Another magazine honors Theo Epstein, as Cubs president lands on Time's list of 100 most influential people

Another magazine honors Theo Epstein, as Cubs president lands on Time's list of 100 most influential people

Perhaps it's not quite as prestigious as being named the world's greatest leader by Fortune, but Theo Epstein has another magazine honor to deal with.

The Cubs president of baseball operations landed on Time's annual list of the 100 most influential people.

Epstein wasn't the only sports figure on the list, joined by Cleveland Cavaliers supertsar LeBron James, New England Patriots championship-machine Tom Brady, Olympic gold-medal gymnast Simone Biles, Brazilian soccer star Neymar and lightning-rod quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

But the list also includes the highest-ranking officials in the U.S. government and other world leaders.

In fact, Epstein is listed in the "leaders" category, which is exclusively populated by the planet's biggest newsmakers: the heads of state of the United States, United Kingdom, India, China, North Korea, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey and Thailand; two U.S. senators; a Supreme Court justice; the Secretary of Defense; advisors to the presidents of the United States; the head of the Democratic Party; the director of the FBI; and, oh yeah, the Pope.

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Additionally, keeping in line with celebrities writing the blurbs for each of Time's honorees, Epstein is profiled by famous Cubs fan John Cusack.

Here's what Cusack wrote about Epstein:

"Theo Epstein has this weird hue around him. His vision helped end historic World Series droughts in both Chicago and Boston. But his power lies in a paradox, in the knowledge that the only way to keep power is to give it away. He knows Wrigley Field is a multigenerational secular church. Our families have been there a long, long time. We are all just renting — nobody owns this.

"Theo may be a creature of destiny, but he recognizes that he's also just another flawed human being, no better than anyone else. It's an artful thing to thread that needle and wear it as a matter of common sense. He's more Old World than old school. Words and deeds need to match. Trust is earned. He apologizes to no one for caring.

"You can see it in the eyes of those he holds close. The relationships are far more personal and dignified than people crowding around a winner. When you mention someone he truly reveres, like the historian Howard Zinn, Theo's poker face drops into a reverential smile.

"After that epic World Series Game 7, I found myself in the dugout watching first baseman Anthony Rizzo waving to the heavens. Theo was quite still — I watched him watch Rizzo. He must have felt it and turned to me, almost apologetic. 'I haven't given you a proper hug!' he said.

"'Greatest sporting moment of the century,' I told him. 'Thank you. And thank you from my father.' He took it but undercut his achievement with a wry smile. 'No,' he said, 'it's all about these guys.' Then he walked back into the fray."

Cubs go big with World Series rings and remember the goat, Ernie Banks and Ron Santo

Cubs go big with World Series rings and remember the goat, Ernie Banks and Ron Santo

Jon Lester thought of the championship bling before Theo Epstein could even start his bender, yelling out a suggestion during the World Series trophy presentation inside Progressive Field's visiting clubhouse. After 108 years, Lester told Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, "It better be big!"

"Something along those lines," Lester said with a smile before Wednesday night's ring ceremony at Wrigley Field. "There may have been a few other words thrown in there."

This team doesn't do subtle. More than five months after that epic Game 7 victory over the Cleveland Indians, the Cubs unveiled a Jostens creation made from 14-karat white gold. The traditional Cubs logo on the top features 33 red rubies surrounded by 72 round white diamonds, all within a circular perimeter framed by 46 blue sapphires.

The design includes 108 symbolic round white diamonds and "an image of the infamous goat representing a supposed franchise curse" on the inner band, according to the team press release.

"I'm definitely going to wear it sometimes," veteran catcher Miguel Montero said. "It's like buying a Ferrari and putting it in the garage, right? You want to drive it. You want to show it off. It's something that you earned and you want to be able to enjoy it."

Cubs broadcaster Len Kasper became the pregame emcee, introducing the Ricketts family, baseball executives Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, manager Joe Maddon and his coaching staff, and Hall of Famers Fergie Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg and Billy Williams. Twenty contest-winning fans became the ring bearers for the players.

In total, the Cubs plan to distribute 1,908 rings and pins to everyone from front-office associates, ballpark staff, sponsors and Cooperstown alumni, including posthumous rings for Ernie Banks and Ron Santo that will be saved in the Wrigley Field archives.

