Chicago Cubs

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.

Get off my lawn: Jon Lester breaks down big Cubs win

Get off my lawn: Jon Lester breaks down big Cubs win

ST. LOUIS – Jon Lester went into get-off-my-lawn-mode, tired of math nerds and people being famous for no reason and the questions about whether or not he will be ready for the playoffs.   

Lester is actually a great talker when he gets going, introspective, self-deprecating and a voice of authority after winning three World Series rings with the Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

But Lester didn’t exactly sound ready to pop champagne bottles after Monday night’s 10-2 win at Busch Stadium eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals from the National League Central race and guaranteed at least a tie with the Milwaukee Brewers for the division title.  

Whether it was Lester’s brutal honesty, simmering frustration or high expectations for himself, he downplayed a quality start against a team still battling for a wild-card spot. He also took a subtle jab at the team’s sophisticated game-planning system and ripped the culture that brought us “Nacho Man.”

“I got to get back to being me,” said Lester, who had given up 27 hits and 12 walks in his previous four September starts since coming off the disabled list with what the Cubs termed left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue. “I got to get back to putting the hitters on a defensive mode, as opposed to trying to pitch to a scouting report from pitch 1.

“That was a conscious effort going into tonight, and I felt a lot better with everything, based off of that.”

Lester attacked the Cardinals with fastballs, working with 4-0, 5-0 and 8-1 leads across six innings. Once again, he found his rhythm later, giving up two walks in the fourth, getting his only 1-2-3 innings in the fifth and sixth and maxing out at 103 pitches.

The Cardinals scored their only run off Lester in the second inning when Jedd Gyorko launched a ball 410 feet out toward left field and “Big Mac Land” – in the same at-bat where shortstop Addison Russell almost made a Derek Jeter catch and turned “Nacho Man” into an instant celebrity.   

“I’m laughing more at the fact that the guy’s taking pictures and signing autographs,” Lester said. “I really don’t know what he did. A guy fell into him and got nacho cheese on his arm and now he’s taking pictures and signing autographs. I guess that shows you where our society is at right now with all that stuff.

“I really didn’t think it was that far foul. I thought it was a pretty routine play that just kept going. And I think it surprised Addie as well. So great effort, but I don’t understand the other stuff.”

Classic Lester, who changed the clubhouse vibe and fundamental nature of this rivalry when he decided to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season and will be 3-for-3 in playoff seasons as a Cub.

“I don’t know,” Lester said three times when asked if those command issues are rooted in taking more than two weeks off in the middle of the season. “I haven’t had stuff like this before, so figure it out as we go.”

How close are you to where you want to be?

“I don’t know,” Lester said. “I was good tonight, so let’s go with that.”

The Cubs trusted Lester enough to give him $155 million guaranteed and make him their Game 1 starter in all three playoff rounds last year. But the team’s inner circle of decision-makers had to be breathing a sign of relief, knowing that plans will take shape before Lester’s final regular-season start, what should be a meaningless Game 161 against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.  

“He’s just been searching, command-wise, (and) I can’t give you an exact reason why,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We just need to get him out of the gate a little bit more on top of his game. Again, I can’t give you a solid reason. He’s well. The numbers on the gun are good. It’s just a matter of executing his pitches and finishing them.”   

Lester always seems to be so hard on himself on the mound, and that competitive fire has made him one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation. The Cubs expect to see that guy show up in October against the Washington Nationals.   

“Everything was just a little bit sharper today than it has been in a little while, so that’s good, moving in the right direction,” Lester said. “There’s a few things in there that I need to clean up. But as far as overall, it’s definitely a positive."

With no more drama left in division race, Cubs-Cardinals turns into Addison Russell vs. Nacho Man

With no more drama left in division race, Cubs-Cardinals turns into Addison Russell vs. Nacho Man

ST. LOUIS – The Cubs played with an all-out intensity that drove Addison Russell to sprint over from shortstop and dive headfirst into the front-row seats beyond the left-field line, kicking a tray of nachos out of some dude’s left hand.

The St. Louis Cardinals have sunk to the point where Nacho Man became their biggest star on Monday night, going viral on social media and getting interviewed by the Chicago Tribune and both CSN Chicago and Fox Sports Midwest during the in-game broadcasts.

Russell didn’t catch that foul ball in the second inning with a Derek Jeter leap that left his right hand covered in cheese. He got booed when the Busch Stadium video board showed the replay of the nachos hitting the ground. He made amends by bringing out another order of nachos and taking a selfie with the Cardinal fan.

“He had a great night at the ballgame,” Russell said. “Initially off the bat, I was thinking that I could make the play. I didn’t see the fence and collided with it and got all nacho-d up.”

No, this didn’t feel like a playoff atmosphere at all, beginning with the 85-degree heat and ending with entire sections of empty seats. Jedd Gyorko actually homered during that at-bat, but it didn’t matter because the Cubs had already given Jon Lester a four-run lead before he threw his first pitch in what was supposed to be a dress rehearsal for October.

The Cubs will be there as the National League Central champions, eliminating the Cardinals from the division race with a low-stress 10-2 victory that sets up the chance for a blowout party late Tuesday night in the visiting clubhouse with another win or a Milwaukee Brewers’ loss.

“Woof,” catcher Willson Contreras said when asked what it would mean to clinch in St. Louis. “It always means a lot.”

Sensing the opportunity to bury the Cardinals, the Cubs jumped St. Louis right-hander Luke Weaver, a talented rookie who came in with a 7-1 record and a 2.05 ERA and lasted only three innings. Russell – who had been such a clutch performer late in last year’s playoff run – started it by driving a two-out, bases-loaded double into the right-field corner in the first inning.

Kris Bryant, the reigning NL MVP, drove Weaver’s 93-mph fastball beyond the left-field wall and into the visiting bullpen for his 29th homer and a 5-0 lead in the second inning. Javier Baez, the No. 8 hitter, launched a three-run homer that traveled 422 feet and slammed off an advertisement overhang above the bullpen in the third inning.

This is like a dream for Cubs fans enjoying this road trip to St. Louis and trolling Cardinal fans this week (with or without taking their nachos).

“I just want to win, honestly,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I understand all that. But I’m so contrary to coming to try to force those kind of thoughts in my methods. It’s about tonight’s game. And whenever we have this first chance to get there, let’s get there. You never want it to drag out. You want to be able to set things up, so it doesn’t matter to me.

“Believe me, man, I just want to win tonight.”

Or, as 2016 World Series MVP Ben Zobrist said: “The testosterone probably raises a little bit this time of year.”

Get your goggles and trash bags ready. The Cubs are the type of team that designed a Party Room into their state-of-the-art clubhouse as part of the $600 million Wrigleyville development and stretched out their World Series victory lap across Disney World, “Saturday Night Live,” and countless talk shows, commercials and ring ceremonies.

Anthony Rizzo – the only player left from the 2012 team that lost 101 games and a consultant on that Party Room project – insisted that celebrating in front of their rivals at a stadium that used to give the Cubs nightmares wouldn’t make a difference.       

“I really would love to be able to do it at Wrigley and use our new facilities even more,” Rizzo said. “But St. Louis is a good baseball city. They appreciate good baseball.

“If it was there, if it was in Arizona, it doesn’t matter where we clinch. Our goal was to win the division.”  

Even if it took until Sept. 26.

“It’s starting to smell like playoff baseball,” Russell said. “I know that these guys are amped up. It’s definitely feeling like playoff baseball."