Follow the leader: What makes Theo Epstein an unstoppable force for Cubs

Follow the leader: What makes Theo Epstein an unstoppable force for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. — The day after Fortune magazine ranked Theo Epstein No. 1 on its list of "The World's 50 Greatest Leaders," Anthony Rizzo led the team in a standing ovation and asked the Cubs president to offer a few words before the morning workout.

"I only have one thing to say about that," Epstein told the group. "It's about f------ time."

Epstein always understands his audience — whether it's professional athletes, Democratic donors, Cubs Convention diehards or the pesky media — and knows how to deliver a one-liner with perfect timing.

Epstein loves baseball, but he's not some poet or romantic, dropping F-bombs at the right moment and calling BS when he sees it. Of course, Epstein has a huge ego. There's no other way to end 194 combined years of curses between the Cubs and his hometown Boston Red Sox. But Epstein also didn't crash all the late-night talk shows this offseason or cash in with a quick book on leadership skills and management philosophy/fluff.

The day before, Epstein had been awoken by a text message from a national baseball writer, asking for a reaction to the viral list that ranked him two spots ahead of Pope Francis. Epstein didn't even know this Internet attention grab was coming and released a copy-and-paste statement to reporters, calling it "patently ridiculous" and writing: "Um, I can't even get my dog to stop peeing in the house."

But the Cubs didn't hold that pre-stretch meeting to roast Epstein, moving it to an off-limits area of the spring-training complex to settle something about South Carolina and March Madness brackets without it winding up all over Twitter. Years ago, while touring the construction site in Mesa, Epstein turned to strength coach Tim Buss and said something sarcastic like: Take a good look around, Bussy, you'll be fired by the time this is done.

Buss survived and became a Speedo-wearing star at Camp Maddon, where the manager recently nominated him to become Madonna's dance trainer. That weight room in Arizona now has a mural depicting the raucous celebration outside the Wrigley Field marquee after the Cubs won their first World Series title since the Teddy Roosevelt administration.

When the 2017 Cubs are booed on Sunday during the Opening Night pageantry at Busch Stadium, they will be a reflection of Epstein's complex personality — colorful, edgy, confident, self-motivated, analytical, instinctive, inclusive, really, a worst nightmare for St. Louis Cardinals fans who used to love watching a one-sided rivalry.

"He understands that we're not robots," said Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman Epstein drafted for the Red Sox, traded to the San Diego Padres and then reacquired as a foundation piece on the North Side. "He does his due diligence. You see the guys in here being good people, and that comes first. He's not bringing in guys that have talent and bad reputations, because it's cancerous in the clubhouse.

"He does a good job of being very approachable, especially with the players, and easy to talk to, and not coming in there and being this dominating, intimidating figure in the clubhouse where everyone perks up."

Yet even the character-driven narrative can sometimes oversimplify and undersell a Cubs Way that obsessively gathers information and sees the world as an endlessly complicated place.

It's not scouting vs. analytics or head vs. heart or good guys vs. bad guys. It's all of that, all the time, when you oversee one of the most popular teams in the world, eight minor-league affiliates and employees covering everywhere from Latin America to the Pacific Rim.

The Cubs dug enough to know that an ugly incident involving Aroldis Chapman would publicly surface before the Los Angeles Dodgers agreed to — and backed out of — a controversial deal with the Cincinnati Reds during the 2015 winter meetings.

Once Chapman served his 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball's domestic-violence policy — and the New York Yankees took the bigger PR hit and the Cubs looked like a legitimate World Series contender last summer — Epstein gave up top prospect Gleyber Torres in a blockbuster trade for the mercenary closer.

Epstein hired and fired two handpicked managers with completely different personalities — Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria — and didn’t hesitate when Joe Maddon used an escape clause in his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays to become a free agent after the 2014 season.

During that year, Epstein shocked the baseball world by giving Manny Ramirez a second (or third or fourth or fifth) chance and hiring him to be a player/coach at Triple-A Iowa because he thought it would help Javier Baez. "Javy Being Javy" led to a National League Championship Series co-MVP performance last year.

The Cubs indulged Tommy La Stella when he refused to report to the minors last summer/took a New Jersey sabbatical — just in case they needed a left-handed pinch-hitter for a particular playoff matchup.

"Look, Theo's been successful everywhere he's gone," said Mike Hazen, the new Arizona Diamondbacks general manager and former Red Sox executive. "It's not a coincidence. It's not by accident. He's probably the smartest person I've ever worked for. He's as driven a person as I've ever worked for. He's passionate about baseball, about the draft, about player development. Every small decision is monumental to him — with everything.

