Epstein quickly becoming a polished pro

The punchlines are gone now, given way to plaudits.

No more feeble jokes about staying up past his bedtime, or being dangled out the window by Michael Jackson. It seems that Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, mocked for his youth and inexperience 10 months ago, is having the last laugh.

Two long months remain in the 2003 season, and it won't be until October that the work he did in the last 10 days of July can be properly evaluated. But it can be safely said that no general manager in either league better positioned his team for the stretch run than Esptein.

In the span of just over a week, Epstein corralled a situational lefty (Scott Sauerbeck), a power setup man (Scott Williamson) and a dependable starter (Jeff Suppan). He sacrificed just one high-level prospect (infielder Freddy Sanchez) in return.

In landing Sauerbeck and Williamson to fortify the Red Sox's bullpen, he neatly kept the two away from the archrival Yankees, who found themselves in the unfamiliar position of responding to the Sox's moves.

For every deal Epstein consummated, he had another two in the works. On July 30, the day before the non-waiver trading deadline, Esptein tirelessly worked the phones, hoping to involve the Cincinnati Reds in three-team deals. Epstein wouldn't part with Bill Mueller to the Mariners or the Dodgers, two teams in search of a third baseman, so he enlisted the Reds, who were willing to move Aaron Boone.

At one point, using the Reds as a clearing house, Epstein thought he had Freddy Garcia from the Mariners. At another, he was close to landing Odalis Perez from the Dodgers. Ultimately, both deals collapsed. But you can't say Epstein didn't try.

Epstein stubbornly refused to give up his pursuit of Montreal right-hander Javier Vazquez. Expos GM Omar Minaya repeatedly told Epstein that Vazquez was unavailable, but because Vazquez was the starter the Sox coveted above all others, that didn't stop Epstein from making an offer he believed Minaya couldn't refuse (Casey Fossum, Sanchez, cash and the Expos pick of any other prospect in the Boston system).

"They were in on everything,'' said one general manager who had extensive trade talks with the Red Sox, "and Theo was right on top of it all. I was really impressed.''

If the trading deadline is a chess match, Epstein and the Sox seemed to always be one move ahead. Though the Red Sox trailed the Yankees in the standings, Esptein's deals seemed to put the Yankees on the defensive. When Williamson was plucked in the Reds fire sale, tempestuous Yankees owner George Steinbrenner demanded an in-person explanation from his GM, Brian Cashman.

The notion of the Yankees scrambling to respond to the Red Sox, hard on the heels of two come-from-behind wins against the Yanks at Fenway, delighted the Sox's fandom.

Along the way, Epstein has achieved a delicate balance within the halls of Fenway, neatly synthesizing information from new-school baseball analysts such as Bill James and the traditional scouts and advisers he employs, such as Bill Lajoie. Lajoie, with 48 years of baseball experience, sits in the same conference room with James, who never worked full-time for a baseball club until he was hired by the Sox last winter.

Lajoie is a baseball lifer, architect of the 1984 world champion Tigers and universally recognized for his talent evaluation skills. James is an author with no use for a stopwatch or radar gun. Epstein has them working -- usually separately -- toward the same goal.

When Chuck Finley signaled that he would be interested in signing with a club for the stretch run earlier this summer, Epstein had scout Jerry Stephenson watch Finley throw in southern California. At the same time, James researched to discover whether it was true that tall left-handed pitchers had inordinate success in Fenway because their deliveries were tough to pick up with the center field bleachers as a backdrop.

Turns out, the theory couldn't be supported. Finley wasn't signed, though there were other factors in the decision.

Others contribute. Special assistant Lee Thomas joins Lajoie in the field and assistant GM Josh Byrnes is more closely aligned with James and Co., who tend to problem-solve in a non-traditional way.

Together, from their unique perspectives, they advise Epstein, who maintains that his disparate group is not at all unusual. In other businesses, executives routinely gather input from different sources with vastly different areas of expertise. Why not baseball?

In the spring, Epstein made sure there was some cross-pollination. Lajoie was schooled on some new computer programs, while James has been introduced to some scouts' methodology.

Epstein listens to both sides of the generational (and philosophical) divide and synthesizes the information.

"It would be a nightmare for me, when I'm talking to Bill James, to pretend that Bill Lajoie doesn't exist,'' Epstein says, "and vice versa. What I'd like is an organization that empowers everybody -- analysts and scouts -- and gives them all a voice. And I hope that manifests itself in good decision-making.''

There's more juggling to be done, too. Epstein must field a contending team, all the while rebuilding and restocking the team's depleted farm system. It's an unenviable task, since the two goals are often at odds. Bolstering one end of the equation is often achieved at the expense of the other.

"That,'' says another major league general manager, "is why no one wanted that job.''

But Epstein obtained three quality pitchers in late July, and managed to retain the two high-level prospects he liked most: third baseman Kevin Youkilis and catcher Kelly Shoppach.

"It's a delicate balancing act,'' Epstein said, "deciding how much young talent to give up to help the team now.''

Epstein gets high marks for his ability to admit his mistakes. After the vaunted bullpen-by-committee idea fell apart earlier in the season, he shipped third baseman Shea Hillenbrand to Arizona for Byung-Hyun Kim, eventually making him the team's closer. And after initially proposing a Trot Nixon-for-Garcia deal, Epstein changed his mind, sensing that Nixon's presence -- in the clubhouse as well as in the Boston lineup -- was too much to sacrifice.

The coterie of assistants and advisers are only so much help. Ultimately, it's Epstein's charge -- and his alone -- to get the Red Sox to the World Series for the first time in 17 years.

When Pirates GM Dave Littlefield called shortly after 1 a.m. on the morning of July 31, only Epstein remained in the office. Only Epstein had to get past the ill-will that had developed between the Pirates and Red Sox over the relative health of Brandon Lyon. Only Epstein makes the final call.

Hours later, Epstein was back in the office, working the phones. Earnest, tireless and shrewd.

Who's laughing now?

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.