Chicago Cubs

Epstein can build his own Evil Empire

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Epstein can build his own Evil Empire

Larry Lucchino had to say something when reached by the worlds most influential newspaper. When asked about Jose Contreras, Bostons chief executive officer lit a match and threw it onto the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.

The Evil Empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America, Lucchino told The New York Times.

This was around Christmas 2002, not long after Theo Epstein had become the youngest general manager in baseball history. The Red Sox had just lost out on Contreras, the Cuban defector who instead signed a four-year, 32 million contract with the Yankees.

To become a free agent, Contreras established residency in Nicaragua, where the negotiations took place at Hotel Campo Real. Dan Shaughnessy, the longtime columnist for The Boston Globe, detailed the back-and-forth in Reversing the Curse, his book on the 2004 Red Sox championship team.

Epstein told Shaughnessy that he never trashed his hotel room after Contreras spurned the Red Sox, and suggested that Yankee officials fed that nonstory to the New York newspapers.

The definitive account of this negotiation is still to be written. The moments of frustration inside the executive offices can be leaked later to the media. Lucchino and Cubs team president Crane Kenney will no doubt have something interesting to say.

But everyone already agrees on the ending: Epstein coming to Clark and Addison as the next head of baseball operations.

By late Tuesday, a source indicated that the Cubs and Red Sox still hadnt found the midpoint as they try to settle on the compensation that will allow Epstein to escape from the final year of his contract. Theyre still in standby mode.

The Cubs may have to ask commissioner Bud Selig to lift Major League Baseballs news blackout and receive permission to hold an Epstein press conference during the next several days. Meanwhile their biggest rival will be playing for their 11th World Series title.

Cubs-Cardinals is not Yankees-Red Sox. But once this is official, Epstein can go about building his own Evil Empire.

The Cubs dont have the winning tradition and they care about public perception. Tom Ricketts is a rational man who doesnt like to make impulsive decisions. The chairman doesnt have George Steinbrenners DNA, the need to create headlines.

But Epstein will be empowered to build an organization in his image. The front office will be expanded, in part because the Cubs have historically had one of the smallest staffs in baseball. Ricketts has identified bringing in more manpower as a priority.

Its unclear exactly how the staff will take shape, though it could have a distinct Boston influence.

SI.com reported Tuesday that the Cubs could make a run at Padres general manager Jed Hoyer, who is signed through 2013 with a club option for 2014. Cubs people are hearing the same rumors about Josh Byrnes, another Padres executive who also used to work for the Red Sox.

The Cubs will be pooling their intellectual capital at a time when theyll be building new facilities in Arizona and the Dominican Republic, which will only help the scouting and player development machine Epstein once built for the Red Sox.

You wont believe it until you see it, but Cubs executives insist that Wrigley Field will be renovated within the next few years.

That project should improve what one player called the worst facilities in the game, and generate more revenue to pour into baseball operations. Maybe all this will sharpen their negotiating skills against Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Team officials also hold out hopes for their own television network sometime in the future, which would only widen the resource gap between the Cubs and the rest of the National League Central.

Epstein wont exactly be on the side of the American League East divide that left the Red Sox so frustrated with the Yankees years ago. But he should be able to leverage a significant financial advantage over his rivals.

According to the USA Today salary database, the Yankees allocated almost 203 million to major-league payroll this year, while the Red Sox were around 161 million. In the National League, only the Phillies spent more than the Cubs.

The Cubs had a payroll that was roughly 20 million more than the Cardinals, 40 million more than the Brewers and 50 million more than the Reds.

Money doesnt guarantee happiness. The Cardinals will host the Rangers another team just outside a top-10 payroll for Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night in St. Louis.

But if the Cubs ever develop their own Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, their fans will never have to worry about their favorite players leaving because they want to get rich in St. Louis or Milwaukee. It would more likely be Epsteins computers saying its not a good bet on their future performance.

During the Contreras stakeout, Epstein worked alongside Red Sox international scouting director Louis Eljaua, whos now a Cubs special assistant in charge of overseeing the construction of the new academy in the Dominican Republic. The kids there want to be the next Starlin Castro.

The opportunity here is to build an international brand, if not an Evil Empire. If the Cubs have to give up two prospects to secure their next president of baseball operations, remember that they can always find dozens and dozens more around the globe.

Soon enough, Epstein will stand at the podium and tell everyone how he plans to conquer the world.

Jose Quintana’s ‘career-altering’ game has Cubs planning clinch party in St. Louis

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USA TODAY

Jose Quintana’s ‘career-altering’ game has Cubs planning clinch party in St. Louis

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs are going to destroy Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse. The rivalry has fundamentally shifted to the point where the St. Louis Cardinals are hanging around the National League’s wild-card race in a transition year and it would have been a massive failure if the defending World Series champs didn’t win this division. But there will be some symbolism to popping champagne bottles and spraying beer all over that room.

“We intend to clinch there,” Ben Zobrist said after Jose Quintana’s complete-game masterpiece in Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “And I think for a lot of the guys that have been around here for a long time, it’s going to be very satisfying.”

Quintana has only been a Cub since the Brewers failed to close a deal with the White Sox and team president Theo Epstein swooped in to make a signature trade during the All-Star break. Quintana hasn’t yet pitched in the playoffs, but this is close enough, the Cubs winning back-to-back 10-inning games against the Brewers and shaking off a walk-off loss before the lefty faced off against Chase Anderson in front of a sellout crowd of 42,212.

