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Follow the leader: What makes Theo Epstein an unstoppable force for Cubs

Follow the leader: What makes Theo Epstein an unstoppable force for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. — The day after Fortune magazine ranked Theo Epstein No. 1 on its list of "The World's 50 Greatest Leaders," Anthony Rizzo led the team in a standing ovation and asked the Cubs president to offer a few words before the morning workout.

"I only have one thing to say about that," Epstein told the group. "It's about f------ time."

Epstein always understands his audience — whether it's professional athletes, Democratic donors, Cubs Convention diehards or the pesky media — and knows how to deliver a one-liner with perfect timing.

Epstein loves baseball, but he's not some poet or romantic, dropping F-bombs at the right moment and calling BS when he sees it. Of course, Epstein has a huge ego. There's no other way to end 194 combined years of curses between the Cubs and his hometown Boston Red Sox. But Epstein also didn't crash all the late-night talk shows this offseason or cash in with a quick book on leadership skills and management philosophy/fluff.

The day before, Epstein had been awoken by a text message from a national baseball writer, asking for a reaction to the viral list that ranked him two spots ahead of Pope Francis. Epstein didn't even know this Internet attention grab was coming and released a copy-and-paste statement to reporters, calling it "patently ridiculous" and writing: "Um, I can't even get my dog to stop peeing in the house."

But the Cubs didn't hold that pre-stretch meeting to roast Epstein, moving it to an off-limits area of the spring-training complex to settle something about South Carolina and March Madness brackets without it winding up all over Twitter. Years ago, while touring the construction site in Mesa, Epstein turned to strength coach Tim Buss and said something sarcastic like: Take a good look around, Bussy, you'll be fired by the time this is done.

Buss survived and became a Speedo-wearing star at Camp Maddon, where the manager recently nominated him to become Madonna's dance trainer. That weight room in Arizona now has a mural depicting the raucous celebration outside the Wrigley Field marquee after the Cubs won their first World Series title since the Teddy Roosevelt administration.

When the 2017 Cubs are booed on Sunday during the Opening Night pageantry at Busch Stadium, they will be a reflection of Epstein's complex personality — colorful, edgy, confident, self-motivated, analytical, instinctive, inclusive, really, a worst nightmare for St. Louis Cardinals fans who used to love watching a one-sided rivalry.

"He understands that we're not robots," said Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman Epstein drafted for the Red Sox, traded to the San Diego Padres and then reacquired as a foundation piece on the North Side. "He does his due diligence. You see the guys in here being good people, and that comes first. He's not bringing in guys that have talent and bad reputations, because it's cancerous in the clubhouse.

"He does a good job of being very approachable, especially with the players, and easy to talk to, and not coming in there and being this dominating, intimidating figure in the clubhouse where everyone perks up."

Yet even the character-driven narrative can sometimes oversimplify and undersell a Cubs Way that obsessively gathers information and sees the world as an endlessly complicated place.

It's not scouting vs. analytics or head vs. heart or good guys vs. bad guys. It's all of that, all the time, when you oversee one of the most popular teams in the world, eight minor-league affiliates and employees covering everywhere from Latin America to the Pacific Rim.

The Cubs dug enough to know that an ugly incident involving Aroldis Chapman would publicly surface before the Los Angeles Dodgers agreed to — and backed out of — a controversial deal with the Cincinnati Reds during the 2015 winter meetings.

Once Chapman served his 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball's domestic-violence policy — and the New York Yankees took the bigger PR hit and the Cubs looked like a legitimate World Series contender last summer — Epstein gave up top prospect Gleyber Torres in a blockbuster trade for the mercenary closer.

Epstein hired and fired two handpicked managers with completely different personalities — Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria — and didn’t hesitate when Joe Maddon used an escape clause in his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays to become a free agent after the 2014 season.

During that year, Epstein shocked the baseball world by giving Manny Ramirez a second (or third or fourth or fifth) chance and hiring him to be a player/coach at Triple-A Iowa because he thought it would help Javier Baez. "Javy Being Javy" led to a National League Championship Series co-MVP performance last year.

The Cubs indulged Tommy La Stella when he refused to report to the minors last summer/took a New Jersey sabbatical — just in case they needed a left-handed pinch-hitter for a particular playoff matchup.

"Look, Theo's been successful everywhere he's gone," said Mike Hazen, the new Arizona Diamondbacks general manager and former Red Sox executive. "It's not a coincidence. It's not by accident. He's probably the smartest person I've ever worked for. He's as driven a person as I've ever worked for. He's passionate about baseball, about the draft, about player development. Every small decision is monumental to him — with everything.