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"I'll wear it just occasionally, when I got a suit on, if I want to rub it in some people's face," said Jake Arrieta, who transformed the team when he blossomed into a Cy Young Award winner. "I'm not a big ring guy, but who knows? I'll put that thing on and I might change my mind."

One side of the ring displays the player's name atop the W flag with silhouette images of the bricks and ivy around the player's number. The other side shows the year 2016 above the Wrigley Field marquee — "CUBS WIN!" — and a silhouette of the World Series trophy.

The Los Angeles Dodgers aren't just The Other Team during this week's festivities. The design elements also include the opposing logos and series scores from last year's three playoff rounds and the local date and time the World Series ended: "11-3-16, 12:47 a.m."

"I'll be curious to see which guys wear it, which guys don't, which guys put it on a necklace," pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. "The guys are all unique, so they're going to do their own thing with it."

Maddon predicted stylish, high-energy reliever Pedro Strop would be the Cubs player who rocks his ring the most: "He'll wear it in his sleep. He'll wear it in the shower. He'll wear it everywhere, man."

After breaking one curse, Epstein gave his 2004 World Series ring to his father, Leslie, and he doesn't wear his other ring from the 2007 Boston Red Sox. Maddon also doesn't show off the 2002 championship ring he earned as an Anaheim Angels bench coach.

"Never have," Maddon said. "I gave it to my mom right afterwards, and Beanie still has it somewhere. I'm not a jewelry guy in regards to wearing it. I really absolutely love the concept or thought of having it. But I've not worn it one time."

What about this one?

"No, I just don't wear jewelry," Maddon said. "I will put it in a special spot. I'll give it to Jaye, and then whenever (my wife) wants to move it along, she will."

After raising a once-in-a-lifetime banner — and getting the most exotic jewelry in professional sports — it's time for the Cubs to move it along and focus on defending their World Series title.

"The best part about last year was we all got to be a part of something bigger than ourselves," Epstein said, "and feel connected to each other and the fans and the organization and the city. They say all glory is fleeting — and it is — but the flag will fly forever and that feeling of being part of something bigger than ourselves will last forever, too."

Inside the scouting report where Cubs compared Kyle Schwarber to Babe Ruth and called their shot

Inside the scouting report where Cubs compared Kyle Schwarber to Babe Ruth and called their shot

"I believed today," Stan Zielinski wrote in a report filed on May 4, 2014, teasing the Cubs with the video he shot on a handheld camera during an Indiana-Purdue game. "I will send clip. To preview, squint your eyes and imagine a grainy film of Babe Ruth hitting a ball in the stands at Yankee Stadium. I swear I saw that reenacted today as the ball flew out over the 2nd fence in RF."

Zielinski used his imagination for almost 40 years as a scout for the White Sox, Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins, working around the rainouts and through the cold weather, covering the Midwest for the Cubs from 2001 until his death this winter, an unexpected loss that would be felt throughout the entire organization.

Zielinski uploaded Kyle Schwarber's last at-bat to the team's internal database. That day, the Hoosiers wore baggy, off-white throwback uniforms with high socks, adding to Schwarber's aura.

"He really loves to play," Zielinski wrote. "He can work out inconsistencies with his mechanics behind the plate with teaching. He'll be a major-league catcher. ... He has the best college bat I've seen in a long time, and remember I'm old so I've seen a lot of them.

"I had to answer a question you will all ask me ... 'Yes, I would consider him with 4th pick.' Squint again and you can see him call his shot and point to CF bleachers in Wrigley Field."

Zielinski's invisible hand helped raise the 2016 World Series banner now flying at Wrigley Field and create the 108-diamond championship ring Schwarber will receive during Wednesday night's bling ceremony. Because long before #Schwarbombs became a thing on Twitter — flying into the Allegheny River and onto a Wrigleyville video board — Zielinski saw it all coming.

"That's Stan," Schwarber said. "For him to think of me that way, I can't thank him enough, because I felt like he helped me get here. He pushed for me to be a Cub."

***

Jim Hendry, the fast-talking executive who loves busting balls and telling stories, had never before felt so stressed about speaking in public.

Zielinski died suddenly overnight in January at his home in Chicago's western suburbs at the age of 64. Zielinski's wife, Holly, asked the former Cubs general manager to give the eulogy at St. John the Baptist in Winfield. But when Hendry stood up at the front of the church, he experienced this amazing sense of calm, something the priests would have prayed for at his old Jesuit schools.

