Theo Epstein deserves our eternal thanks

by 24USATVNov. 18, 2020, 8 a.m. 23
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The online haters are out there, of course, waving bye-bye, hollering, ‘‘Glad you’re gone!’’ and ‘‘What’d you do for us lately?’’

The dude came, he saw, he did the metrics.

And in 2016 he brought the Cubs their first World Series championship in 108 years.

That, in itself, is worthy of a statue. (How about at the corner of Clark and Addison, a shinier one than the statues of Ernie or Billy or Ronnie or even the most famous human in Wrigley Field’s beer-soaked history, Harry Caray?)

Epstein is just 46, but he has done more in his field than most people could do in a dozen lifetimes.

That he is stepping down as the Cubs’ president of baseball operations after nine years, with one year left on his contract, is really not a surprise.

He has told us for a while that 10 years is the time needed for fundamental change. In a decade, he has implied, you’ve moved down the tracks so far that the scenery has changed, the ride is different.

In the years since the 2016 crown, the Cubs have been good but not great. Faltering, not rampaging. Routinely getting knocked out of the postseason is problematic.

In 2017, the Cubs got smoked in the National League Championship Series by the Dodgers. In 2018, they lost a solo wild-card game to the Rockies. In 2019, they didn’t make the playoffs. In 2020, they got swept in the wild-card round by the Marlins.

Epstein’s mojo was going. There was no question.

But that loss of dominance could not change what came before it. Never forget that generations of Cubs fans had gone to their graves waiting in vain for the World Series crown he finally presented.

But the interesting part about Epstein is that he is a complicated man, a person who can bring his passion and laser intelligence to bear on a single item, such as team-building, while still sensing there is more to the world, to this life, this carousel of possibilities that goes so fast.

In short, he can get bored.

Perhaps ‘‘bored’’ isn’t the right word. Maybe ‘‘disinterested’’ is.

His love of baseball is unquestioned. His dad, Leslie — a professor and novelist — was OK with baseball but not nuts about it, like his kid. If little Theo wanted to watch Red Sox games on TV back in Boston, he had to read a great book for an equal amount of time. Thus, a three-hour game equaled three hours of heavy reading.

That will make your head enlightened.

And with enlightenment comes self-awareness.

Epstein’s most interesting comments at his news conference Tuesday were about himself observing himself.

In his first six years with the Cubs, he was part of ‘‘some pretty epic things,’’ he admitted.

But then this: ‘‘The last couple of years weren’t that impressive. Maybe what that tells me is I’m great at and really enjoy building and transformation and triumphing. Maybe I’m not as good and not as motivated by maintenance, so to speak.’’

It’s obvious. A personality test, like the detailed ones administered by the Wonderlic Co. for corporate executives and sometimes pro athletes, would show it plainly.

He could go to another team and rebuild there. That could be fun. After all, he ended a combined 194 years of desperate seeking for the Cubs and the Red Sox, with whom he won World Series in 2004 and 2007.

But let’s hope he doesn’t. Been there, done that.

Once called ‘‘Boston’s Most Eligible Bachelor’’ by Boston magazine, Epstein met his wife-to-be, Marie Whitney, when she was a Harvard grad student doing charity work with homeless people. That thoughtfulness, humility and social concern appealed to him a lot more than the half-witted, if beautiful, young women throwing themselves at his eligible feet.

He and Marie traveled together to South America after he took time off from the Red Sox in 2005, and they were married in 2007. They have two young kids, one a son whom Epstein brags about because he cranks long golf shots.

As a little kid in New York, Epstein himself would hit ‘‘bombs’’ in Central Park when his mom would pitch softballs to him. Sometimes, he told me once with great pride, crowds would gather to watch tiny Theo the magnificent.

He can do so much if he puts his mind to it. Let’s hope he picks something real big this next time around.

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