Faith of the franchise: Theo Epstein is the star attraction
BY RICK TELANDER firstname.lastname@example.org April 4, 2012 8:34PM
Updated: May 6, 2012 8:23AM
Has there ever been a baseball team whose superstar was the ... president of operations?
I’m thinking not.
The day humans pay to enter a ballpark because of faith in a man who has a high IQ and looks good in a tailored business suit is the day, well ...
Hello, Cubs fans!
Theo Epstein — boy wonder-turned-genius achiever-turned- mythical savior — is the main draw as the Cubs’ 2012 season approaches. Fans haven’t knelt and wept and touched the hem of his Italian-cut pants. But the sentiment seems to be there.
Epstein, 38, the former general manager of the Red Sox, hasn’t asked for the worshipful attention. In fact, he has been almost off the radar since doing the mandatory press chatter after being hired by Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts last October.
But the cult of Theo cannot be suppressed. The handsome, Yale-educated, law-degree-holding man was, after all, the youngest general manager in major-league history (28), and he swiftly brought two World Series titles to the long-suffering Red Sox (2004, 2007).
When Epstein agreed to take the Cubs job, he knew what he was getting into. And he knew that winning a World Series with the Cubs would make him a miracle-worker, a living Hall of Famer, a god who would loom someday like a giant bronze totem from an ancient time, like the Easter Island statues or Paul Bunyan himself, high above the supplicants at Addison and Clark.
Epstein brought in former Boston pals Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod to be general manager and senior vice president (scouting and player development), respectively — and the group has gone to work to turn the Cubs into something other than the 103-year Marvels of Failure they have become.
After purchasing the team, Ricketts didn’t pad the player payroll, but he quickly spent $20 million on the front office. The message was clear: brains and data, not hunches and hopes, win baseball games.
Epstein is one of the early practitioners of sabermetrics, the belief in, and use of, the ability of computers and facts to better formulate a winning club. He was angry that Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, another sabermetrics guy, spilled the beans to Michael Lewis in the book Moneyball.
And yet he told Sports Illustrated that the numbers and the Red Sox’ mystical computer program named ‘‘Carmine’’ were just a part of the job, not the final answer.
‘‘The biggest surprise for me as a GM is you spend more time as a psychologist than you think,’’ he said. ‘‘A latent injury or a latent psychological injury is behind almost every underperforming player.’’
And even HAL from ‘‘2001: A Space Odyssey’’ can’t read stuff like that.
And Epstein is left with questions such as: How bad are the Cubs this season? And why can’t we just tell fans we’re rebuilding for the next three years? And Carlos Marmol: Who needs an expensive one-inning closer on a team that won’t have many closings to worry about?
Cubs fans’ devotion to him, without a game under his Armani belt, is profound and nearly fatalistic. Indeed, if Theo, whose name, again, means ‘‘god’’ in Greek, can’t do it, what superpower can?
It’s interesting that the Cubs’ new leadoff man is to be David DeJesus — ‘‘of, from or about’’ Jesus, in Spanish — and that DeJesus struggled last season with the Athletics and is looking for a rebirth on the North Side.
How about Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder — 550 pounds of sluggers — leaving the National League Central for other teams? That can only help the Cubs.
And the fact that in a year, the Houston Astros will be sent off to the American League West, and the Cubs finally — bless you, Bud Selig — will be in a five-team division? Their chances of winning go up just like Moses’ did once that sea had been parted.
Is it not all, sort of, biblical? The journey, the potential salvation?
Epstein is here for a spell. He recently bought a $3.25 million house not far from Wrigley Field and less than a block from cheery veteran pitcher Ryan Dempster. Someday, pilgrims will be able to take a walking tour of all of the Cubs’ sacred shrines — the ballpark, the Ernie Banks statue, Murphy’s Bleachers, the house on Kenmore Avenue once hit by a mammoth Dave Kingman home run, Theo’s sanctuary — and be renourished.
Good luck, Theo. It’s simple: Turn water into wine, and stand back for the tidal wave.