"I miss him every day," said Hendry, who's now a special assistant with the Yankees. "I find myself wanting to call him every day. I probably talked to him on the phone at least five days a week for 30 years. It's crazy."

Zielinski funneled players to Hendry when he coached at Creighton — the prospects hesitant to sign or not quite ready for the demands of professional baseball — and kept doing it for the Cubs. Of the 25 guys Creighton dressed for the 1991 College World Series, Hendry counted 12 from Illinois.

"The guy hit bull's-eye after bull's-eye for me," Hendry said. "It was unbelievable."

Zielinski saw Rich Hill's curveball at Michigan and Jeff Samardzija's baseball potential at Notre Dame, signing both pitchers in the fourth and fifth rounds, four years apart.

Zielinski did an extensive background check on Ted Lilly, pushing the Cubs toward the four-year, $40 million deal that would help lead to back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008.

When the Cubs executed the Mark DeRosa salary-dump trade with the Cleveland Indians on New Year's Eve 2008, Zielinski told Hendry: Don't do the deal without Chris Archer, a Class-A pitcher who went 4-8 with a 4.29 ERA that season.

If that was unique then — a scout closely analyzing the amateur draft, trade-deadline activity and upcoming classes of free agents — it's almost unheard of now that front offices have continued growing and building different silos within baseball operations.

"He was that good," Hendry said. "But he didn't want a bigger job. He didn't want to be the boss. He loved the area job first. He wanted to be the guy that got to know the kids — and got to know the families — and went to their high school basketball games in December when they're in the 10th grade. He put so much more into it than the normal area guy.

"He knew everybody. He knew every coach. He knew every parent. And that was his first love."

***

Theo Epstein — who never believed in "The Curse of the Bambino" — recognized those same qualities and the depth of Zielinski's relationships when the Cubs held their workouts at Wrigley Field before the draft.

"It was incredible," Epstein said. "Everyone would wait in line to talk to Stan. It was like he was the pope and they were waiting for their 30 seconds with him."

Zielinski stood around 6-foot-2 and could see eye-to-eye with players. He had broad shoulders, a stocky build, short, brown hair graying at the sides and two children of his own, Zach and Anna.

Samardzija appreciated how Zielinski would make specific suggestions about how to improve his game — and not waste time playing mind games or trying to talk him out of the NFL or drive down his asking price.

Zielinski grew up in Northbrook, went to Loyola Academy and played college baseball at St. Mary's in Minnesota, but he could walk into Cliff Floyd's house in South Holland and convince his parents their boy should sign with the Expos as the No. 14 pick in the 1991 draft.

"Stan was so genuine and just so real with everything that a young kid needed," said Floyd, who lasted 17 seasons in the big leagues and now works as an MLB Network analyst. "It's having the ability to be the calm in the storm — in any environment. Whether you're in the hood or the suburbs, it doesn't matter, because you have to be able to change your vibe going to different households.

"You can't just be one-dimensional. That's an ability or a quality that not a lot of people possess. And when you have it, you have it."

The Cubs needed all of that insight and accumulated experience to take a chance on Schwarber, who looked more like an American League designated hitter or the perfect player for your neighborhood softball team. If not for that below-slot deal worth $3.125 million, Schwarber's camp believed he might have dropped to the San Diego Padres at No. 13.

"I don't think that (Stan) got caught up in that new age of scouting with the spin rate and launch angle and hard-hit stuff," Schwarber said. "He did a really good of getting to know the player, knowing what type of person he is, (to) tell what kind of competitor he is.

"(It's) knowing that guy is going to go out there every day and give it 110 percent. That's why he was unique. It wasn't a lot of hearsay questions. It was more upfront. I'm going to be upfront with you. You be upfront with me. That's why I loved him."

The Cubs absolutely believed Schwarber suffered a season-ending injury last April when he wrecked his left knee in an outfield collision and needed surgery to reconstruct his ACL and repair his LCL. But if anyone could come back that October after two Arizona Fall League games with the Mesa Solar Sox and step in to face Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller and the Indians ...

"He's John Wayne," Zielinski wrote after that Purdue game. "NOW I would consider him at #4. I started to think how much I'd miss watching him play and decided that would be alleviated by knowing he'd be playing for our team.

"Today was the best day I've ever seen him have behind the plate. Really agile on his legs, looked relaxed and had flexibility in his hands, framed better, bought some pitches — maybe that leather is worked in enough to be soft. He did drop a couple that were up, but he did a real good job on pitches down in the zone.

