A Bitter Rivalry Finds a Little Common Ground
By JACK CURRY
WAYNE, N.J. — For 365 days each year, the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox are ferocious rivals. With offices that are only 206 miles apart, Brian Cashman, the general manager of the Yankees, and Theo Epstein, Cashman’s counterpart with the Red Sox, try to do anything and everything to have the superior team.
But for two hours on a chilly Friday night, the two shared a stage during a lecture at William Paterson University. Cashman and Epstein will never be allies if they stay in the same positions, but when they talked baseball Friday in front of 922 fans, they were cordial rivals.
As Cashman, who was wearing a gray pinstriped suit, and Epstein, who was wearing a black suit, sat in maroon leather chairs, they looked as if they were relaxing in one of their grandparent’s living rooms. They were willing to place the rivalry on hold, ever so briefly.
For Cashman, the night was about being comfortable and candid. He received the loudest applause when he reiterated that he preferred keeping the Yankees’ young pitchers instead of making a deal for Minnesota’s Johan Santana. Epstein turned toward Cashman and applauded those words, too, which then elicited more laughter than clapping. Epstein declined to discuss Santana.
While retracing Bernie Williams’s unfriendly departure from the Yankees, Cashman said Williams had become more involved in his music “and that took away from his play” and that Williams had a “terrible season” in 2005. Cashman added Joe Torre had played Williams “ahead of guys who could help us win” in 2006, a reference to Melky Cabrera.
When a fan asked Epstein about the loss of Johnny Damon to the Yankees as a free agent after the 2005 season, Epstein said the Red Sox felt they had “gotten the best years out of Johnny.” Cashman said Damon struggled last season because he reported to spring training out of shape, adding that Bobby Abreu was also out of shape.
One of the most memorable scenes from last season was Joba Chamberlain pitching while covered with small insects known as midges during a playoff game in Cleveland. Cashman did not use the insects as an excuse and chastised the Yankees for the way they reacted.
“I thought our guys weren’t mentally tough enough to get through it,” Cashman told a fan, who had likened Chamberlain’s experience to one the fan had endured while visiting Africa.
“I have been to Africa,” Epstein said. “If you only knew how hard it was for me to get those bugs in the country and into Cleveland.”
The Red Sox ended last season as the best team in baseball and will enter 2008 as the favorites to win the World Series again. Still, when Esptein was asked about Boston’s lofty status, he said that he and Cashman did not “talk like that.” But Cashman did talk like that, about the Red Sox.
“They’re the World Series champions, until someone takes that away from them,” Cashman said.
Cashman playfully said that he and Epstein were here for an “Obama-Clinton-like debate,” although he never said whether he considered himself Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Politics aside, Cashman was clearly the hometown favorite.
When Cashman appeared at Epstein’s charity event in Boston earlier this month, he was not booed. But during Epstein’s introduction here, there were some boos at the mention of the Red Sox’ 2004 and 2007 titles.
The two offered careful comments about the Mitchell report. The Red Sox contemplated obtaining closer Eric Gagné in 2006, and the report included Epstein’s e-mail message to a Red Sox scout inquiring about whether he thought Gagné was “a steroid guy.” Epstein said he saw no merit in “parsing” the report. Cashman, who faced questions about how several Yankees were named in the report, said he hoped baseball would follow the report’s recommendations.
Cashman described how he became friendly with Epstein through Kevin Towers, the San Diego Padres general manager, but acknowledged there were conversations that he and Epstein never have.
“We don’t talk trade ever, basically,” Epstein said.
Cashman began with the Yankees as an intern and said he did not think he would become the general manager. Because Cashman was working for George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ demanding principal owner, his career path surprised him.
“It was a great grooming ground,” Cashman said. “Things kept opening up because people kept getting fired.”
Since Hank and Hal Steinbrenner, George’s sons, have assumed more prominent roles with the team, Cashman has conceded his job has evolved. But he still has enough power that he did not have to seek permission to spend time with Epstein.
“I didn’t have to clear it with Hank, either,” Epstein said.