‘F--- yeah!’ Theo Epstein builds another World Series winner in what’s already a Hall of Fame career

‘F--- yeah!’ Theo Epstein builds another World Series winner in what’s already a Hall of Fame career

CLEVELAND – “F--- yeah!” Theo Epstein screamed out as he walked through a hallway inside Progressive Field’s visiting clubhouse, handing an unopened bottle of champagne to Ron Coomer, the WSCR-AM 670 radio analyst who grew up in Chicago’s south suburbs and once played for the Cubs, but really just happened to be standing there.

His black suit completely drenched, Epstein needed to find Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona and congratulate him on a great season that ended in Game 7 of the World Series. Together, they had won two championships with the Boston Red Sox and the Cubs president wanted to pay his respects after an 8-7 win that had been 108 years in the making.

Before this clubhouse became a stuffy, sweaty maze jammed with players, coaches, scouts, reporters and extended families early Thursday morning, Epstein had walked by the weight room during the rain delay and noticed the hitters had gathered together. To that point, the Cubs and Indians had played nine innings to a 6-6 draw in front of a sellout crowd and a massive TV audience.

“They were all meeting,” Epstein said. “I saw their backs and I, like, pushed the door ajar and they were all saying: ‘This is only going to make it sweeter! Stay together! Let’s keep grinding! It’s our time!’”

Epstein has a Yale University education and a law degree, but he’s never been a propeller head or easy to label. He loved Kyle Schwarber’s nonstop energy and gym-rat mentality when he saw him at Indiana University and pushed to make him the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft.

Almost seven full months after an outfield collision would force him to get “season-ending surgery” on his left knee to reconstruct his ACL and repair his LCL, Schwarber began the 10th-inning rally with a hard-hit single into right field.

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It took a “multiple-bank shot” at the winter meetings for the Cubs to be able to trade Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees and convince Ben Zobrist to take less guaranteed money and sign a four-year, $56 million deal for this exact moment.

Zobrist – the son of a minister who grew up in downstate Illinois and earned a championship ring last year with the Kansas City Royals – capped off his World Series MVP performance by smashing an RBI double down the left-field line.

Miguel Montero – who felt so lost at the plate and in the three-catcher shuffle that he wondered if the Cubs would simply release him this summer – singled into left field to drive in the insurance run.

And in the bottom of the 10th inning, the Cubs pieced together three outs with a pitcher (Carl Edwards Jr.) the Texas Rangers once drafted in a round that no longer exists (48th) and a guy whose career had stalled to the point where he actually thought he would be playing in Japan this season (Mike Montgomery).

“I know it sounds corny,” Epstein said. “But in my experience, at least, I think human beings can accomplish more for each other when they feel connected than they can for themselves.

“Great teams are example of that. We’re not unique in that. We’ve seen that time and time again. But our guys pulled it off. They stayed together. They care about each other. They like each other. They overcame tough circumstances.

“You don’t have to get all corny about it, but I think that’s why we won. You don’t accomplish great things like that for yourself.”

Within five seasons, Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer, scouting/player-development chief Jason McLeod and their entire baseball-operations group methodically tore down and rebuilt an iconic franchise, turning a 101-loss season in 2012 and two more fifth-place finishes into the best team in baseball.

Combine The Cubs Way with that 2004 Band of Idiots and Epstein has been involved in 194 years of curse-busting in two of America’s greatest cities – before his 43rd birthday.

“It’s like comparing two of your kids,” Epstein said. “You cherish both of them. Different origins, different personalities, but they’re both things you treasure for your lifetime.”

Epstein already earned a five-year extension worth in the neighborhood of $50 million before the playoffs started. This already looked like a Hall of Fame resume, no matter what happened in Game 7. As Epstein stood in the visiting dugout in front of a camera and listened to a question on a CSN Chicago postgame show, he announced his next move.

“Jed’s in charge,” Epstein said. “I’m going on a bender.”

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Theo Epstein's front office is heading into Year 6 with the Cubs and they're finally talking about a pitcher as one of the organization's most exciting prospects.

That's how senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod framed his Dylan Cease report to fans at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago last weekend.

It was a tongue-in-cheek summation from McLeod after he spent the previous few minutes fawning over Cease, the Cubs' sixth round pick in 2014.

Of course, McLeod and the Cubs can poke fun at the lack of impact pitching the farm system has developed when the homegrown position players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber just helped lead the franchise to its first World Series championship in over a century.

Cease, however, has been one of the more intriguing Cubs prospects for years — a right-handed pitcher capable of touching 101 mph on the radar gun.

"This guy is throwing lightning bolts out of his arm," McLeod said. "It's really exciting. But we also understaned he's only in Low-A this year, so he's far away."

The Cubs expect Cease to pitch for Class-A South Bend in 2017 after spending last season pitching for short-season Eugene and the 2015 campaign working in the rookie league in Arizona.

Cease — who just turned 21 in late December — put up some impressive numbers at both stops in the Cubs system, posting a 2.36 ERA and 1.165 WHIP to go along with a whopping 91 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. He also only surrendered one homer and walked more batters (41) than reached via a basehit (39).

Control is obviously an issue for Cease, but the upside is evident.

"He's so far away," McLeod said. "He's gonna go into 2017 as a starter. As with a lot of young guys, it's gonna come down to command and depend on that third pitch and the ability to land them for strikes.

