That time Billy Beane rejected the Red Sox

In 2002, amid baseball’s statistical awakening, the Yawkey Trust finally sold the Boston Red Sox for $660 million. New England Sports Ventures, the purchasing consortium, was headed by John W Henry, a serial investor who believed wholeheartedly in the analytical revolution sweeping big business – and major sports – in the United States.

Henry’s eponymous investment firm made a fortune by pioneering the use of statistical analysis to drive objective trading decisions on soybean products. Henry devised an evaluative system that precluded human emotion and automated investments in coherence with market trends, governed by data. According to Forbes, his algorithm produced $2.4 billion in wealth, allowing the cerebral Henry to dabble in more luxurious pastimes. 

A boyhood St Louis Cardinals fan who worshipped Stan Musial, Henry hungered to own a baseball team. He purchased the minor league Tuscon Toros in 1989 and later invested in the West Palm Beach Tropics. Most notably, Henry bought shares in the New York Yankees – equating to 1% of team stock – in 1991. Quite remarkably, then, George Steinbrenner’s stylistic antithesis was once his minority partner.

Henry progressed to buy the Florida Marlins for $158 million in 1999. He never got around to selling those Yankee shares, however, causing consternation in some quarters. When Henry bought the Red Sox three years later, with more than a little political engineering from commissioner Bud Selig, he briefly owned pieces of three major league teams. That did not last long, as Selig forced Henry to divest of his Marlins and Yankees shares before approving the Red Sox takeover, but it was a compelling quirk of baseball history, nevertheless. 

Naturally, after gaining control of the Red Sox, Henry was keen to implement his soybean strategy in Boston. Henry appreciated the success of Billy Beane in Oakland, and he yearned to embed Moneyball at Fenway Park. Perhaps data, science and mathematics held the answer to an eight-decade championship drought. John Henry believed the repost to Babe Ruth’s ghost lay in a calculator, and he set out to prove it. 

When Oakland was eliminated from the 2002 postseason by Minnesota, Henry approached Beane and entered discussions about the vacant general manager post in Boston. The incumbent, Dan Duquette, was fired immediately after the new owners took office, and Henry was so impressed by Beane’s success on a shoestring budget with the Athletics that he wanted to make Billy the best-paid executive in North American sports history while transplanting the driving ethos from Oakland to Boston.

The Red Sox offered Beane a five-year contract worth $12.5 million to spearhead their baseball operations department. Beane seriously considered the offer for several days. Tom Werner, a Red Sox part-owner, even arranged for Katie Couric to phone Beane's wife, Tara, on her birthday, knowing Tara was a huge fan of the television personality. Duly convinced, Beane verbally accepted Boston's offer while meeting Henry and Red Sox president Larry Lucchino. The Red Sox had their man.

Except, well, they did not. The de facto chief, Beane worked until midnight one evening with Theo Epstein, a young assistant GM in the Boston hierarchy. Their surreal task? Negotiating compensation to Oakland for Beane's departure. Pitcher Casey Fossum was eventually tabbed as the sacrificial lamb, and the deal looked set to be agreed the following day.

However, sleep eluded Beane that night, as regret seeped into his mind. "He went for a ride," wrote Bob Hohler in the Boston Globe. "It was 3.30 am, and Beane was looking for a place to go near his home in Danville, Calif., somewhere with a light on, as if that would deliver him from the darkness."

Beane worried about leaving behind his life on the west coast - especially his12-year old daughter from a previous marriage. After driving around his neighbourhood in the darkness, weighing a monumental decision, Beane rang JP Ricciardi, his former Oakland assistant and best friend. By the end of their conversation, Beane determined the Boston move was not right for him at that time. The following day, he rang Henry and rejected the Red Sox.

"When I called JP, I was talking about maybe the premier job in sports," Beane said at a press conference announcing his intent to remain in Oakland. "What was going through my mind was the Red Sox were incredibly generous and accommodating, and the compensation was unbelievable, but I sort of wasn't doing cartwheels. I knew something wasn't right."

