Sam Hughes woke up in the La Concha Renaissance and noticed 260 text messages on his phone. This really wasn’t a dream. The Cubs had actually won the World Series.
“It was just overwhelming,” Hughes recalled this week. “I’m not an overly emotional guy. But the morning after, I had a few times where it seemed like somebody was cutting some onions in my hotel room. I was tearing up pretty good. It was just epic. The enormity of it all just hit me like a tidal wave.”
It didn’t register that the Cubs could still be playing in early November when Hughes got his scouting assignment for winter ball, weeks before an unforgettable postseason run began at Wrigley Field. But San Juan, Puerto Rico, had been part of his coverage area for years, a comfortable place where Hughes once signed catcher Geovany Soto, a future National League Rookie of the Year.
In a way, being on a Caribbean island while the Cubs battled the Cleveland Indians off Lake Erie made sense to Hughes.
“That’s the life of a scout,” Hughes said. “You’re an outsider.”
Hughes inherently understands the demands of the job. His father, Gary, is revered within the scouting community for his work with several franchises, including the New York Yankees – where he once signed John Elway for George Steinbrenner – and the old Montreal Expos.
Gary – who used to work as a special assistant with the Cubs and still scouts for the Boston Red Sox – also once helped a Creighton University coach transition to professional baseball with the expansion Florida Marlins. Jim Hendry – the Cubs executive who helped build teams that finished five outs away from the 2003 World Series and won back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008 – first hired Sam as a part-time scout in 1996.
Hughes played quarterback at Louisiana Tech University before bouncing around the Arena Football League. He found a few odd jobs to help pay the bills during the offseason, helping coach his buddy’s high school football team in Louisiana and using a family connection to get work at the Peppermill casino complex in Reno, Nevada.
But Hughes has essentially spent his entire adult life working for the Cubs, covering Florida and New England and landing a full-time position for the 1998 draft. He moved down to Georgia and has lived in the Atlanta area ever since, getting promoted to national crosschecker in 2005 and starting his own family around a brutal travel schedule.
When Theo Epstein took over as president of baseball operations in October 2011, he promised to build a scouting-and-player-development machine at Wrigley Field, where for years the Cubs had operated under ownership instability and been forced to cut corners in the draft, preventing them from making some of the bets the Red Sox placed on big-name, difficult-to-sign prospects.
Chairman Tom Ricketts also authorized the needed upgrades in terms of manpower and information systems as the Cubs became the third team in major-league history to win at least 100 games within four years of a 100-loss season.
“There’s nothing worse than meddling in the middle,” Hughes said. “We kind of ended up living in that space. Theo basically came in and said: Look, this isn’t the place to be. We need to bottom out and acquire as much young talent as possible.
“It’s one thing to say that, but it’s another thing to just hit as many home runs as Theo hit. It’s the Addison Russell trade. Incredible. It’s getting (Jake) Arrieta and (Pedro Strop) for (Steve) Clevenger and (Scott Feldman). Bam. (It’s being) fortunate enough to get Kris Bryant (with the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft) after the (Houston Astros took Mark) Appel.
“Theo had an obsession with Kyle Schwarber from the year before. And coming into the (2014) draft, ‘Schwarbs’ didn’t have a phenomenal junior year. (Area scout) Stan Zielinski and Theo both deserve a ton of credit for ‘Schwarbs,’ because they never wavered at all.
“The plan is great. There are a lot of teams that are trying to execute the same model. But what they don’t have is Theo.”
[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]
Before the first World Series game at Wrigley Field in 71 years, Hughes and about 170 staffers from scouting and player development paraded around the field, a recognition of their efforts in shaping a team stocked with homegrown players like Bryant, Schwarber, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras and young building blocks like Russell and Kyle Hendricks.
The Cubs now have the Ivy computer database and Ivy League pedigree within their front office, but Epstein understands this is a people business and a game played by humans.
Hughes had been the type of area scout who got so close to Brandon Phillips – the future All-Star/Gold Glove second baseman with the Cincinnati Reds – that he had Thanksgiving dinner at the family’s home. A former club official remembered Hughes pounding the table for Brian McCann, another Georgia kid and future All-Star catcher, during the second round of the 2002 draft, when the Cubs picked 56th (Brian Dopirak) and 62nd (Justin Jones) overall. The Red Sox took Jon Lester at No. 57 while the Atlanta Braves grabbed McCann at No. 64.
“These guys – (senior vice president) Jason (McLeod), (amateur scouting director) Matt Dorey and Theo and the crew – have been extraordinarily respectful to me, and my tenure here,” Hughes said. “They gave me an opportunity five years ago to prove myself (and show) that I belong. I could have been an easy outcast here with my strong ties to the prior regime. But they gave me a chance.
“They’ve still given me a seat at the table in the draft room and I’ve been able to voice my opinion. (They’ll) take it in, and spit out what they don’t want.”
Hughes flew back home to Atlanta with his wife, Keesha, before Game 5 and went trick-or-treating on Halloween with their two young sons, Michael and Major, and one-year-old daughter, Elle.
Hughes then traveled to San Juan and watched Game 7 at Morton’s, leaving the steakhouse when the rain delay started at Progressive Field, the Cubs and Indians tied 6-6 after nine innings.
“I rode the rollercoaster,” said Hughes, who watched it with Joe Ferrone, a Detroit Tigers scout. “He thought he was going to have to take me to the hospital. He said I looked physically sick.
“We shot back to the hotel, which was a short Uber ride down the street. I said I’m just going to watch the rest of it from my room. But right when we got out of the Uber, I was tipping (the driver) a couple bucks, and (my buddy) said: ‘The game’s already back on.’ You could see the hotel lobby bar from the (car). Schwarber’s up.
“And then ‘Schwarbs’ got the knock and it was like the weight of the world got lifted off my shoulders. It’s not over. Here we go.”
For all the hype that surrounded this team – and off-the-field opportunities thrown at these young stars before, during and after the victory lap – that toughness will be remembered as one of the defining qualities of the 2016 Cubs.
“The mental makeup,” Hughes said. “Obviously, (there are) a lot of physically gifted and talented people up there, first and foremost. But Joe Maddon’s a real difference-maker. (And it’s) the never-quit, never-say-die attitude. I know it’s easy to say, but we just got to witness it so many times with these guys (it’s) like: Wow, this is real.
“It’s almost tangible. There were just so many times throughout the playoffs that it could have went a different way. And these guys just never gave in, never gave up and just kept grinding. It was just so much fun to watch. And sometimes it was too excruciating to watch.”
Beginning Thursday night, CSN Chicago will replay all 11 playoff wins, part of a programming block that will run through the day after Christmas, featuring sit-down interviews with Cubs personnel, a look back at the championship parade and Grant Park rally and fresh content on CSNChicago.com.