PITTSBURGH — Theo Epstein understood the optics of how he once escaped Fenway Park in a gorilla suit, walking away from his dream job with the Boston Red Sox. Winning two World Series titles couldn’t stop the personality conflicts or the competing agendas or an epic collapse at the end of the 2011 season.
But Epstein never wanted to make that kind of power play here, not with the Cubs on the verge of what could be a historic run through October and a potential dynasty, not after leaving the Boston bubble and feeling a sense of renewal in Chicago, where his young family lives a few blocks from Wrigley Field.
Epstein signing a massive five-year contract extension seemed inevitable, no matter that it took until Sept. 28 for the Cubs to finally make the announcement.
While $50 million guaranteed is said to be an overestimate, it’s believed to be in the team president’s range, given the bonus potential — presumably through metrics like attendance and playoff appearances — and the sense that Andrew Friedman’s deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers could be worth $45 million.
“There was never any real drama,” chairman Tom Ricketts said Wednesday, sitting in PNC Park’s visiting dugout before a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Honestly, we sat down in spring training, had a nice dinner and talked about it. I basically told him I thought he was the best in the game at what he did. And he told me that no matter what I paid him, he wasn’t going to leave Chicago, so we were off to a good start.”
After a series of meetings through the summer, Epstein and Ricketts hammered out the final details over the weekend inside the team’s Wrigleyville headquarters and initially planned to hold the press conference on Sunday, but that felt wrong once they found out Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez died in a boat crash, leaving the industry in mourning.
Epstein’s contract does not include an equity stake in a franchise now valued at more than $2 billion. Two of his closest advisors — general manager Jed Hoyer and scouting/player-development chief Jason McLeod — will also get extensions through the 2021 season.
“When we had dinner in spring training, (Tom) started it off by saying some really nice things about me that might have hurt his leverage a little bit,” Epstein said. “And then I returned the favor by telling him that even if we couldn’t work out a contract, it would get awkward because I would still just keep showing up to work as an employee at will, ruining my leverage, so that was a nice way to start the negotiation. Really, the entire process reflected that spirit.”
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It hasn’t been an uninterrupted honeymoon period since Epstein bolted from Boston and signed a five-year, $18.5 million contract in October 2011. The Epstein regime fired three managers before hiring Joe Maddon, who used an out-clause that triggered when Friedman left the Tampa Bay Rays for Los Angeles after the 2014 season. The Cubs continually faced questions about spending like a big-market team — signing Jon Lester to a $155 million megadeal that winter required financial gymnastics and using money left over from losing the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes.
But from the ashes of a 101-loss season in 2012, the Cubs methodically built a 101-win team this year through: executing shrewd trades for an All-Star first baseman (Anthony Rizzo), All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell), last year’s Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) and an emerging ace (Kyle Hendricks); drafting a leading MVP candidate (Kris Bryant); and going on a free-agent spending spree that approached $290 million (John Lackey, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler).
“They’ve given me great freedom to operate within baseball operations,” Epstein said of the Ricketts family. “They’ve given me the resources that we’ve needed to make this baseball operation healthier and thrive. It’s everything I could have ever asked for. So there’s no place I’d rather be. I think I said five years ago it’s a great day to be a Cub. I still feel that way. I still envision feeling that way for the foreseeable future.”
In leaving the Red Sox, Epstein quoted football legend Bill Walsh, referencing his belief that coaches and executives shouldn’t spend more than a decade in one job, or else risk burnout or becoming stale.
“I don’t know” if this will be the last contract in Chicago, Epstein said. “It was 10 years in Boston, and that certainly seemed like the right amount of time there. I do really believe in a lot of what Walsh was writing about.
“But it’s too early to judge. We’ll see how I feel at that point. Certainly, there’s some symmetry to 10 years. But it’s just too early. So many things can happen between now and then. I’m really not thinking beyond trying to win a World Series for this organization.”
When Epstein first met Ricketts in New York at the family’s spectacular residence overlooking Central Park, the Cubs had just lost 91 games, the second of five straight fifth-place finishes — and the beginning of what could be a golden age of baseball on the North Side.
“A lot of people have this perception — I know I was sort of in that camp — that he was more of a deeply quantitative number-cruncher kind of guy,” Ricketts said. “And that’s true. Obviously, Theo understands numbers. He understands how to apply them to make good decisions.
“But I think the thing that I’ve seen the last five years — which is even more remarkable — is how well he handles people. How well he chooses players for his team — and his ability to judge character and put together the right human resources together on the same team — has been truly remarkable.”