Cubs fans: Epstein needs your patience
Theo Epstein says he doesn’t believe in curses.
Good thing. He has taken on two of the bigger curses in professional sports.
He licked the Curse of the Bambino in Boston. Now comes the Chicago Cubs and the curse of the Billy Goat, which has reached such epic proportions that the believers think that former Cubs players take the curse with them when they move on, like Bill Buckner and his defensive lapse against the New York Mets that cost Boston the 1986 World Series.
"That challenge is part of the lure of the job," Epstein said upon his hiring. "It’s an incredibly big challenge. But that’s part of the fun. If it wasn’t that, I certainly wouldn’t be here."
It’s also why many others are no longer in Chicago. The Red Sox went 86 years — from 1918 until 2004 — without a world championship. The Cubs? They haven’t won a world championship since claiming back-to-back titles in 1907-08. They have lost in seven World Series appearances since then, and haven’t made it back since 1945.
It’s now the challenge taken on by Epstein, who has been reunited with Boston cohorts Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod. Hoyer, general manager in San Diego the last two seasons, took the same title with the Cubs. McLeod, the scouting director for Hoyer in San Diego, is now in charge of scouting and player development with the Cubs.
Epstein, however, with the title of president, is the leader of the band.
He was the focal point of the Cubs Convention, where fans get a wintertime chance to mingle with Cubs players and officials, and the chant "Theo, Theo" rung out at various times. He’s also featured on a T-shirt that proclaims "Theo-logy," several of which have been smuggled into the offices of Cubs execs, much to the chagrin of Epstein.
That’s what a reputation can do.
Epstein had quick success in Boston, creating an image so idolized that nobody seems to notice the Red Sox finished in third place in the AL East the last two years, behind not only the hated New York Yankees but also the financially strapped Tampa Bay Rays.
Hired after the 2002 season, Epstein was part of a world championship celebration in 2004, and then again in 2007. But Epstein and Co. inherited a nice nucleus in Boston with the likes of Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek and Nomar Garciaparra on a team that finished second to the New York Yankees in the five years prior to Epstein becoming general manager.
"When we took over in Boston, we had that core of future Hall of Famers," said Hoyer. "I think that’s why as much as 2004 meant, winning (the World Series) in 2007 with the addition of players like (Bill) Mueller, (David) Ortiz, Kevin Millar and Mike Lowell was rewarding."
Not so with a Cubs team coming off back-to-back 90-loss seasons. Instead of Martinez, Ramirez, Varitek and Garciaparra, Epstein inherited the likes of overpriced Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano.
His biggest move of the off-season? He unloaded the emotional burden of the right-handed Zambrano on the Miami Marlins, though he had to eat $15.45 million of Zambrano’s 2012 salary to get it done.
There are only three new faces projected for the Cubs lineup: prospect Brian LaHair, who had 69 plate appearances last season; third baseman Ian Stewart, a phenom who failed to phenomenate in Colorado; and once rising star David De Jesus, a right fielder signed out of the free agent bargain basement.
Chris Volstad, who came from Miami in the Zambrano deal, and Travis Wood, an acquisition from NL Central rival Cincinnati, will move into the rotation. The bullpen is pretty much the same one that was a part of the Cubs’ 91-loss effort in 2011.
Patience is needed in this transformation.
Tom Ricketts, who has turned the Cubs into a family investment, "looks at this as a lifetime ownership, and wants to build the right way," according to Hoyer.
In other words, a change in direction from the days of the past, when former general managers, including Epstein predecessor Jim Hendry, were denied funds for signing prospects, and pressured to find quick fixes, such as the overpaid contracts given to Soriano and Zambrano.
For Esptein’s sake, it appears that Crane Kenney, who has been a constant irritation to the baseball operation since becoming the team president, was pushed over to the business side and ordered to stay out of the way of the Epstein regime if he wants to stay around.
The question is how much patience will be found with a fan base that has been waiting for the championship reward for 104 years?
"As long as we articulate a good plan and show progress along the way I think people will have patience," said Hoyer. "They will be able to see we have a goal and are working toward it. (This off-season) we went after young layers with upside potential. We’re not spending money on free agents. We need a base in place first."
For all the struggles that the Cubs have faced in the last century, the new regime does see some hope from within, which is why there were not massive changes in management, including signing farm director Oneri Fleita to a four-year extension, and regaining assistant general manager Randy Bush and scouting director Tim Wilken.
But there is plenty of work that has to be done.
"Certainly the passion has been unbelievable," said Hoyer. "These are great sports fans. There’s a lot of similarities between the Cubs and Red Sox in terms of a historical and fan basis."
And the Cubs and their fans can only hope that another similarity develops — one in which Epstein and Co. lead the Cubs out of more than a century of failures into a championship celebration.