Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fighting Words Q&A: Theo Epstein

Theo Epstein's approach to his job, post-return to the general manager position, makes more time for business and less time for answering reporters' questions. Photo from this site.

With the Red Sox preparing for their annual October vanquishing of the Angels (that’s right, I said it), there’s no better time than now to unveil the most pivotal interview I conducted in the writing of Fighting Words—a Q&A with Theo Epstein, who has been the architect of six playoff teams in his seven years as general manager.

As I noted in my Q&A with Bruce Allen last month, the follow-up with Epstein was the interview I needed to tie everything together. The book could have been written without his additional input, and at some point it would have had to have been written, but I can’t lie: Some nights I wake up in a cold sweat thinking the interview still hasn’t happened and that I’m still waiting on it to finish the book.

Here’s how I described the process to Bruce in our interview:

Landing Epstein for a follow-up (I interviewed him twice, once for a magazine feature and another time about the media, in 2004) was quite a delicate procedure that took nearly two years. Obviously, he really reduced his profile following the events of 2004 and 2005. He never definitely declined my requests, but he made it clear he was reluctant to talk about the media and to contribute to the celebrity culture that surrounds so many media members. I was beginning to think it wasn’t meant to be when he called me during a rain delay on the final day of the 2006 season and I missed the call because I had my phone on silent in the press box.

Finally, during a series against the Royals in July 2007, I saw him in Terry Francona’s office before Francona’s daily presser. When all the reporters went upstairs around 4, Epstein hung around talking to someone in the office, so I waited right outside the locker room door, figuring my best and last chance to get him would be when there was no one else around. He walked out, I made my pitch, said my book was about why the media was such a part of the story in Boston and that his input would be incredibly valuable. He agreed to the interview and it ended up being the one I really needed to tie everything together. Everyone knew Theo had changed since taking over as GM, but why? It wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting if I didn’t have supporting quotes and evidence from him.

I’m sure that if I started this project in 2005, instead of 2004 when I got to talk to him a few times under more relaxed circumstances, I never would have gotten him for such an in-depth interview, or even written this book.

Along those lines: The book, and in particular the chapters about the post-’04 era, would not have been complete without the contributions Epstein made during the July ’07 interview. I thank Epstein for his access and hope you enjoy this interview.

J.P. Ricciardi said that Boston is a great place to grow up as a baseball fan but a tough place to play and work. Do you agree with that assessment?

I think the nature of the media here adds an additional challenging element to what’s already a challenging job. It’s nothing that can’t be handled.

In 2004 you said that you thought you could “…provide a lot of answers” about what you and the front office are doing and that “…five percent of the stuff is best not publicized.” Has that ratio changed at all?

I think the ratio’s probably changed a little bit, because there’s more competition and I think lower standards in general among some media members. So information that could be perfectly innocent otherwise can be used in a way that’s detrimental to the club and to the benefit of that media outlet. So we don’t want to risk anything. We don’t want to risk putting out information that can be used in a fashion that’s going to harm our ultimate goal.

Has the ratio changed at all because of competitive reasons?

That’s always been a constant. I just think that a few years ago, there was a certain expectation that information would be used a certain way. There’d be a certain level of understanding, decorum. And I think with the increased presence of the Internet and the general sort of lack of standards that exist—I’m not casting a wide net, but [in] certain sections of the media world—it really limits the mount of trust we can have when we put out general information.

Has that media world changed since you’ve been here?

Yeah. Again: More outlets, more blogs, fewer editors, lower standards for accuracy, accountability makes it a little bit more difficult. And it’s a shame, because that limits the amount of interaction we have, the information we can put out there with the people who still have high standards and are still accurate and still do their jobs very well. That’s the way it is.

Upon returning, you said there was a lot that could be learned from how the Patriots disseminated information. What did you mean by that?

That was really more of an in-house [thing]. Some things that are happening internally—we had too many people with access to information, too many people who could share information for their own benefit. We just kind of tightened up our ship a little bit, made our message a little bit more uniform. It’s been helpful.

Have you been more cautious with injury information?

[pauses] Not more so injury information than other information. I just think that, these days, it makes sense just to make sure everyone’s on the same page internally. Get [out] the information, if there’s some official means, rather than answer a question here or there and letting it trickle out. Because, again, [of] the instantaneous nature of some media.

