffering Yaz-father took it to Steinbrenner over the phone.
"Is it true Steinbrenner summoned all of them down to Tampa?" Leslie wondered after hearing about the Boss' meeting of the minions in Florida this week. "He must be asking them, 'How come this little jerk is making you guys look like fools?' They wanted both Scotts (Williamson and Sauerbeck), and we got them. We're supposed to have the depleted farm system, right? What's going on here?
"I don't like to gloat over (Brian) Cashman getting reamed by his boss, because I know he's a good guy, but if Darth Vader The Convicted Felon should be discomforted, well, it pleases me to no end. ... The fact that my son is part of doing that to him is even better."
Pity poor Theo, who must have spit out his coffee Thursday morning when those words flashed before his eyes. Couldn't you just hear him? Come on, Dad, nobody named Epstein needs to get Steinbrenner so much angrier that he sends that Yankees payroll hurtling upward of $200 million. Sorry, but Leslie is entitled. Before he was a father, he was a Red Sox fan. The hate runs long and deep, like a family heirloom handed down in New England.
"The Yankees are not good for baseball," Leslie declared. "One hundred eighty million (payroll) is not good for the sport."
This is still the best pure, unadulterated hatred in professional sports. And it is beautiful. This rivalry is personal for Sox fans, an intensity that has magnified in the Epstein household just a mile from Fenway Park in Brookline, Mass. As much as everyone else in Boston ridiculed Steinbrenner for crying after a Yankees victory over the Red Sox in June, the GM's father could commiserate with the emotional investment. "I rather appreciated that about him," Leslie said. "He cared; he showed that in an emotional way."
Steinbrenner is right, The Red Sox "haven't won anything yet," but Theo Epstein has won the respect of Boston and beyond. The Yankees and Sox fought it out to the 4 p.m. trade deadline on Thursday, with the Yankees scoring Aaron Boone and Epstein bringing back starter Jeff Suppan and Brandon Lyon from Pittsburgh. No, Epstein hasn't been perfect on the job, "The jury is still out on Jeremy Giambi and Chad Fox," his own father says, but the good has far outdistanced the bad. What's more, he had the courage to change course on his early-season mistakes in the bullpen and completely crushed the Yankees on the way to Sauerbeck and Williamson, leaving the Yankees with Jesse Orosco and Armando Benitez for those setup jobs.
Orosco? Seventeen years ago, Theo was standing on his parents' living room couch waiting for the final out on the Mets in Game 6, the final out on a Sox championship so he could leap into the air. It never happened. "They just climbed down," Leslie said.
After Game 7, it was Orosco leaping into the air, throwing his glove into the New York sky and breaking New England's heart one more time. From Bill Mueller to David Ortiz, Todd Walker to Kevin Millar, Theo's sharp eye has surrounded the Sox sluggers with, as he calls them, "on-base machines," to make for the majors' most menacing offense. The son of a creative writing teacher has taught his share of lessons on creativity this season.
These days, the Yankees are making far more mistakes. Raul Mondesi and Bubba Trammell had to be thrown out of the Bronx for simply going AWOL on game nights. Jose Contreras has a chance to be a $32 million bust, a Red Sox bust had Epstein had his way and signed him over the winter.
With the Red Sox back just 2½ games now and leading for the AL Wild Card, the message is unmistakable in Boston now: They're going for it. They're going for everything. What's more, Epstein hasn't had to sell out the Red Sox tomorrow for today, protecting most of his top prospects in trades for arms. His confidence is growing with every move, every bold stroke. As it turned out, Epstein isn't before his time at 29 now. His body of work insists he's right on cue.
"This is the job he would have liked as a culmination of his career at 56 years old, but to be (hired as) GM of the Red Sox at 28?" Leslie said. "Be careful what you wish for. What if he wins the World Series this year? What does he do next? Become a Jewish pope?
"What would he do for an encore?"
For now, Theo Epstein is the GM sticking and jabbing at Steinbrenner, sending Darth Vader and the Evil Empire into pure panic at the trading deadline. The Boss is right: The Sox haven't won anything yet. So far, it's just the boy wonder GM out of Brookline, off the top of his parents' couch. Theo Epstein is still waiting to leap in the air to celebrate that World Series championship. All his family and friends, all his fellow Bostonians and New Englanders, stand there with him. Just waiting. Still.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj@aol.com.