Cubs

A perfect storm pushes Epstein to Chicago

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A perfect storm pushes Epstein to Chicago

Theo Epstein will meet the press at 11 on Tuesday morning. The Cubs will open their stadium club two hours before that, so the cameramen can start elbowing for position at Wrigley Field.

Epstein once worked as sports editor of the Yale Daily News. He took out a full-page ad in Sundays Boston Globe to thank Red Sox Nation. He must know that hes the big story now.

The Chicago media will alternate between fawning over the new president of baseball operations, and asking real questions about the direction of this franchise.

Boston reporters will want to know if he feels responsibility for the fried chicken and beer culture that poisoned the Red Sox clubhouse, and perhaps guilty about leaving a team in crisis.

The national writers are already heading to the DallasFort Worth International Airport for a travel day in the World Series, and could start rubbernecking at Clark and Addison.

Epstein got out of journalism at the right time, before the media industry started splintering and newspaper companies filed for bankruptcy. Baseball owners and executives began falling in love with young Ivy League graduates, entrusting wonder boys to run their franchises.

It took a perfect storm to sweep Epstein out of Yawkey Way. If one element had turned out different, who knows if he would have been dropped on the North Side next to chairman Tom Ricketts for Tuesdays news conference?

When Ricketts publicly announced Jim Hendrys firing on Aug. 19, the general manager called it one of the best-kept secrets in Cubs history. Hendry knew his fate almost a full month earlier, and it would lead to one of the worst-kept secrets in Cubs history.

But by the end of August, the Red Sox were still a first-place team with a 161 million payroll. They were 31 games over .500 and closing in on their 700th consecutive sellout at Fenway Park. Conventional wisdom had Ricketts trying to find the next Theo Epstein, not hiring the actual Theo Epstein.

The Red Sox experienced a total meltdown. Their pitching staff gave up 172 runs in September, and they lost 20 of 27 games that month. They finished in third place for the second consecutive season, one game behind the Tampa Bay Rays in the wild-card race.

The environment became toxic. Embarrassing details emerged about Terry Franconas marriage and the ex-managers use of prescription drugs in a Boston Globe investigate piece. Reports surfaced about Red Sox pitchers drinking in the clubhouse and in the dugout during games.

Principal owner John W. Henry went on the teams flagship radio station and talked about the shelf life of a general manager in that market. After nine seasons on the job, Epstein was nearing his expiration date.

The Red Sox never slammed the brakes on this process by reassuring Epstein with a promotion or a contract extension.

Nearing his 38th birthday, Epstein had reached the point in his life where he appeared to have outgrown his job or at least the many layers of upper management on Yawkey Way. He felt comfortable uprooting his family and leaving his hometown, moving his wife and young son to another great city.

With or without Epstein and the two World Series rings he helped bring them Red Sox executives seemed to have complete faith in their way of doing business. Ricketts and Cubs president Crane Kenney, who was born in Quincy, Mass., have been obsessed with that model for years.

Ricketts had to reconsider the structure of his front office, and his belief that he didnt need a baseball guy to watch my baseball guy as team president. Epstein had to be guaranteed that Kenney would be limited to business operations and kept out of baseball decisions.

After watching his team lose 178 games across the past two seasons, Ricketts had to find his voice and sell Epstein on his vision. Right or wrong, this would be a signature hire for the chairman.

The Cubs could offer a direct report to ownership and a chance to cement a Hall of Fame legacy. There would be a commitment to spending on amateur talent, with new player-development facilities about to break ground in Arizona and the Dominican Republic.

The Cubs had already paid the price for the "win one for the Tribune" before the team was sold mentality. Several big contracts were about to fall off the books, and the team would begin cycling back toward contention anyway.

The deal didnt fall apart when Cubs management failed to clue in baseball staffers and have them start putting together potential compensation packages. They did this all backwards, agreeing to terms with Epstein on a five-year, 18.5 million deal before settling with the Red Sox on two prospects to free him from the final year of his contract.

Desperately trying to turn the spotlight back on the World Series, commissioner Bud Selig had to threaten to arbitrate the dispute. This stalemate over compensation could be something they all laugh about years later after the parade down Michigan Avenue or perhaps the first signs Epstein could see of a deeper dysfunction within the Cubs organization.

After all the twists and turns that brought everyone to this point, the story is really just beginning.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Will 4 days off help or hurt the Cubs?

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Will 4 days off help or hurt the Cubs?

With the Cardinals being shutdown by MLB for a COVID-19 outbreak in the organization, the Cubs had an impromptu four days off after stringing together one of the best records in baseball so far. Will having the days off help or hurt them going forward?

David Kaplan and Gordon Wittenmyer discuss the Cubs' impromptu weekend off, Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger breaking protocol and going out in Chicago, and a 'what if' scenario that could have changed the Cubs getting Aroldis Chapman in 2016.

