Cubs: Red Sox made Epstein ready to take on Wrigley monster

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Cubs: Red Sox made Epstein ready to take on Wrigley monster

When?

That was the question asked so many times over the weekend inside the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers. The Cubs Convention is for the diehards, but even the fans who have completely bought into team president Theo Epsteins rebuilding project are looking at their wristwatches, wondering when the patience is going to pay off finally.

The Cubs put up a unified front as they unveiled their 300 million Wrigley Field renovation plans, with president of business operations Crane Kenney tossing it to general manager Jed Hoyer during one presentation. You wonder how long it will last, or if the tension will put this group of executives at cross purposes.

RELATED: Ricketts changes the Wrigley argument: 'We're not a museum'

Feeding the monster overwhelmed the Boston Red Sox and helped pave Epsteins exit from Yawkey Way after the 2011 season. This week former Red Sox manager Terry Francona and Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy will release their book detailing those two World Series titles as well as the dysfunction throughout the organization.

Francona: The Red Sox Years reconstructs one meeting from November 2010 in which a group goes over a 100,000 market research study of declining ratings on NESN, the regional sports network in which the team has an ownership stake.

Epstein who grew tired of the power struggle with Red Sox chief executive officer Larry Lucchino and was ready for a new challenge gave the money quote that recently appeared in a Sports Illustrated excerpt that ran with a Too Big to Succeed headline:

(The consultants) told us we didnt have any marketable players, that we needed some sizzle. We need some sexy guys. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. This is like an absurdist comedy. Wed become too big. It was the farthest thing removed from what we set out to be.

The Cubs are following the Red Sox model. In creating their blueprints for Wrigley Field, Cubs executives visited Fenway Park, met with Red Sox officials and consulted with the architects who transformed Yawkey Way.

Chairman Tom Ricketts bought Epsteins brand name. This may have been the only executive with the juice to oversee a total teardown. Perhaps the Cubs will benefit from those mistakes, or Epstein could be walking into another trap.

Theres a natural push and pull in every professional sports franchise between the operations side and the business side, Epstein wrote in an e-mail on Sunday. Its inevitable, and theres nothing wrong with that. Its crucial for baseball and business to communicate honestly and build trust so the interests of the overall organization can be furthered. I think the folks here have been doing a great job of that, and theres terrific synergy between the baseball and business sides. Our respective plans complement each other well and the timing might just turn out to be perfect.

If we face adversity and that balance becomes threatened, its important to take a leadership role and tactfully make sure the interests of the overall organization remain the priority. There are certainly times in the past I could have handled those situations better, and I would like to think I have matured in that respect as a result. Again, its important to keep in mind that this dynamic is essentially inevitable and can be managed with the right perspective and communication.

After that meeting about sexy players, Epstein included Anthony Rizzo in the Adrian Gonzalez deal, though you have to point out that he had coveted the San Diego Padres star since scouting the kid at Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, Calif.

Carl Crawford who signed a seven-year, 142 million contract at the 2010 winter meetings turned out to be a bust in Boston and was packaged with Gonzalez in last summers blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

RELATED: Cubs lay out their new vision for Wrigley Field

This front office doesnt care about making a splash. Sources say there is still mutual interest between the Cubs and Scott Hairston, who could be a good fit in the outfield mix (.803 OPS last season) and is the type of mid-level player theyve targeted in free agency.

The Cubs pursued Anibal Sanchez last month, walking away at five years, 77.5 million as he signed with the Detroit Tigers. They were happy to settle for Edwin Jackson at four years, 52 million. Those investments were made with 2015 in mind, thinking one of those under-30 pitchers could still perform at a high level once they in theory become legitimate contenders.

Insiders say those moves werent made to dress up the product after a 101-loss season, and it wasnt a sudden shift because the Wrigley Field renovation plans were coming into focus. The Cubs analyzed upcoming free-agent classes and realized they needed insurance against the possibility of Matt Garza leaving at some point.

