The best and brightest: Cubs add Hoyer, McLeod

571482.jpg

The best and brightest: Cubs add Hoyer, McLeod

Updated: 10:02 p.m.

Theo Epstein sounds like hes running a Fortune 500 company. The 37-year-old Ivy League graduate has a law degree and vows to change the way the Cubs do business.

The new president of baseball operations promised to hire the best and the brightest from outside the organization. That now officially includes Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, two executives who helped the Boston Red Sox win two World Series titles.

The Cubs and San Diego Padres released a joint statement on Wednesday night that announced what everyone expected: Hoyer will become executive vice presidentgeneral manager, while McLeod will be named senior vice presidentscouting and player development.

The Padres will promote Josh Byrnes another part of this Red Sox tree to replace Hoyer as general manager. Grabbing Hoyer and McLeod will cost the Cubs one player as compensation. They will all be introduced at press conferences after the World Series.

Hoyer is supposed to free Epstein from the day-to-day oversight of the major-league team, allowing him to focus on the big picture. McLeod whose first draft with Boston produced future MVP Dustin Pedroia is expected to take a broader role within the baseball operation.

Epstein profiles like an executive at Goldman Sachs or Lockheed Martin, talking about vertical integration and information-management systems. That certainly resonated with chairman Tom Ricketts and his financial background.

Epstein pledged to dig deep with research and development and try to find that next competitive advantage, likely figuring out a way to prevent injuries and keep pitchers healthy.

Epstein talked about understanding the supply and demand dynamic (and) discovering small opportunities to make the organization better, like signing a released player to a one-year, 1.25 million deal (David Ortiz).

Epstein compared his front office to a boiler room or a think tank. He developed a reputation as a listener who welcomes different opinions and builds a consensus.

A very inclusive guy that likes to challenge everyone, one scout said. He welcomes input and has been very fair and very personable.

Epstein received assurances from ownership that he would be able to expand what has been one of the smallest baseball operations departments in the game. So for those leftover from the Jim Hendry regime, this isnt necessarily a zero-sum game. Its time for the Cubs to pool their intellectual capital.

During Epsteins scripted remarks at Tuesdays news conference, he showed an eye for details. That was fitting for the son of a Boston University creative writing professor. He values the grunts and views winning the World Series as a when not if proposition.

It will happen because one of our area scouts drives an extra six miles to get that one last look at a prospect before the draft, Epstein said. It will happen because the rookie ball pitching coach comes out every day to early work, until he finally finds that right grip for a young pitchers changeup.

It will happen because someone from our international staff takes the extra time to really get to know a 17-year-old kid and help make his transition to the States that much easier. It will happen because a fringe prospect from Double-A buys into The Cubs Way and takes responsibility for his own development.

It will happen because our major-league coaching staff is more prepared than their counterparts across the field.

Epstein has already begun gathering information on his personnel, speaking with manager Mike Quade and scouting director Tim Wilken and scheduling face-to-face meetings. Randy Bush and Oneri Fleita are right there in the offices at Clark and Addison. Theres talk that the organizational meetings will be pushed back to February, just before the start of spring training.

The drawn-out negotiations over compensation to free Epstein from the final year of his contract certainly wont help him bring staffers over from Boston. And quietly over the past few years Hendry had been building up the infrastructure that so impressed Ricketts.

Bush knows what it takes to play the game at the highest level after winning two World Series rings with the Minnesota Twins, a model franchise for developing talent. The interim general manager has worked as the organizations minor-league hitting coordinator and was the head coach at the University of New Orleans.

Fleita already received a new four-year contract from Ricketts. The vice president of player personnel has family roots in Cuba and contacts in the Dominican Republic. His network includes Jose Serra, the scout who signed Starlin Castro and the godfather to Carlos Marmol.

Louis Eljaua who oversaw the construction of the Red Sox complex in the Dominican Republic is now doing the same for the Cubs academy. He once set up shop with Epstein at a hotel in Nicaragua as the Red Sox tried to sign Cuban defector Jose Contreras.

Wilken spends close to 200 nights a year in hotels across the country. The scouting director has worked with Pat Gillick and Andrew Friedman, identifying Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay for the Toronto Blue Jays and helping the Tampa Bay Rays build the foundation for their small-market miracle.

