Theo Epstein thinks big with Cubs, braces for the backlash

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Theo Epstein thinks big with Cubs, braces for the backlash

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.

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Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks battle Bruins tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks battle Bruins tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Boston Bruins tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Scott Darling gets the nod.

Joel Quenneville is giving a struggling Corey Crawford a breather tonight, electing to go with Darling in the final game of the father's road trip. Darling is 11-4-2 with a 2.34 goals against average, .924 save percentage and one shutout in 20 games this season. His numbers aren't as great on the road, where he is 4-2-1 with a 2.83 GAA and .901 save percentage compared to a 7-2-1 record with a 1.98 GAA and .928 save percentage at home, but he fared well against Boston last season. The Lemont native stopped 42 of 46 shots, good for a .913 save percentage, in a 6-4 win at the United Center last April.

2. The Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line.

The Blackhawks' trio of Artem Anisimov, Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin had a rare zero points in Tuesday's 6-4 win over Colorado, but don't expect to see that again. In fact, it could be the opposite. In their last meeting against the Bruins, a 6-4 win on April 3 during the 2015-16 season, they combined for 11 points (five goals, six assists), highlighted by a Kane hat trick that put him at 100 points on the season for the first time in his career. 

3. How the rookies build off a monsterous game.

In arguably the most well-rounded victory of the season Tuesday in Colorado, the Blackhawks had three rookies that had multi-point efforts. Vinnie Hinostroza had two goals, including the game winner. Tanner Kero had two goals and one assist, while Nick Schmaltz also had a goal and an assist. It was the top-six that was doing the heavy lifting earlier in the season, now the bottom-six is slowly starting to contribute on a consistent basis. The Blackhawks will be in great shape if they can confidently roll four lines that have the potential to find the back of the net on any given shift.

4. Patrice Bergeron vs. Jonathan Toews.

Two of the best two-way centers in the league will go head-to-head, and it's always a fun matchup to watch. Bergeron leads the league with 597 faceoff wins, and is ranked fifth with a 58.4 percentage at the dot while Toews ranks eighth in wins with 473 — despite missing nine games with a back injury — and sits at sixth with a 57.5 percentage. Both of the perennial Selke Trophy candidates have struggled offensively this season, with Bergeron recording only 21 points in 45 games and Toews with 22 points in 38 contests. Bergeron has been heating up as of late, though, scoring three goals and six assists in his last eight games. Bergeron also leads the league in possession numbers, with the Bruins controlling 61.9 percent of the even-strength shot attempts when he's on the ice.

5. Brad Marchand.

In September, Marchand inked an eight-year, $49 million deal and it's already paying dividends for the Bruins. He has 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in his last eight games, and 45 points total, which is by far the most on his team and tied for sixth in the NHL. He's 16 points away from tying his career high of 61 set last season, with a little less than half the year to go. He's also had great success against the Blackhawks. In his last six games against Chicago, dating back to the 2013-14 campaign, he has registered at least a point in all of them, scoring four goals and adding five assists. To make life more difficult, he's a player that enjoys getting under people's skin, so expect him to be a big factor tonight.

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