How much more cautious are you as opposed to when you took over as general manager prior to 2003?

I’m not any more cautious. I just think that since the environment has changed, I’ve changed with it.

Does the size of this market make it difficult to be as open and as accessible as you’d like?

To me, it all boils down to what’s in the best interests of the team. And I don’t mean that from a marketing standpoint. I mean that from a wins and losses standpoint. Because, to me, that’s ultimately the most important thing. I think when we win, we’re popular. People are happy and that’s the bottom line. In a perfect world, yes, there is a way to be open and completely honest and still protect the vital information and allow us time to do what’s the most important parts of our job. I guess you could call that ideal.

But the reality is we’re in a slightly different age and we’re not living in an ideal world. There’s a lot of information, there are some people that use information in a way to promote their media outlets that prove to be sort of obstacles to us achieving our goals—not in any big way, but in a way that adds up over time. And so we’re just trying to make sure that we are aware of that when we interact with the media. And I think, in a way, it might make me personally less popular. But I couldn’t give a [expletive] about that. I care about protecting the interests of the organization, which is to win games.

Are you purposely maintaining a lower profile now than you did at the beginning of your tenure?

Yeah, yeah. I definitely do that on purpose. Because one, it’s hard to do my job when I’m available every day to every writer. So I just try to be around less. And I think one thing that I found and that others found is life goes on, you know? I think if people really need me to answer questions, they can find me. I’ll always respond to phone calls or emails or setting up an appointment or anything along those lines. Life goes on. It’s not the most important thing in the world to answer the same question 45 times from 45 different writers every day about injury status that’s the exact same as it was yesterday and is the same as it’s going to be tomorrow.

Ultimately, it’s not about me. It’s not about any one individual. It’s about the Red Sox and there’s plenty to write about over the course of nine innings and what our organization is, our competitiveness and our ability to try and win a World Series every year.

Do you think it’s tough for players to differentiate between the different types of media?

Yeah, yeah, Because I know it can be tough for us, and we have more time to try and hash through it. So for a player, certainly, it’s tough for them. And they don’t have an obligation to be able to tell 60 different people apart, you know? [laughs]

Do you think your renewed cautiousness has led or could lead to a strain with the reporters covering the team?

Again: I think people know where to find me. I just think that the thing about instant accessibility is that people always turn to whoever’s right there to answer a question. Ninety-nine percent of the quotes that are used are pretty mundane. Anyone can give them. If someone has a question they really want me to answer—if I can do so without compromising the interests of the organization—I know I’ll be there to answer that question. If not, then [talk to former director of media relations] John Blake. Email me. Call me. I’ll find a way to answer the questions. I don’t think it should cause strain. If it did, then life goes on.

Looking back on your first year or two as general manager, do you wish you knew then what you know now about the media relations part of the job?

No, I think it was a little bit different time. And my first attempt was to be sort of as open and honest as possible as I could while protecting the interests of the organization. That proved to be a.) extremely difficult, b.) extremely time-consuming and c.) as things changed in the media world, not possible. So now I’ve taken an approach that allows me to do my job. And as we said, life goes on with the media. There’s always someone else to fill up a notebook.

How do you go about preparing rookies for the media in Boston via the rookie development program?

We run through the media—what to say, suggesting approaches to dealing with it, about being accountable, accessible [and] cooperative while protecting themselves at the same time. I think our guys were lucky that guys come through Lowell, Portland and Pawtucket. By the time they get up here, they have a pretty good feel for what awaits them.

Do you think the demands on the time of managers, general managers and players in Boston is unique to Boston?

I don’t think it’s unique to Boston. I think it’s certainly as much of a factor here as it is anywhere else. I think there’s levels of intensity. Boston is, along with probably New York, Philly at times, one of the most intense. It’s not that big a deal. I just—if I have an extra 45 minutes a day to look through other teams’ farm systems or watch a minor league game on TV or do something else that’s going to hopefully help us make a good decision and someone else can kind of fill up a writer’s notebook. If that writer really has a question for me, they can find me. I think that’s fine. I think that’s a good solution.

Lastly, what did you think of the coverage of your resignation and return following the 2005 season?

I didn’t, really. That coverage of that winter—I just think there’s not a lot to write about in the winter. I don’t think I’m that important that I could generate that much coverage. But again, there’s no games going on. I think if something like that happened during the season, it would have been more of a secondary story.

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