(1:20) - Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger breaking safety protocol to go out in Chicago

(7:09) - Cubs get four days off due to the Cardinals' coronavirus outbreak

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Cubs news and analysis.

(9:30) - Is David Ross following in the steps of Joe Maddon with some of his methods?

(16:00) - How will MLB fix the missing games that teams will have at the end of the season?

(18:40) - Cubs wanted Andrew Miller initially, not Aroldis Chapman in 2016

Listen here or below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Jason Kipnis enjoying 'fun ride' with Cubs, but 2016 World Series still stings

Jason Kipnis enjoying 'fun ride' with Cubs, but 2016 World Series still stings

A peppy voice shouted from offscreen, drawing Jason Kipnis’ attention away from the pregame Zoom setup in front of him. Kipnis chucked as he spotted Mike Napoli, his former Indians teammate and current Cubs quality assurance coach.

“Ask this guy about 2016,” Kipnis said to the reporters on Zoom as Napoli bobbed into frame.

“It was the greatest year of our lives,” Napoli shouted.

At least Kipnis had someone with him who knew what it was like to lose to the Cubs in the 2016 World Series.

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Cubs news and analysis.

Kipnis returned to Progressive Field on Tuesday, for the first time since he signed with the Cubs as a free agent in February. In the Cubs’ 7-1 win against the Indians on Tuesday, Kipnis hit a double and scored a run on a wild pitch. It was his first time in a decade-long career facing Cleveland.

The Indians had drafted Kipnis in 2009. He’d made his major league debut with the club two years later. And he spent nine seasons in Cleveland.

A “homey vibe” hit him as the Cubs touched down in the airport Tuesday and drove to their hotel. Familiar views greeted him.

What was new was walking to the ballpark from the hotel, going through a different entrance.

“I'm actually being steered to probably a few hallways I didn't know existed,” Kipnis said.

He’d been to the visiting clubhouse before but never to the batting cages or weight room. He was seeing a new side of a building that he’d called home for so many years.

Plus, he was doing it in Cubbie blue. One of his most agonizing experiences at Progressive Field had come at the hands of the Cubs. His current teammates had made up the young core of that 2016 World Series Cubs team.

“I’ve already had Rizzo walking me through, ‘I celebrated here, I celebrated here,’" Kipnis said before the game. "I’m like, ‘Thanks, buddy. I get it.'”

Kipnis said there was never a real path for him to return to the Indians for this season.  Asked if the option was closed off on his end or the teams’, he said, “My phone never rang, I’ll put it that way.”

Instead Kipnis, a Northbrook native, joined his hometown team. Over the summer, Kipnis posted on Twitter that being a Cub was still a “mindf*ck” at times.

When he and the Indians lost World Series Game 7 at home, after blowing a 3-1 series lead, 99 percent of Kipnis was “absolutely crushed.”

But he said one percent could “look back at the field the last second be like, ‘Hey, at least it's the Cubs.’

If the Indians were going to lose, at least it was to a team with a 108-year World Series drought.

Kipnis likens his feelings about playing for his hometown team this year to that ratio. He’s overwhelmingly excited about representing Chicago and playing for his friends and family. One percent of him aches every time he sees the 2016 banners or World Series highlights, neither of which he can escape in Chicago.

“I have to keep reliving it,” Kipnis said. “… It sucks, but it was a fun time in ’16, and I don’t regret anything about it”

This year has been Kipnis’ first experience switching teams. He’s been locked in a position battle at second base with Nico Hoerner and has been efficient in limited at-bats. In seven games, Kipnis is batting .368, with five extra-base hits. He kept the ball from his first home run as a Cub.

“When you get back into that hunter mentality, it's fun,” Kipnis said, “because then you push yourself to stay at it. You might not feel great some days, and you normally might have taken a day off or something to rest the body, but now you just find a way to get something productive done that day.

“And I think especially coming here in Chicago, where I know now I have even more family and friends watching games, and friends of friends, everything, it's been like a little bit more motivation to stay on top of myself.”

The COVID-19 pandemic ensured that Kipnis would get to play his former team this season. Regular season schedules became regional, so the NL Central Cubs play the AL Central Indians four times this year.

But the pandemic also ensured that Kipnis wouldn’t be able to greet fans in person, or his former teammates and coaches how he’d like to – some of them with “bull-rush” hugs.

“I've invaded these guys personal spaces for about nine years,” Kipnis said. “I think I can take a day off from giving them a hug.”

The Indians played a tribute video for Kipnis before the game. Players and staff members applauded him. Kipnis stepped out and waved his hat at the empty stands.

Like much of this season, Kipnis’ return wasn’t anything like he could have imagined when he put pen to paper back in February. But at least publicly, you won’t hear any complaints from Kipnis.

“It's been such a fun ride here so far,” he said.

 

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