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Red Sox call Theo Epstein's bluff

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Tracy Ringolsby

Tracy Ringolsby is a Hall of Fame baseball writer. He is in his 37th year covering Major League Baseball, is a co-founder of Baseball America, and is in his fourth year as pregame and postgame analyst for Colorado Rockies games on Root Sports.

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There is no such thing as an amicable divorce. Oh, the two sides put on a public show, act like they have kissed and made up.

But be real. Once the in-house confrontations become public the feel-good moments disappear.

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And it seems that reality finally hit in Boston.

Every indication is that this time, Theo Epstein really will walk away from running the Boston Red Sox. There won’t be any reconciliation, like there was six years ago.

While sources inside baseball fell short of confirming a Boston Herald report on Tuesday that an announcement of Epstein becoming the general manager of the Chicago Cubs would happen "within the next 24 to 48 hours,’’ there was a strong feeling that Epstein is moving forward in negotiations with the Cubs.

There are hang ups.

Not only do the Cubs have to meet the demands of Epstein, who most likely will have a title of President of Baseball Operations, but once they get the i’s dotted and t’s crossed with Epstein they then have to satisfy what Boston is going to want for letting Epstein out of the final year of his contract.

The Sox also will have strict limits on how many Red Sox employees Epstein could take with him, just like they did with Arizona when the Diamondbacks made the shortlived decision to hire an Epstein aide, Josh Byrnes, as their general manager after the 2005 season.

And there also is the need for Epstein to handle his inner emotions. As much as the ego can be fed by feeling confident of being able to end a Cubs championship drought that dates back to 1908, dwarfing the failure in Boston, there are heartfelt Red Sox ties for Epstein, who grew up in Brookline a couple miles from Fenway Park.

Boston is the team of his childhood dreams.

It is the team he took over and led to, not one, but two world championships, making dreams come true for millions of New Englanders, whose angst of the failures of their beloved Red Sox stretched over 86 years when, in his second season as the general manger of the franchise, it won the 2004 World Series.

But the match that was seemingly made in heaven back in November 2002 — when the 28-year-old Epstein took control of one of the most storied franchises in baseball history, and became the youngest general manager in the history of the game — has been on the rocks for some time now.

Remember, after the 2005 season Epstein walked away from the team, a reaction to an uncomfortable relationship between the young protégé and his baseball mentor, Larry Lucchino.

Lucchino, the president of the Red Sox, originally brought Epstein into the game. And when Lucchino left the San Diego Padres to be in charge in Boston, he brought Epstein with him, eventually giving him command of the baseball side of the operation.

Lucchino, however, could never give Epstein the complete autonomy that Epstein wanted.

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The separation six years ago was so serious that the Red Sox actually entered into contract negotiations to lure Billy Beane away from the Oakland A’s. The talks stalled, however, when Beane decided he wasn’t leaving his West Coast comfort zone. And two months after Epstein’s petulant resignation, he was back at Fenway Park, returning to his role of general manager, adding the title of executive vice president.

There had been an uneasy truce since Epstein’s return, thanks primarily to his strong relationship with Red Sox owner John Henry. But the feel-good moments between Lucchino and Epstein had ended. It was a business relationship, an uneasy transformation from what it had been.

And the last two years have only allowed the festering to grow.

While Epstein returned for that 2006 season, and the Red Sox won a second world championship during the Epstein era in 2007, there has been a decline from the results that the Red Sox had come to expect since then.

Despite being among the top three payrolls in baseball, the Red Sox were eliminated in the AL Championship Series by upstart Tampa Bay — which had a quarter the Boston payroll — in 2008; swept by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the AL Division Series in 2009; and then relegated to disheartening third-place finishes behind the rival Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays in 2010 and 2011.

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And this year the Red Sox were a team that went 7-20 in the month of September, which began leading the division, only a half-game ahead of the Yankees, but which was nine games up on that Tampa Bay team that overtook them for the AL wild-card berth.

Suddenly, the insight and intelligence that earned Epstein praise gave way to a criticism he had earlier avoided.

First Terry Francona, who was the field manager, became a victim of the uneasiness in New England, and earlier this month announced he was not going to return in 2012.

Then the focused turned to Epstein.

Instead of being praised for having lifted the Curse of the Bambino, Epstein was being cursed by fans and management for contracts like the seven-year, $142-million deal that outfielder Carl Crawford signed with Boston last winter, and the five-year, $82.5-million deal that right-hander John Lackey was given a year earlier.

Not unlike he did after the 2005 season, Epstein began looking for somewhere he felt he was wanted. His wandering eyes focused on Chicago.

The difference this time is the Red Sox are ready to call his bluff. They have made him an offer to stay past the one year left on his current contract, but they aren’t groveling this time.

Tagged: Red Sox, Cubs

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