Theo Epstein thinks big with Cubs, braces for the backlash

Theo Epstein thinks big with Cubs, braces for the backlash
April 4, 2012, 3:24 am
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MESA, Ariz. On the day the Cubs put his name in lights on the Wrigley Field marquee, Theo Epstein joked that he should immediately hold another press conference to resign, because his popularity was at an all-time high.

As the jam-packed stadium club began to thin out, it came across as another moment of self-awareness for Epstein, who had grown restless last October after almost 10 years in a dream job, general manager of the Boston Red Sox.

So as the Cubs shut down spring training at HoHoKam Stadium on Tuesday and headed for their United Airlines charter flight back to Chicago, their president of baseball operations understood that you have to be braced for the backlash.

The message boards and talk radio will second-guess manager Dale Sveum. The 40,000 fans at Clark and Addison will boo Carlos Marmol when he blows a save and when Starlin Castro spaces out at shortstop. People will wonder why the Cubs are charging so much for some of their premium tickets.

For all the hype on the North Side, it wasnt hard to find Red Sox fans who were glad that Epstein was gone, remembering the expensive free-agent mistakes, instead of the two World Series titles that became deeply emotional experiences throughout New England.

I can go ahead and write your stories for you right now if you want, Epstein said. At some point, youre going to write about: Oh, the honeymoon is over. Were not seeing enough progress. I dont know when thats going to be.

It might be two years from now. It might be three years from now. It might be two months from now. It might be two weeks from now. But because progress as an organization isnt linear, (we know) thats coming and we just dont let it bother us.

Its important to just focus on what were doing internally and understand that everything outside is really no offense just noise in the end, whether it comes from you guys (in the media) or even comes from some fans who are deservedly upset at a given point. Its really just noise. And if we let it effect our decision-making, shame on us.

So as (Bill) Parcells said: If you listen to the fans in the stands, pretty soon youll be sitting with them.

When Epstein left the Red Sox almost six months ago, longtime Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy remembered how in 1993 a college kid approached him in the Yale Bowl press box.

Turned out it was Epstein, showing off his column in the Yale Daily News. Shaughnessy wrote how it was a rip job on legendary Yale coach Carmen Cozza and marveled at Epsteins meteoric rise in his own column headlined: Any way you write it, its still a success story.

Epstein had grown up not far from Fenway Park, so he knew the nature of the beast and felt that part of the Red Sox problem for many, many decades was focusing too much on the next days sports section, on what people thought (and) a little bit too much on the Yankees (instead of) focusing on just building something.

So Epstein insists the goal of the 2012 team is to win the World Series what else is he supposed to say? and then points out that there is a subtext to the narrative.

In Epsteins mind, the year will be a failure if the Cubs dont establish a culture of hard work, preparation and accountability. They must integrate young players onto the major-league roster and develop impact players in the system.

Top prospects Anthony Rizzo (first base) and Brett Jackson (outfield) should be mashing at Triple-A Iowa, but it doesnt sound like the Cubs will automatically promote them if Bryan LaHair struggles or Marlon Byrd is traded or either one gets injured.

The best decisions are made when you focus almost exclusively on their development, Epstein said. Not necessarily the short focus of: We have a 15-day vacancy at a certain position in the big leagues lets rush this guy up here.

Epstein said triggering major-league service time and the financial ramifications will not really be a factor. After an offseason in which the Cubs showed fiscal discipline and didnt go hard after Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, they could reach another crossroads with Matt Garza by the trade deadline.

Its easier to sit back and sort of evaluate how to balance short-term and long-term interest in a boardroom during the winter in sort of a cold, clinical, objective environment, Epstein said. It becomes a lot more difficult (during) five-game losing streaks when your bullpen blows four games in a week and you lose some one-run games and its really frustrating the same problems are manifesting over and over again.

Everyone in the building coming to work has a frown on their face, the medias starting to pick at you a little bit, the fans are getting restless. Thats when it becomes harder to maintain that objectivity and properly balance short- and long-term interest.

So one of the things that we do now, right before the season starts, (is) in the front office pledge to each other: Lets maintain the proper perspective no matter what happens. We get off to a hot start and were in the middle of this thing, yeah, were going to prioritize winning this season.

(But) lets not get carried away. Were still operating on two fronts. As much as 2012 will matter and will become increasingly important if we get off to a good start, were still doing everything we can to build a championship-caliber organization for the long-term.

And on the flip side, if its miserable during the course of the year as it is for just about every team at one point or another during the season lets not lose perspective and overreact.

The noise is about to get cranked up louder. The fans want one thing. Its the reason you take this job.

Ultimately, the only way to make them happy, Epstein said, is to (give them) baseball in October on a consistent basis and a World Series championship, eventually.