Posnanski: Epstein’s Cubs on winning track — it just may not seem that way

Posnanski: Epstein’s Cubs on winning track — it just may not seem that way
March 21, 2013, 8:30 pm
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Joe Posnanski
“The game is best understood at 10,000 feet. But it is best enjoyed from the front row.”
—Theo Epstein
“We don’t think we’re anywhere close to being the organization that we will become.”
—Theo Epstein

The great thing about being a super hero is that you get to disappear into a secret identity after you save the world. You can put your hands on your hips, stick out your chest, and announce: “My work here is done.” And then you dash off, maybe to the Fortress of Solitude or the Bat Cave or an invisible plane, but eventually you take off a mask, put on glasses, do something with your hair, and melt into the tranquility of your secret identity.

And nobody asks you when you’re going to save the world again.

* * *

This is the story about a boy who keeps trying to save the baseball world. He didn’t know that would be his fate. He only knew he loved baseball. He wasn’t especially good at baseball. He just loved it. His whole family loved it. Heck, everyone he knew loved it. The boy grew up in Boston — Brookline, to be precise — so his love of baseball filtered through the Boston Red Sox, and the inevitable heartbreak they caused. He was 4 when Bucky Dent hit the home run that broke Boston’s heart. He was 12 when the baseball dribbled through Bill Buckner’s legs.

[David Kaplan: Epstein very pleased with progress he's seen with Cubs]

The boy grew up in a family of writers. His grandfather and great uncle wrote “Casablanca.” His father wrote novels and taught creative writing. His sister would someday write television scripts. The boy did a little writing himself, but it did not grip him. He often felt like he was drifting, like he did not really know himself. But the boy was smart. He went to Yale. He went to law school. And he went to work for a baseball team in San Diego.

Then, one day, the boy was 28 and he found himself being introduced as the general manager of the Boston Red Sox. His Red Sox. The team was already hugely talented. They had superstars in Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez and Jason Varitek and Nomar Garciaparra. They only needed a few adjustments and a little bit of luck. The boy and his staff made the adjustments. The first year, they lost in Game 7 of the ALCS in heartbreaking fashion. The next year, the Red Sox won the World Series.

The boy was just 30. His Red Sox had broken an 86-year curse. His Red Sox had ended almost a century of angst and dread and despair. He had saved the world.

Only Theo Epstein had no secret identity to melt into.

* * *

He sits now behind his desk at Hokoham Stadium in Mesa, and he finds himself unconsciously slapping down on a book called “The Cubs Way.” Outside these walls, a book called ‘The Cubs Way” would probably have a very different plot. It might tell the amazing narrative of black cats and Harry Caray and Wrigley Field day games and Steve Bartman and a team that has not been to the World Series since World War II ended, and has not won one since Geronimo died (yes, that’s right, Geronimo, the Apache leader).

This is a different kind of book. Epstein believes deeply in it. “The Cubs Way” was co-written by, well, pretty much everybody around here — all the managers and coaches and instructors and front office people in the Cubs organization. They gathered together for days and put it together. The book details the direction for the Cubs in every facet of the game — hitting, bunting, infield defense, outfield defense, pitching, strength and conditioning, everything you could imagine.

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It was written with great care. At one point, there was a two-hour argument about whether the runner, when rounding first base, should touch the bag with his left or right foot. Many around baseball think left. The Cubs — because this is Theo’s team — went through a painstaking surveying process, where they decided that the distance is actually a little bit shorter if you touch the base with the right foot. So touching first base with the right foot is now part of The Cubs Way.

“I’ll tell about one of my best days of the year last year,” Epstein says. “I was walking on the field of our instructional league. We had our new farm director, our new field coordinator, our coaches, our young players, the energy they were putting out was off the charts. We had a talented group of young players who were clearly proud to be Cubs, who cared for each other, who were playing hard after a long season, pulling for each other, competing with each other.”

Epstein slaps down again on “The Cubs Way.”

“I walked off that field,” he continues, “thinking we’re definitely heading in the right direction.”

