ANAHEIM, Calif. — Cleveland Browns executives visited Wrigley Field last summer, trying to get a better sense of how the Cubs set up their organization and determine if a Major League Baseball approach could work in the NFL.
The Browns met with multiple front offices throughout the game, learning more about how progressive teams prepared for the draft, incorporated analytics and structured player-development systems.
That’s yet another sign of how far the Cubs have come from being the Lovable Losers, now viewed as a cutting-edge franchise that’s built to win for years to come, whether or not this season ends with a championship parade down Michigan Avenue.
So the news that shocked The Dawg Pound and “Moneyball” fans didn’t surprise the Cubs in January: The Browns hired Paul DePodesta away from the New York Mets and made him their chief strategy officer.
To be clear, Theo Epstein isn’t about to move his family to Cleveland or branch out beyond fantasy football. But with the president of baseball operations now in the fifth and final year of his contract, it’s fair to wonder if the Cubs will eventually have to compete with something beyond baseball.
“Not necessarily,” Epstein said. “Personally, I don’t know enough about football to contemplate something like that. I’m not even thinking in terms of anything but baseball. All of us are so all-in to win the Cubs a World Series. It’s all we think about besides our families.”
As the Cubs prepared to end spring training and leave Arizona last week, Epstein didn’t sound like a new contract would be finalized by Opening Day, or at all concerned about the pace of negotiations with chairman Tom Ricketts.
“It’s status quo for now,” Epstein said. “I’m not a player. It’s not as big a deal.”
After waiting out the 286 losses between 2012 and 2014, Epstein isn’t about to let someone else take the credit and potentially leave a gap in his Hall of Fame resume after winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox.
The 2016 team that runs out onto the field at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on Monday night is Epstein’s vision — a relentless American League-style lineup, Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta staring down Mike Trout and seemingly unlimited possibilities for star manager Joe Maddon.
This isn’t Boston. The Ricketts family has been willing to play the long game and give Epstein almost all the creative freedom he wants. The spending spree that zoomed toward $290 million this offseason turned down the simmering frustrations over major-league payroll.
The first game for this ownership group came on Opening Day 2010, when Jason Heyward blasted a three-run homer off Carlos Zambrano in his big-league debut with the Atlanta Braves. That 16-5 loss at Turner Field set the tone for the teardown. After Game 2, Lou Piniella’s screaming could be heard through the closed door and the walls of the manager’s office.
“The only thing I would say that has changed perception-wise is that they’re ready to try and win now,” Heyward said. “You always knew the fans supported the team. And it’s a great city to go play baseball.
“It’s just an exciting time to be a Cub.”
[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]
Heyward signed the biggest contract in franchise history — eight years and $184 million guaranteed — and there will be times where the Gold Glove outfielder feels like an afterthought. That shows how much talent the Cubs have assembled — and how circus-like Maddon’s atmosphere has become.
“Why would you want to go (somewhere) with 10,000 strong in the ballpark and predicted to finish last?” Maddon said. “Why would you ever want to be there? I’ve been there, actually. It’s no fun. I’d much rather have a raucous, crazy ballpark, great fan base, high expectations and trying to live up to (that).”
Epstein understands all the unique opportunities ahead and sees the next wave of talent moving toward Wrigley Field, with MLB.com putting six Cubs on its top-100 prospects list and ESPN ranking the farm system fourth in the game, even after graduating a rookie class that included Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber.
DePodesta played football and baseball at Harvard University and worked as an executive for Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s. As New York’s vice president of scouting and player development, DePodesta helped build the Mets team that swept the Cubs out of last year’s National League Championship Series.
Whatever comes next — and whenever that happens — Epstein knows that he has unfinished business in Chicago.
“I’m not thinking that far ahead,” Epstein said. “I’m not thinking past winning our last game of the year, honestly.”