Everybody is so happy that Theo Epstein is back hanging his shingle and his gorilla suit at Fenway Park, you would have thought the Red Sox announced they were scaling back ticket prices so that a family of four didn’t have to take out a second mortgage to go to a game.

But I’m wondering just how giddy New England is going to be when Theo’s fingerprints are truly on this team. I’m curious if Red Sox Nation really knows what it is in for now that Theo has won the power struggle with Larry Lucchino (and don’t let the Boston braintrust kid you, there was a power struggle) and has John Henry’s backing when it comes to player personnel and organizational philosophy (why would he have come back if he didn’t?).

Will you, the impetuous Red Sox fan who demands the entire roster be traded and coaching staff be fired after a 12-16 start in April, tolerate third or fourth place finishes (that’s right folks, no wild card) over the course of three or four years for the greater long-term good of the franchise? Are you, the alarmist fan who contemplates jumping off a bridge whenever the Red Sox lose to the Yankees, prepared to watch young players struggle through one or two or three years of development at the Major League level, going 0-for-4 or walking the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth in one of those do or die mid-May games in the Bronx?

The days of the Red Sox throwing money around to build their roster are gone. Now, they’re not going to suddenly go on the cheap with Epstein calling the shots. But make no mistake, Theo’s Sox are going to build through the farm system. Not just pay lip service to it. Not just develop prospects to hand them off in some July deal for a big bat or No. 3 starter, but actually see the kids through to maturation and even, gasp, arbitration.

This could lead to some long and painful nights at the Fens, and those may come as soon as this year if veterans like Curt Schilling, Trot Nixon and Keith Foulke continue to break down.

It means letting a young pitcher work out of a fifth inning jam to see what he’s got instead of having Terry Francona pull him to try to salvage the game. It means losing a game in the ninth inning on a rookie fielding mistake. It means letting a kid work his way out of a 3-for-42 slump instead of sitting him down for a three-game series against the Yankees. It means seeing if a young reliever can regain his composure after giving up a game-tying homer.

Bottom line, it probably means losing more games, and likely even missing out on the playoffs. If not this year, somewhere in the not-too-distant future.

I’m one of those skeptics who thinks the majority of Red Sox fans will never go for this. They’ve become so used to the Red Sox throwing around money and pulling out all the stops to win now that I don’t think they’ll have the patience to wait for a consistent, home grown winner.

Think back. When was the last time the Sox really made a commitment to building from within? I’ll give you a hint. I stood a better chance at beating my brother in Atari Baseball than the Red Sox did at putting together a winning streak.

It was back in the early 1980s, when they shuffled Bob Ojeda, John Tudor, Bruce Hurst, Oil Can Boyd, immortals Mike Brown and Chuck Rainey and (later) Roger Clemens in and out of the rotation over a five-year period.

Most of those guys turned out to be pretty good pitchers. Lou Gorman even kept some of them around for their primes, and they were the nucleus of the not quite 1986 world champions. But does anyone recall what the win totals were for the Sox in the six years it took those young arms to develop (1980-1985)? 83, 59 (strike year), 89, 78, 86, and 81. It wasn’t exactly the Golden Age of Boston baseball. The only excitement was waiting to see who would break their hip first, Ralph Houk or Yaz.

Looking at the current roster, it’s obvious the Red Sox want to have it both ways. Clearly, they would like to phase the youngsters in while remaining competitive in the AL East. They hope that Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Matt Clement and Bronson Arroyo will be able to take some of the pressure off guys like Jon Papelbon and Jon Lester for the next year or two. They hope that a lineup with Manny Ramirez and/or David Ortiz in the middle of it can remain productive while the Dustin Pedroias and Kevin Youkilis’s (or is it Youkili?) develop into consistent contributors.

But there’s no way of avoiding it. The only way these pitchers are going to become the top-of-the-rotation studs and these hitters to become on-base machines everyone projects them to be is for them to be allowed their growing pains.

Theo is going to allow them those growing pains. He’s not going to replace them with some big name unless and until they have proven they can’t do it at the Major League level. What big names he does sign or trade for are going to be brought in to complement the homegrown talent, not carry it.

It’s a philosophy that will reward Red Sox fans for their patience. Provided they don’t jump off a bridge first.

Randy Whitehouse is a staff writer. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]


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