He smiles a little bit. “But,” he says, “when you are trying to build an organization the right way, moments like that are fleeting.”

Yes, Theo Epstein is trying to save the world again. Before it was the Red Sox with their curse of the Bambino. Now it’s the Cubs with their Curse of the Billy Goat. Before it was an 86-year World Series drought. Now it’s a 105-year World Series drought. The man, it seems, cannot help himself.

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But more than trying to save the world, Theo Epstein is grinding. This is what you have to do when your team is pretty terrible.

And the Cubs are pretty terrible.

Epstein knew this when he signed on to become the team’s President of Baseball Operations in October of 2011 and promptly brought in his friend Jed Hoyer in to be the general manager. They knew that the Cubs had lost 91 games in 2011 with a team swamped by bad contracts. They knew the Cubs had not drafted a single guy who had become an everyday player or starting pitcher in a decade.

Heck, when Epstein signed on he thought the Cubs had one player in the entire organization — Starlin Castro — who might be part of a winning core. He was actually pleasantly surprised to find that there are other players who might help the team win, such as pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who had pitched out of the bullpen with mixed results before Epstein and his new manager Dale Sveum arrived.

“Welcome guys,” Epstein remembers Samardzija saying on his first day with Sveum. “I just want you to know one thing about me. I will do whatever it takes to help this team. And I think the best way to help this team is by being a starting pitcher. I’m eliminating everything in my life that gets in the way. I’m dumping my girlfriend. I’m moving to Arizona. I just want the chance to show you that I’m a starting pitcher.”

[More: Francona believes Epstein hired 'the right guy' in Sveum]

So that was nice. Samardzija started 28 games last year and, except for three rough outings in June, he was really good. There were a couple of other players who emerged last year. Epstein traded for first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who the Red Sox had drafted under Epstein, and he hit pretty well for a 22-year-old. Darwin Barney played Gold Glove defense at second base. Castro’s defense improved pretty dramatically at short. And …

And … let’s not kid anybody. The Cubs lost 101 games last year. They were abysmal. They may be slightly better this year, but nobody’s planning the tickertape parade. Epstein came into this with his eyes open. There was no Pedro Martinez here. No Manny. No Varitek. No Nomah. There would be no rock star rise like in Boston, no instant successes, no procession of admirers lining up after only a few months to declare him a genius.

But that’s OK. Theo Epstein never wanted any of that stuff in the first place.

* * *

Theo Epstein began his baseball life with the San Diego Padres, where he found his desk right between the team’s Director of Scouting and Eddie Epstein (no relation), a Sabermetric pioneer who was one of the first numbers men to work inside baseball. Theo said the two men could not stand each other and would not talk to each other. But they would both talk to Theo.

And he loved listening to them both. His feeling about baseball is summed up in an artistic few words he will say from time to time: “The game is best understood at 10,000 feet. But it is best enjoyed from the front row.”

This is the sensibility that immediately struck people about Epstein, the thing that made his rise in baseball so meteoric, the thing that caught the eye of Larry Lucchino, who made him the youngest general manager in baseball. Epstein saw the game analytically and romantically at the same time. It’s a rare trait.

And he was smart. Damned smart. When he was named GM of the Red Sox before the 2003 season, he knew right away that on-base percentage could be their hammer. ‘Back then,” he says with nostalgia in his voice, “getting on-base percentage — it was like shooting fish in a barrel.” The Red Sox signed Bill Mueller for a couple million bucks. They blocked Kevin Millar from going to Japan. They scooped up David Ortiz, who had been released by the Minnesota Twins. All of them got on base.

And the Red Sox led the American League in on-base percentage the next year … and the next year … and the year after that.

[More: Cubs have seen the payoffs in rebuilding]

Epstein will always be quick to say that his role in the Red Sox championship should not be overstated. “I caught so many breaks,” he says. “I mean, I walked right into a Hall of Fame core.” But he also knows that people in Boston really didn’t really want to hear that — certainly not at the time. He was a young, good-looking kid from Brookline who was the general manager when the Red Sox broke the curse. Everybody wanted to celebrate Theo Epstein.

