MESA, Ariz. Theo Epstein envisions Wrigley Field in October, sellouts night after night, year after year, until theres a parade down Michigan Avenue.
That was part of the lure in leaving the Boston Red Sox for a presidents job with the Cubs. There are game-changers on the horizon at Clark and Addison, potential stadium renovations and monster television deals that should pump up revenue and fuel an annual contender.
But the landscape changed immediately on Friday with the announcement that Major League Baseball and the players union had agreed to add an extra wild card in each league for 2012 and beyond.
The goal always has to be to win the division, Epstein said. When you set out, thats the only sure-fire way to get in and now it comes with a significant added advantage of getting to avoid single-game elimination.
We still set out with the same goal of winning the division, but clearly it makes the bar of qualifying for postseason play lower and more attainable for teams that are kind of in that building phase. Its a good thing.
Epstein is trying to create another sustainable model. The Red Sox won 95 games or more six times during his nine seasons as general manager. When they reversed the curse in 2004, winning their first World Series in 86 years, they did it as a wild card. Its all about getting in the tournament.
We got more chances now, outfielder Alfonso Soriano said. We have a lot of talent here, so I think if everybody stays healthy and we play the game the right way, well be fine.
The players arent supposed to wear their (Bleep) the Goat T-shirts anymore. Instead, theres more of a quiet optimism around camp, because no one on the outside thinks theyll contend. They know they wont be playing with bulls-eyes on their backs.
I think everybody in here believes that we can win the World Series, pitcher Randy Wells said. If you didnt, then you shouldnt be here. If you do have a season where you can get hot at the right time, and jump in that extra wild card, itll help anybody.
The fans and the media dont think this is the year the Cubs will win their first World Series since 1908. This season will be about identifying core players for a championship contender.
Epstein didnt like how Billy Beane revealed all those industry secrets in Moneyball. But Epstein generally agrees with the Oakland As executive in that the playoffs can be a crapshoot.
But there are things that you can do to increase your chances in that tournament, Epstein said. Like being healthy, being rested, being prepared, advance scouting your tails off to make sure youre better prepared than the opponent.
(Its) having a really strong top of your rotation, a really strong closer, a really strong defense, certain things that sort of show up even more in the postseason than they do over the course of 162 games.
The postseason is less of a meritocracy than the regular season. (But) there are still things that you can do to hedge your bets.
Thats an insight into how Epstein plans to build this organization. The Moneyball references misrepresent Epstein because hes so heavily invested in scouting and believes in character and chemistry, intangibles that are supposed to help form The Cubs Way.
The self-proclaimed band of idiots in 2004 had guts, grinders and huge personalities: Curt Schilling; Pedro Martinez; Johnny Damon; David Ortiz; Jason Varitek; Kevin Millar; Bill Mueller; Keith Foulke; even Manny Ramirez before the fall.
Big games and big spots always boil down to players stepping up (and) overcoming adversity and performing, Epstein said. A lot of factors go into that. Theres always some randomness in the results. But (it helps) when you have guys who are really motivated and play as a team.
This is my personal experience. Ive seen guys who have come through in big spots when its more for the team and for themselves. (If) you have a bunch of guys who go out there playing as individuals, I dont know how many of those teams end up having a lot of success.
Then again, Epstein thought of the in-fighting on teams in the 1970s and 1980s that still won titles, like the As and New York Yankees: So I dont think you can draw any bright lines.
All that history attracted Epstein to the North Side, but his views on baseball can also be cold and calculating. The odds just got a little better at the casino. An extra wild card will play right into his hands.
As much as Im a traditionalist (and) a purist, its hard to argue with this, Epstein said. It seems to be the right move at the right time for the game.