Epstein carries out Ricketts' vision in Chicago

Real fun about to start, years after owner upgraded operations staff

January 16th, 2016

CHICAGO -- Almost every day when he's not traveling, Theo Epstein spends time in a workplace he helped design.

Epstein walks into the Cubs' baseball bunker -- utilitarian in appearance on the outside; open, contemporary and insulated from distraction on the inside -- and schemes alongside the large, specialized operations team he assembled after being hired away from the Red Sox a little more than four years ago. The pulse of the building lies in collecting and utilizing information on players, those already in professional baseball and thousands more in colleges and high schools throughout the world.

Before Epstein built this baseball think tank, it was envisioned by Tom Ricketts. He saw the need to improve the size and quality of the Cubs' baseball operations staff in his first two years as an owner, in 2010 and '11.

Jim Hendry was the general manager then. When Ricketts made the inevitable change, Hendry was so loyal to the owner that he worked almost a month knowing he was going to be terminated. It was mid-season, and he didn't want to walk away in the middle of trade talks.

Ricketts always was going to bring in his own guy after buying the team from Tribune Company, but he valued his relationship with Hendry. Ricketts wanted to be known as an owner who treats people well, believing that his reputation would play a role in determining if the organization was attractive to the best executives.

Epstein delivered Boston's first two World Series championships since 1918. He has positioned the Cubs to end a drought that stretches to 1908.

Epstein is entering the final season of the five-year, $18.5 million deal he signed after Ricketts' whirlwind courtship, which followed a Red Sox collapse that led to the exit of Epstein and manager Terry Francona from Boston. But this time, Epstein's not going anywhere -- at least for now.

Epstein says he only thinks about his status when reporters bring it up.

Epstein not concerned with contract

"I see myself staying in the exact same role for a long time," Chicago's president of baseball operations said on Friday night at the Cubs Convention. "I think Tom sees it the same way. At some point, we'll get around to doing a contract extension. I think players deserve contracts before front-office guys."

While keeping his own negotiations at arm's length, Epstein wrestles with how to get a long-term commitment from National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta. He'd love nothing better than to sit down with Ricketts in February, as he's preparing to head to Arizona, after banging out a deal that keeps Arrieta in Chicago beyond 2017.

Epstein, 42, hasn't gotten everything he's wanted since joining the Cubs. But it was clear early on that he would control his destiny more in Chicago than he ever did in Boston, where team president Larry Lucchino insisted on keeping "a seat at the table" on the baseball side of the organization while running the business side.

While naming Epstein as president of baseball operations, Ricketts also signed off on hiring Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod from the Padres as general manager and senior vice president of scouting and player development, respectively. At the time, it was unusual to stack executives atop the chain of command, but the Cubs are now one of 12 teams that have a GM working below their president of baseball operations.

Front offices have expanded around Major League Baseball in the past decade. The Cubs were slow to join the revolution, but they caught up quickly under Ricketts and Epstein.

Since Epstein was hired, the Cubs have opened new facilities in the Dominican Republic and Arizona. The Spring Training complex, designed with Epstein's influence, opened in 2015 to record attendance and positive reviews from manager Joe Maddon and veteran players. The complex he inherited, Ricketts said on Saturday, was "a joke."

With a new clubhouse and other improvements to Wrigley Field well under way, soon there will be nothing left to build, except the toughest part -- a winning tradition.

There's no manifest destiny that says championships will follow this wave of construction. But it sure feels as if it is no longer a question of whether the Cubs will ever win the World Series again, but only a matter of if they will win this season or next.

When Ricketts and two of his siblings on the team's board of directors took questions from fans on Saturday morning at the Cubs Convention, the first of them was from a man wanting to know why the team hadn't already locked up a long-term deal with its architect. The owner promised "no holdup, no drama" in getting Epstein committed for a second term.

"Theo's desires are the same as yours," Todd Ricketts said. "He's not going anywhere until he's fulfilled them."

Epstein is being sincere when he says he feels it's inappropriate to worry about his contract when Arrieta is unsigned.

"He deserves it more than me," Epstein said.

He didn't spend the past four years working so hard to miss the World Series parades. The question to ask is, what will happen after Epstein's next contract?

Epstein will still be in his 40s when that one ends, and he figures to have a world of opportunities before him. It's not a leap to think that he could land in the music business, try a new sport -- wouldn't he be a better general manager for the Dallas Cowboys than Stephen Jones? -- or just work full time on the foundation he formed with his twin brother after the Red Sox's championship in 2004.

Maybe Epstein could be lured away from the Cubs to run another team. There may come a time when he simply feels the right move is to turn the keys over to Hoyer and McLeod.

Epstein saw in Boston that there's a freshness about a team's first championship that is hard to duplicate. Maybe he will feel burdened down the road if the Cubs convert their young talent and recent success into a true powerhouse.

But that concern lurks in the distance, a long way away. The challenge ahead is clear to Epstein. He hasn't won anything yet, and he won't assume anything. The real fun is just starting.