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High expectations — can Theo Epstein deliver?

Updated: November 27, 2011 12:56PM



Let’s stop being coy. The Savior has arrived.

Never mind Theo Epstein’s protestations. If you paid attention to the gooey reaction from fans and media as the Cubs wooed him over the last several weeks, there can be no mistaking his divine properties.

In word and in Pavlov
salivating, people are indicating he is the one to do what nobody has done in 103 years.

For his own sake, he had better.

Listen to what Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said at Epstein’s introductory news conference Tuesday and tell me there’s nothing messianic in his description:

‘‘We look forward to the day where we can say that we have the best team in baseball. And we are confident that our new president of baseball operations will lead us to that day.’’

That sounds like next-door neighbors to ‘‘And a little child shall lead them.’’

OK, Epstein is no longer the kid he was when the Boston Red Sox named him their general manager at 28. But he’s 37 now, still young and still with a lot of time left for miracle-working. Bringing a World Series to the North Side for the first time since 1908 is the one and only reason he’s here.

No pressure there.

Epstein clearly is aware of the oversized expectations of him, and it’s probably why he stressed the team dynamic so often Tuesday.

‘‘When we do achieve that sustained success and ultimately win a World Series, it will not happen because of any one person,’’ he said. ‘‘It will happen because of all of us.’’

An ever bigger Goliath

Epstein is wrong there, judging by the lovefest that has taken place since the Cubs began recruiting him. He helped Boston break its 86-year dry spell without a World Series, in case you haven’t heard. When you hear a Cubs fan or a radio talk-show host describe how those two Red Sox championships came about, it usually has more to do with Epstein than with any actual baseball player.

In Chicago, he’s up against both a ponderous history and the fervent belief that he’ll change things immediately, if not sooner.

When was the last time there was this much anticipation in town for the arrival of a sports figure? The reaction to Epstein’s hiring has been bigger than the reaction to the Jay Cutler trade.

The Cubs’ arduous pursuit of Epstein and the money they have given him says it all: he’s The One.

But give him this: Just because he’s trying to avoid that kind of talk doesn’t mean he’s avoiding the huge challenge in front of him.

‘‘When I got to Boston . . . they hadn’t won in 86 years,’’ he said. ‘‘We didn’t run from that challenge. We embraced it. We decided that the way to attack it was to build the best baseball operation that we could, to try to establish a winning culture, to work as hard as possible and to bring in players who cared more about each other and more about winning than what the people around them thought or the external expectations or the external mind-set.’’

Despite the desire to believe in Epstein’s curative powers, it’s hard to look at his arrival without some skepticism. The room at Wrigley Field in which the Cubs introduced him Tuesday is the same room they used to introduce Lou Piniella and Dusty Baker as manager. You remember them. They were the previous two saviors.

You say this time is different. I say prove it.

Forgive this skeptic

The negativity in that previous sentence isn’t in the attitude of the person who wrote it. The negativity is in the 103 years without a title.

Epstein’s hiring says the Cubs have finally entered into the 21st century in terms of statistical analysis and objective data, which won’t be mistaken for Ron Santo and Harry Caray. That’s a good thing. The Rickettses have rightly recognized that the Cubs’ farm system isn’t nearly as good as it should be.

‘‘Over time and together, we will build a solid foundation that delivers sustained success to the Cubs,’’ Epstein said.

When he says “we,” he means the organization, not the royal “we,’’ though you get the feeling that Cubs fans would be OK with that, if that’s what King Theo wanted.

The Cubs went 71-91 last season, but that was then and this is, as you know, wow. I suppose nobody wants to hear that the team Epstein inherited when he was named the Red Sox’ GM had won 93 games the year before.

Nah, I didn’t think so.



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