BOSTON – I first met Theo Epstein in a press box in Houston in 2002.

The Red Sox were getting ready to play the Astros in a preseason exhibition game, and Epstein had just joined the team from San Diego. The new Boston assistant GM was having trouble with his cell phone.

“Damned small market phone,” Epstein said. “I’ve got to get me a new one.”

Soon, Epstein had himself a new phone, one of many ways he embraced life in a big baseball market.

Within a year he was general manager, ushering a new era of Red Sox baseball that saw unprecedented success.

Today, after a tenure in Boston that included two world championships and six playoff appearances, Epstein begins a new chapter in his life as president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs.

The Red Sox also begin a new chapter, finally able to move on and look ahead after weeks of looking back at an embarrassing collapse.

There are a lot of people saying a lot of things about the Red Sox these days, more than a few pointing out some of the colossal big-money mistakes Epstein made when dipping into the free-agent market.

The criticism is fair, but it shouldn’t be the lasting image of a local boy who grew up to lead the Sox to a championship after a seemingly endless 86-year drought.

To be sure, Epstein made mistakes. J.D. Drew, John Lackey, Julio Lugo, Matt Clement, and Mike Cameron cost this team hundreds of millions of dollars and produced very little.

The 2007 trade that brought Eric Gagne to town was a disaster — something we’re reminded of this week as David Murphy plays in his second straight World Series with Texas.

But Epstein also turned the Sox into the “draft and development machine” he vowed it would be when he took office.

Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, and Daniel Bard are just a few of the players drafted under Epstein and developed into ready-for-prime-time big leaguers.

He is a tireless worker, burning the midnight oil and always thinking of new ways to improve his team.

He acquired low-risk, high-upside players like David Ortiz, Kevin Millar, Mike Timlin, and Alfredo Aceves. He also urged the team to spend a staggering amount of money to bring Daisuke Matsuzaka to town.

Year after year he made some of the game’s biggest deals just before the non-waiver trade deadline.

Was it time for Epstein to move on? Probably. The 2011 Sox were a dysfunctional group that needs a complete house cleaning.

It’s best for everyone that he had the opportunity to move to Chicago, where he can further his own baseball legacy while the Sox try to begin a new era.

It was an incredible run for the Sox under Epstein. Now they’ll try to return to those successful ways without him. They will have to fix some of his mistakes, but there is absolutely no doubt this is a far better organization now than it was when he first arrived in town.

And, no doubt, he’s got a far better phone now than the one he brought along with him from San Diego.

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.