Building on a dream
As Theo Epstein takes the reins, Cubs fans hope he can turn fantasy into reality
CHICAGO -- Multiple high-ranking, totally trustworthy major league sources confirmed Tuesday that Theo Epstein is the new president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs.
"I've waited a few weeks to say this, but it truly feels great to be a Cub today," said a source close to Epstein.
Oh wait, that was Epstein. He actually said those words to begin his introductory news conference at Wrigley Field.
All those unnamed Deep Fungo sources, Twitter scoop hustlers and citizen journalist spottings have left me a little loopy. Not to mention the week of contractual limbo he spent in Boston that left Epstein feeling like Milton in the classic movie "Office Space."
"I keep showing up to work and it was as if somebody forgot to tell me I didn't work there," he said. "I did end up in the basement with a cubicle and a stapler."
An exec who quotes "Office Space"? Count me in. (Speaking of, isn't Crane Kenney a dead ringer for Bill Lumbergh?)
Certainly, it was surreal, almost a dream, to see Epstein stride into the team's stadium club Tuesday morning. When Jim Hendry tearfully said his goodbyes in August, who thought Epstein would take his place? An Epstein clone maybe, but the real thing?
A September collapse by the Boston Red Sox and the firing of Terry Francona helped force the change, and the historic chance to lead the Cubs to the World Series, after already having done so with the Red Sox, was too good to pass up. Eighteen million doesn't hurt either. Good timing hasn't exactly dominated Tom Ricketts' early reign as chairman, but he certainly got an assist in this case. Give credit to Tom for closing the deal.
Surrealism met reality Tuesday, and now the Theo decade can begin. Why limit it to a decade? Why not the Theo era?
Epstein essentially gave himself a 10-year window to hold onto this high-profile, high-pressure job -- the limit is why he was ready to leave Boston before the September collapse.
Ten years is the time football coach Bill Walsh theorized was the perfect span to stay in one place in the sports world. (Don't tell that to Kenny Williams or Jerry Angelo, who have been running the White Sox and Bears respectively since 2001.)
"After 10 years, no matter how passionate you are, you see the same issues day after day, you're around the same people day after day, you have the same landscape day after day," Epstein said. "Eventually, you'll benefit from a new landscape, fresh problems, and the goal for the individual is to have some reinvigoration, some rebirth."
Cubs fans, especially the one signing Epstein's multimillion-dollar checks, would be thrilled for 10 years of Theo, provided those seasons end a little later in October than normal. Ten years seems like a lifetime for a job that ages men much like being the president of the United States does. Jim Hendry looked like Ryan Reynolds before he took the job. (Don't fact-check that.)
Given the pressure to be the "Savior," the youthful-looking 37-year-old Epstein might resemble one of the septuagenarian Wrigley ushers when he's done 10 years of time I mean service here.
Epstein, the boy wonder of the Back Bay, knows all about outsize expectations and he knows about unprecedented success. Now he just has to take his World Series-winning computer system from Boston and hit enter, right?
He acknowledged that won't be quite that easy on the North Side, saying, "I certainly think there's a gap between where we are and where we want to be."
That's a nice way to say the organization is a mess, the 2011 draft notwithstanding. At the major league level, the Cubs have gotten worse each and every season since the 2008 playoff collapse. By the end of his tenure, Hendry, god bless his back-slapping, profane soul, was charged with building a team that could compete for a World Series immediately, logic and the future be damned. After all, the team was for sale.
But Hendry couldn't finish the job and it cost him his job after nearly two seasons under Tom Ricketts' ownership.
While Hendry got to mature in the organization, Epstein comes in fresh and famous, with more money, more financial backing, a clearer vision of success and nearly a decade of experience on baseball's biggest stage. It's safe to say he's got the authority to do whatever he wants, a five-year, reported-$18.5-million deal and big promotion is proof enough. Ricketts' Red Sox fetish doesn't hurt.
Epstein said he won't cheat the woe-is-us Cubs fans with a rebuilding effort, noting with purpose that "every opportunity to win is sacred." But in the same breath, he added, "there are no shortcuts in baseball."
He didn't discount the Cubs lucking into a good situation, like he did with a simple claim on David Ortiz, but he doesn't want to inflate the fans' hopes with unrealistic comparisons.
"The big thing in Boston was we had a great core when we first got there," he said. "We had future Hall of Famers on the roster. But we also, I think, did a pretty good job and got really lucky those first couple offseasons. We hit on every player -- David Ortiz, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke, Mike Timlin, guys like that. Those players, along with the core that we inherited, put it together on the field. That doesn't recreate itself all the time."
