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Theo Epstein began his baseball life with the San Diego Padres, where he found his desk right between the team’s Director of Scouting and Eddie Epstein (no relation), a Sabermetric pioneer who was one of the first numbers men to work inside baseball. Theo said the two men could not stand each other and would not talk to each other. But they would both talk to Theo.
And he loved listening to them both. His feeling about baseball is summed up in an artistic few words he will say from time to time: “The game is best understood at 10,000 feet. But it is best enjoyed from the front row.”
This is the sensibility that immediately struck people about Epstein, the thing that made his rise in baseball so meteoric, the thing that caught the eye of Larry Lucchino, who made him the youngest general manager in baseball. Epstein saw the game analytically and romantically at the same time. It’s a rare trait.
And he was smart. Damned smart. When he was named GM of the Red Sox before the 2003 season, he knew right away that on-base percentage could be their hammer. "Back then,” he says with nostalgia in his voice, “getting on-base percentage — it was like shooting fish in a barrel.” The Red Sox signed Bill Mueller for a couple million bucks. They blocked Kevin Millar from going to Japan. They scooped up David Ortiz, who had been released by the Minnesota Twins. All of them got on base.
And the Red Sox led the American League in on-base percentage the next year … and the next year … and the year after that.
Epstein will always be quick to say that his role in the Red Sox championship should not be overstated. “I caught so many breaks,” he says. “I mean, I walked right into a Hall of Fame core.” But he also knows that people in Boston really didn’t really want to hear that — certainly not at the time. He was a young, good-looking kid from Brookline who was the general manager when the Red Sox broke the curse. Everybody wanted to celebrate Theo Epstein.
Epstein focused on the job. Mostly, he focused on the farm system. The Red Sox had remarkable success finding and developing players — they drafted Jonathan Papelbon in 2003, Dustin Pedroia in 2004, Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz in 2005. All of them appeared, at least briefly, for the 2007 Red Sox team that won the World Series. All of them played bigger roles on the 2008 and 2009 Red Sox teams that each won 95 games.
Then, in 2010, Epstein talked openly about how he saw it as a bridge year. The Red Sox had shifted their drafting philosophy — leaning more on high school draft picks — and he saw a small gap in the incoming talent. He said that. Nobody liked hearing it. Nobody. The Red Sox missed the playoffs for the first time in four years, and Red Sox chairman Tom Werner went into 2011 saying, “I want to assure everyone that there is no bridge year here this year … I think Theo would be the first to say it wasn’t his finest Winston Churchill moment.”
So, yes, everything changed. There was no more talk about bridge years and waiting for the minor league system to bloom. These were the BOSTON RED SOX, for crying out loud. And they started spending like rich grandparents. They traded for Adrian Gonzalez and gave him a huge contract. They signed Carl Crawford to a huge contract. They gave Bobby Jenks $12 million for two years — no, really, they did that — and they gave various other relievers a lot of money, and they had already signed Mike Cameron for $15 or so million and John Lackey for $82.5 million and so on.
In 2011, the Red Sox crashed with a horrible final month collapse — a collapse that filled the local papers with all sorts of shocking inner-team squabbles involving chicken and beer in the clubhouse and so on — and Theo Epstein left to become president of the Chicago Cubs. Then things got much worse in Boston. The Red Sox lost 93 games last year and spent much of the time just trying to dispose of any burdensome contracts.
“Forbidden fruit,” Epstein says of free agency and he shrugs. “We just didn’t have the patience to make it across the gap without giving into temptation. … Free agency is where you get your worst return on investment. It’s really that simple. The draft and the international market, that’s where you get your best return, dollar for dollar. And free agency is the worst return on investment.”
Epstein shrugs again. “We knew that but we did it anyway. It was a negative lesson.”
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It is fun to listen to Theo Epstein talk about the differences between Boston and Chicago. He is very careful to say that the differences are sweeping generalizations and certainly do not reflect how everyone feels. And he is careful to say that he believes they are the two best fan bases in baseball. But he says there are differences and he is getting used to them.
“Anyone who has spent time in both places will tell you that there’s more of an edge in Boston. Maybe it goes back to our puritanical roots, I don’t know. There’s just an innate cynicism.
“Even when things were going well, there was a sense of ‘when’s the other shoe going to drop?’ That was part of the fun of being a Red Sox fan — agonizing over the struggles that were about to come. Even when we were winning 95 games, there was angst over those one-game losing streaks. Like I say, there’s this edge. I know. I’m a part of it. I grew up with it.
“In Chicago there seems to be a little more optimism. You see it at Wrigley Field. Even in a losing season, a player makes a nice catch and everyone is up, cheering and lifting their beers as if there’s no better place in the world at that moment. I just think there’s more optimism, more belief, less dread than in Boston.”
He slaps “The Cubs Way” again and admits he’s counting on some of that optimism in Chicago because he and Hoyer and Sveum and the rest will not take any short cuts. Last year, when they were going through the 101-loss season, they kept reminding each other to stay together and to remember that it’s a long term plan.
“It was very hard,” he says, “but we leaned on each other. If any one person was going through all those losses, they might look for a get-out-of-jail free card, you know, a tangible move that will make all the losing stop. But we all had agreed on our vision. We knew there would be some tough years.”
They know, realistically, this year could be tough too. Yes, they hope it will get better. The Cubs signed some starting pitching — headlined by Edwin Jackson — and they hope Castro and Rizzo and others will emerge, and a couple of guys will have career years and … they hope, but they know it could be brutal come August.
“We all agreed to be transparent about it,” Epstein says. “We don’t think we’re anywhere close to being the organization that we will become.”
Epstein does not hold back when talk about where he wants that organization to be. “Offensively,” he says, “we want to control strike zone, be among the league leaders in on-base percentage every year. That’s how we’re going to score runs by getting on base and not making outs, having eight guys with good approaches, who can work the count into their favor and drive the ball.
“But we don’t want to sacrifice defense to do that. We don’t just want eight guys who can slug. We want two-way players. And we want pitchers who throw ground balls, throw strikes, strike people out. We don’t want to make any sacrifices. We are trying to build a team that can do everything.”
And he says to get there, they can’t take detours or make short-term decisions. “You can’t please the fans in November or December anyway,” he says. “It’s such a temporary, inauthentic fix. The only way to make fans happy is to be playing in October on a consistent basis. It’s the only way.”
If the Cubs do surprise and contend this year, Epstein says the Cubs will go for it. But if the Cubs do not contend this year — much more likely — he said the Cubs will trade off players in August and September, and things could get ugly.
“We’re going to do the right things,” he said. Of course, everyone says that. But then, when the losing gets hot, when the fans lose their patience, when ownership grows tired of getting ripped, when ticket sales or ratings begins to falter, it’s often hard to do the right thing. Epstein nods.
“If we are really, really, really good at our jobs in scouting and player development,” Epstein says, “we’ll never have to sign a single free agent.
“But I can guarantee you right now that won’t happen. I can tell you that there will be a press conference or two over the next four years. We will stand up and hold up a jersey and we will be happy we signed the player. I hope we can be in on some of the top free agents. But we will do it with our eyes open.”
He looks out the window onto the spring training field. He says. “Let’s face it: You rarely hold that celebratory press conference at the end of the contract.”
ATLANTA (AP) - Matt Harvey pitched six hitless innings, John Buck homered and the New York Mets held off another Atlanta comeback, beating the Braves 4-3 Tuesday in the first game of a doubleheader.
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