Theo Epstein ready to start smart-as-an-art magic for Cubs
By Gordon Wittenmyer firstname.lastname@example.org December 4, 2011 10:44PM
Theo Epstein has been unable to settle compensation with former Red Sox colleague Ben Cherington. The Red Sox have held the upper hand in negotiations. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times
Updated: January 6, 2012 8:16AM
Anyone who thinks it took a lot of brass for Theo Epstein to take on the Cubs’ century-sized beast should have been there in Boston in 2004 the day Epstein, then a second-year general manager, traded one of the most idolized players in Red Sox history who also happened to be hitting .321 at the time.
Almost immediately after Epstein finished a news conference explaining the four-team trade that sent Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs and brought the Red Sox shortstop Orlando Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, his phone rang.
‘‘My brother called me and said, ‘What did you do?’ ’’ Epstein said. He said, ‘I’m listening to the radio and you’re getting killed, you’re getting run out of town. . . . ‘People are wondering why you traded Nomar for a couple of .230 hitters.’
‘‘I was like, ‘Wait, we’ll be fine.’ ’’
By the time Epstein got back to his office that Saturday evening, the rest of his staff had cleared out for the weekend, leaving just the background flicker of two flat-screen TVs, which at that moment both showed an oversized mug shot of Garciaparra with a Cubs cap.
‘‘I felt like the loneliest guy in the world,’’ Epstein said.
A few hours later, the Red Sox lost in Minnesota in Mientkiewicz’s first game for Boston. The next day, Cabrera made an error on an eighth-inning relay play in his first Red Sox start, allowing the winning run to score.
‘‘You’re not human if you don’t [have a moment of doubt]. In fact, I couldn’t sleep that night,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘I took an Ambien for the first time in my life to get to sleep.
‘‘You make a deal like that and you can’t help but think, ‘God, if this thing doesn’t go well, I might have a short tenure here.’ ’’
Of course, the rest is the stuff of Boston sports legend. Epstein’s tenure not only endured, but he outlasted the three other general managers in that deal — even replaced one of them — mostly because his team went 53-20 after those two losses in Minnesota, including 11-3 in the postseason for the Red Sox’ first World Series championship in 86 years.
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The Garciaparra trade revealed a lot more about Epstein than his nerve. It also showed a well-chronicled regard for considering both conventional and unconventional evidence when evaluating a player, as well as detaching emotions from the decision.
‘‘It was a hard trade to make,’’ he said. ‘‘The guys that we were getting back were really good players, but they weren’t good players in obvious ways. They were [both] hitting [.246] at the time, but they were impact defensive players. . . . And [Garciaparra] was an icon.’’
There won’t be any blockbusters requiring Ambien for the Cubs and their new team president during this week’s winter meetings in Dallas, mostly because there’s nobody on the Cubs’ roster who commands ‘‘idolized’’ or ‘‘blockbuster’’ status.
But that doesn’t mean the next few days won’t offer a glimpse into how Epstein and his newly assembled, ex-Red Sox management team plan to redefine the Cubs’ way of doing business, if not their so-called culture.
‘‘I don’t think [chairman] Tom Ricketts could have done any better than hiring Theo,’’ said the man Epstein replaced, former GM Jim Hendry, ‘‘and no doubt in my mind, he’ll do extremely well.’’
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Epstein’s intelligent approach to the game had led not only to his own hiring but to him and Red Sox owner John Henry hiring premier baseball analyst Bill James as an executive adviser.
James’ evaluations played a role in the decision to make the Garciaparra trade.
In Scott Gray’s book, The Mind of Bill James, James said: ‘‘I thought a lot of people had an unrealistic view. . . . Some people wrote about it as if we’d traded six years of Nomar Garciaparra. We didn’t own that, nor did we have any great chance of obtaining it. . . . [And] we’d lost confidence that he was going to help us win [in ’04].’’
One valuable byproduct in trying to fix the ’04 Red Sox by trading an icon was that it didn’t lean on Boston’s improving farm system. That’s something for Cubs fans to consider before getting upset if a guy such as Matt Garza is traded in the next few months.
Using Garciaparra as currency allowed guys in the system such as Jonathan Papelbon and Jon Lester, along with rookie prospect Kevin Youkilis, to grow to become important parts of a much different-looking championship team in 2007.