“I was pretty young,” he says, “and I wasn’t fully mature as a human being — not that I am now. Almost out of necessity I had to block all that hype out. I couldn’t process it. … It was literally impossible for me to process all the outside pressures and expectations and do my job.”

Epstein focused on the job. Mostly, he focused on the farm system. The Red Sox had remarkable success finding and developing players — they drafted Jonathan Papelbon in 2003, Dustin Pedroia in 2004, Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz in 2005. All of them appeared, at least briefly, for the 2007 Red Sox team that won the World Series. All of them played bigger roles on the 2008 and 2009 Red Sox teams that each won 95 games.

Then, in 2010, Epstein talked openly about how he saw it as a bridge year. The Red Sox had shifted their drafting philosophy — leaning more on high school draft picks — and he saw a small gap in the incoming talent. He said that. Nobody liked hearing it. Nobody. The Red Sox missed the playoffs for the first time in four years, and Red Sox chairman Tom Werner went into 2011 saying, “I want to assure everyone that there is no bridge year here this year … I think Theo would be the first to say it wasn’t his finest Winston Churchill moment.”

So, yes, everything changed. There was no more talk about bridge years and waiting for the minor league system to bloom. These were the BOSTON RED SOX, for crying out loud. And they started spending like rich grandparents. They traded for Adrian Gonzalez and gave him a huge contract. They signed Carl Crawford to a huge contract. They gave Bobby Jenks $12 million for two years — no, really, they did that — and they gave various other relievers a lot of money, and they had already signed Mike Cameron for $15 or so million and John Lackey for $82.5 million and so on.

In 2011, the Red Sox crashed with a horrible final month collapse — a collapse that filled the local papers with all sorts of shocking inner-team squabbles involving chicken and beer in the clubhouse and so on — and Theo Epstein left to become president of the Chicago Cubs. Then things got much worse in Boston. The Red Sox lost 93 games last year and spent much of the time just trying to dispose of any burdensome contracts.

“Forbidden fruit,” Epstein says of free agency and he shrugs. “We just didn’t have the patience to make it across the gap without giving into temptation. … Free agency is where you get your worst return on investment. It’s really that simple. The draft and the international market, that’s where you get your best return, dollar for dollar. And free agency is the worst return on investment.”

Epstein shrugs again. “We knew that but we did it anyway. It was a negative lesson.”

* * *

It is fun to listen to Theo Epstein talk about the differences between Boston and Chicago. He is very careful to say that the differences are sweeping generalizations and certainly do not reflect how everyone feels. And he is careful to say that he believes they are the two best fan bases in baseball. But he says there are differences and he is getting used to them.

“Anyone who has spent time in both places will tell you that there’s more of an edge in Boston. Maybe it goes back to our puritanical roots, I don’t know. There’s just an innate cynicism.

“Even when things were going well, there was a sense of ‘when’s the other shoe going to drop?’ That was part of the fun of being a Red Sox fan — agonizing over the struggles that were about to come. Even when we were winning 95 games, there was angst over those one-game losing streaks. Like I say, there’s this edge. I know. I’m a part of it. I grew up with it.

“In Chicago there seems to be a little more optimism. You see it at Wrigley Field. Even in a losing season, a player makes a nice catch and everyone is up, cheering and lifting their beers as if there’s no better place in the world at that moment. I just think there’s more optimism, more belief, less dread than in Boston.”

He slaps “The Cubs Way” again and admits he’s counting on some of that optimism in Chicago because he and Hoyer and Sveum and the rest will not take any short cuts. Last year, when they were going through the 101-loss season, they kept reminding each other to stay together and to remember that it’s a long term plan.

“It was very hard,” he says, “but we leaned on each other. If any one person was going through all those losses, they might look for a get-out-of-jail free card, you know, a tangible move that will make all the losing stop. But we all had agreed on our vision. We knew there would be some tough years.”

They know, realistically, this year could be tough too. Yes, they hope it will get better. The Cubs signed some starting pitching — headlined by Edwin Jackson — and they hope Castro and Rizzo and others will emerge, and a couple of guys will have career years and … they hope, but they know it could be brutal come August.

