Theo Epstein watched part of the 2003 NLCS in a New York hotel suite. The Red Sox general manager and a few baseball staffers had ordered steaks from the Shula’s downstairs at the Times Square Westin and settled in to see history.
“I just could not believe what happened,” Epstein recalled. “We were advance scouting it and kind of watching as fans. And I think, deep down, everyone was kind of hoping for a Red Sox-Cubs World Series.”
It’s been almost two full years since Epstein was handed the keys to the kingdom as president of baseball operations at Clark and Addison. No doubt, he now has a better understanding of the Cubbie experience, the idiosyncrasies of the Chicago market and the city’s machine politics.
Epstein spent part of last week in Arizona, watching some of the big-time prospects that are supposed to lead the Cubs back into October. The next manager will face the second-guessing that still follows Dusty Baker 10 years later. It burned out Lou Piniella, exposed Mike Quade and got Dale Sveum fired two weeks ago.
The Cubs are expected to interview Padres bench coach Rick Renteria and Rays bench coach Dave Martinez this week, to see how they might handle what Epstein called “the gauntlet” that can be managing the Cubs.
The 2003 gauntlet is documented in “5 Outs...,” which premieres Tuesday night on Comcast SportsNet. That year, Cubs fans witnessed the Bartman moment on Oct. 14 and a brutal Game 7 loss to the Marlins the next night. Red Sox Nation was tortured in the ALCS by Aaron Bleeping Boone and a Game 7 loss that started on Oct. 16 and ended after midnight at Yankee Stadium.
Epstein fired Grady Little days later, after the manager rode Pedro Martinez to a three-run lead in the eighth inning, only five outs away from the World Series before the unraveling. Little had won 188 games across his two seasons in Boston, helping set the foundation for championships in 2004 and 2007.
The Cubs felt like the team that emerged from the grueling 2003 ALCS would be running on fumes, emotionally drained and particularly vulnerable. The Marlins rode World Series MVP Josh Beckett and eliminated the Yankees in six games. The Red Sox would have liked their chances with a relentless lineup filled with grinders/idiots: Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek, Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller.
“It was close, but I felt we kind of matched up better with Florida,” Epstein said. “Just because they would be young and we had like a real veteran-hitting team. Their pitching was pretty young and I thought we could have kind of worn them out with pitch counts a little bit.
“(But) I think sentimentally I was rooting for the Cubs. It would have been a pretty epic matchup. At that point in time, neither team had won in forever.”
Right now, Major League Baseball could be looking at a coast-to-coast ratings bonanza (Red Sox-Dodgers) or a regional matchup that won’t create much buzz (Tigers-Cardinals). Broadcaster Thom Brennaman – whose Bartman call in the 2003 NLCS will live forever – knows what the television suits wanted to see then.
“I’m sure FOX was thrilled to death it ended up being the Marlins,” Brennaman said. “I’m not sure how many of the executives at our place would have admitted it, but that would have been a pretty cool thing if it had been the Red Sox and the Cubs.”
That 2003 team raised the expectations at Wrigley Field. A heartbreaking playoff run triggered a run of eight straight seasons with 3-million-plus in attendance, beginning with the 2004 hangover. This year the Cubs drew only 2,642,682 fans — the lowest total since 1998 — in a 96-loss season.
“You can look at it both ways,” Epstein said. “Sure, you guys see the numbers and there’s been a decrease. But at the same time, this is a team that unfortunately is in last place. We traded 40 percent of our rotation two years in a row now and 2.6 million people have shown up to watch us play.
“I don’t doubt and will never doubt the dedication of our fans. It’s a huge asset to have as an organization and we don’t take that for granted. So we’re working our tails off to make the organization healthier, to reward them, ultimately, with the only thing that you really can reward fans with — winning clubs.”
The Cubs didn’t label it a Foundation for Sustained Success in 2003, but they assumed they would be contenders for years to come. Why not?
The Cubs had three stud pitchers age-26 or younger (Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano). There was an age-25 future All-Star at third base (Aramis Ramirez) and a hyped first-round pick in center field (Corey Patterson). There were enough assets to acquire an in-his-prime first baseman with the all-around skills to win a batting tile and Gold Gloves (Derrek Lee). That shows how fragile this rebuilding project will be in 2014 and beyond.
“I have no doubt that the minute we put a winning team on the field, we will have a packed park,” Epstein said. “Raucous crowds and borderline intimidating crowds and a huge home-field advantage. Up until that point, all we can ask of our fans is to trust us that we’re working as hard as we can to make it happen.
“I would never spend someone’s money for ‘em. It’s a personal thing. But I will say that I believe the experience will ultimately be more rewarding if they’re around for the whole journey. That’s why we appreciate so many of them coming out this year.”
That’s what the Cubs are selling now. It’s the hope Wood will be throwing out the first pitch on a cool October night. It’s the dream these prospects are good enough and tough enough to answer all the negative questions. It’s the vision Waveland and Sheffield will be flooded again with a sea of people hoping to witness history.
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