"It's a special arm. He can pitch 95-100 mph with a big power curveball. He's unlike anyone else we have in our system since we've been here in terms of pure stuff."

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One fan compared Cease to Carl Edwards Jr. in terms of their lanky build and high velocity, setting McLeod up for a layup joke.

"Well, Dylan is much stronger physically than CJ is...as is everybody in this room," McLeod said as the ballroom filled with laugher. "Don't tell [CJ] I said that. 

"They have different body types, obviously. Carl is long and lanky and Dylan has probably put on 20 pounds since we drafted him, so he's more like 6-foot-2, 190."

By comparison, Edwards — who goes by "The String Bean Slinger" for his slight build — is listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds.

Edwards was drafted in the 48th round in 2011 and spent his whole minor-league career as a starting pitcher until the Cubs converted him to a reliever in 2015.

Cease may eventually go down the same path, but the Cubs are going to give him every opportunity to make it as a starter first.

Cease was one of the top pitchers available in the 2014 draft, but his stock took a hit when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow while at Milton High School in Georgia.

That scared off a lot of teams — as did the potential signability issues with college offers looming — but the Cubs took a chance and have now watched Cease soar to a top prospect in the system (No. 4 by Baseball America; No. 7 by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) despite the cautious approach and lack of innings in professional ball.

"We have to thank Kyle Schwarber, actually, as one of the main reasons we got to sign Dylan Cease," McLeod said. "Because we took Kyle fourth overall, we were able to save money on the selection with him, which gave us the resources to go get Dylan Cease.

"He was a Top 10 pick in the draft — a high school arm that got hurt, fell down to the fifth round and he had a commitment to Vanderbilt, I think it was, and we were able to use the money we saved from Kyle.

"Just another reason to love Kyle Schwarber."

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon's Washington itinerary didn't include an hour-long sit-down with Chuck Todd for NBC's "Meet the Press." There would be no rehashing the manager's Game 7 decisions as he stood outside the West Wing, though the second question during the media stakeout involved "last year's team" and how the 2017 Cubs are prepared to defend a World Series title.

"You're already there, huh?" Maddon said to a CNN reporter, minutes after President Barack Obama's final official White House event ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

But last year's team is gone — preserved now in highlight films and the hearts and minds of generations of Cub fans — even if so many familiar faces will be in Mesa when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Valentine's Day.

It would be impossible to replicate everything that made the 2016 Cubs so special. Baseball has its own relentless pace and the dynamics are constantly shifting. (Remember when players were passive-aggressively complaining about Maddon's spring-training approach during the final week of a 103-win regular season?) The clubhouse chemistry will inevitably feel different after climbing a Mount Everest of professional sports.

"A mind once stretched has a very difficult time going back to its original form," Maddon said. "We're motivated by it. We want to do it again, of course. There's no question we're trying to do that.

"I'm really leaning on the phrase or the thought of being uncomfortable. I want us to be uncomfortable. I think the moment you get into your comfort zone after having such a significant moment in your life like that, the threat is that you're going to stop growing.

"So I really want us to be uncomfortable. I really want to continue (to see) a pattern of growth and really try to get at them very quickly again."

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Can Jason Heyward recover from one of the worst offensive seasons in the majors last year? Is Willson Contreras ready to be a frontline catcher? Will Javier Baez have to adjust back to being a role player after becoming a playoff superstar? Does Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare represent an upgrade over Dexter Fowler?

If healthy, Wade Davis should be a trusted, lower-maintenance closer than Aroldis Chapman, with an advanced approach to pitching and more clubhouse presence. As a staff, the Cubs will have to bounce back from pitching into early November (or not, in the case of the relievers Maddon didn't trust during the playoffs).

As it stands, Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) have already combined to throw almost 5,000 innings in The Show (including the postseason). Jake Arrieta will have to deal with the pressure of playing for his megadeal in his final season before becoming a free agent.

The drop-off after Mike Montgomery — and it's still mostly projected potential with the No. 5 starter — appears to be very steep in an organization that doesn't have any high-end pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.

After painting the bull's-eye on the chest and turning "Embrace The Target" and "Try Not To Suck" into viral T-shirts, a guy who hates meetings is still working on his themes for this campaign.

"I'm really rotating around the thought of authenticity," Maddon said. "I talked about it a lot last year, the fact that I think authenticity has a chance to repeat itself without even trying. It's part of who you are. It's not fabricated. It's real.

"I've talked about our guys a lot the last couple years. I think one of our strongest qualities is the authentic component of our players. So I'm really focusing on that word right now. Again, that's a great word to bring an entire message from (when) you get in front of the group that first day in spring training.

"I kind of just think like authenticity happens. And let's work it from there."

The costumes should be in midseason form with Maddon planning a house party around Tampa's Gasparilla Pirate Festival before driving his RV from Florida to Arizona.

Maddon will turn 63 on Feb. 8 and have to keep evolving, just like his players, who might outgrow some of those gimmicks. But the Cubs are still a reflection of their future Hall of Fame manager.

Amid all the uncertainty in Washington, Maddon wouldn't touch a question about what advice he would give Donald Trump before Friday's inauguration.

"I'm not even going to go anywhere close to that," Maddon said. "I will say this: I have a lot of respect of the office.

"At the end of the day, just have a lot of respect for the office, regardless of your political persuasion. My point would be to encourage people to really respect the office and let's see what we get done here over the next four years."