MESA, Ariz. - The great thing about being a super hero is that you get to disappear into a secret identity after you save the world. You can put your hands on your hips, stick out your chest, and announce: “My work here is done.” And then you dash off, maybe to the Fortress of Solitude or the Bat Cave or an invisible plane, but eventually you take off a mask, put on glasses, do something with your hair, and melt into the tranquility of your secret identity.
And nobody asks you when you’re going to save the world again.
* * *
This is the story about a boy who keeps trying to save the baseball world. He didn’t know that would be his fate. He only knew he loved baseball. He wasn’t especially good at baseball. He just loved it. His whole family loved it. Heck, everyone he knew loved it. The boy grew up in Boston — Brookline, to be precise — so his love of baseball filtered through the Boston Red Sox, and the inevitable heartbreak they caused. He was 4 when Bucky Dent hit the home run that broke Boston’s heart. He was 12 when the baseball dribbled through Bill Buckner’s legs.
The boy grew up in a family of writers. His grandfather and great uncle wrote “Casablanca.” His father wrote novels and taught creative writing. His sister would someday write television scripts. The boy did a little writing himself, but it did not grip him. He often felt like he was drifting, like he did not really know himself. But the boy was smart. He went to Yale. He went to law school. And he went to work for a baseball team in San Diego.
Then, one day, the boy was 28 and he found himself being introduced as the general manager of the Boston Red Sox. His Red Sox. The team was already hugely talented. They had superstars in Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez and Jason Varitek and Nomar Garciaparra. They only needed a few adjustments and a little bit of luck. The boy and his staff made the adjustments. The first year, they lost in Game 7 of the ALCS in heartbreaking fashion. The next year, the Red Sox won the World Series.
The boy was just 30. His Red Sox had broken an 86-year curse. His Red Sox had ended almost a century of angst and dread and despair. He had saved the world.
Only Theo Epstein had no secret identity to melt into.
* * *
He sits now behind his desk at Hokoham Stadium in Mesa, and he finds himself unconsciously slapping down on a book called “The Cubs Way.” Outside these walls, a book called ‘The Cubs Way” would probably have a very different plot. It might tell the amazing narrative of black cats and Harry Caray and Wrigley Field day games and Steve Bartman and a team that has not been to the World Series since World War II ended, and has not won one since Geronimo died (yes, that’s right, Geronimo, the Apache leader).
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It was written with great care. At one point, there was a two-hour argument about whether the runner, when rounding first base, should touch the bag with his left or right foot. Many around baseball think left. The Cubs — because this is Theo’s team — went through a painstaking surveying process, where they decided that the distance is actually a little bit shorter if you touch the base with the right foot. So touching first base with the right foot is now part of The Cubs Way.
“I’ll tell about one of my best days of the year last year,” Epstein says. “I was walking on the field of our instructional league. We had our new farm director, our new field coordinator, our coaches, our young players, the energy they were putting out was off the charts. We had a talented group of young players who were clearly proud to be Cubs, who cared for each other, who were playing hard after a long season, pulling for each other, competing with each other.”
Epstein slaps down again on “The Cubs Way.”
“I walked off that field,” he continues, “thinking we’re definitely heading in the right direction.”
He smiles a little bit. “But,” he says, “when you are trying to build an organization the right way, moments like that are fleeting.”
Yes, Theo Epstein is trying to save the world again. Before it was the Red Sox with their curse of the Bambino. Now it’s the Cubs with their Curse of the Billy Goat. Before it was an 86-year World Series drought. Not it’s a 105-year World Series drought. The man, it seems, cannot help himself.
But more than than trying to save the world, Theo Epstein is grinding. This is what you have to do when your team is pretty terrible.
And the Cubs are pretty terrible.
Epstein knew this when he signed on to become the team’s President of Baseball Operations in October of 2011 and promptly brought in his friend Jed Hoyer in to be the general manager. They knew that the Cubs had lost 91 games in 2011 with a team swamped by bad contracts. They knew the Cubs had not drafted a single guy who had become an everyday player or starting pitcher in a decade.
Heck, when Epstein signed on he thought the Cubs had one player in the entire organization — Starlin Castro — who might be part of a winning core. He was actually pleasantly surprised to find that there are other players who might help the team win, such as pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who had pitched out of the bullpen with mixed results before Epstein and his new manager Dale Sveum arrived.
“Welcome guys,” Epstein remembers Samardzija saying on his first day with Sveum. “I just want you to know one thing about me. I will do whatever it takes to help this team. And I think the best way to help this team is by being a starting pitcher. I’m eliminating everything in my life that gets in the way. I’m dumping my girlfriend. I’m moving to Arizona. I just want the chance to show you that I’m a starting pitcher.”
So that was nice. Samardzija started 28 games last year and, except for three rough outings in June, he was really good. There were a couple of other players who emerged last year. Epstein traded for first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who the Red Sox had drafted under Epstein, and he hit pretty well for a 22-year-old. Darwin Barney played Gold Glove defense at second base. Castro’s defense improved pretty dramatically at short. And …
And … let’s not kid anybody. The Cubs lost 101 games last year. They were abysmal. They may be slightly better this year, but nobody’s planning the tickertape parade. Epstein came into this with his eyes open. There was no Pedro Martinez here. No Manny. No Varitek. No Nomah. There would be no rock star rise like in Boston, no instant successes, no procession of admirers lining up after only a few months to declare him a genius.
But that’s OK. Theo Epstein never wanted any of that stuff in the first place.
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