Cubs plan on keeping core around for a while
GM aims to build sustained success with group of mainstays
When Theo Epstein began with the Padres, he found himself seated at a desk right between Eddie Epstein and Kevin Towers.
Eddie Epstein -- no relation -- was one of the first sabermetricians to work in the game. He might even be the first, depending on how you define sabermetrician. He built his view of the game around analytics; and he was frustrated because, as Epstein said in Michael Lewis' "Moneyball," "There was a profusion of new knowledge and it was easily ignored."
Towers was a baseball scout through and through. He loved to talk about the game with anybody; he felt the rhythms of the game, loved the traditions, followed his gut, he was old-school to his core.
And Theo Epstein found right away that he felt comfortable in both worlds.
This is my favorite thing about Theo: He is invulnerable to labels, impossible to put into any box. For years, people have seen him as a new-age, Moneyball general manager, in part because he is Yale-educated and has a law degree, in part because he was hired to be the GM of the Red Sox at age 29, in part because he does embrace the analytics of the game. All these things are true.
But to see only that part is to miss Theo Epstein.
For instance, you probably didn't know that the Cubs are, in a small way, an homage to his mother's Brooklyn Dodgers of the late 1940s and early '50s.
When Ilene Epstein -- Theo's mother -- was growing up in Brooklyn, she knew the name of every single player on the field for the "Boys of Summer" Brooklyn Dodgers. Well, sure she did -- everyone in Brooklyn did. Those Jackie Robinson Dodgers are one of the most beloved teams in baseball history, a team that has been endlessly celebrated and memorialized and cherished through the years.
"A whole country was stirred by the high deeds and thwarted longings of The Duke, Preacher, Pee Wee, Skoonj and the rest," Roger Kahn wrote in "The Boys of Summer." "The team was awesome good and yet defeated. Their skills lifted everyman's spirit and their defeat joined them with everyman's existence, a national team, with a country in thrall, irresistible and unable to beat the Yankees."
"I'd always hear about the Brooklyn Dodgers," Epstein said, "you know Campy behind the plate and Hodges at first, Jackie Robinson at second, Pee Wee Reese at short, Duke Snider in center, and, who was that in right field, oh, yeah, Carl Furillo. My Mom would always remember the names because they were all together for so long."
"That's what we have wanted to do in Chicago," Epstein said.
This year, like the past three years, the Chicago Cubs will fundamentally be the same team they were last year ... and the year before that ... and even the year before that. It will be Kristopher Bryant at third, Addison Russell at short, Javier Baez at second and Anthony Rizzo at first.
It will still be Willson Contreras behind the plate, Kyle Schwarber in left field, Jason Heyward in right field and 23-year-old Albert Almora Jr. will be in center for the second straight season. All of them, every player, is 28 or younger. Epstein wants this to be the Cubs' team for the next three or four or five years, forever if possible.
"We have a chance to replicate what they did in Brooklyn," Epstein said, "which is pretty rare. Today it's a mercenary age, but we have a run of possibly seven years. I just love being able to allow our fans to get to know our group of guys over a long period of time. ... Fans always like their players, but they get a chance to fall in love with players when they get to see their ups and downs, the arc of their careers, and also the team's arc as well."
Epstein believes that keeping players together also gives them a better chance to understand each other, and that helps build a winning environment. Last year, the Cubs struggled most of the year. It was clear that the hangover from the World Series triumph was much more powerful than anyone expected -- and the Cubs expected it to be bad. A year ago, Epstein talked confidently about how well the Cubs prepared to deal with the aftermath of finally winning.
"I thought we did a pretty good job preparing," Epstein said. "And we also utterly failed. Human nature is undefeated."
Epstein said that early in the year particularly, he would see the players struggling to get motivated for a game. Here they were a few months before winning one of the greatest World Series games in memory, and then there were parades, television appearances, fame, fortune, and suddenly they had to find the motivation to play a weekend series in Pittsburgh.
"It was silly," Epstein says. "The first couple of weeks of the season we had guys openly wondering, 'How am I going to get up for this game?' It's a big league regular-season game, yeah, but it's a Tuesday night against such-and-such with 15,000 people in the stands. It's just hard out there after what they had been through."
The malaise lasted for months. The Cubs were two games under .500 at the All-Star break. They were hardly the first team to win a World Series one year and flounder the next -- the 2016 Royals, the '15 Giants, the '14 Red Sox, the '13 Giants, none of these teams even made the postseason the year after winning the World Series.
But this is where Epstein's idea about keeping a team together paid off. After the embarrassment of the All-Star Game -- only one Cubs player made it, and it was reliever Wade Davis, who was not even on the World Series team -- they regrouped. They never found the 2016 rhythm but they coughed and wheezed into the playoffs and made it to the National League Championship Series. Epstein is sure that was in part about the players feeding off each other and pushing each other.
"They realized, all together, 'We're not playing with that edge, this isn't who we are,'" Epstein said. "They asked, 'Is this who we really want to be?' That was the rewarding part of last season. It would have been so easy for them to fade away -- 'Hey, it's not our year, we'll get them next season.' But they didn't."
Some years ago, after I wrote "The Machine," about the 1975 Reds, I was pulled over for speeding at the Ohio border between Indianapolis and Cincinnati. The officer came over and asked for my license and registration, and saw that I had a few copies of the book in the front seat.
"What's that?" he asked. I told him, and in a split second he said: "Rose, Concepcion, Morgan, Perez, Foster, Geronimo, Griffey, Bench." Those were the fabulous eight in the field. And then he let me go.
"If we can give Cubs fans that sort of memory, where they can know every player 25 or 50 years from now," Epstein said, "that would be pretty special."