Information manager Chuck Wasserstrom and baseball operations director Scott Nelson have spent decades working for the Cubs. Their institutional memories could help Epstein, who grew up near Fenway Park and already knew the culture when he took over the Red Sox almost nine years ago.

Chicago is not Boston, Epstein said. Every market has its own personality, its own idiosyncrasies. I dont pretend to understand them all yet.

That attitude will help Epstein as he tries to build his baseball version of Microsoft. The Best and the Brightest was the cynical title of David Halberstams book on the Vietnam War.

There are no definitive answers, Epstein said. If you think youve got it all figured out in this game, you get humbled really quickly.

Why Cubs fandom was inescapable in covering the greatest story in sports

Why Cubs fandom was inescapable in covering the greatest story in sports

I wished I got punched in the back of the head.

OK, maybe not exactly, but it was more about where and when the punch occurred.

My roommate was among the epic crowd of people outside Wrigley Field after the Cubs put the finishing touches on their World Series championship, and he took a punch or an elbow to the back of the head as people were getting trampled. The most apt comparison I heard likened the mob to Jon Snow nearly suffocating in the "Battle of Bastards" on "Game of Thrones".

Soaked in champagne, I was 350 miles away in Cleveland, living out my lifelong career goal of covering the Cubs team that finally put the 108-year championship drought to an end.

It might seem crazy, but there was a definite internal conflict going on amid the madness. A part of me wished I was back in Wrigleyville for the legendary celebration even though I was witnessing — and had witnessed — history with my own eyes.

Why?

I grew up a Cubs fan.

There is so much weight in those six words, but it at least begins to scratch the surface of why I wanted to be a part of the post-Game 7 celebration mob and why I sat in a dark screening room in downtown Chicago last Wednesday night with a tear in my eye.

********

"To cover the Cubs team that finally ends the drought and wins the World Series."

That was my stock answer whenever anybody asked about where I hoped to be five, 10 years down the road in my career.

Saying nothing about how hard that question is to answer in this field, it really was my main motivation. I couldn't truly think beyond that. It was all I ever wanted from my career in sports journalism.

Baseball and the Cubs have been so prevalent in my 30 years of existence. They're synonymous with oxygen or food. This June will mark the 26th year I've played baseball in some form, and my spring and summer months are still planned around the Cubs schedule, though now it's based on work and covering games instead of attending and watching games.

I don't identify as a Cubs fan now — haven't for years — given my time in the journalism field and the need for objectivity.

But I can safely say I was rooting for the Cubs to win it all last fall. I'm sure 9-year-old Tony was a major contributing factor in that rooting interest, but as much as anything else, I was rooting for the story, as USA TODAY Sports' Erik Brady so aptly put it in his column about Michigan basketball last week.

In a way, this was a tragic career goal in that I had absolutely nothing to do with the product on the field. I couldn't control a thing about the Cubs winning the World Series. All I could do was document it by typing on a laptop.

At the 2016 Cubs Convention, a Chicago reporter saw me talking to my mom and sister, who were all decked out in Cubs garb, having a blast at the convention as lifelong Cubs fans enjoying all the "Embrace the Target" talk and still riding high after the surprise 2015 postseason run.

"Your family is Cubs fans?" the reporter asked.

"Yep," I responded.

"That's kinda f---ed up," he joked.

I laughed and agreed with him, "Yeah it kinda is."

I mean, he's right. How many people covering a baseball team grew up a fan of that squad?

["Reign Men: The Story Behind Game 7 of the 2016 World Series" premieres Monday night at 9:30 p.m.]

How does somebody who grew up a Cubs fan cover the team objectively? To be honest, it was simple at first. When the team loses 100 games, it's easy to be removed and report on what's happening with no clouded judgment. It's not hard to avoid cheering in the press box.

By the time the Cubs started that surprising 2015 run, I had learned how to practice the necessary objectivity, and more than anything, I was stoked just to be covering a Cubs playoff team. I wanted them to advance because it meant more playoffs to cover.

Like Joe Maddon always talks about five stages of a player earning his "big league skin," I was in the stage of "just happy to be here."

