October 26, 2011


AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogas

At the count of three, let’s all take one last collective breath to enjoy The Theo. Breathe it in, people. Breathe deep.


Man, that felt good, didn’t it? It really did. Wow.

But hey, you can’t blame us Cubs fans for living in a near-post-coital reverie since the team introduced Theo Epstein as President of Baseball Operations. For decades, the team on the field more closely resembled a clown college than a major league franchise that might actually win.

And now, suddenly, the Cubs are players. They are a legitimate major league team with a really smart guy in charge. The 37-year-old Epstein knows what’s up, he’s charismatic, he has two World Series rings, and he refers to himself as Milton from Office Space. All of that is absolutely awesome.

What’s so amazing is that, with this hiring, the Cubs hired the right guy. They absolutely nailed it. And they haven’t done that since, well… ever.

If you look back over the years, the team has had leaders who would botch a bake sale. Dallas Green got the team close in 1984, but the brassy, bombastic boss alienated too many bean counters at the Tribune and he was gone before you could say “Here’s a ground ball to Durham… .”

Then there was the tweedy, sweater-clad Andy MacPhail, who looked more at home with a snifter of brandy in his hands than running a baseball team. The bespectacled baseball lifer was more concerned with becoming the sport’s commissioner than, you know, winning. He left after the team made the playoffs exactly twice in his uninspiring 12 years.

Other front office names inspire nothing but a bewildered shrug: Larry Himes? Ed Lynch? What the hell were those mopes doing running a baseball team? I remember listening, astonished, as Lynch described his strategy as basically hoping to put together a “competitive” team that could sneak into the playoffs and then we’ll see what happens. In other words, throw some guys out there and cross your fingers.

Then there was the Jim Hendry era. Everyone liked the rumpled, amiable GM, who once signed a player (Ted Lilly) while he was undergoing tests on his heart. Hendry was a good guy whose 2003 team came within one of baseball’s most infamous plays of making the World Series. (NOTE: Don’t click that link if you’re feeling especially fragile today.)

But while his teams did make the postseason in three separate years, you got the feeling Hendry’s MO was checking out a player, having a few drinks with the GM, working out a trade and then having a few more drinks. As the Tribune’s Paul Sullivan wrote today, going from Hendry to Epstein is “like ditching your rotary dial for an iPhone.”

But that’s all the past now. The Cubs are officially for real. They have smart ownership that moves deliberately, but eventually makes the right call. As I wrote when Hendry was fired, “Everything the team has done points to an organization that’s building a steady base with the idea of competing every season, not just the occasional lucky year.”

The Epstein signing just confirms that theory — the team has hired one of baseball’s smartest minds, and he will bring aboard some of his best lieutenants to instantly create one of the game’s top front offices. He’s expected to hire former cohorts Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, both widely respected baseball minds.

But before we get too excited, let me add this: We know Epstein isn’t a savior. Not every move he made in Boston worked out (John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew, etc). And this is going to take some time — the Cubs’ farm system isn’t exactly the envy of the major leagues. It’s going to take some time to restock the cupboard. But as the stellar Cubs’ blog Obstructed View put it, “This is a team now led by people who know how to win and owned by a group of people who actually do want to win.”

The most incredible thing to remember is how unlikely this all is. On Sept. 3, Nate Silver’s blog Five Thirty Eight put the Boston Red Sox’s chances of making the playoffs at 99.6 percent. If they had made the postseason, I bet you a dozen goodies from Doughnut Vault Epstein is still there today. But it all changed within a matter of minutes on the night of Sept. 28.

On the last night of the season, Boston’s once-invincible closer Jonathan Papelbon blew a save to one of baseball’s worst teams. Then, down to his last strike, Tampa Bay’s Dan Johnson hit this homer. And when the Rays won the game in extra innings, Boston’s epic collapse was complete and they were officially out of the playoffs. Petulant Red Sox fans demanded someone’s head on a pike, and soon Epstein and Sox manager Terry Francona were gone. Cubs’ ownership saw an opportunity, and they took it.

And now, thanks to that astonishing turn of events, Theo Epstein is now a Chicagoan. What we saw at the Epstein press conference was a smart man who’s been very successful at his job. We saw an owner whose patience paid off with one of baseball’s best minds. We saw the first steps of an organization that now has a plan for success.

We saw a team that has, finally, grown up.