Commentary

Extreme makeover

The pressure is on Theo Epstein to turn Cubs from loveable losers to champs

Updated: October 25, 2011, 6:20 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- On his way out of town, Theo Epstein published a very classy thank-you letter to the rabid Boston Red Sox fans in the Boston Globe. He addressed it to "Red Sox Nation."

So that's how I'll begin yet another column/blog post/diary entry advising Epstein on how to handle his new life as President of Being an Awesome Baseball Genius for the Chicago Cubs. There is no Cubs Nation, no Cubbie Exceptionalism.

[+] EnlargeEpstein
Brian Schneider/US PresswireTheo Epstein is about to experience the pressure of turning the Cubs into a winner.
Yes, there are Cubs fans all over. Some are even from Chicago and actually care about the team's fortunes. Others have been drawn to the historic franchise with its literary backstory of failure, farm animals and unrequited hope tied together by the pastoral splendor of Wrigley Field.

But this isn't a Nation.

As much as Tom Ricketts and Crane Kenney would like some kind of tax benefit for being a sovereign country, the Cubs are nothing more than an old franchise with a cool stadium and a tradition of bad decisions.

You're going to get plenty of advice, all of it unsolicited. Everyone thinks they can run a baseball team, even your new buddy, Crane.

Here's a Cubs Dollar's worth of free advice, Theo: Don't listen to Cubs fans -- even the ones who carry microphones and laptops. I don't have to tell you that, you're coming from the Bizarro Cubs, a Red Sox team that was saddled with a similar myth of impotency, but one that was actually pretty successful. Cubs fans would kill for the Red Sox's pre-2004 problems.

I'm not going to pretend I'm an expert on working in Boston, but I have to imagine it's more pressurized, given the rivalry with the Yankees, but less neurotic. I hate curse talk, but you really could feel the fans' expectations weigh on the Cubs in the 2008 playoffs. The tension was palpable and suffocating.

In Boston you managed to shuck the curse talk right away, according to a recent Boston Herald story, handing out T-shirts to front office employees that said, "We don't know [expletive]." We just assume that of our front office executives in Chicago.

But you're different than former GMs Andy MacPhail and Jim Hendry, and even the high-profile managers who came in proud but left humbled and tired.

You're coming in as the so-called Savior, and that changes everything. You get leeway the first season, because the 2012 theme will be: "Theo has to clean up the mess."

That latitude ends at the 2013 Cubs Convention.

For now, the best thing to do is not perpetuate the idea that you're Mr. Fix-It. I'm sure that will be a theme you bring up again and again at your introductory news conference Tuesday. If anyone knows about outsize expectations, it's you.

But here's the rub: Your introductory news conference is the biggest event at Wrigley Field since the 2008 playoffs. They're already selling T-shirts with your name and number on the back in the store outside the park. I wrote about that idea last week as a joke.

This is not good, but it will abate. I'm all for hope and optimism, but you're just the Cubs president. You can build a team but you can't play. That's why any suggestions that the Cubs trade Starlin Castro for you were nonsense. You're making players' money though. Real cash. After you became as popular as the players in Boston, I'm sure you're hoping for a more sedate lifestyle in Chicago. Given the media stakeout at Wrigley on Monday -- not to mention at area Starbucks -- you're probably aware that isn't going to happen just yet.

People are going to want to know about you, and stonewalling reporters early isn't going to help. The best thing to do is become familiar. So while you don't have to walk the Wrigley concourse like Ricketts does, don't hide from reporters either.

Speaking of, your new boss Tom Ricketts is a heck of a nice guy who disproved a lot of his doubters, and reversed some curious personnel decisions, by landing you. I assume you, and your new GM, Jed Hoyer, will have carte blanche to remake the franchise.

While you have his ear, the best advice you could give Ricketts and Co. is to stop mentioning the World Series as a goal. It's the cudgel that has pained Cubs fans for decades. The goal of the franchise should be playing competitive baseball every year, and ending the boom-and-bust cycles that have plagued the team the past three decades.

The Cubs don't need you to be a savior, they just need better management. And that's not a knock on Hendry as much as it is the simple reality. He needed stronger leadership above him, better resources, and checks and balances. There has been a disconnect for decades over what's important and what's right, and it needs to end. Celebrity managers weren't the answer and neither were quick-fix free agents.

You have a chance to finish the job that Hendry and his predecessors started and turn the Cubs from everyone's second favorite team into a franchise that is famous for more than ivy, beer and failure.

No pressure or anything.

And when you're done here, I've got another job for you. I'm a Pittsburgh Pirates fan.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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