I dont think they liked what they saw last year, Garza said. To go out and get pitching, you have to pay, and thats just the way the game goes now.

Ricketts whose interest in player development is genuine enough that he sat in the audience for a Down on the Farm panel Sunday morning believes he has the smartest guys in baseball building his team.

The day before Ricketts sat in front of a crowded ballroom and spread his fingers inches apart: Theo talks about The Cubs Way. Its not a mission statement. Its a book this thick.

We never talk in terms of specific years, Ricketts said. The key thing to remember is that there really are no shortcuts to building an organization or being consistently successful. Everything you think is a shortcut is a dead end. You just have to do it the right way. You have to do it from the ground up.

Mark Twain once said: If you always do what you always did youre always going to get what you always got. So we had to change. We had to change the way we look at our organization and really refocus on player development and were doing that. And it doesnt happen overnight. Theres no like six-month return on that.

First-base coach Dave McKay mentioned how he spent 16 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals where he won two World Series titles and said hes never been on a more prepared team than last years Cubs.

Still, manager Dale Sveum and his coaching staff know that they got a hall pass for 2012 but will sooner or later feel the heat.

The Cubs already have core pieces in place: Rizzo, their first baseman for potentially the next decade; All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro; Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney; possible Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija; and a group of prospects Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler who may or may not pan out. Stay tuned.

And if those television ratings dip and ticket sales are soft and Cubs gear isnt flying off the shelves, well, Epstein has already seen this movie before. The truth is the two sides need each other, with a modernized ballpark and a new television deal pumping more money into the on-field product, and a contending team generating more sales and sponsors.

Sure, there is going to be pressure and expectations (and second-guessing and sniping) while playing in a big market. But as Samardzija said, If you dont want that to come along with it, you might as well go do something else.

What if… Cubs GM Jed Hoyer’s takeaways from epic World Series Game 7

What if… Cubs GM Jed Hoyer’s takeaways from epic World Series Game 7

MESA, Ariz. – Imagine the vibe here if the Cubs had lost Game 7, what Miguel Montero might have said to the media and how anxious the fan base would be now.

Instead of the World Series trophy on display, the sellout crowds at Sloan Park could see flashbacks to the biggest collapse in franchise history. Joe Maddon’s press briefings, regularly scheduled stunts and interactions with the players wouldn’t be quite so carefree. A rotation already stressed from back-to-back playoff runs would only have a one-year window with Jake Arrieta and John Lackey positioned to become free agents. 

“I do think about that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s just not a thought I try to keep in my head for very long, because, yeah, it is a scary thought.

“Obviously, we would be super-hungry. But there’s a daunting nature when you go that deep in the playoffs. Going through six weeks of spring training, going through a six-month regular season, going through a month of the postseason and getting back to that point is unbelievably difficult.

“It is daunting, sometimes, when you lose really late in the season, thinking about the length of time it takes you to get back to that. I’m sure that’s what Cleveland’s dealing with right now.”

The Indians crossed off Game 2 on their Cactus League schedule with Sunday afternoon’s 1-1 tie in front of 15,388 in Mesa, the beginning of the long journey they hope will finally end the 69-year drought.

Hoyer remembered looking around Progressive Field during the World Series and noticing the banners, thinking about the lineups built around Kenny Lofton’s speed, the explosive power from Albert Belle, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez and two-way players like Omar Vizquel and Sandy Alomar Jr.

“We were talking about it on the field before Game 7,” Hoyer said. “There’s no doubt we’re built – especially from a position-playing standpoint – to have the same players for a long time. Hopefully, we can have a lot of really great Octobers going forward. But you can never take that for granted. You have no idea what the future holds.

“You know when you’re playing in Game 7 how important it is to win in that moment, because you never know if you’re going to get back there. There are some good teams that have gotten bounced in the playoffs early or never quite got over that hump. There are some great teams that have never accomplished that.”

