Theo goes deep! Class reunion? Perpetual night?

Cubs architect humbled by part he played in building Red Sox, Cubs

March 14th, 2017

MESA, Ariz. -- I think a lot about how children connect to baseball. It's a natural thing for a writer to think about. My theory, built up over many years, by the way, is that 8 years old is the perfect age to fall in love with baseball.

I say this for many reasons, not least because when I was 8 the Cincinnati Reds beat the Boston Red Sox in the glorious 1975 World Series, a life-altering moment for me. After that happened -- after Luis Tiant gyrated and twisted and befuddled the Reds, after Pete Rose slid headfirst, after Carlton Fisk danced up the first-base line, after Tony Perez belted a blooper pitch into the night -- I had no choice but to become an obsessive and lifelong baseball fan. Thirty-five or so years later, I went back and wrote a book about those '75 Reds. That Series came along at exactly the right moment in my life.

This comes up because the Chicago Cubs won the World Series last season. You probably heard something about that. And if you were paying close attention, you saw Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations and chief architect of the Cubs, watching Game 7 with his son, Jack.

And it just so happens that Jack was 8 years old at the time.

"That's perfect," I say to Epstein. "Eight is the perfect age to fall in love with baseball."

I don't expect Epstein to have much to say about it, this is just an observation, stuff that baseball writers think about a lot but baseball men might not. I get ready to move on, to ask him some sort of baseball question, like how he revamped the Cubs' bullpen, when he suddenly responds.

"It's the age of complete wonderment with the game," Epstein says. He then turns his eyes to the field where the Cubs play an exhibition game against Italy.

"Interestingly though," Epstein says, "I think 12 is the age when you fully connect with your team. That's the age when, in this weird way, you really get what baseball is, you begin to understand team dynamics, you follow the game closely and that shapes your adulthood a little bit. I think that happens at 12."

"But 8," he continues, "is the age when you understand enough, but there's still the full wonder of the ballpark and the colors and the smells and everything else."

Whew. Epstein has thought an awful lot about this. I half expect him to pull out a chart of how a child's age matches up with their baseball fanhood.

But this isn't about charts or data or anything else.

The thing people often miss about Epstein, I think, is the poetry.

* * *

Theo Epstein has thrived in the age of Moneyball. Michael Lewis defined this age with his classic book. People are generally and absurdly split up into traditionalists (old-school baseball people who believe in heart and grit and that pitchers win games) and Moneyball people (math wizards who put more value in advanced stats with weird abbreviations like FIP and PECOTA and WPA).

Epstein is categorized by almost everyone as a Moneyball leader. Well, of course he is. Epstein is Ivy League educated (Yale in his case). He is well-rounded (Epstein has a law degree). He does not have much of a playing background (he played ball in high school). He's a young nonconformist (even now, after leading the Cubs and Red Sox to earth-shaking World Series, he's still younger than ).

And, yes, Epstein is driven by logic rather than tradition, head over heart, data trumping the gut. It has been a few years since he had a glorious exchange with Boston radio hosts about outfielder J.D. Drew, but it's still instructive. The hosts were ripping Drew largely because he did not knock in many runs.

"You guys can care about RBIs if you want," Epstein said. "We ignore them in the front office ... [Drew] does the most important thing you can do in baseball as an offensive player. And that's NOT MAKE OUTS."

In these ways, Epstein seems the essential Moneyball man. But to do that misses something important: He comes from a family of artists. His grandfather and great uncle, Philip and Julius Epstein, wrote the movie "Casablanca". His father, Leslie, is a novelist who has for more than two decades run the creative writing program at Boston University. His sister, Anya, is a television screenwriter who has worked on "Homicide" among other shows.

And though Epstein will say that he doesn't write, he thinks like a poet. It's in his blood. Look at the story he has written for himself. First, he was the young hero. Epstein fell in love with the Boston Red Sox when he was 12 (of course) and this forced him to embrace their long history of heartbreak. As he grew older, he fell in love with the idea of working in baseball, of helping to create baseball history.

At 30, Epstein was general manager when those Red Sox won their first World Series in more than 80 years. Three years later, they won it again.

Epstein then became the tarnished hero, fresh off a couple of humbling seasons in Boston. His free-agent signings bombed. His team collapsed down the stretch. He left for the North Side of Chicago, where he was hired to help the most helpless of franchises, baseball's punch line, the Chicago Cubs, break the longest curse in American sports.

Five years later, Theo and his 8-year-old son Jack watched the Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years.

"I mean, he's kind of talking me through what he thinks our chances are," Epstein says of his son. "He's talking me through every hitter. It's hard not to just relish every single second of that."

That's not Moneyball. That's poetry.

* * *

Ernest Hemingway famously wrote that what good books give you is the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.

"If you can get so that you give that to people," he wrote, "then you are a writer."

Well, isn't that exactly what Theo Epstein has given to people?

"Total strangers come up to you," Epstein says, "and they say, 'Thank you.' And they immediately open up and share intimate details of their family and what the World Series meant to them and all the connections, all those relatives who have been going to Cubs games since World War II, before World War II.

"It was the best part of the experience in Boston too, the most meaningful, the part that resonates the most. We're not working in healthcare. We're not working in education. We're not saving lives here. To get to play a small part in something that is actually transformative for people, really does impact their lives, that's such a privilege. It's really cool to have that back in my life again."