“We all agreed to be transparent about it,” Epstein says. “We don’t think we’re anywhere close to being the organization that we will become.”

[More: Why the Cubs went all-in with Edwin Jackson]

Epstein does not hold back when talk about where he wants that organization to be. “Offensively,” he says, “we want to control strike zone, be among the league leaders in on-base percentage every year. That’s how we’re going to score runs by getting on base and not making outs, having eight guys with good approaches, who can work the count into their favor and drive the ball.

“But we don’t want to sacrifice defense to do that. We don’t just want eight guys who can slug. We want two-way players. And we want pitchers who throw ground balls, throw strikes, strike people out. We don’t want to make any sacrifices. We are trying to build a team that can do everything.”

And he says to get there, they can’t take detours or make short-term decisions. “You can’t please the fans in November or December anyway,” he says. “It’s such a temporary, inauthentic fix. The only way to make fans happy is to be playing in October on a consistent basis. It’s the only way.”

If the Cubs do surprise and contend this year, Epstein says the Cubs will go for it. But if the Cubs do not contend this year — much more likely — he said the Cubs will trade off players in August and September, and things could get ugly.

“We’re going to do the right things,” he said. Of course, everyone says that. But then, when the losing gets hot, when the fans lose their patience, when ownership grows tired of getting ripped, when ticket sales or ratings begins to falter, it’s often hard to do the right thing. Epstein nods.

“If we are really, really, really good at our jobs in scouting and player development,” Epstein says, “we’ll never have to sign a single free agent.

“But I can guarantee you right now that won’t happen. I can tell you that there will be a press conference or two over the next four years. We will stand up and hold up a jersey and we will be happy we signed the player. I hope we can be in on some of the top free agents. But we will do it with our eyes open.”

He looks out the window onto the spring training field. He says. “Let’s face it: You rarely hold that celebratory press conference at the end of the contract.”

* * *

Epstein says his life is very different now. He’s married and he’s a father — his son, Jack, is 6. That has helped center his life. He’s out of Boston and that too has calmed things down. He says that being a Boston kid running the Red Sox did not affect his life as much as you might expect, except when he would call home to talk with his parents or when he would call his twin brother Paul.

“I’d call to get away from some of that outside stuff,” he says. “And before there was a hello there was a “What the hell happened with runners on first and third in the seventh inning last night?”

Mostly though, Epstein says, he’s just older now. He understands himself better. He knows how to do this job, how to deal with the problems, how to handle the good and bad. The Boston experience was incredible. He’s proud of how he did his job and proud of his contribution to the Red Sox's huge success, but he was a different guy then. He was younger, and he was in a whirlwind, he was on a roller coaster, and much of it was a blur.

Now, he’s 39, and he’s been through all that. And he says he wants to embrace every moment of this journey. He admits that he can’t get the Boston out of himself, he hasn’t changed THAT much. “I hold on to things that go wrong much more than I savor things that go right,” he says.

But he does find that he’s more hopeful now. He is confident that everyone will stick together, and they will build a winning organization. He is confident that the Cubs will be the kind of team that will play in October all the time — he foresees “something like eight out of 10 years” — and that by playing in October again and again, by being good year after year, the Cubs will get to the World Series for the first time since 1945, and they will win the World Series for the first time since 1908. He knows it will happen.

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He also knows that there will be some rough and hopeless times ahead. But this is what he signed up for. He’s trying to save the world again. It’s never easy. “We know what we’re up against,” he says. He slaps down on “The Cubs Way” again and tells a little story.

“I think people in Chicago know what we’re doing. Sometimes, someone will say, ‘I’ve been a Cubs fan for 67 years, I won’t live much longer. But mostly people are really supportive. I had someone come up and say, ‘We love everything you’re doing. We’re embracing it. We’re rooting for the kids. You just keep doing it the right way, we know that it’s going to work. We are with you.’

“And then,” Epstein says, “he kind of paused and said, ‘But seriously, how are we going to be this year?’”

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