Dallas Green on Cubs’ rebuilding project: ‘Theo’s got his work cut out for him’
August 7, 2013 10:03PM
PITTSBURGE,PA: Cubs Lee Smith and general manager Dallas Green Club house after the Cubs won National League East championship .
Updated: September 9, 2013 3:03PM
PHILADELPHIA — Don’t believe everything you hear or read.
The faces are new. And they have fancy new computers and iPads now.
But if Theo Epstein and his boys succeed in building that “foundation for sustained success” for the Cubs, they won’t be the first.
What happened to the first one?
“I got fired. That’s what happened,” Dallas Green says.
Green, a senior advisor to the general manager for the Phillies, doesn’t know a lot of the philosophy or personnel details of the Cubs’ second-year rebuilding project under team president Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer. He sees a familiar scene from a distance.
“Theo’s got his work cut out for him, no question about that,” he said. “You go in there and you don’t have anything. Like the old saying: ‘You can’t polish a turd.’
“So you’ve got to figure out a way to be competitive so your people still come to the games and everybody’s still interested in Wrigley Field and coming to the ballgames.”
The biggest difference three decades after Green took on the same assignment from new Tribune Co. ownership of the team, is the way the Cubs now use sign-to-flip players to cannibalize the major-league roster to restock the farm system more quickly.
Either way, Green’s experience running the Cubs’ baseball operations — from 1982 through ’87 — is worth comparing, if only as a reminder of the often fragile nature of “foundations” in professional sports.
And as a reminder that ownership’s competence and commitment is at least as important as the top baseball people in the organization.
Think the concept of “culture change” is new?
“We called it ‘Building a New Tradition,’ ” he said. “Of course, they tried to laugh us out of town the first couple years. But you have to start somewhere, and you have to begin with a game plan that you’re going to follow through with, and that’s what we did.”
Green never asked for the kind of patience the Cubs are now asking as the business side imposes mid-market baseball budgets while dealing with massive, lingering purchase debt — awaiting new stadium revenues before committing to restored budgets.
“We just went about our work and tried very desperately to do it as quickly as we could,” said Green, who was recruited away from Philadelphia by Tribune board member Andy McKenna.
“And we probably did it too quick,” of the suddenly hyped expectations.
Green raided the Phillies in trades, including the big one for prospect Ryne Sandberg, and put together a roster that would reach the playoffs in 1984 — with the help of another huge trade for Rick Sutcliffe — all the while entrusting a restructured farm system to Gordon Goldsberry.
“He did a wonderful job,” Green said of drafts that created the homegrown core that developed by the late ’80s. “After we left, most of that team was guys we put on the field — the Dunstons and the Graces and the Palmeiros, and Girardi was one.”
Greg Maddux was in that group and won 18 games for the Cubs the year after Green’s front office was axed by Tribune exec John Madigan. The year after that, the Cubs were back in the playoffs.
“Those guys reaped the benefit of our work, and that was one of the things that really [ticked] me off about being let go,” Green said.
“The guy at the Tribune was a horse’s ass,” he said of Madigan. “And I had no business getting fired. Those guys were a year away yet, but we knew where we were and we knew what we had done and we knew the kind of talent we had.
“But corporate people eventually learn how to talk the lingo. And once they learn how to talk the lingo, they think they know baseball.”
Sometimes they even ask Greek priests to bless dugouts before playoff openers.
“It turns my stomach every time I think about the Tribune company and what they did to our whole group,” Green said. “They let Gordy go. They let four or five scouts that were our guys go. Hell, I can understand maybe firing me. But why would you fire the guy that had done such a hell of a job in selecting and developing the talent that they had on the field?”
Green got six years to build it. And within just a few more it was fading.
Epstein has a five-year contract.
Whether this latest effort to rebuild succeeds is on Epstein. But if it gets that far, the “sustained” part could be the true test of Ricketts family ownership.
“It’s all about the leadership,” Green said.