Boston Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein, thought to be on the verge of a contract extension as recently as Sunday night, abruptly resigned yesterday, a turn of events that leaves the storied franchise without the wunderkind who built the team that won the 2004 World Series, ending the 86-year hex known as the "Curse of the Bambino."

The surprising announcement, made on the day Epstein's contract expired, came after the Red Sox had reportedly offered the 31-year-old a three-year extension worth $4.5 million. It leaves Boston among the teams searching for a general manager as the free agency period approaches.

"In my time as general manager, I gave my entire heart and soul to the organization," Epstein said in a statement released by the club last night. "During the process leading up to today's decision, I came to the conclusion that I can no longer do so. In the end, my choice is the right one not only for me but for the Red Sox."

The Red Sox join the Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Devil Rays as teams without general managers. The Red Sox' job, however, is likely the most attractive of the four, considering Boston's $120 million payroll.

A week ago, Epstein's most likely successor would have been assistant GM Josh Byrnes. But Byrnes, 35, was hired as the GM of the Arizona Diamondbacks last Friday. Jed Hoyer, a 31-year-old assistant to the GM for the Red Sox, had been a candidate to replace Byrnes, but it was unclear last night whether Hoyer would be considered for the top spot.

Candidates mentioned for the other GM openings include former Toronto and Baltimore GM Pat Gillick, former Houston GM Gerry Hunsicker, San Diego GM Kevin Towers and Washington Nationals GM Jim Bowden. Nationals President Tony Tavares said last night that no team had contacted him asking permission to speak with Bowden, who signed a six-month extension last week.

Epstein, a Yale graduate who grew up in Brookline, Mass., was a protege of Red Sox President Larry Lucchino, whom he followed from Baltimore to San Diego and, eventually, to Boston. The Red Sox named the then-28-year-old Epstein as their GM prior to the 2003 season, making him the youngest GM in the sport's history. That move came after Boston pursued Oakland's Billy Beane by offering a five-year, $12.5 million deal that Beane eventually turned down.

The offer to Beane, however, hung over these negotiations with Epstein. The Boston Globe reported that Epstein first rejected a three-year deal with an annual salary of $850,000, then a three-year deal worth $1.2 million per year. Reports in both the Boston Herald and the Globe indicated that Epstein's relationship with Lucchino had become strained.

Despite his departure, Epstein's stamp will forever remain on his hometown team. The 2003 Red Sox lost the AL Championship Series when manager Grady Little failed to remove tiring ace Pedro Martinez in Game 7, and the New York Yankees came from behind to win. Epstein fired Little, replaced him with Terry Francona, then made his signature move the following summer, trading shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, a New England icon, in a four-team deal that changed Boston's chemistry.

-- Barry Svrluga