"That wasn't like in a micromanaging way. When I was the farm director, every game report, every night, if there was something in there that he had a question about, I would get a phone call or an e-mail: 'Hey, what's going on with this? What's going on with that?' He was locked into everything. He has a huge capacity to make decisions and give advice on so many different levels."

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Epstein doesn't want a preview to revolve around the idea of his next job, because he's in the first season of a five-year extension worth in the neighborhood of $50 million and not at all looking to leave Wrigleyville, a place where he can keep winning big while walking to work and raising his young family.

But getting an equity stake in a big-league franchise would be the logical next step if Epstein decides to stay this involved in baseball once he nears Bill Walsh's ideal of a 10-year shelf life for coaches and executives.

David Axelrod — the Cub fan/former Chicago Tribune political writer/chief strategist to President Barack Obama — asked Epstein that natural what's-next question about owning a team on "The Axe Files" podcast.

"Um, sure, yeah, I think you can do things as an owner that you can't necessarily do as an employee," Epstein told Axelrod near the end of an offseason conversation that lasted more than 70 minutes, "helping the team really get involved in the community and doing some great work, using baseball as a vehicle to do some important work in society.

"My twin brother is a social worker, so I try to view the world through his eyes, and he's always telling me about what's really going on in the trenches.

"The reality is, these days so much of the most important work in society is done by these nonprofits, most of which don't get real government funding, so it's really important to identify the most impactful nonprofits in your community, especially in a city like Chicago right now that is battling so many critical challenges, and then support them.

"Baseball is just bread and circus, right? I mean, what we do is we just entertain the masses. And, of course, at certain moments it becomes really meaningful to people and transcends that. But by and large, it's just bread and circus.

"But there are rich fans who are willing to spend money to get access to games and sit in better seats or sit in the general manager's box or get autographs or have these experiences, going to dinner with players or with general managers. And if you can use that — and raise some money and redirect it to nonprofits — I think that's a great thing and really our responsibility in some ways."

In the meantime, owners will keep trying to find the next Epstein and copy a five-year plan that went from 101 losses to 103 wins. That underestimates: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the Red Sox; the built-in credibility with fans and the media from the moment he arrived in Chicago; an ability to manage up and work around the initial payroll restrictions; and the shadow he casts over the entire organization.

"Theo's got a long memory," said Sam Hughes, the national crosschecker who has worked for the Cubs since 1996. "We spend two weeks together (during the draft). We go every player — from the guy we might select in the 40th round (to the top pick) — and you'd be amazed at how much attention and how thorough we are with each and every guy.

"It's crazy, because you're in that room and it's like a frat party for two weeks, (with) great dialogues going on. But then when you leave, it's like crickets. You don't hear from him. And then he's off to probably paying the same attention to the pro department getting ready for trade deadline.

"But when he's there, he's all on. And then you might not see, hear or talk to him for six months. Out of the blue, you'll get just like a random witty e-mail or something about a player that you liked."

Epstein could always drop the Theo-has-spoken hammer while discussing first-round picks like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber or free agents like Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist. But Epstein would rather listen, ask questions and play devil's advocate.

"He wants you to come to the table with an opinion," said Lukas McKnight, the assistant director of amateur scouting. "He doesn't mind when you disagree with him, which is awesome. It's great to have somebody that is more than respectful of your opinion when it differs from his.

"As long as you're thorough — and as long as you can back it in evidence and talk thoroughly about it — he loves that."

Epstein is 43 years old, but this will be his 26th major-league season, which gives him an incredible network of sources and a database of experiences to draw from as the Cubs try to win back-to-back World Series titles for the first time since 1907 and 1908.

Epstein remembered the 2005 Red Sox opening their season in The Bronx on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" — and how finally winning it all didn't exactly allow manager Terry Francona to relax.

"Yeah, it sucked," Epstein said with a laugh. "We had a bunch of injuries in our rotation, so David Wells had to pitch Opening Day and got hit pretty hard and we lost. And then we came back and Matt Clement pitched (and we) lost. And then before the third game of the season, Tito started having like heart palpitations.

"I ended up going to the hospital with him. We listened to the third game of the season from Tito's hospital room. We felt like if we lost, neither one of us were going to be welcome back in Boston because we were getting swept at Yankee Stadium, even though we were coming back to get our rings.