"He felt so good that after (taking a) big lead Indiana was replacing their regulars late and he refused to come out."

***

Who compares some Big Ten dude to John Wayne or Babe Ruth?

"Stan was probably the best I've ever seen at creating that picture of the person," said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development for the Cubs. "You would just be amazed to see how detailed he was in breaking down who this guy will be when he arrives in Chicago."

Zielinski's mind raced with possibilities, paranoid about everything from being late to a game or a workout to where he stood in the organization to how his guys performed in the minors. He used vivid language and descriptive adjectives to replace common baseball terms.

"Where I might say, 'Wow, that's a really fluid swing,'" McLeod explained, "Stan would say it (this way): 'It's like listening to jazz music when this guy steps into the box.' But you know exactly what he's talking about."

Amateur scouting director Matt Dorey found himself re-reading old reports after Zielinski's death: "'He has an arm action like a cranky shopping-cart wheel,' things like that where you would just automatically envision the guy with a roll or a rattle at the back of his arm stroke."

Hendry started cackling over the phone: "'A one-pitch carnival thrower.' You know, like guys on dates with their girlfriend trying to win the stuffed animal.

"Or he'd call 'em a 'seat-belt reliever.' You had to f------ buckle up every time he came into the game and hold on. Oh, he had s--- like that all the time.

"He had a language of his own. Man, I'm telling you, he had s--- that nobody's ever written in a scouting report before — or ever will again."

Like comparing a guy at a basketball school — who might have entered his junior season as a possible second-round pick — to one of the most iconic athletes of all-time.

"He just took you to this place where you were mesmerized reading it," McLeod said.

"It felt like I was watching a game through an old, bad whatever-millimeter camera," Dorey said. "I felt like I was watching Babe Ruth saunter to the plate, call his shot and then he went on to hit a home run. And then as he trotted around the bases, I felt like I was watching Babe Ruth's trot."

***

Epstein had already seen enough on video and at the Big Ten tournament to develop a man crush on Schwarber by the time he noticed a dispatch from Zielinski in the fall of 2013. Zielinski reported that Schwarber had lost around 10 pounds and appeared to be in better shape, a tipping point for Epstein's data-driven, risk-management philosophy that favored college hitters at the top of the draft, anyway.

Epstein used the Boston Red Sox for what might have been another ridiculous frame of reference, envisioning Schwarber as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia. Shane Farrell — a young assistant in amateur scouting at the time and the son of John, the current Red Sox manager — saved Epstein's e-mail from Oct. 16, 2013.

"After reading that Schwarber showed up with a trimmer body, I'm making the call right now that Schwarber is going to be our pick and put up Big Papi numbers," Epstein wrote in a group e-mail that circulated among Farrell, McLeod, general manager Jed Hoyer and Cubs officials Jaron Madison and Lukas McKnight. "Off the video, this guy has one of the shortest left-handed swings I've ever seen. And the power speaks for itself. Shane can pitch for us at that point."

Farrell — who pitched for Marshall in college and has a humble, respectful attitude toward the wise men in the game like Zielinski — joked: "I'm still waiting for Theo to hold up his end of the bargain there."

The last time Farrell saw Zielinski in December, he got inducted into the Midwest Scouts Association Hall of Fame and used the Kauffman Stadium event to remember how he whiffed on the player who helped the Kansas City Royals win the 2015 World Series.

"If you got to know Stan at all, he's somebody that truly hated the spotlight," Farrell said. "Any sort of recognition was totally not his thing. But he gave a great speech. He was giving himself a hard time up there in front of all those people, talking about how he walked away from Ben Zobrist when he was an amateur player at Olivet Nazarene."

After Zielinski's death, Farrell made what he called at once the easiest and hardest decision he'll probably ever have to make in his career. Farrell is now covering most of Zielinski's old territory — half of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Farrell has been amazed at how quickly Midwest coaches got back to him when he sent out e-mails introducing himself, how much they wanted to share old stories about Zielinski.

"These are shoes that no person could ever fill," Farrell said. "It was just kind of a natural response to help out a friend, really, somebody that I really cared about and really, really admired and looked up to."

Farrell remembered Zielinski's last line in a lengthy Schwarber report documenting all the games he had seen before the Cubs made a franchise-altering decision in the 2014 draft: "You won't ever regret taking him at No. 4."