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Root for Theo if you want, but I want my Cubs back

Updated: November 22, 2011 8:33AM

I never thought the day would come when I’d actually be rooting against the Cubs. But that’s what I’m forced to do now that Theo Epstein is coming to Chicago.

This won’t be easy. I practically grew up at Wrigley Field. When I was a reporter for the Washington Post, I was known as the “guy in the Cubs hat.”

But Epstein isn’t the right guy for the Cubs. I could root for anyone but Epstein.

Don’t get me wrong, Epstein was a great GM for the Red Sox and if I were rooting for him to be the first GM in the Hall of Fame, I’d be psyched right now. If he can do for Chicago what he did for Boston, it will be great for him personally. A major part of the headline will be: “Epstein leads Red Sox and Cubs to World Series victories.” But after everything Cubs fans have been through, that’s not good enough for me.

And what about if the Cubs don’t win it all? When I was covering the inaugural season of the Washington Nationals in 2005, I ran into Mark Grace and asked him what was so special about playing for the Cubs.

“I played on some bad teams,” Grace said. “But if you gave the fans an honest effort and busted your butt, they loved you win or lose. And it’s not that way everywhere.”

Sadly, it’s not that way in Chicago anymore either.

Several years ago, I was at a game with a few buddies. The Cubs had already started to change. Instead of trying to win through a solid farm system, scouting, and patience (see Texas, Tampa Bay, and Epstein’s Red Sox), they started going after high-priced free agents like Alfonso Soriano and big-name managers like Lou Piniella. The team had one of the top payrolls in the league, but it wasn’t translating into victories.

That’s when I heard it. I’ve been to literally hundreds of games at Wrigley Field, but never heard this sound before.

“What is that?” I asked my friend.

“Boos,” he answered.

And that’s the first time I realized the Cubs were changing. Wrigley Field used to be a place to be part of something unique. There was honor to being a Cubs fan. We might not have been rewarded by World Series victories, but what we got was more valuable. We got optimism. And perseverance. We believed that even though the Cubs didn’t win this year, maybe they would next year. And that was enough to keep us going.

The team might wear the same uniform and live in the same house, but its essence is totally different. And so is that of its fans: Look what happened to Bartman.

Yes, Epstein led the Red Sox to two world championships, but now the city is totally turning on the team because they didn’t win “this” year. I don’t want that for my team. A championship’s not worth it.

The Cubs don’t always need to chase the biggest name. Instead, let’s do what the Red Sox did. They gave a local guy a shot. Epstein was personally invested in the team and delivered. It worked because he was one of them. Same as Nolan Ryan in Texas.

And you don’t always need a homegrown guy. It’s the essence of a man that matters, not the address. Look at the Pittsburgh Steelers. When Bill Cower left, everyone was calling for a big name. Instead they hired a hungry, young coach and supported him with appropriate resources and time. Look at Mike Tomlin now, and you think one thing: Steelers.

Of course my buddies think I’m nuts (and a few other things I can’t print). They say, “I don’t care how we do it, I just want to finally win.”

But if I’ve waited this long, invested this much, I want more.

So if you want to root for Theo Epstein to make it to the Hall of Fame, go for it. As for me, I’m rooting to get my team back. The one that has players who play their butts off, and fans who appreciate them for it. So that when the Cubs do eventually win — and I know they will one of these years — the championship will honor all the Cubs fans who have rooted for them throughout the last 100 years, not a GM from Boston.

Gary Karton is a speechwriter in Washington, D.C.

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