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Time for Cubs to raid rivals

Theo Epstein hasn't even officially begun running the Cubs yet, let alone set up a suggestion box. But this can't wait. At the top of Epstein's to-do list, even before banning in-game beers and fried chicken in the clubhouse, you know what Epstein has to scribble in, right? By the end of this World Series, he has to know every little thing about Albert Pujols, from his favorite at-bat music to what question could've ruined his perfect score on his 2007 U.S. citizenship test. And Epstein has to learn every last detail about Tony La Russa, too, down to whether La Russa's devoted animal-rights activism makes him for or against the catch-and-release of the Rally Squirrel from Busch Stadium to a nice leafy spot somewhere upstate.

Then Epstein has to figure out how to get Pujols and La Russa to the Cubs.

Nothing against Dusty Baker, who has won his division wherever he's been manager, but after watching the uncanny roll that La Russa was on in the National League playoffs and Wednesday's Game 1 of the World Series as he mixed and matched pitchers, you get the feeling if La Russa were managing the Cubs in 2003, he'd have pulled a double switch and had Moises Alou sitting in Bartman's seat and the bewildered Bartman taking his place in left field before that fateful foul ball went hooking down the line and changed everything.

La Russa is just plain showing off how smart he is right now. But better yet -- for the Cubs, anyway -- the 67-year-old manager and the Cardinals have a shared option to decide whether he'll return to St. Louis for a 17th season.

And Pujols, who's just 31, is a free agent after this season, too.

There's not a better package deal or way for Epstein to jump-start the franchise than bringing La Russa and Pujols to Wrigley Field.

Pujols' deep roots in the St. Louis community are a huge hurdle to prying him away. But he also finally wants to be paid like the best player in baseball.

For years, there've been murmurs about La Russa looking elsewhere for the last act of his career. Boston was rumored as a possibility when Terry Francona was on the hot seat and Epstein was still there. The White Sox job came up, too, because of La Russa's personal history there and friendliness with ownership. And La Russa refused to shoot down the talk in late September.

Reminded that refusal would surely only spur the speculation even more, La Russa smirked and told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "It's healthy to have fun, isn't it? They say if you smile 10 times a day, you're healthy. I hope everyone is having fun."

Managing the White Sox again would've been a been there/done that move for La Russa.

Getting the Cubs to a World Series -- and then winning it for the first time since 1908 -- is the sport's last great frontier. The Cubs' curse is the Rubik's Cube of baseball. Solving it is the greatest unaccomplished team achievement left in American sports, period. Nothing else comes close.

Epstein should find a way to get La Russa and Pujols to buy into the romance of that challenge like he did. Appeal to their egos, their sense of theatre and history, their love of baseball's rituals and touchstones. Flaunt the Cubs' big-market payroll. Whatever it takes.

(Why not chase Prince Fielder first? No. With no designated hitter spot to fall back on, the Cubs should forget Fielder if Pujols will listen. I'm with that unnamed baseball executive who recently told Sports Illustrated that when he looks at Fielder, who's already rotund at 27, he worries he's the second coming of Mo Vaughn. And anyway, after the John Lackey/Carl Crawford signings in Boston, Theo needs a sure thing. And Pujols is as close to that as you can get.)

The Cards have so far balked at the $200 million starting point it might take to get a Pujols deal done. Pujols cut off contract negotiations once this season began, and he declined to discuss the matter again as the Cards prepared to host Texas this week in the first two games of the World Series.

But people who have spoken to Pujols off the record during the year say he wasn't thrilled that it's been allowed to come to this, and he'll have little tolerance if the Cards treat him as if all's fair in love and contract wars, the way the Yankees insulted Derek Jeter last winter.

So now what? Memo to Theo: Make a short list of the best Chicago schools for Pujols' kids. Start Googling La Russa's favorite vegetarian dishes and Springsteen songs. See if there's not some Nobel Prize-winning psychologist bumping into the furniture at Yale, your alma mater, who has some genius theory about how people make these emotionally freighted decisions and what tripwires to trigger. Or throw your wholesale faith in with the Boras Theory of Relativity: The most zeroes on the contract wins.

La Russa has always been able to pencil in Pujols, the greatest hitter of his generation, on his lineup card the past 11 years. And Pujols, who has never played a big league season without La Russa, has helped La Russa to three of his six World Series trips.

They're better together than they would be apart.

So if you're a Cubs fan -- or just a baseball nut, period, who would like to see the Cubs finally win it all -- it makes sense to root like hell against the Cardinals getting a storybook ending to their startling season. No sense letting everyone get all sappy and sentimental over there. Then they might actually start sniffling that they can't possibly leave now.

There's no better new landing spot for both Pujols and La Russa than the Cubs.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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