Sox wondering where they went wrong with Epstein

A little more than a year ago, Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein were drenched in champagne, celebrating the Red Sox's first world championship in 86 years.

On Monday, they were parting ways, unable to come to terms on a contract extension for Epstein, leaving behind a decimated front office just as a busy offseason looms.

What happened? How did it fall apart so fast for the Red Sox?

It wasn't as if Lucchino and Epstein were unfamiliar with one another. To the contrary, their relationship goes back more than a dozen years, when Lucchino hired Epstein as an intern with the Baltimore Orioles.

They teamed together in San Diego, too, when Lucchino was the Padres' CEO. And when Lucchino was paired with the John Henry-Tom Werner ownership group in Boston, Epstein soon followed.

Under Lucchino, Epstein became the youngest GM in the history of the game, and when the Red Sox ended their championship drought in 2004, Epstein cemented his place among the game's best young executives.

But talks regarding a new contract extension never gained much traction. When Epstein broached the subject in spring training, he was told to wait. And when the Red Sox made their first overtures, the offer represented only a modest raise over his 2005 salary of $550,000.

From the Red Sox's perspective, the initial proposals to Epstein were in line with what other general managers with similar levels of experience were earning. But for Epstein, Boston ownership's offer to Billy Beane in 2002 -- weeks before Epstein was hired -- was the benchmark.

Beane was offered $12.5 million over five years, and for a period of 24 hours, accepted. That was easily the most money ever given to a major-league GM.

Epstein wondered why -- after three straight trips to the postseason, a world championship and a rebuilt minor-league system brimming with prospects -- he couldn't earn half of the amount given to Beane.

In part, it may have been because it was difficult for Lucchino to view Epstein as anything other than his protege. But when Epstein dug in his heels and Henry entered the picture last week, the team's hard-line negotiating stance softened some.

A week ago, Epstein laid out his demands: A three-year deal worth $1.5 million annually. With logical successor Josh Byrnes having left to accept the general manager's vacancy in Arizona, it was the Red Sox who had lost some leverage.

By the end of the week, they met Epstein's terms, and when everyone left the office, the thought was a deal could be finalized Monday, the same day on which Epstein's original three-year deal was to expire at midnight.

But over the course of the negotiations, a rift had developed between Lucchino and Epstein. Both sides wondered if it could be repaired.

Toward that end, they met several times at the end of the week, attempting to repair the relationship. Despite persistent -- and inaccurate -- media reports that suggested Epstein wanted to bypass Lucchino and report directly to Henry in the Red Sox hierarchy, chain of command issues were never central to the disagreements.

Rather, Lucchino and Epstein had a number of philosophical differences. And over the weekend, those were made worse.

A column in the Boston Globe Sunday, which Epstein deduced had been leaked by Lucchino or others on the CEO's staff, intimated that the general manager had been at fault when a proposed multi-player deal with the Colorado Rockies fell through at the trade deadline this season.

(In truth, ownership made Epstein cancel the agreed-upon deal, though Lucchino reportedly later blamed the mess on Byrnes in talks with Rockies ownership.)

The column further stated that Lucchino had accepted public blame for the fallout to spare his general manager further embarrassment.

This incensed Epstein, and along with other anecdotal evidence, caused him to reconsider working under Lucchino for another three seasons. By late morning Monday, he had made up his mind: His tenure with the Red Sox was over.

Every baseball offseason in Boston is filled with change, and this one was going to be no different. Manny Ramirez has restated his desire to be traded, and the club must re-sign free agent Johnny Damon. Further, there are obvious holes at first base and in the bullpen.

Now, however, those take a backseat to finding a new GM. But as the Red Sox sift through candidates with experience (Kevin Towers? Jim Duquette?) or younger applicants, they can't help but ask themselves: Where did it all go wrong?

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