CLEVELAND – “F--- yeah!” Theo Epstein screamed out as he walked through a hallway inside Progressive Field’s visiting clubhouse, handing an unopened bottle of champagne to Ron Coomer, the WSCR-AM 670 radio analyst who grew up in Chicago’s south suburbs and once played for the Cubs, but really just happened to be standing there.
His black suit completely drenched, Epstein needed to find Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona and congratulate him on a great season that ended in Game 7 of the World Series. Together, they had won two championships with the Boston Red Sox and the Cubs president wanted to pay his respects after an 8-7 win that had been 108 years in the making.
Before this clubhouse became a stuffy, sweaty maze jammed with players, coaches, scouts, reporters and extended families early Thursday morning, Epstein had walked by the weight room during the rain delay and noticed the hitters had gathered together. To that point, the Cubs and Indians had played nine innings to a 6-6 draw in front of a sellout crowd and a massive TV audience.
“They were all meeting,” Epstein said. “I saw their backs and I, like, pushed the door ajar and they were all saying: ‘This is only going to make it sweeter! Stay together! Let’s keep grinding! It’s our time!’”
Epstein has a Yale University education and a law degree, but he’s never been a propeller head or easy to label. He loved Kyle Schwarber’s nonstop energy and gym-rat mentality when he saw him at Indiana University and pushed to make him the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft.
Almost seven full months after an outfield collision would force him to get “season-ending surgery” on his left knee to reconstruct his ACL and repair his LCL, Schwarber began the 10th-inning rally with a hard-hit single into right field.
It took a “multiple-bank shot” at the winter meetings for the Cubs to be able to trade Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees and convince Ben Zobrist to take less guaranteed money and sign a four-year, $56 million deal for this exact moment.
Zobrist – the son of a minister who grew up in downstate Illinois and earned a championship ring last year with the Kansas City Royals – capped off his World Series MVP performance by smashing an RBI double down the left-field line.
Miguel Montero – who felt so lost at the plate and in the three-catcher shuffle that he wondered if the Cubs would simply release him this summer – singled into left field to drive in the insurance run.
And in the bottom of the 10th inning, the Cubs pieced together three outs with a pitcher (Carl Edwards Jr.) the Texas Rangers once drafted in a round that no longer exists (48th) and a guy whose career had stalled to the point where he actually thought he would be playing in Japan this season (Mike Montgomery).
“I know it sounds corny,” Epstein said. “But in my experience, at least, I think human beings can accomplish more for each other when they feel connected than they can for themselves.
“Great teams are example of that. We’re not unique in that. We’ve seen that time and time again. But our guys pulled it off. They stayed together. They care about each other. They like each other. They overcame tough circumstances.
“You don’t have to get all corny about it, but I think that’s why we won. You don’t accomplish great things like that for yourself.”
Within five seasons, Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer, scouting/player-development chief Jason McLeod and their entire baseball-operations group methodically tore down and rebuilt an iconic franchise, turning a 101-loss season in 2012 and two more fifth-place finishes into the best team in baseball.
Combine The Cubs Way with that 2004 Band of Idiots and Epstein has been involved in 194 years of curse-busting in two of America’s greatest cities – before his 43rd birthday.
“It’s like comparing two of your kids,” Epstein said. “You cherish both of them. Different origins, different personalities, but they’re both things you treasure for your lifetime.”
Epstein already earned a five-year extension worth in the neighborhood of $50 million before the playoffs started. This already looked like a Hall of Fame resume, no matter what happened in Game 7. As Epstein stood in the visiting dugout in front of a camera and listened to a question on a CSN Chicago postgame show, he announced his next move.
“Jed’s in charge,” Epstein said. “I’m going on a bender.”