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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. III, No. 138
November 3, 2011
Theo Epstein's first act as new general manager of the Cubs? Fire the manager. Epstein informed incumbent Mike Quade that he would not be asked to return under the new administration, and he did so in person, flying to Florida to tell Quade face to face. Epstein is very good at making baseball decisions, but that's the kind of move that illustrates an important part of being a team president or GM. It really isn't just like running your fantasy team.
The decision isn't much of a surprise. Quade had gotten the job by being there when Lou Piniella quit, and held it because the Cubs had a decent record playing out the string after the switch. It's not clear that anyone could have turned the '11 Cubs into winners, but it's hard to see where Quade was helping matters. He showed little originality in his approach to the roster and game management, and if he possessed notable off-field skills that would cancel out that deficit, they went unremarked upon. Quade was a caretaker hired by someone no longer employed, and Epstein wants a manager who brings more to the table than Quade does.
Firing the manager highlights a key point about Epstein's new job: it is a much different one than the last one he took. The 2002 Red Sox won 93 games and had a core of players, including Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez and Nomar Garciaparra, who were good enough to win a World Series. Epstein didn't inherit a rebuilding situation, and in that more innocent time, was able to employ then-rare tools to flesh out the roster. Over a couple of years, Tony Clark, Rey Sanchez, Shea Hillenbrand and Frank Castillo became Kevin Millar, Mark Bellhorn, Bill Mueller and Bronson Arroyo, which was the improvement necessary to chase away some very old ghosts. Epstein won again in 2007, in an industry that was growing wise to his tricks. It's harder to find a David Ortiz on the waiver wire these days.
Those two wins, though, changed everyone. A Red Sox fan base that had just wanted to die in peace now wanted to live high on the hog. Division titles, playoff appearances, series wins were not going to be enough. Winning the World Series was the only acceptable outcome to a season. I lived this, you know. I've seen what Yankee fandom has become over the past 20 years, a sense of entitlement born out of a five-year stone fluke, winning 12 of 13 best-ofs, some of them without having the better team. For too many fans -- for too many media members -- the Yankees haven't won five titles in 16 years, or one just two years ago. No, they've win just once in a decade, and have flamed out in the playoffs two years running. It's an utterly ridiculous standard, the most aggravating thing about the Seligian emphasis on the postseason at the expense of the regular season. You can't succeed in the regular season any longer; you can merely survive it. Teams are measured only by what they do in the tournament. October Madness.
Theo Epstein was a hero in 2004, a legend in 2007…and a scapegoat in 2011. No matter what he did in Boston, he was never going to be that guy again the boy wonder who gave four generations of Red Sox fans bliss. Now he was the guy who didn't get enough pitching at the trade deadline, who signed John Lackey, who actually thought Carl Crawford was a good player.
In Chicago, though…in Chicago he's still the bringer of the flags. Epstein can become a legend to a brand-new fan base, and if nothing else, resets the clock on the version of Theo Epstein who made a bunch of mistakes. If Theo Epstein assembles a team that breaks through and advances to the World Series for the first time since 1945, wins it for the first time since 1908, it will cement him for eternity as the baseball miracle worker, the curse-breaker, the man who took the game's longest-suffering fan bases, laid his hands upon them and made their pain go away. Epstein, who is just 37 years old, has a chance to become a Hall of Famer by the time he's 45 -- something usually only players can do. It's not to say that he couldn't have done that in Boston, but even if he had gotten the team back to the World Series, hung more flags, would it ever have been 2004 again?
The money is always going to be there. The status of being a GM is always going to be there. In choosing between the Red Sox and Cubs, it's about working in iconic parks for tentpole franchises supported by passionate, knowledgeable fan bases and dealing with local media deep in number and power. The difference, though, is in the upside, Epstein had a ceiling in Boston, one he'd reached. In Chicago the ceiling has been lifted, and there's only upside.
It's a different job. You could argue that Epstein has as few as one championship-caliber player in Starlin Castro. Even stretching the notion doesn't get you to anything like the kind of core he inherited in Boston. The Red Sox got to within a game of the World Series in Epstein's first year and won it in his second. If he does that here, you start thinking about a Presidential run in 2016. No, this Cubs team is further from a dogpile, but it also has a lower bar to clear, playing in the NL Central versus the AL East. Epstein doesn't have to build the best team in baseball to be successful, he just has to build a very good one. I doubt that it's something you'll see expressed, but not having to deal with the Yankees and their massive payroll as a direct competitor is certainly a relief for Epstein.
Epstein also has more room to improve the Cubs, and not just on the field. When he took over in Boston, there were no Monster seats, no co-ownership of NESN, none of the other revenue streams that have been created on his watch. The Cubs, who to some extent are still a 1980s operation, haven't squeezed as much from their team as they still could. Epstein can bring their business side into the 21st century, which I believe is the biggest reason he wanted the team president job, rather than the the GM one.
It's not at all a surprise that Epstein would make this move. Being the team president of the Cubs may or may not be a better job than being the GM of the Red Sox, but it is absolutely the better job for the man who has already done all he could do in the latter.