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Baseball GMs becoming celebrities

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: November 20, 2011 8:57AM

A story about a Cubs fan who was certain he had seen Theo Epstein at a Starbucks in Lincoln Park
recently ran in the Chicago Tribune, setting off a lively debate about what constitutes newsworthiness.

At the time the story came out 11 days ago, reports were circulating that the Cubs had asked the Boston Red Sox for permission to interview Epstein for their general-manager vacancy.

That the account appeared on the front page of the sports section wasn’t as surprising as the fact that somebody here actually knew what the Red Sox’ GM looked like. Shouldn’t that be like knowing what a State Farm data analyst looks like?

Would anyone in New York recognize White Sox GM Ken Williams on the street? I think not.

But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense that a guy with a laptop and a pumpkin-spice latte in front of him would be able to identify Epstein. With baseball turning more and more into a numbers game, Epstein has become a superstar among those who have a difficult time separating their love of baseball from their love of math.

And that cultural phenomenon partly can be explained by another one: fantasy baseball leagues.

Everyone thinks he’s a GM now. Everyone thinks he can put together a winning team, provided he has the right statistics to help him make an accurate evaluation of talent. Provided he has Google, he does. It’s why so many college kids who are juggling three fantasy leagues somehow are finding time to major in sports management. They see themselves as Epstein’s logical successors. If he could become the Red Sox’ GM at 28, why can’t they?

There have been countless tired references to Epstein and other sabermetrics enthusiasts as being the perfect cast for a remake of ‘‘Revenge of the Nerds.’’ But there is something accurate about the image of the studious math whiz winking at the world from inside a major-league clubhouse.

You neither need to have played sports nor know what a good baseball player looks like to evaluate one. There are those of us old-school types who think it’s best to watch someone actually play baseball to ascertain whether he’s a good player, but there are a few people on the other extreme who aren’t sure that’s necessary. They’ll throw the player’s numbers into the computer and see what a program says about it.

Most of the smart talent evaluators understand a mix of stats-driven analysis and old-fashioned scouting works best. But there’s no mistaking who the sabermetrics people think stands on top of the mountain. That would be Epstein, a descendant of Bill James and his slide rule.

With two World Series titles on his resume, Epstein is a standout. If he weren’t, the negotiations between the Cubs and Red Sox would have been done by now and Epstein would be hunkered down on the North Side, wondering what he had gotten himself into.

By all accounts, though, a deal isn’t done. The sides reportedly can’t agree on compensation for Epstein. An eight-player trade involving three teams gets done faster than this.

GM, trade thyself!

According to one report, the Red Sox wanted starter Matt Garza as compensation for Epstein, but the Cubs rejected the proposal. If true, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts made the right decision, but you can bet there are stats freaks out there who disagree. To them, the fact that Garza ranked eighth in the National League in fWAR and FIP and ninth in xFIP in 2011 doesn’t come close to matching Epstein’s baseball acumen. And I’m not even sure what some of those acronyms mean.

It would interesting to hear what Epstein thinks he is worth, but we probably never will know. A starting pitcher? Millions of dollars? Draft picks? Starlin Castro? The Harry Caray statue?

You hardly can blame him if he has a high opinion of himself. Stats guys never have been cooler. Brad Pitt plays Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane in ‘‘Moneyball,’’ one of the top-grossing movies of the season. Brad Pitt!

And here the Cubs are, waiting for their Matt Damon to arrive. They’re waiting for Ricketts to finalize the compensation that will allow Epstein to come to Chicago and end 103 years of misery.

Hurry up, Tom. They have questions, none more important than the big one still out there:

Was that Epstein ordering the iced drink and the banana at Starbucks?

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