I should probably have another press conference right now to resign. Because my popularity is definitely going to be at an all-time high right now.” --Theo Epstein, acknowledging the fanfare celebrating his arrival in Chicago
No, it doesn't. And the market inefficiencies he seized upon nearly 10 years ago aren't secret anymore. He said his new staff will work hard to find the new ones, but who knows if they're even out there.
What never goes out of style is good defense, on-base percentage and a surplus of pitching. Most importantly, Epstein said he and his team will create a "Cubs Way" system that will be "integrated vertically" from the Dominican Summer League to Wrigley Field. No more of the get "rich quick, get terrible quicker" spending that summarized the end of the Tribune reign.
Epstein's words aren't just pie-in-the-sky optimism or the kind of mindless PR-speak that Tom Ricketts sometimes lapses into. (An aside: Ricketts waited a whole minute before dropping "World Series," and Epstein mentioned it as well. I'm against mentioning those words together until the Cubs can win a first-round series again. For that matter, let's try and win a Crosstown Classic BP Cup first. You with me?)
Epstein has a lot on his plate. He's got to decide on the future of option-eligible players such as Aramis Ramirez and Ryan Dempster, figure out what he's going to do with exiled Carlos Zambrano and make a decision on the future of Alfonso Soriano.
The first thing he probably does is decide on the future of manager Mike Quade. Epstein said they've already talked and plan to meet in person in the next week. There is no question he needs to replace Quade immediately. Bringing him back for another year will be nothing but a distraction, and there's no reason to believe he is a long-term solution.
I can't say Ryne Sandberg is the answer just because he kicked butt in managing Triple-A. I'm betting Cubs Dollars to Hendry's donuts that Epstein knows already who he's going to hire.
The Cubs have big money problems and Epstein is getting paid a lot himself to figure out the best solution. Then he has to find some values on the free-agent market to fill in the holes and make this team competitive. As popular as he is, Epstein can't fill the bleachers on those $90 dates with his charm. As he repeated Tuesday, he's going to need help, like a new front office with a bent for advanced analysis.
He couldn't speak about San Diego Padres GM Jed Hoyer being his second-in-command general manager, but he did say he'll be bringing in the "best and the brightest."
I'm probably alone but that line made me think of David Halberstam's similarly titled book on the mistakes made in the Vietnam War. Halberstam used the term ironically for White House advisers with "brilliant policies that defied common sense."
I don't think I'll have to mention that comparison again, but you never know. For now, even anti-Moneyball folks can't argue against Epstein's success blending traditional scouting methods and the now commonly accepted advanced scouting metrics.
We can argue anything in this sports-obsessed city -- heck, people wanted the Chicago Bulls to draft Michael Beasley over Derrick Rose a few years ago -- but no one can argue that Epstein was the best choice for the job. He has everything going for him, but again, so did Andy MacPhail. Times and situations are different, but still, there's a reason the Cubs were so desperate for Epstein.
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His arrival in Chicago, as frustrating as the delay might have been, has been met with expected, over-the-moon optimism. I argued on the radio Tuesday that Epstein is the most famous sports executive (not owner) since Branch Rickey or, I guess, movie star Billy Beane. If he could call offensive plays for the Bears, I think we'd elect him King.
This is nothing new. Epstein's popularity ballooned in Boston to almost comical proportions. He was the young, good-looking, guitar-playing local genius who did the impossible. If he's looking to stay low-key and stay private, he's come to the wrong city. Heck, an impromptu Starbucks visit during the interview process elicited a major newspaper story.
"I've come to grow more comfortable with the realities of the fact that, unlike 20 years ago, general managers now are sort of part of the public face of the franchise. Because of the information age and the way not only the game has changed but the fan experience has changed, people relate more to GMs. Everybody thinks they can be a GM or president of baseball operations. It comes with the territory."
Epstein, by the way, confirmed the fan's story that he was the guy at Starbucks, though he said he's really more of a "Dunkin' guy," especially since they're a Cubs sponsor.
I'm sure Epstein's ego is prodigious, as it should be given his accomplishments, but he sees the hilarity of stores selling his Cubs jersey.
"I should probably have another press conference right now to resign," he said. "Because my popularity is definitely going to be at an all-time high right now."
That's great news actually. Because the Cubs don't need Celebrity Theo, they need GM Theo, the guy who got Boston those World Series titles and spent so much time talking about building a foundation Tuesday, I assumed he was the architect for the new Wrigley Field.
Then again, I guess that's exactly who he is: The Builder. Now let him go to work. My sources tell me he needs to get started.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.