Surrounded by reporters, Theo Epstein stopped the interview for a moment to jump up and down to “Ando En La Versace,” Starlin Castro’s walk-up song that gets the 40,000-plus at Wrigley Field rhythmically clapping in unison.
Now soaked in champagne, the Cubs had just eliminated the hated St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday night, advancing to the National League championship series a year after losing 89 games (which actually felt like real progress).
Cubs fans have a love/hate relationship with Castro, who signed with the organization nine years ago as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic, getting a $45,000 bonus and rocketing through the system, never spending a full season on the Double-A level and playing zero Triple-A games.
Castro is the three-time All-Star shortstop who had been a lightning rod for five fifth-place teams, lost his job to Addison Russell in early August and then reinvented himself as an offensive/defensive force at second base.
The Wrigleyville crowd is more Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen than Omega, but here comes the Cubs, clapping along to the beat.
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“There’s a real joy to what they’re doing,” Epstein said, getting back in character as the Cubs president of baseball operations. “The biggest thing, I thought, in ’04 was we came back because the guys in our clubhouse cared more about the other 24 guys than their own interest.”
Of course, 2004 would be the Boston Red Sox team that had been down 0-3 against the great Mariano Rivera and stormed back to beat the New York Yankees in the ALCS and win the franchise’s first World Series in 86 years, making Epstein a forever legend throughout New England.
Epstein can be ruthless. Just ask Rick Renteria, who had been assured he would be back for the 2015 season, until Joe Maddon became a free agent and Epstein fired the manager. There’s little doubt Castro would have been traded at the July 31 deadline if the Cubs had gotten a decent offer.
But Epstein is also a great storyteller with an eye for details, a sentimental side and a sense of history. He graduated from Yale University and then learned the scouting side of the business. Remember, this is his 24th season in Major League Baseball. He can be an old-school guy, too.
“Not to get corny,” Epstein said, “but the human spirit – you can do more for other people than you can necessarily do for yourself. And that’s how you overcome adversity. Maybe that’s how a real young team wins 97 games – 101 now.”
If those Red Sox will be remembered as a “Band of Idiots,” then this team likes to “Play Stupid,” as Jon Lester put it.
How else to explain this? Look, the Cubs have real talent. Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez and Russell are all recent first-round picks drafted between No. 2 and 11th overall.
The Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers were among the big-market teams chasing after Jorge Soler before he got $30 million guaranteed as an unproven Cuban outfielder.
Jake Arrieta and Lester can match up with the top of any rotation, whether it’s facing the Dodgers or New York Mets in the next round that begins Saturday on the road.
But after seeing the clubhouse torn apart by all those trade-deadline deals, the Cubs also needed glue guys like backup catcher David Ross and reserve outfielder Chris Denorfia to help create a cohesive work environment.
“Everybody wants a number on everything,” Maddon said. “This is human-being stuff. And we have really good guys in that clubhouse that relate well to others and keep them in line.”
Maddon absorbs information from the “The Geek Department,” but he also does things by feel, whether it’s bringing in Simon the Magician, petting zoo animals or dressing up in a “Top Gun” pajama suit for an overnight flight home after Arrieta’s no-hitter at Dodger Stadium: “I Feel the Need – The Need for Sleep.”
It helps that Maddon is now a trusted brand with the authority that comes with a five-year, $25 million contract. And not the obscure bench coach who took over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and lost 101 games in 2006.
“It’s somewhat easier to get my point across now,” Maddon admitted. “I’m sure they were questioning me a lot more behind my back then than maybe they do now. Although that’s still part of what a manager has to go through.
“When players form those little groups with meetings after meetings – or at the water cooler or in the food room – there’s that group that’s always going to try to find another guy that supports his theory of being kind of screwed.”
The Cubs used 150 batting orders, creating so much depth that Maddon can treat the postseason like it’s the Stanley Cup playoffs or March Madness, rolling out different lines or substituting offense for defense in late possessions.
The Cubs used 22 different relief pitchers during the regular season, including Ross and Denorfia, essentially rebuilding their bullpen from baseball’s DFA scrap heap with midseason moves for Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill and Fernando Rodney.
“That’s the beautiful part about it when you get a tightly-knit group,” Maddon said. “The guy that’s messing things up – looking for allies – is not going to find it.
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“If the fans are looking for a definition as to why I always talk about letting the players handle it, why the clubhouse is so important, why you have to have leadership within the clubhouse, it’s because when you do, then these little pockets where they’re looking for allies in a negative sense – they get blown up immediately.
“I’m pretty certain we have that here right now where that negative component cannot prosper because the guys in the clubhouse get it.”
Travis Wood turned down the chance to sign a long-term deal after his All-Star season in 2013, lost his spot in the rotation and emerged as a trusted lefty out of the bullpen.
Miguel Montero didn’t love the idea of three-catcher rotations and wanted to be in the lineup every day as a two-time All-Star. But instead of blasting the organization on Twitter, he spontaneously created the #WeAreGood hashtag, responding to the inherent pessimism in Chicago.
Anthony Rizzo matured into a leader, predicting the Cubs will win the division, producing like an MVP-level first baseman and becoming a ringleader for the postgame dance parties.
“We don’t get to pick our friends in this job,” Rizzo said. “We’re stuck with who we have. So to be able to come in every day and be an enjoyable group is a lot of fun. It’s a big reason why we win a lot of games.”
The Cubs didn’t have a losing month or a losing streak that went longer than five games, winning 34 one-run games and 13 in extra innings, showing mental toughness and playing with exceptional confidence.
Hawk Harrelson won’t be Epstein’s next special assistant, but the Cubs have “The Will to Win.”
“It’s unbelievable how resilient this team is,” Cahill said. “They’re just young and dumb, I guess.”