Major-league executives, coaches, managers and even agents all describe Epstein’s reputation about the same. As one agent put it when speaking of the Yale-educated Epstein, ‘‘He’s the smartest guy in the game.’’
Though not necessarily in his own family. Epstein’s father is a novelist and still runs the creative writing program at Boston University; his grandfather and great-uncle are Oscar winners for the ‘‘Casablanca’’ screenplay; his sister is a successful writer of television shows.
Epstein’s success goes far beyond a keen understanding of advanced metrics and ivory-tower theories powered by Mensa.
‘‘It didn’t take long to understand how bright he was with his education background and intelligence,’’ Hendry said, ‘‘but he was always different than the [other bright young GMs] people said were the next Theo or next Billy Beane. He had such respect for the game and the people in it. Theo was never this ‘I’ll plug in the computer and I’m the next Moneyball guy,’ or ‘I’ve got [this] new wave of answers.’ He was good at trusting his baseball people, too.’’
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The morning after the Garciaparra trade, the Boston Globe referred to it as ‘‘one of the most momentous transactions in the modern annals of the 103-year-old franchise.’’
But to the Red Sox’ 30-year-old ‘‘kid GM’’ who had pulled the trigger, it was a piece of a puzzle in 2004 that allowed a larger plan to stay on course.
Even now, Epstein’s oft-repeated plans for the Cubs echo of that and other early decisions he made in Boston. The basic goal is to turn the Cubs into the kind of ‘‘player-development machine’’ that finally, persistently, makes them the New York Yankees of the National League Central, which their resources always suggested they should be.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman insists the Cubs’ payrolls already have long made them Yankees of their division, even while acknowledging the results say otherwise.
Money doesn’t guarantee success, and even spending the money wisely doesn’t guarantee it, said Cashman, who added that he thought ‘‘Hendry did a hell of a job when he was with the Cubs. And I think Theo Epstein’s going to do a hell of a job, too.’’
Two factors are in Epstein’s favor as he heads into 2012: resources that the Cubs’ baseball boss hasn’t had in five years and the tacit institutional patience (for now) that Hendry never got under three ownership groups.
If Epstein succeeds at changing the face of his new division, it will be an encore to his Boston performance. More specifically, and even more impressively, he helped change the way George Steinbrenner ran the Yankees.
‘‘I saw what Theo was doing in Boston, and I had a heart-to-heart with George,’’ said Cashman, who already had one foot out the door in New York at the time because he was at odds with Steinbrenner’s approach as owner.
‘‘At the end of the day, I saw what Boston was doing, and it just made me think, so I talked to George, and I said, ‘Listen, they’re over-slotting in the draft; they’re going to have a great farm system. And they’re spending money like we are, obviously, in free agency. I said, they’re going to pass us up. And they have passed us up.
‘‘So he said, ‘Go ahead, man, then you take it over, and you do what you think you have to do.’ So I basically tried to match everything they were doing to get us back on line.’’
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There was one more key ingredient in Epstein’s success in the Garciaparra trade: luck.
If Jason Varitek doesn’t hit .449 with a 1.339 OPS in August, if Curt Schilling isn’t 8-0 in his last nine starts, if David Ortiz doesn’t have a postseason for the ages, if pinch-runner Dave Roberts is called out on that too-close stolen base in the ninth inning of Game 4 against the Yankees, then the Red Sox are no better off than in any of the 85 previous years.
And No-mah’s just as gone.
Nobody who makes his living in baseball denies the role of luck, regardless of how much is considered self-made.
And Epstein says he got no sense of vindication or validation for the move because of the results.
‘‘I think you have to trust what you’re doing inherently,’’ he said.
At 37, and on the heels of the Red Sox’ infamous chicken-and-beer collapse in September, Epstein is nobody’s ‘‘boy wonder’’ anymore.
But for all the so-called Theo types who have emerged over the last decade, and for all his own evolution of thoughts and theory since then, it’s clear that the convictions, the fundamental beliefs and the brass remain.
Said Hendry: ‘‘I used to tell people all the time, when they thought they were getting the next Theo: There was not a next Theo, in my mind.’’