I morphed all my personal motivations into an altruistic goal: I wanted the Cubs to win the World Series for my mom and my sister and the rest of my family and friends who lived and died with the Cubs. All the people who felt like weeping or punching through a window in 2003. And 2007. And 2008.

I knew the emotions of the fan base because I had felt them — and lived them — all before.

I had always seen the Cubs and their championship drought through my own lens and those vantage points of people around me: Chicagoans, Cubs fans, people who have had the Cubs ingrained in their lives whether they liked it or not.

Obviously the 2016 Cubs were a perfect blend of youth, hunger and determination that helped them turn a blind eye to the pressure and weight of 108 years.

But I never really thought about the drought any differently because all I ever knew as a Chicago native born into a "Cubs family" was three decades of hearing about the "Lovabale Losers" label.

It wasn't until a conversation with Matt Szczur in the clubhouse in spring training that I realized these Cubs really didn't think of the magnitude of the situation. Certainly not the way I did.

Szczur, for example, has been with the organization longer than any player, but he still had only been fully conscious of the Cubs and the championship drought since 2010, the year he was drafted.

For him, it wasn't 108 years. For Szczur and the other guys — except for maybe World Series MVP Ben Zobrist, the Eureka, Ill., native — the Cubs' drought and much-ballyhooed curse really only mattered to them for a few years. It wasn't a lifestyle.

********

Sitting on a workout bench in a cramped Pasadena hotel gym, hours before the Cubs and Dodgers were to do battle in Game 3 of the 2016 National League Championship Series, I grabbed my phone and started frenetically typing.

I felt the urge to jot down some thoughts that were swimming through my brain as I stared down a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Win or lose, the Cubs were on the precipice of history and here I was, covering the team and tasked with trying to describe and chronicle this momentous event that stretched far beyond just words on a screen.

It wasn't predicting the future. That did not happen. But I just had a feeling a storm might be coming for the 2016 Cubs.

That usually means a harbinger of doom, but storms don't always have to be bad. For example, a storm is a welcome sight during a drought.

Like...say...a 108-year championship drought.

The problem is, even though I started writing this column way back in October, I didn't go back to it until last week. Even after the Cubs won their first pennant in a lifetime, even after they clawed back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series to force a Game 7.

I thought maybe I'd return to it after the surreal parade and rally two days after Game 7 and seeing the five million faces displaying the same emotions I had buried deep inside.

Nope.

Maybe a few weeks later, after some time had passed to gain perspective?

Nope.

OK, well then definitely when we replayed all 11 of the Cubs' postseason wins on CSN around the holidays?

Nope again. Still blocked up.

The Cubs Convention in January didn't help cure my creative constipation. Neither did a two-week trip to Arizona to delve back into the beat and the energy of a new season.

Even seeing my mom's dining room table overflowing with Cubs World Series memorbilia or attempting to describe the experience to family and friends couldn't truly unwrap the words and emotions tucked away.

All those probably helped unclog the writer's block bit by bit, but just like somebody struggling to open a pickle jar, that one last push was still evading me.

That is until last Wednesday night.

After debuting "Reign Men: The Story Behind Game 7 of the 2016 World Series" for the press, CSN employees got an opportunity to see the documentary in a private screening.

Fifty-two minutes and countless goosebumps later, it felt as if a weight had been lifted.

I've seen, heard and read plenty on the Cubs' epic World Series run and even replayed it over and over again in my mind.

But nothing truly took me back to those moments and the magical fall like "Reign Men" did.

Like all sports, baseball is very much driven by an "on to the next one" mindset.

Strike out? Move on. Botch a groundball? Move on.

It works the other way, too: Hitting three homers on a Monday doesn't help bring a win Tuesday night.

There's always another pitch, another at-bat, another game, another season. That's part of the beauty of the game.

But what about when you want to slow things down, take it all in and enjoy the moment?

The game moves too fast for that. Life moves too fast for that.

It took a couple days, but I realized part of what struck me so much with "Reign Men" was it represented a vessel to go back, to relive an event I had been dreaming about for nearly three decades. In so many ways, it still feels like it was all just a dream: My ultimate career goal realized.