So you listen to Epstein describe the Cubs Convention this year, the fan celebration held at the Sheraton Grand in downtown Chicago:

"It reminded me of a high school reunion," he says. "You've just gotten a promotion. You've just lost 10 pounds. You buy a new suit, you show up with your chest puffed out. That's how our fans seemed at Cubs Convention after all those years of losing."

Or listen to Epstein talk about how he has enjoyed this ride more than the one in Boston:

"I think the Boston experience, I only really enjoyed and appreciated fully in hindsight, when I was looking back on it," he says. "I was too young and dumb, and it happened too quickly, and it just seemed outrageous. It's like we were just going along for a night out that never ends."

Then you look at the words.

Boston was a night out that never ends. The Cubs' celebration was a high school reunion just after you got a promotion.

Eight years old is the age of complete wonderment.

Hemingway was right. The guy is a writer.

* * *

Five years ago, when Epstein took over in Chicago, he was already a Boston legend. But people who knew Epstein suspected there was something missing for him. You ask: What could possibly be missing for a guy who helped his childhood team finally win it all, silencing all those ghosts?

But Epstein wanted something else, wanted the chance to join friends in the game like Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer and create something new, their own piece of art. They both went to the Cubs. The team was terrible then, the organization was almost entirely devoid of talent. The team lost 197 total games their first two seasons.

Behind the scenes, Epstein got everyone in the organization together to write a manual they would call "The Cubs Way." What was in "The Cubs Way"?


No, really, everything -- there was nothing too small, too insignificant to be included. They determined which foot players should use to touch first when rounding the bag. They agreed on the sort of language every coach and manager would use in the organization. They settled on the Cubs' philosophy about bunting, intentional walks, how to position cutoff men and everything else that you could possibly imagine.

"I think we were just trying to be very conscious of every decision instead of just letting things happen," Epstein says. "I don't know that it even matters if you're right or wrong on most of that stuff, I think there's just some merit to just being intentional about it. It helps create this identity. People feel a connection to it. They identified themselves as Cubs -- this is who we are. This is how we play."

"Those," Epstein continues, "are the little things that make people think big."

Then came the building. Epstein and company were good at building. They were also extraordinarily fortunate. They wanted to load up on great young hitters and made a series of great moves (drafting and , trading for , etc.).

Then, they made a series of good moves that turned out better than even they expected (trading for and when their stock was low, etc.).

And, absolutely, they got lucky a lot, too. They didn't know Jake Arrieta would even be a usable pitcher, much less a dominant force. They didn't know that Joe Maddon would leave Tampa Bay at exactly the right moment, just as their team was coming into focus.

"We caught a bunch of lucky breaks along the way, no question about it," Epstein says. "Look, it didn't go perfectly. There were some low points, and there were some times when it felt like we were at the bottom of the well looking up, like, 'How are we going to get the six, seven, eight impact players that we need?' There's always that one moment when it's darkest.

"And then it's gone. All of a sudden, Arrieta and Hendricks break through, and Rizzo takes a step forward, and you draft [Kyle] Schwarber, and Bryant does what he did in college, and you trade for Addison Russell. And bam, all of sudden, you have this great talent. We needed those things to go well. That's one of the beauties of baseball. We feel good about our process. But we still needed all those things to go well."

One of the questions everybody asks Epstein is: What's next? He led the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs to World Series victories. How do you follow those acts? Turn around the Cleveland Browns? Take on healthcare? Make a Superman movie worthy of the character? What next?

It's not a question that interests Epstein. What's next is, of course, getting the most out of this extraordinary Cubs team, a team that most people believe should be the best or one of the best teams in baseball for the next five years. The team is favored again in 2017, and Epstein has focused everything on recapturing the magic.

The Cubs made a few moves in the offseason like picking up Kansas City relieving cyborg along with the seemingly ageless to shore up the bullpen.

More, the Cubs will have to face things that defending champions have to overcome -- complacency, overconfidence, bad breaks, everyone gunning for you, forgetting how you got there in the first place.

"I think our approach, partly motivated by some of the takeaways from the Boston experience, is not to avoid those issues [of complacency] and not to take anything for granted," Epstein says. "We love our players. We think they have tremendous maturity, tremendous character, tremendous priorities. They totally buy into the team concept.

"But just because we believe that doesn't mean we should avoid talking about the important things that went on last year that allowed us to be part of something greater than ourselves. We just dealt with that head on: 'Hey, you guys are the best. Look at the culture you created here. Now, we all have to make a a constant decision to go back to that place. We have a chance to do it again.'"

 * * *

As a writer, I sometimes think the Chicago Cubs' story will never be as romantic again. How can it be? For generation after generation, they were the lousy Cubs, rarely even good enough to break your heart (and when they were good enough, whoa, they broke hearts with gusto). When they finally won last year, it was the crescendo of the story. The movie would end at the final out. But the story goes on.

I ask Epstein about that. This time, he doesn't sound anything like a writer. He sounds like the baseball man.

"Yeah, I think the angst people have over that -- 'Will the experience be the same if you win? Will it be ruined once the Cubs are champions?' -- that's the biggest waste of time ever," Epstein says. "Are you kidding? When you win, everything just gets better."