Henry was disappointed but unsurprised by Beane's change of heart. He remained convinced that sabermetrics held the key to success in Boston, and he set about recreating Beane in the aggregate, rather like Oakland did while trying to replace Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen in the 2001-2002 offseason. 

With a clear avatar of their ideal general manager in mind – young, innovative and nerdy – the Red Sox turned their attention to Ricciardi, a Massachusetts native who ran the Blue Jays’ front office after graduating from the Oakland lair of Beane and Sandy Alderson. However, Toronto signed Ricciardi to a five-year contract extension, scuppering a potential homecoming for the analytically-minded exec. 

Deviating from their script, Boston next asked the Yankees for permission to interview Gene Michael, but Steinbrenner declined the request out of hand. After completing due diligence on a number of other candidates – including Giants’ honcho Brian Sabean – the Red Sox eventually homed in on Epstein, the 28-year-old savant already working in their own front office. Henry found his spirit animal lurking in the basement.

A Yale graduate with visionary intelligence, Epstein grew up in suburban Brookline, a 10-minute drive from Fenway. The Red Sox were in his blood, and he dreamed of one day leading his boyhood team to elusive glory. Looking for a start out of college, Epstein worked in public relations with the Baltimore Orioles and struck up a strong rapport with player development czar Lucchino. When Lucchino was hired by the Padres, Epstein moved to San Diego with him and became a linchpin between marketing, ticket sales and baseball operations.

Lucchino saw great potential in Epstein, who completed a law degree at night school upon the recommendation of his boss. Epstein worked tirelessly and spent long hours at the ballpark – pushing season tickets and devised complex statistical models that impressed Lucchino. Theo also studied the work of Beane and Bill James, the grandfather of sabermetrics, whose iconoclasm refined Epstein’s ideology.

Despite a middling payroll, San Diego won the National League pennant in 1998, a testament to the team’s overhauled operation. The Padres spent considerably less than Atlanta, the National League’s most liberal spenders that year, but still managed to oust the Braves in a tight Championship Series. Of course, the Yankees crushed San Diego’s dreams in the subsequent Fall Classic, but Epstein continued to rise through the Padres’ ranks, and eventually became their director of baseball operations.

Meanwhile, upon taking office in Boston, Henry and Werner were keen to find a reliable club president who could wield day-to-day autonomy. Henry appreciated Lucchino’s reputation as a builder of great teams and even greater ballparks, and those attributes meshed nicely with the Red Sox’ revitalisation plan.

Lucchino was in charge of the Orioles when Camden Yards opened its gates, and he later influenced the design of Petco Park in San Diego. Both stadiums were outrageously successful, and Henry thirsted for a similar vibe at Fenway. Lucchino was subsequently headhunted to join the Boston renaissance, and he brought Epstein with him as a baseball operations figurehead. 

For years, Lucchino groomed Epstein for general manager stardom, waiting for the right moment to elevate his protégé. When Beane rejected the Red Sox, Larry broached Theo’s name for the top position in Beantown. Epstein’s time arrived, and in November 2002, the Red Sox made him the youngest MLB general manager of all-time.

The rest, as they say, is history. Epstein built a juggernaut in Boston, melding the best advice of ornery scouts with the finest cutting-edge analytics. The Red Sox won two World Series titles under Theo’s aegis, while the foundations for a third championship, in 2013, were laid as he eventually left for the Chicago Cubs.

As for Billy Beane? Well, such glory remained a pipedream for him. Oakland continued to squeeze inordinate value from meagre resources, regularly making the playoffs, but progressing beyond the early rounds proved difficult, and the elusive ring is still yet to arrive.

Beane moved upstairs with the Athletics in 2015, and eventually earned an ownership stake in the team. Today, he is executive vice president of baseball operations, but the A’s have largely ceased trying to win while negotiating a messy move from Oakland to Las Vegas.

Maybe there is an alternative universe in which Beane accepted Henry’s offer, broke the Red Sox’ curse and rode off to Cooperstown. In that world, maybe we never know Theo Epstein. Of course, Red Sox fans are happy with the way things turned out, as a dynasty emerged from the ashes, but it is fun to remember their courtship of Billy Beane, which symbolised a fascinating epoch in baseball history.

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