Chicago Cubs

‘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.”

What Miguel Montero’s brutal honesty meant for Cubs and Kyle Hendricks

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AP

What Miguel Montero’s brutal honesty meant for Cubs and Kyle Hendricks

Miguel Montero picked the worst possible time to second-guess the way Joe Maddon handled the bullpen during the World Series and communicated with his players — a radio interview on the same day (!!!) as the championship parade through the streets of Chicago and a Grant Park rally that may or may not have been one of the largest gatherings in human history.

The cameras also caught Montero popping off at a time when the Cubs were hovering around .500 and running out of ideas to spark the defending champs. So team president Theo Epstein didn’t hesitate to DFA Montero in late June when the veteran catcher ripped Jake Arrieta for letting the Washington Nationals run wild on the bases. Eating almost $7 million in salary and shipping Montero to Canada became another button to press to shake up the clubhouse.

But Montero also came along at exactly the right time for Kyle Hendricks, who had 13 major-league starts for a last-place team on his resume heading into the breakthrough 2015 season that set up last year’s transformation into an ERA leader, Cy Young Award finalist and World Series Game 7 starter.

Montero doesn’t deserve a tribute on the video board when the Toronto Blue Jays come into Wrigley Field this weekend, but he also shouldn’t be remembered only as a loose cannon or a cartoon character.

“Miggy was huge for me,” Hendricks said on this week’s Cubs Talk podcast. “I know he didn’t go out the way he wanted to. He’s even texted all of us here. We have the utmost respect for him around this clubhouse. We know who he is, the teammate he was around here.

“For me in particular, he was probably the biggest influence right when I came up, from the catching side. He taught me a lot about pitching, especially at the big-league level. (He made) me feel comfortable at the big-league level.

“My development, I think, sped up a lot just because of him being around here, his experience, how much he knew the hitters, his feel and his ability just to talk to you. He could sit down and just have a conversation with you whenever.

“I owe a lot to him. And I’m excited to see him back here.”

The Cubs knew they were getting the good, the bad and the ugly when they traded for Montero during the 2014 winter meetings in San Diego, where they also closed the $155 million megadeal with Jon Lester and dramatically reshaped the franchise.

The Cubs wanted Montero’s edge, which only sharpened as he got stuck in various three-catcher rotations. But Montero welcomed Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras into the clubhouse, delivered a wake-up call to Albert Almora Jr. during a rehab assignment at Double-A Tennessee and worked with Arrieta as he blossomed into a Cy Young Award winner. Montero also became a bilingual intermediary last summer when Aroldis Chapman initially refused to talk to the media after making his Cubs debut.

After handling so many different personalities and styles with the Arizona Diamondbacks — everyone from Randy Johnson to Dan Haren — Montero made the case that Hendricks didn’t need to throw 97 mph to thrive when he could nail the edges and deceive and outthink hitters with movement and sequences. Street smarts from Venezuela and an Ivy League education became a great match.

“He always had that confidence in me, from Day 1, when I showed up in this clubhouse,” Hendricks said. “He caught my bullpens. He kind of saw what I could do with the baseball. He probably had more confidence in me than I had in myself when I first came up.

“That’s just how it is. You’re trying to find your footing. He just kept preaching that to me, telling me what he saw in me, what I could do, the ability I had against these hitters. And then we went out there together and kind of saw it happening.”

One Arizona official who knows Montero well theorized that he — like any former All-Star in his mid-30s nearing the free-agent market — simply had trouble coming to grips with the reality that he was no longer The Man.

Even if you may be right on both counts — and no matter how fast Montero patched it up with Arrieta — the backup catcher can’t blast a star manager and a star pitcher like that.

“It was too bad to see him go,” Hendricks said. “But that’s just baseball. That’s how it goes. You got to learn what you can from who’s around while they’re there and then move on. That’s just the nature of the game.”    

The Cubs just put together their most powerful inning in franchise history

The Cubs just put together their most powerful inning in franchise history

What a roller coaster.

After Jon Lester gave up nine runs in the top of the second inning, the Cubs stormed all the way back with the help of the most powerful inning in franchise history.

Ian Happ hit a solo homer in the second before the Cubs mashed four taters in the fourth inning, tying the franchise record for homers in an inning:

Back in 2008, it was Jim Edmonds, Mike Fontenot, Aramis Ramirez and Edmonds (again) homering in the fourth inning against the White Sox.

Thursday, it was Kris Bryant going yard first followed by Alex Avila, Happ and Javy Baez going back-to-back-to-back:

It was the first time the Cubs had hit three straight homers since Derrek Lee, Sammy Sosa and Michael Barrett turned the trick against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sept. 15, 2004.

Kyle Schwarber later got in on the yabo parade with an opposite field shot of his own in the fifth inning:

Here's an entire montage of dingers and planes as the Chicago Air & Water Show prepares for the weekend:

After Schwarber's homer, Anthony Rizzo doubled home Bryant and Avila doubled home Rizzo to tie the game at nine.