Quintana gave the Cubs more data points to consider as they prepare for a probable first-round series against the Washington Nationals. The magic number to eliminate both the Brewers and Cardinals is two, with Milwaukee off on Monday and the Cubs playing a rivalry game in St. Louis that night, meaning the party goggles won’t come out until Tuesday at the earliest.

“It’s the playoffs already for this team,” said Zobrist, who again looked like a World Series MVP in the seventh inning of a 1-0 game when he launched Anderson’s first-pitch fastball into the second deck in right field for a two-run, breathing-room homer. “We’re already thinking that way.

“We’re in postseason mode right now. And we intend to continue that for the next month.”

While there are valid concerns about Jon Lester’s nosedive in performance since coming off the disabled list and the state of Jake Arrieta’s right hamstring, the focus should also be on how Quintana (7-3, 3.50 ERA in 13 starts as a Cub) could be an October game-changer for this rotation.

“Once he got over here, he was really jacked up about having a chance to play in the playoffs,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s showing you that right now. Games like that, to me, could be kind of career-altering for a pitcher.

“When you pitch a complete-game shutout on the road under these circumstances, that definitely does something for your interior. It definitely fluffs it up a little bit.”

“It’s exciting to be here,” said Quintana, who allowed only three singles, piled up 10 strikeouts against one walk and hit 93 mph on his 116th and final pitch in the ninth inning. “I just try to help my team and it’s really special when you get that opportunity. It’s about winning and I have a huge opportunity here.”

In all phases of the game – dominant starting pitching, an offense that created different ways to score runs, multiple bullpen contributors and an airtight defense that committed zero errors in 39 innings – Maddon saw what he was looking for: “We reacted in a playoff manner for these four games. Our mental intensity could not be beat.”

That drifting, in-and-out focus had been part of the background when the Cubs shocked the baseball world with the Quintana trade in the middle of July. Concentration won’t be an issue at Busch Stadium. And this hangover will be real.

“It will be nice to do it there, I’ll just say that,” said Zobrist, who understands the Cubs-Cardinals dynamic as someone who grew up in downstate Illinois. “But we got to win the games.

“As John Lackey said it before (this) series: ‘This is not a small series, boys.’ We knew it was a big one here in Milwaukee. And it will be another big one in St. Louis.”

Joe Maddon gives Cubs space during national anthem: ‘Everybody’s got the right to express themselves’

Joe Maddon gives Cubs space during national anthem: ‘Everybody’s got the right to express themselves’

MILWAUKEE – As protests formed at NFL stadiums across the country, sending an anti-Trump message after the president’s inflammatory rhetoric, a group of about 11 Cubs players and coaches stood off the third-base line while a men’s a cappella group sung the national anthem before Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

The night before, Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first Major League Baseball player to follow in Colin Kaepernick’s footsteps and kneel during the national anthem at the Oakland Coliseum, sending a jolt through a conservative industry.  

“Like I’ve always talked about, everybody’s got the right to express themselves in the manner in which they feel,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I’ve always felt that way.”

That’s easer said than done in a team sport that doesn’t have the same outspoken culture as NBA or NFL locker rooms. It will be fascinating to see if this starts a similar movement across baseball. The Cubs are a marquee team that has already visited the White House twice since January and will likely return to Washington in October for a must-watch playoff series against the Nationals.

“I have no idea,” Maddon said. “We’re going to wait and see. And, again, if it does, that’s fine. I have no issues. I’m all into self-expression. And if a player feels that he needs to express himself in that manner, then so be it.”

[RELATED — Joe Maddon feels the heat from White House comments and rethinks Trump vs. sports world]

Maxwell, the son of a U.S. Army veteran who made his big-league debut last year, told Bay Area reporters this decision had been building and rooted in his own childhood in Alabama, where Trump appeared on Friday at a rally for Republican Senate candidate Luther Strange and told the crowd that NFL owners should fire any “son of a b----” kneeling during the national anthem.      

“The point of my kneeling was not to disrespect our military or our constitution or our country,” Maxwell said. “My hand was over my heart because I love this country and I have family members, including my father, who bled for this country, and who continue to serve.

“At the end of the day, this is the best country on the planet. I am and forever will be an American citizen and grateful to be here. But my kneeling is what’s getting the attention, and I’m kneeling for the people who don’t have a voice.

“This goes beyond the black and Hispanic communities because right now we have a racial divide that’s being practiced from the highest power we have in this country saying it’s basically OK to treat people differently. I’m kneeling for a cause, but I’m in no way disrespecting my country or my flag.”

Maddon’s anti-rules philosophy gives the Cubs the space to do whatever they think’s necessary to get ready for the next game. It’s freedom from: dress codes on road trips, guidelines on facial hair and overloaded mandatory batting-practice sessions.

That hands-off approach has worked to the point where the defending World Series champs could clinch a second straight National League Central title as soon as Tuesday at Busch Stadium and celebrate in front of the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s not unusual to see only a small group of players, coaches and staffers standing on the field during the national anthem.

“That’s up to them,” Maddon said. “I’ve never really had a policy regarding being out for the anthem or not. A lot of times guys like to do different things right before the game begins. Sometimes, you’re on the road, you hit later and you get in later and then your time is at a premium. So I’ve never really had a specific theory about coming out for your anthem at all.”