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Faithful Cubs followers flock to Theo Epstein’s pulpit

A Cubs fan keeps picture Theo Epsteby his feet questianswer sessiduring Cubs ConventiChicago HiltTowers 720 S. Michigan Ave. Saturday Jan.

A Cubs fan keeps a picture of Theo Epstein by his feet at a question and answer session during the Cubs Convention at the Chicago Hilton and Towers, 720 S. Michigan Ave., Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 16, 2012 8:34AM

For the first time in years, the players were virtually afterthoughts during the longest, ­busiest day of the annual Cubs Convention.

Not even a relatively anonymous group of incoming players representing the Cubs’ least-flashy offseason in at least two front-office regimes could provoke the passions of Cubs faithful Saturday.

This time around, all the passion was saved for new team president Theo Epstein, by far the star of Saturday’s heavy schedule of events, which began with a ­tightly packed fan question-and-answer session devoted ­solely to Epstein.

Seated opposite mediator Len Kasper in a deep-cushioned armchair, Epstein covered topics and philosophies related to his plan for “sustained success’’ that he has gone over in the media numerous times since taking office in October, engaging in an hourlong ­lovefest during his first major encounter with Cubs fans.

The more impressive and telling scene came at the end of the session, when fans crowded the stage for autographs and stalled handlers’ efforts to whisk Epstein away for his flight to Boston for a charity event Saturday night

“Theo, you’re the hope of the city, man!’’ called out one fan as Epstein signed.

That might as well have been the official name of the annual three-day event this weekend at the Chicago Hilton and Towers.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of optimism,’’ chairman Tom Ricketts said of Epstein’s effect on the fans — and, he guessed, ticket sales. “People are excited about the direction on the baseball side. That’s probably helped us with season-ticket renewals, which was very, very, very high. People want to be part of this new team, which should be heading in the right direction.’’

Team officials said the always high season-ticket renewal rate was in the upper-90-percent range. Fans at the Cubs Convention seemed even more in agreement on their appreciation for and faith in the Epstein-Jed Hoyer-Jason McLeod-led direction that is little more than a vision at this point.

With fan favorite Kerry Wood back in the fold — albeit by way of the cheesy drama manufactured by Friday’s “surprise’’ announcement two days after a source said the deal was done — and new manager Dale Sveum promising swift and firm action against lollygagging players, it didn’t seem to matter much at all what kind of quality or expectations the Cubs will take to spring training.

So long as Theo is in charge.

How long the honeymoon lasts if the team gets off to a slow start is anybody’s guess. Even Saturday, fans repeatedly asked for timelines from various club officials throughout the day for when the “sustained success’’ would start.

But that’s three months away.

For now, nobody seemed to pay attention to the fact that only one on that long list of starting pitchers the team has put together had a winning record last year. Or that only one player on the roster has hit 25 homers in a season — and that’s defensively challenged left fielder Alfonso Soriano, who was booed during the opening ceremony Friday.

Even the sexual-assault investigation involving young star shortstop Starlin Castro seemed unnoticed by fans during sessions with ownership, front office and field-staff personnel.

All because of the vaunted new direction the team is taking.

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