Theo Epstein won’t be sneaking out of Wrigley Field in a gorilla suit.
That’s how Epstein left Fenway Park on Halloween in 2005, avoiding the Boston media and beginning the sabbatical between his two World Series titles as Red Sox general manager. There was the power struggle between Epstein and Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, as well as disagreements over the franchise’s future direction, how to feed the Green Monster.
The question comes up again now in baseball circles: Do you think Theo would walk?
“This is the place to be right now,” Epstein said. “We all feel really (bleeping) good about where we’re going.”
Heading into Year 3 of Epstein’s rebuild, the Cubs have already lost 197 games and they’re projected to finish in last place again. The Jeff Samardzija trade rumors will start all over again with Monday’s Opening Day start at PNC Park against the Pittsburgh Pirates, one of three National League Central teams to make the playoffs last season.
A severely restrictive sale from Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. to the Ricketts family — which included a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago — has turned this into a bottom-third payroll south of $90 million. A severely restrictive collective bargaining agreement has shredded the plan to go all-out in the draft and international market.
The Wrigley Field renovation money was supposed to be in the bag. One staffer thought all the small-market arbitrage made it feel like you're working for the Tampa Bay Rays. Epstein fired his handpicked manager, Dale Sveum, over beers last September.
It makes you wonder if the Cubs will be more than a .500 team during Epstein’s five-year contract, which gave him a president’s title, the direct report to ownership and total control of baseball operations.
“When I encounter the prototypical cynic or the doubter of the organization, I’m OK with it,” Epstein said. “Because I do have a vision for how they’re going to react in three or four years when they look around the diamond and they see (Albert) Almora, (Javier) Baez, (Kris) Bryant, (Anthony) Rizzo and (Starlin) Castro and every position is pretty damn good with a prime-age player.
“We’re doing some special things. That’s a huge dichotomy because I think a lot of people think we’re down, and we’re really on the way up, big-time.”
During a session with beat reporters near the end of spring training in 2012, Epstein predicted at some point the Chicago media would start writing the honeymoon-is-over stories.
Actually, no one can dispute the Cubs have built an elite farm system, and pretty much everyone is going along with The Plan. Even though the Cubs could probably use some more public pressure, maybe as a way to help loosen the financial handcuffs or create some urgency in the Wrigley Field construction.
“I won’t notice when the honeymoon’s over,” Epstein said. “I guess that’s why I said that a couple years ago — that I know it’s inevitable — because we don’t pay attention to it at all. Period. We do not pay attention to it at all. Period.
“It can’t exist, because then it will influence our decision-making. I love our fans. I appreciate their support. I make one basic assumption about them, which is the more October baseball we can give them, the more pennant races we can give them, the happier they’ll be. The more World Series titles we give them, the happier they’ll be.
“With that basic assumption, we can kind of shut everything else off and go to work. And that’s what we do.”
Epstein is older now, just past his 40th birthday, with more than half his life spent in professional baseball, starting as a summer intern with the Baltimore Orioles, graduating from Yale University and doing public relations for the San Diego Padres before his rise to the top.
Epstein is not being fit for a gorilla suit. Walk away once and you get a great story that shows your guts, your willingness to stand up for what you think is right. Do it twice and, well, people might start to think that you’re the problem. There are only so many dream jobs and last crusades left in North American sports.
“We get a lot of questions from people asking how difficult is it to survive another year when we’re not starting the year as favorites or contenders on paper,” Epstein said. “I guess I understand those questions from afar. But they leave me scratching my head because this is the best morale — organizational morale — I’ve ever seen in the minor leagues. And, to a certain extent, throughout the entire organization.
“Our staff members, our players are genuinely proud of what we’re doing and their role in it. They’re proud of being Cubs, proud of where we’re going. We can’t wait to show up to work each day.”
During a winter where the Cubs made the biggest headlines by introducing a mascot named Clark, Epstein socked away the Masahiro Tanaka money and worked to roll the savings over into future payrolls, a new way of doing business at Clark and Addison. That doesn’t sound like someone who’s looking for the exits.
In his “Farewell, Red Sox Nation” op-ed piece for The Boston Globe in October 2011, Epstein wrote about Bill Walsh, the innovative football mind who thought coaches and executives become stale after 10 years in the same place. Epstein laughed off a question about his 10-year plan and what he might do after this.
“We just need to (bleeping) win a World Series and create a really healthy, dominant organization first,” Epstein said with a smile. “Then we’ll all have lots of good options.”