[RELATED: Joe Maddon misses his 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' chance]

In theory, this is just the beginning of a long runway for Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. But there is an element of luck involved and maybe the matchups won’t be quite as favorable in 2017 or 2019 or 2021. Injuries happen, priorities change, players underperform and the next impact homegrown pitcher in Chicago will be the first for the Theo Epstein administration.  

“You look at those mid-90s Indians teams,” Hoyer said. “Those teams were as loaded as you’re going to get from an offensive standpoint and all that young talent. They got really close in ’95. They got really close in ’97. They were never able to win that World Series.

“Look at that position-playing group – it’s incredible – and they never won a World Series. So being a really good team and having really good regular seasons – and actually winning a World Series – those are very different things. And there’s no guarantee that because you’re a good team you’re going to win the World Series.”    

Epstein fired manager Grady Little after the 2003 Red Sox lost a brutal American League Championship Series Game 7 at Yankee Stadium. That search process led to Terry Francona, the future Hall of Fame manager who led the Red Sox to two championship parades and guided the Indians to the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7. 

Hoyer, the former Boston staffer, spoke briefly with Francona last month at the New York Baseball Writers’ Association of America dinner. Hoyer showed up at the New York Hilton to support Bryant, the National League MVP, while Francona collected the AL Manager of the Year award.

“Honestly, there’s some awkwardness there,” Hoyer said. “We won and they lost. And no one wants to hear a lot about it. We chatted about the game for five minutes or so, mostly talking about what a great game it was.

“Forget about the victor, that was just an incredible baseball game. We’ll always be part of history. People will always mention that game among the top five or 10 games of all-time.

“But I don’t think they want that game brought up over and over. Nor would I in the same situation. I don’t love talking about Game 7 when Aaron Boone hit the home run in ’03. It’s not my favorite topic. I think it’s probably that times a hundred when it comes to Game 7 last year for the Indians.”

Cubs manager Joe Maddon misses his chance to guest-star in ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’

Cubs manager Joe Maddon misses his chance to guest-star in ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’

MESA, Ariz. – This is a big bowl of wrong: Cubs manager Joe Maddon might have missed his only window to make the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" cameo appearance Jeff Garlin promised. 

Garlin – a Second City alumnus and one of several celebrity fans within the team's orbit – had offered Maddon a role whenever Larry David brought the band back together for the loosely scripted HBO comedy.

But last week's Cactus League media event at the Arizona Biltmore conflicted with filming in Southern California, where "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is working on a ninth season after a five-year hiatus.

"There was one matchup, and I couldn't get there," Maddon said before Sunday's World Series rematch against the Cleveland Indians at Sloan Park. "I just couldn't do it. It'll happen."

During an all-over-the-place session with reporters that lasted 20-plus minutes, Maddon declined to make any Oscar predictions, saying he's into Netflix and Hulu now and doesn't really go to the movies anymore.

Maddon also hasn't watched much – or any – of the World Series highlights or documentaries. When it came to the handling Aroldis Chapman part, there were some boos inside Chicago's Civic Opera House during the premiere of Major League Baseball's "The 2016 World Series."

But Maddon said he basically skipped that type of content after being Mike Scioscia's bench coach for the 2002 Anaheim Angels and managing the Tampa Bay Rays to the 2008 World Series.

"You get busy and I don't know," Maddon said. "I need to start reading more and watching Netflix less."

Didn't you say that last spring?

"I did," Maddon said.

Maddon had been addicted to cable news during last year's polarizing presidential campaign: "But, damn, it's gotten really annoying, so I stopped watching all that stuff. It's just not good for your brain. It's really not. There's nothing to be gained."

When Maddon starts rolling, it's not hard to picture him in a scene with David and J.B. Smoove. Shaquille O'Neal, John McEnroe and Bill Buckner are among the sports figures with "Curb Your Enthusiasm" credits.

"That was the only day, so I don't know how we're going to figure this out," Maddon said. "First, they had one day set up, and that was going to be good. And then they had to change it to this other day, which was not good. So we'll have to (come up with something else), even if it's maybe a picture on the wall or a phone call."