"So I hope the series in St. Louis goes better. But if it doesn't, I'll have been through it before."

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

The day after Kris Bryant suggested that first-time fatherhood and the dramatic reality of world events have changed how he looks at his future with the Cubs, general manager Jed Hoyer outlined why it might be all but moot.

Setting aside the fact that the Cubs aren’t focusing on contract extensions with anyone at this time of health and economic turmoil, the volatility and unpredictability of a raging COVID-19 pandemic in this country and its economic fallout have thrown even mid-range and long-term roster plans into chaos.

“This is without question the most difficult time we’ve ever had as far as projecting those things,” Hoyer said. “All season in projecting this year, you weren’t sure how many games we were going to get in. Projecting next season obviously has challenges, and who knows where the country’s going to be and the economy’s going to be.”

Bryant, a three-time All-Star and former MVP, is eligible for free agency after next season. He and the club have not engaged in extension talks for three years. And those gained little traction while it has looked increasingly likely since then that Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, would eventually take his star client to market — making Bryant a widely circulated name in trade talks all winter.

MORE: Scott Boras: Why Kris Bryant's free agency won't be impacted by economic crisis

The Cubs instead focused last winter on talks with All-Star shortstop Javy Báez, making “good” or little progress depending on which side you talked to on a given day — until the pandemic shut down everything in March.

Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are both also eligible for free agency after next season, with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras right behind them a year later.

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None has a multiyear contract, and exactly what the Cubs are willing to do about that even if MLB pulls off its 60-game plan this year is hard for even the team’s front office executives to know without knowing how hard the pandemic will continue to hammer America’s health and financial well-being into the winter and next year.

Even with a vaccine and treatments by then, what will job markets look like? The economy at large? The economy of sports? Will anyone want to gather with 40,000 others in a stadium to watch a game anytime soon?

And even if anyone could answer all those questions, who can be sure how the domino effect will impact salary markets for athletes?

“There’s no doubt that forecasting going forward is now much more challenging from a financial standpoint,” Hoyer said. “But that’s league-wide. Anyone that says they have a feel for where the nation’s economy and where the pandemic is come next April is lying.”

The Cubs front office already was in a tenuous place financially, its payroll budget stretched past its limit and a threat to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second consecutive season.

And after a quick playoff exit in 2018 followed by the disappointment of missing the playoffs in 2019, every player on the roster was in play for a possible trade over the winter — and even more so at this season’s trade deadline without a strong start to the season.

Now what?

For starters, forget about dumping short-term assets or big contracts for anything of value from somebody’s farm system. Even if baseball can get to this year’s Aug. 31 trade deadline with a league intact and playing, nobody is predicting more than small level trades at that point — certainly not anything close to a blockbuster.

After that, it may not get any clearer for the sport in general, much less the Cubs with their roster and contract dilemmas.

“We have a lot of conversations about it internally, both within the baseball side and then with the business side as well,” Hoyer said. “But it’s going to take a long time and probably some sort of macro things happening for us to really have a good feel for where we’re going to be in ’21 and beyond.”

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Cubs' GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Cubs' GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Veteran umpire Joe West made waves Tuesday downplaying the severity of COVID-19 in an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. 

“I don’t believe in my heart that all these deaths have been from the coronavirus," West said. "I believe it may have contributed to some of the deaths.”

As far as the Cubs are concerned, those comments don’t represent how to treat the virus. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure everyone treats it with equal severity.

“That’s one of the things we've really tried internally to instill in our players and our coaches,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday, “[that] everyone here has to take it equally [serious].”

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Hoyer noted like the world, MLB isn’t immune to people having different viewpoints on the virus — those who show concern and those who don’t. This echoes comments made by manager David Ross earlier on Tuesday, and Hoyer said those he’s talked to with the Cubs don’t feel the same way as West.

The Cubs had an up close and personal look at pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s battle with COVID-19 during baseball’s shutdown. It took the 38-year-old former big leaguer 30 harrowing days to test negative, and in the past week many Cubs have said watching him go through that hit home. 

“When you get a 38-year-old guy in wonderful health and he talks about his challenges with it,” Hoyer said, “I think that it takes away some of those different viewpoints.”

To ensure everyone stays safe and puts the league in the best position to complete a season, MLB needs strict adherence to its protocols.

“I think that's one of our goals and one of the things that we feel is vital is that we have to make sure everyone views this the same way, because we can't have a subset of people within our group that don't view it with the same severity,” Hoyer said.

“That’s not gonna work. We're not gonna be successful."

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