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Beantown bailout tough for Red Sox fans to swallow

BostRed Sox general manager Theo Epsteleft manager Terry Franconcelebrate after Bostdefeated New York Yankees 10-3 deciding game AL championship series

Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, left, and manager Terry Francona celebrate after Boston defeated the New York Yankees 10-3 in the deciding game of the AL championship series Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2004, in New York. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

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Updated: January 23, 2012 4:10AM

BOSTON — A week into the baseball shakeup that’s stealing Boston headlines from the Patriots, dark clouds settled over Fenway Park, and a hard, bitter wind met anyone who turned the corner onto Yawkey Way from Van Ness.

“It’s not as happy as it was during the season, I’ll tell you that much,” said Dave Dubois, owner of the Tasty Burger a block from Fenway Park. “When [Terry] Francona left here, it was like somebody passed away that day. Everybody had long faces.”

Then within a few days of popular manager Francona’s “mutual” split from the Red Sox, local boy-wonder general manager Theo Epstein agreed to a five-year deal to leave the Red Sox and run the Cubs.

“It was a tough day for everyone to hear that,” Dubois said. “It’s definitely a different feeling.”

As North Siders await the imminent — and by all accounts welcomed — announcement of Epstein’s signing with the Cubs, Boston fans still reel from their team’s historic September collapse and a management purge not seen here since Epstein was hired by new Red Sox ownership nine years ago.

Even as the weather turns, with the Patriots well into another playoff hunt and the Bruins winning a thriller over the Blackhawks, emotions remain hot over the ongoing Red Sox turmoil.

With the Cubs’ newest great hyped hope at the center of emotions running through Red Sox Nation — a curious mixed bag of feelings considering the lofty pedestal he’d occupied since the Sox ended their 86-year championship drought in 2004, then won another title in ’07.

“There were many years when there was major disappointment — but not like this one,” said Corey Valliere, who has spent the last four months with an up-close view of the comings and goings of the team as operator of the Best Sausage Co. concession on Yawkey across from Fenway. “I can’t believe they choked that bad.”

Cubs fans seem united in their Epstein optimism. But in Boston, just as many Red Sox fans seem down on Epstein as those who are sorry to seem him go. That anti-Theo sentiment seems to be fueled by some of the more caustic talk-radio shows in town.

“Probably the best thing that could happen to this organization right now is for Theo to leave,” one host advocating a roster cleansing said on 98.5’s “The Sports Hub” on Saturday.

Eric Xavier, a 24-year-old sewer technician from Boston, certainly isn’t losing sleep over Epstein’s divorce from the Red Sox.

“When I heard he was going to Chicago, I said, ‘Good, let’s see what you can do there,’ ’’ Xavier said over a beer at the Cask ’n Flagon, less than a Juan Pierre throw from the Green Monster, across Landsdowne Street.

“The Cubbies better be willing to ante up as far as payroll goes. I want to see how he’s going to do without the infinite payroll he had here,” Xavier said of Boston’s $160 million-plus rosters the last two seasons.

Xavier’s good-riddance vibe slowed just long enough to acknowledge Epstein’s accomplishments and important acquisitions, such as David Ortiz, Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett.

“He also brought in some clowns,” Xavier said. “Julio Lugo [four years, $36 million after 2006] — he overpaid him. . . . He overpaid a few guys. [John] Lackey — he just jumped at the biggest free-agent pitcher and said, ‘We want him,’ when if you looked at his ERA at Fenway [4.78 before ’11], you should never have done that.”

But there’s another, more personal side to Boston losing Epstein, who’s more deeply rooted in the community and culture than almost any major figure in Boston’s storied sports history.

“People around here are extremely disappointed,” said Jim Mellett, senior custodian at Brookline High School — just three stops from Fenway Park on the “T” green line and where Epstein graduated in 1991.

Mellett, who has worked at Brookline for 23 years, said people understood Epstein didn’t plan to remain Red Sox GM for longer than about 10 years, but he seemed surprised at some of the venom directed at him now.

“You never thought of that seven years ago — even four years ago,” Mellett said.

Certainly not in a place where he had spent so much of his life and committed so much of his passion and that had returned so much reverence upon his success with the Red Sox.

Epstein’s father, novelist Leslie Epstein, still heads the creative writing department at Boston University, where he has been for three decades; his fraternal twin brother, Paul, is a social worker and counselor at Brookline High, where Francona’s daughter, coincidentally, still attends.

And Theo has started to raise his own family in Boston.

“It’s sad to see him go,” said Joel Mosher, a Reading, Mass., mortician and Red Sox fan who spent part of Saturday night at Boston’s famous “Cheers” bar near the Commons. “You liked to see somebody local bring it home for everybody. He shook it up. He definitely did a great job.”

“In ’04, nobody in a million years could have imagined that,” Dubois said. “I mean, grown men were in restaurants crying. It was such an emotional moment for the city. . . . Francona will be loved forever here. He’s like royalty and Theo, too, for what they did here. Those guys are like royalty. Forever. As long as there’s people alive who were able to stand in front of a TV and see that.”

Even Xavier pauses to consider that moment.

“It’s tough to argue with two rings,” he said. “We have very short memories around here.”

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