WASHINGTON – During a dog and pony show the Cubs arranged for season-ticket holders after a last-place season, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein gave an honest appraisal of Edwin Jackson’s four-year, $52 million contract.
“We wouldn’t do it over again,” Epstein told the audience at the Oriental Theatre in downtown Chicago. “It’s a mistake.”
This was October 2014: two weeks before the news broke that manager Joe Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays; two months before Jon Lester decided to take a $155 million leap of faith; six months before Kris Bryant and Addison Russell made their big-league debuts; and 362 days before Jake Arrieta silenced the blackout crowd at PNC Park and beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2015 National League wild-card showdown.
That made it so surreal to see Jackson in Washington Nationals gear on Thursday afternoon, chatting with two Cubs beat writers before the start of what should be a classic best-of-five NL Division Series. Jackson sat at his locker in the home clubhouse at Nationals Park, directly across the room from where the media swarmed superstar Bryce Harper.
“No one ever said that anyone’s career would be successful at all times, especially after signing a big contract,” Jackson said. “It was unfortunate then that I didn’t pitch like I wanted to. It definitely wasn’t from (lack of) work. It definitely wasn’t from attitude. It wasn’t from confidence. It was just things weren’t going my way.
“I’ve read the comments. I’ve had people come up and ask me how I feel about Theo saying this, or Theo saying that, things were a mistake. I mean, it is what it is. You have to have an answer for things when they don’t go your way. That was his answer.
“But that’s the game. I don’t get worried about things I can’t control. That’s he said, she said. It’s all irrelevant to me. At the end of the day, no one is harder on myself than I am. No one expects more out of themselves than I do. That’s just the way it is.”
The Cubs released Jackson in the middle of that breakthrough 2015 season, which began with the telling Google Maps incident. That’s when he went to the wrong complex in Arizona and didn’t show up on time for a Cactus League start against the Oakland A’s, the team that moved into the old Mesa facility where the Cubs used to train.
Jackson went 16-34 with a 5.37 ERA in 82 games (58 starts) as a Cub, playing for three different managers in 2013, 2014 and 2015 while earning respect for the way he interacted with teammates and the media.
“It takes a combination of having the players to do it and also having the mindset of knowing how to win,” Jackson said. “You tell people that and they don’t quite understand it. But you have to learn how to win. You have to learn how to close games. You got to have the personnel to do it as well. You could see it going in a direction where they were getting the personnel in there to finish games and win games.”
Now 34 years old, Jackson could have retired and lived comfortably with his family, but he kept bouncing around with the Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, San Diego Padres and Baltimore Orioles. He signed a minor-league deal in June with the Nationals, so he could play for Dusty Baker and rejoin the organization where he won 10 games for a 98-win team in 2012.
It’s amazing to think that: Jackson made 13 starts (5-6, 5.07 ERA) for this 97-win Washington juggernaut; a front office so focused on timing and intangibles misread a free agent while the Cubs weren’t really spending like a big-market team; and this star-crossed franchise finally won the World Series the last year his contract was still on the books.
“I watched some of it,” Jackson said. “I caught bits and pieces of it. It was interesting. It was their year last year. Things went their way. They played good and they won the close ballgames. The games they were down, they would come back. Things would happen and they would come back and take the lead and win.
“When things are going for you, they’re going for you in the game. And when things aren’t, they aren’t. The only thing you can do as a player is just go out and continue to battle and never feel like you’re down.”