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Epstein takes over controls of Cubs

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Phil Rogers
October 26, 2011
— With an air of confidence and an abundance of wide-eyed optimism, Tom Ricketts handed the keys to his baseball operation to the boy genius, Theo Epstein.

Better that than the family Lexus, it seems.


“I hope he gets a house that is walking distance to Wrigley,” Red Sox Chief Operating Officer Sam Kennedy said, referencing Epstein’s driving ability. “No further comment on that.”


Kennedy and Epstein were teammates at Brookline (Mass.) High School. They traveled across the country in 1995 to take their first full-time jobs in baseball with the Padres.


One of the first things they did when they got to San Diego, Kennedy said, was to find a school that could teach Epstein to drive a car. He somehow had graduated from Yale without a class in driver’s ed.


While Epstein was learning about keeping his hands at 10-and-2, Ed Lynch was learning his way around the Cubs organization after being hired to replace Larry Himes as general manager. Lynch was paid less than $300,000, barely enough for two minimum-salary players in that era, and was largely left to fend for himself.


Until recently, the organization’s practice was to keep the GM it had just fired as something of a “special assistant” to the guy who replaced him—thus Himes worked for his replacement, Lynch, as Lynch eventually would work in a scouting role for Andy MacPhail and Jim Hendry.


Odd way to run a business, huh? You bet, but these were your grandfather’s Cubs—a club that under Phil Wrigley ran for a full season with ballpark manager-turned-GM Salty Saltwell competing against Bing Devine’s Cardinals, Bob Howsam’s Braves and Al Campanis’ Dodgers. Talk about a front-office mismatch.


But roll over, Harry Caray, and tell Ron Santo the news. Those days are as dead as the Red Sox’s Curse of the Bambino.


Not only was Epstein formally announced Tuesday as the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, signed at an unprecedented cost for a baseball executive (a reported $18.5 million over five years), but he brings with him assurances from Ricketts that he can assemble an All-Star staff.


It will include Jed Hoyer, the sitting Padres general manager; Jason McLeod, a brilliant scout who worked beside Hoyer and Epstein for the Red Sox; and some big hires to be named.


“We plan to bring in some of the best and brightest from outside the organization,” said Epstein, who guided the Red Sox to World Series titles in 2004 and ’07. “We’ll also learn from those who have been here.”


Epstein will look for players who do not resemble him.


“Neither of us were very good,” Kennedy said Tuesday. “When we were working for the Padres, someone tracked down a photo of our 1991 Brookline High varsity baseball team. (Then-GM) Kevin Towers said, ‘That’s the sorriest group of non-athletes I have ever seen.’ He was 100 percent right.


“(But) Theo and I both knew we would work in baseball from a very young age. … He practically has a photographic memory and can remember details from a casual exchange he had … from 20 years ago.”


Epstein certainly is smart enough not to bring in a priest to try to deal with Sam Sianis’ goat.


“I don’t believe in curses, (and) I guess I played a small part in proving they don’t exist, from a baseball standpoint,” Epstein said. “I do think we can be honest and upfront that certain organizations haven’t gotten the job done.


“That’s the approach we took in Boston. We identified certain things that we hadn’t been doing well, that might have gotten in the way of (winning) a World Series, and eradicated them.”


Epstein and Ricketts, it seems, have bumped into each other at the exact right time. The Cubs chairman said he knew Epstein was the guy he wanted to run the Cubs “after 10 or 15 minutes of conversation.”


Epstein wouldn’t have been at Wrigley Field on Tuesday if he didn’t believe that under Ricketts, the Cubs had set a different course than the one leading them into one iceberg after another. Nor, perhaps, would he have been there if he had to drive his own car.


Don’t fear, Cubs fans. Epstein found David Ortiz in the discard pile. He’ll find a good wheelman somewhere in Chicago.


Epstein first had thought Ricketts might be a good guy to work for in June, when he saw how the previously conservative Cubs suddenly were drafting players such as Javier Baez, Dan Vogelbach, Dillon Maples, Trevor Gretzky, Taiwan Easterling and Shawon Dunston Jr.


These were expensive, high-risk players in whom only a club with deep pockets and serious aspirations would invest. Toss in a high share of big-ticket signings in Latin America, and Ricketts invested about $20 million in amateur talent last summer.


“As the Cubs’ draft went on, we were sitting around in our draft room, and we could tell what they were doing,” Epstein said. “We said, ‘Hey, they get it, they’re finally getting it.’ … That got my attention, the attention of a lot of other people in the game. … I would say it was a significant moment.”



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