Epstein a superstar in his field

November 17th, 2020

Theo Epstein resigned as the Cubs' president of baseball operations on Tuesday. It means the most important baseball executive of his time -- this century in Major League Baseball -- is out of the sport, at least for now. And it means that for now he retires with the World Series trophies he brought to Boston and to the North Side of Chicago. All he did was end a combined 194 years of World Series waiting in those two places.

There will never be a double like that in baseball history, or American sports history, the two jobs he did after becoming the general manager of the Red Sox when he was 28 years old, 18 years ago next week. It was very much a historic signing by John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner at the time, before they all made baseball history together at Fenway Park.

Epstein is not just the most important executive of his time, he is the most interesting and charismatic, and that means from the start in Boston. The Red Sox went to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series in 2003, and were ahead that night until then-manager Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in the game too long, and Aaron Boone finally won that game in the bottom of the 11th.

Then Little was gone and Terry Francona was the Red Sox manager and the rest really is history for a guy from Yale who is still just 46 years old as he walks away from the Cubs. The Red Sox won in 2004, coming from 0-3 down against the Yankees in the ALCS that year.

It was after that series ended that Epstein famously said, “Now let’s go beat Finland.”

He was referencing another sports miracle, the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team in Lake Placid, N.Y., the team that shocked the world by beating the Soviets in a semifinal game, still the most memorable game in American sports history. But the Sox still had to beat their own Finland to win the gold medal. They still had to beat the Cardinals in the World Series. They did. In a sweep. It meant the ’04 Red Sox had won their last eight games. And there had never been more of a front-office golden boy than Theo, who was still just 30 at the time.

In October 2011 he went with the Cubs. Five years later, the '16 Chicago Cubs had won their first World Series in 108 years. Theo had torn them down and built them back up, and built himself another champion, in another capital of his sport.

Four years after that, he walks away. He has bought a home on Nantucket. People who know him expect him to go home to Massachusetts. And everybody who has watched his career wonders what his next move will be, in baseball or somewhere else.

If it is baseball to which he decides to return, whenever and wherever he decides to return, he would immediately become the biggest free agent in the world, because of what he did in Boston and Chicago. In his field, he is a superstar.

I spoke to a friend of his on Tuesday after the news broke out of Chicago, someone who has known Epstein since he got the GM job with the Red Sox.

“This is a guy,” his friend said, “who from the time he was 15 years old, has had the ability to see the whole field. And I’m not just talking about a baseball field. From the start, he has been able to clearly see how he thought his own life ought to fit into his baseball life. It’s a rare gift.

 “Nothing he would do next would surprise me, and I mean nothing. He could end up in politics, or government service, or private industry, or look at opportunities in international soccer the way Billy Beane has. He may look at putting together a group to buy a team in another sport. You hear the expression ‘renaissance man’ tossed around a lot. But he really is one.”

When the news broke, Mets fans immediately started hoping that somehow their new owner, Steve Cohen, might go after Epstein hard. There is talk that the Phillies would want Epstein, now or down the road. Epstein is telling people he wants to take a year off from baseball. But when the time comes for him to get back into baseball, ask yourself this question: Who wouldn’t want him?

Epstein was under contract for one more year with the Cubs, and he had already said this would be his last year in Chicago. He just decided to move his timeline up a bit. This was part of his statement on Tuesday:

"The (Cubs) organization faces a number of decisions this winter that carry long-term consequences; those types of decisions are best made by someone who will be here for a long period rather than just one more year.”

He was hired to bring a World Series champion to Boston. He did that twice, by the age of 33. He was hired to bring a World Series back to Wrigley Field. And he did that, so memorably in October of 2016, before he turned 43. Now we all wait to see what Theo Epstein does next, and where he goes. Say it again: Greatest baseball executive of his time. Twice.