Theo Epstein: Dream job to nightmare

BOSTON -- So now it really is over.

We began forecasting the "end of an era'' when Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona was given a subtle push to exit stage right in the wake of his team's deplorable collapse, and now it is cemented with general manager Theo Epstein's decision to exit stage left toward the fine state of Illinois, where another franchise with a quaint ballpark, a mythical curse (a billy goat this time) and a long suffering Nation of fans await.

After nearly a decade of status quo, suddenly the changes on Yawkey Way are coming at warp speed. A mere six months ago Francona and Epstein were considered to be at the pinnacle of their professions, and all of baseball was predicting championships and champagne for your Red Sox.

Now -- just like that -- the manager and general manager are gone, casualties of one of the most despicable collapses in Boston sports history, with fried chicken as the smoking gun.

One of the most enviable franchises in baseball has been reduced to a fast-food punch line; a blueprint for excess, arrogance and entitlement.

And Epstein has seen enough.

While his departure is hardly shocking, particularly since there have been persistent whispers of such a move, it still remains stunning. Theo was Boston's Boy Wonder, a Brookline native born and raised in the shadows of the Citgo sign, who grew up living and dying with the Red Sox, just like you did. He was only 28 when he was named general manager, and we watched him (literally) grow up in the only job he ever wanted.

Like most baseball bosses, Epstein delivered some big hits and took some major cuts that whiffed. He alternately dazzled us with complicated baseball calculations and irked us with a hasty exit in a gorilla suit. And yet, the bottom line of his resume in Boston remains the same: two World Series rings.

Theo accomplished this in an environment that was complicated -- because of the ownership tier, because of the team's dramatic history of failure, because of an undercurrent of racism and cronyism that accompanied the logo for decades. Epstein, along with the current ownership group and Terry Francona, changed that culture.

But that last title, as you well know, was four years ago. The Red Sox haven't won a playoff game in three seasons and have finished third in their division the past two, and that doesn't cut it in this baseball-crazed town, particularly in the wake of how the 2011 campaign ended.

As recently as last week Epstein vowed, "We're going to be identifying issues, finding ways to address those issues and in some cases getting the right people to address those issues.''

But once the Sox and Cubs finalize terms to free Epstein to head to Chicago, that will be someone else's job.

We may hear in the weeks ahead that Epstein was contemplating a move to the Cubs for months, long before his club's historic implosion. That's probably true.

But even Theo understands the timing is bad. He's leaving behind a mess so toxic that Sox personnel should be dialing up hazardous materials experts to see if they can rent some of those space suits to give all of Kenmore Square a thorough hosing down.

Epstein has already claimed some culpability for the seismic cracks in the foundation of his team, but that won't appease many of the angry fans who are calling on the Red Sox to insist that if Epstein goes to the Cubs, he's got to take John Lackey and Carl Crawford with him.

Epstein's departure is abrupt, but with the benefit of some time and perspective, his legacy will sit well with Sox fans.

He will be remembered as the young hot shot who boldly pulled the trigger on a Nomar Garciaparra trade that turned his team's season around, culminating in its first world championship in 86 years.

Then, three seasons later, after he retooled the nucleus, they won again.

Epstein also will be forever known as the GM who fell in love with all the wrong shortstops (you've been warned, Starlin Castro). He plowed through, in succession, Nomar, Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Alex Gonzalez (twice), Julio Lugo, Nick Green, Jed Lowrie and Marco Scutaro, and likely left town unfulfilled regarding any of them.

His fascination with J.D. Drew baffled many, yet his hunch about Minnesota Twins castoff David Ortiz was dead on. He brought in unheralded Mark Bellhorn, Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller, and they helped him win a championship. He imported the highly touted (and exorbitant) Daisuke Matsuzaka and Crawford, and they were colossal disappointments.

Crawford still has a chance to turn it around. He has six years remaining on his $142 million deal, but the fans won't treat him with kid gloves next season. Crawford will have to perform -- or else -- and he'll have to do so without Epstein providing moral support in the background.

With all that has transpired in the past few weeks, it makes sense that Epstein would go.

It's time. He is 37, and there are challenges awaiting him. He wants to run the entire baseball operation without former mentor Larry Lucchino in the shadows. He's a new-age front-office man who relies on obscure numbers and strange formulas and hours and hours and hours of research. He enjoyed the luxury of John Henry's deep pockets, but is probably excited about a challenge that doesn't include a blank check. He wants a team he can call his own, and let's be honest, the Red Sox were never entirely his.

Say what you want about Epstein, but you can't question his work ethic or his commitment to the Red Sox. He lived and died with the job, just as he did as a teenager in Brookline jumping up and down on the couch beside his twin brother, Paul.

We are witnessing the complications of landing your "dream job'' before the age of 30. After 10 years and two titles, you start looking around and wondering what else there is. And when your place of work deteriorates the way it has on Yawkey Way, a change of scenery becomes even more appealing.

The Chicago Cubs are no Boston Red Sox. They don't have the talent or the deep pockets of Theo's beloved hometown team. They have their own headaches and entitled players (see Carlos Zambrano). They will be Epstein's ultimate challenge, with the ultimate prize awaiting him. If Epstein adds a World Series championship for the Cubs as a bookend to his Boston titles, he will go down in baseball history as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Meanwhile, his successor with the Red Sox will be left with the daunting task of righting a dysfunctional, overpaid yet talented ballclub. The beer drinking, finger lickin' pitching staff needs a swift kick in the derriere. Lackey and his bloated salary need to be eliminated. Veteran holdovers like Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek might need to be cut loose. Ortiz and Jonathan Papelbon are free agents and fan favorites who want long-term deals. Jacoby Ellsbury is eligible for free agency after the 2013 season -- someone needs to get in his ear to assure him this can be fixed, and he can be a major part of the solution.

The Red Sox need new direction with new leadership. That includes the general manager, the manager and the players in the clubhouse.

The citizens of Boston don't take kindly to those who reject their fair city. The Red Sox, sadly, have a long history of scuffing up the reputation of those who have moved on, with unseemly details of Francona's personal life the latest sordid example.

Epstein might endure his own backlash as he migrates to the Midwest, a thousand miles from the Citgo sign. He has been around long enough to know he should steel himself for that.

The tree-lined streets of Brookline will always be home, but if Theo Epstein is as smart as I think he is, he's already swallowed hard and put the emerald green lawn of Fenway Park in his rearview mirror.

Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.