I'll probably spend the rest of my life trying to truly wrap my head around this World Series and the impact the greatest story in American sports history had.

But for now, it's baseball, so time to jump to the next inning.

"Reign Men: The Story Behind Game 7 of the 2016 World Series" will debut Monday night at 9:30 p.m. (after Blackhawks coverage) on CSN and a special re-air will be shown Thursday night at 7 p.m.

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs turned Theo Epstein’s “Baseball is Better” speech from his first Wrigley Field press conference into a marketing pitch that might distract fans for a moment from an awful big-league product.          

The 2017 “That’s Cub” ad campaign actually uses what started organically years ago within the farm system, two words that recognized a great at-bat or a heads-up play or a defensive stop.    

Business vs. baseball is no longer the dominant storyline it had been during the early phases of the Wrigleyvile rebuild. Business and baseball are booming for what’s become Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors.

It’s just interesting that a franchise valued at north of $2 billion has found so much inspiration on the back fields of this spring-training complex, where staffers you wouldn’t recognize get to work before dawn and players you’ve never heard of dream about their big break.

It’s not just drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. And trading for Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell. And hiring a manager obsessed with T-shirts. Baseball operations became a marketing department, selling prospects to Cub fans, the Chicago media and the gurus putting together the rankings – and trying to get buy-in from players who all think they belong in The Show.

Minor-league field coordinator Tim Cossins gets credit for “When It Happens,” a theme that didn’t simply revolve around 1908 and the championship drought. Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, suggested pairing the W flag with that phrase, and it became this ubiquitous idea around the team.   

“We tied everything into it,” McLeod said Sunday at Sloan Park. “When that time comes, when it happens, can you lay the bunt down? When it happens, can you execute a pitch? Can you go in and pinch-run, steal the base when the time comes?

“The big ‘When It Happens’ is when we win, of course, but for us in (player development), it was about everything that we’re going to be asked to do in that moment: Are you going to be ready when it happens?”

Now what? The defending World Series champs are going with: “Where It Happens.”

A bullet point from Epstein’s bio in this year’s media guide references how his first three first-round draft picks with the Cubs “combined to set up the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series when Schwarber singled and (Albert) Almora pinch-ran, moved to second on Bryant’s deep fly to center, and scored on Ben Zobrist’s double.”

“We’re never going to forget about the importance of young players,” Epstein said. “There’s definitely a lot of talented, interesting prospects still in the system and sometimes they get a little overshadowed because of the star young players we have at the big-league level and how quickly some of those guys moved through the system. But there’s a lot of talent there.

“We’re going to lean on young players beyond our prospects, not just in trades, but also to provide organizational depth and also to serve as the next generation, the next infusion of talent at the appropriate time.

“But it’s a process. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs in development for all these guys. And we have a ton of faith in our player development operation to help these guys along the way.”

So Ian Happ will start the season one phone call away at Triple-A Iowa and see if some combination of injuries and his switch-hitting skills and defensive versatility gets him to the North Side at some point. Or used as a trade chip for pitching, the way third baseman Jeimer Candelario and catcher Victor Caratini appear to be blocked.

Joe Maddon already compared Eloy Jimenez – who can’t legally buy a beer in Wrigleyville yet – to a young Miguel Cabrera or Edgar Martinez. The Cubs are practically begging for someone like Eddie Butler to pitch his way into the 2018 rotation.

By Monday morning, when the full squad reconvenes after a weekend trip to Las Vegas, the Cubs could start making cuts and shaping their Opening Night roster. But the Cubs are going to need so much more than the 25 players who will be introduced next Sunday at Busch Stadium. Maddon used 26 pitchers and 149 different lineups last season. This is “Where It Happens.”

“If this particular group of youngsters were in a different organization that had a greater need right now, you’d probably hear a lot more about these guys,” Maddon said. “But the fact that they’re stuck behind a Bryant and a Russell and a Javy (Baez) and a Rizzo and a (Willson) Contreras and a Schwarber, et cetera, et cetera, it becomes more difficult to really push or project upon these guys.

“But I think these young guys have gone about their business really well. If it’s bothering them or if they’re concerned about that, they’re not showing that. I think they’ve put their best foot forward.”