"That wasn't like in a micromanaging way. When I was the farm director, every game report, every night, if there was something in there that he had a question about, I would get a phone call or an e-mail: 'Hey, what's going on with this? What's going on with that?' He was locked into everything. He has a huge capacity to make decisions and give advice on so many different levels."

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Epstein doesn't want a preview to revolve around the idea of his next job, because he's in the first season of a five-year extension worth in the neighborhood of $50 million and not at all looking to leave Wrigleyville, a place where he can keep winning big while walking to work and raising his young family.

But getting an equity stake in a big-league franchise would be the logical next step if Epstein decides to stay this involved in baseball once he nears Bill Walsh's ideal of a 10-year shelf life for coaches and executives.

David Axelrod — the Cub fan/former Chicago Tribune political writer/chief strategist to President Barack Obama — asked Epstein that natural what's-next question about owning a team on "The Axe Files" podcast.

"Um, sure, yeah, I think you can do things as an owner that you can't necessarily do as an employee," Epstein told Axelrod near the end of an offseason conversation that lasted more than 70 minutes, "helping the team really get involved in the community and doing some great work, using baseball as a vehicle to do some important work in society.

"My twin brother is a social worker, so I try to view the world through his eyes, and he's always telling me about what's really going on in the trenches.

"The reality is, these days so much of the most important work in society is done by these nonprofits, most of which don't get real government funding, so it's really important to identify the most impactful nonprofits in your community, especially in a city like Chicago right now that is battling so many critical challenges, and then support them.

"Baseball is just bread and circus, right? I mean, what we do is we just entertain the masses. And, of course, at certain moments it becomes really meaningful to people and transcends that. But by and large, it's just bread and circus.

"But there are rich fans who are willing to spend money to get access to games and sit in better seats or sit in the general manager's box or get autographs or have these experiences, going to dinner with players or with general managers. And if you can use that — and raise some money and redirect it to nonprofits — I think that's a great thing and really our responsibility in some ways."

In the meantime, owners will keep trying to find the next Epstein and copy a five-year plan that went from 101 losses to 103 wins. That underestimates: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the Red Sox; the built-in credibility with fans and the media from the moment he arrived in Chicago; an ability to manage up and work around the initial payroll restrictions; and the shadow he casts over the entire organization.

"Theo's got a long memory," said Sam Hughes, the national crosschecker who has worked for the Cubs since 1996. "We spend two weeks together (during the draft). We go every player — from the guy we might select in the 40th round (to the top pick) — and you'd be amazed at how much attention and how thorough we are with each and every guy.

"It's crazy, because you're in that room and it's like a frat party for two weeks, (with) great dialogues going on. But then when you leave, it's like crickets. You don't hear from him. And then he's off to probably paying the same attention to the pro department getting ready for trade deadline.

"But when he's there, he's all on. And then you might not see, hear or talk to him for six months. Out of the blue, you'll get just like a random witty e-mail or something about a player that you liked."

Epstein could always drop the Theo-has-spoken hammer while discussing first-round picks like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber or free agents like Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist. But Epstein would rather listen, ask questions and play devil's advocate.

"He wants you to come to the table with an opinion," said Lukas McKnight, the assistant director of amateur scouting. "He doesn't mind when you disagree with him, which is awesome. It's great to have somebody that is more than respectful of your opinion when it differs from his.

"As long as you're thorough — and as long as you can back it in evidence and talk thoroughly about it — he loves that."

Epstein is 43 years old, but this will be his 26th major-league season, which gives him an incredible network of sources and a database of experiences to draw from as the Cubs try to win back-to-back World Series titles for the first time since 1907 and 1908.

Epstein remembered the 2005 Red Sox opening their season in The Bronx on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" — and how finally winning it all didn't exactly allow manager Terry Francona to relax.

"Yeah, it sucked," Epstein said with a laugh. "We had a bunch of injuries in our rotation, so David Wells had to pitch Opening Day and got hit pretty hard and we lost. And then we came back and Matt Clement pitched (and we) lost. And then before the third game of the season, Tito started having like heart palpitations.

"I ended up going to the hospital with him. We listened to the third game of the season from Tito's hospital room. We felt like if we lost, neither one of us were going to be welcome back in Boston because we were getting swept at Yankee Stadium, even though we were coming back to get our rings.

"So I hope the series in St. Louis goes better. But if it doesn't, I'll have been through it before."

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