Why Theo Epstein almost reached the breaking point and sold pieces off this Cubs team


Why Theo Epstein almost reached the breaking point and sold pieces off this Cubs team

Divided, tone-deaf, gridlocked, the Cubs reflected Washington the last time they played at Nationals Park, where veteran catcher Miguel Montero went rogue during an epic postgame rant and the defending World Series champs kept stalling around the .500 mark.

Team president Theo Epstein watched the Nationals run wild across his iPad on June 27 while he was visiting the Class-A Myrtle Beach affiliate, a breakdown that had Montero pointing the finger directly at Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta for those seven stolen bases.

Within seconds of seeing those explosive comments in his South Carolina hotel room, Epstein knew he wanted to get rid of Montero, who couldn’t hide his frustrations with manager Joe Maddon…during a radio interview the day of the championship parade and Grant Park rally last November.

Montero wasn’t exactly a lone wolf, speaking out for players who didn’t always see the communication skills that Maddon showed off during his media sessions. Even Arrieta appreciated Montero’s honesty, saying: “I love Miggy.”

Looking for a button to push with a team that wasn’t getting a jolt from The Cubs Way culture or Maddon’s laissez-faire style, Epstein DFA’d Montero and eventually shipped him to the Toronto Blue Jays.

The next day, about half the team showed up at the White House, where board member Todd Ricketts told Donald Trump the Cubs would run into the Nationals in the playoffs and predicted: “You’ll see them crumble.”

In reality, the Cubs were dangerously close to imploding, which will make it fascinating to watch which team crumbles during the best-of-five National League Division Series that begins Friday night in Washington.

As Epstein consulted with a few players about the Montero decision, he sent this message: Get your stuff together and play with an edge if you want us to trade the Class-A talent here in Myrtle Beach for big-league reinforcements this summer.

The Cubs also quietly put the word out to teams looking for starting pitching and bullpen help: There was a remote possibility that looming free agents Arrieta and Wade Davis would be available at the July 31 trade deadline. A new collective bargaining agreement – with the international spending restrictions, luxury-tax implications and a modified qualifying-offer system – would have been part of the rationalization.

“Not blowing it up,” Epstein said. “But when you’re five-and-a-half out, if you have a bad road trip and a bad homestand and then you’re 10-and-a-half out, absolutely, we would have sold.”  

[MORE CUBS: How Jon Jay brought Cubs clubhouse together for big finish]

That’s the deficit the Cubs faced on July 9, when Jon Lester got rocked during a 14-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field that left the defending World Series champs with a 43-45 record. During that final game before the All-Star break, Epstein received a text message from White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, sparking the Jose Quintana trade talks.

Davis – who wasn’t even a part of last year’s championship team – would be the only player representative at the All-Star festivities in South Florida. Epstein went into stealth mode that week – credit Reddit users Wetbutt23 and KatyPerrysBootyHole with the scoop – and gave up top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease in a blockbuster deal for Quintana that would solidify the rotation through 2020.

Epstein left his family’s beach vacation in Massachusetts to join the team at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where he got his start in professional baseball as a summer intern out of Yale University in 1992, the same year that trendsetting stadium opened in downtown Baltimore.

Epstein noticed the mood in the visiting clubhouse after that first game back from the All-Star break on July 14 – a 9-8 victory where the Cubs got homers from Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Addison Russell, still almost blew an eight-run lead and began a six-game winning streak.

“In the first half, we were kind of tired of the postgame celebration,” Epstein said. “It was getting kind of old.

“Folks don’t understand. Once you win it all – and you’ve given everything you’ve had – the specter of playing 162 games and making them all meaningful is really overwhelming. It’s hard to get up for all of them.

“The first half, there were just a lot of things, different gripes going on. It was kind of more a collection of individuals than it was anything else.

“And then as soon as we hit the break – and we had to answer the bell – our guys did. We came back from the break as a team – and as a really good team – and we celebrated that win like it was a postseason win.

“We took off from there. That vibe of a loose atmosphere – but very connected group – was back. And we kind of rode it the whole second half.”

The Milwaukee Brewers, a rebuilding team with an Opening Day payroll around $56 million, spent 69 days in first place, but never after July 25. Epstein’s front office never got to the point of exchanging names or discussing any white-flag deals in depth or really considering a breakup of their young core. But the Cubs now believe that adversity will make them stronger in October.

“Look, it was crunch time early this year,” Epstein said. “If we had had a bad road trip and a bad homestand to start the second half, we’re selling. We didn’t. We started to play pretty good baseball right off the bat. We added and our guys elevated their level of play and had a hell of a second half and a great closing kick.

“And now we’re going into the playoffs with as much momentum as anybody.”

Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Millions of Americans have lost jobs or taken pay cuts because of the economic impact of a coronavirus pandemic that in this country shows no signs of going away anytime soon, including countless members of the sports media.

So despite some of the more laughably ignorant opinions from the dimmer corners of social media, exactly nobody in the media wants any sport to shut down again.

That said, what the hell are we doing playing games outside of a bubble during the deadliest pandemic in this country in more than 100 years?

With Friday's news that another Cardinals staff member and two more players tested positive in the past two days for COVID-19, the Cubs-Cards weekend series was postponed as officials scrambled to test and retest Cardinals personnel and try to get their season restarted.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since the intake process began in June, have done everything right, from management to the last player on the roster, to keep their team healthy and playing.

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But the operative, most overlooked, word in all of this has always been “playing.”

And the longer MLB pushes through outbreaks, and measures the season’s viability in counting cases instead of the risk of a catastrophic outcome for even one player, the deeper its ethical dilemma in this viral cesspool.

“Ethically, I have no problem saying we’re going to keep doing this,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said over the weekend about asking players to continue working as the league experienced outbreaks involving the Marlins and Cardinals.

“That said, we have to do it the right way,” Hoyer said, citing the extra lengths the Cubs have taken to keep players and staff safe.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

But even he and other team executives understand the limits of all the best-made plans.

“The infection is throughout the country. That’s the reality,” team president Theo Epstein said. “If you’re traveling around, there’s a real risk. Protocols are not perfect. No set of protocols are perfect. They’re designed to minimize the risk as best you possibly can.”

And while the odds for surviving the virus favor young, athletic people such as baseball players, the nearly 160,000 Americans killed by COVID-19 in the last five months include otherwise healthy toddlers, teens and young adults.

Add that to the best-known characteristic of this virus — its wildfire-like ability to spread within a group — and baseball’s attempt to stage a two-month season involving travel in and out of 30 locales starts to look like Russian roulette.

Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez, 27, contracted COVID-19 last month and as a result developed myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart — that might shut him down for the season even after multiple tests say he’s clear of the virus.

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, a fit, 39-year-old, recent major-league athlete, had a monthlong case so severe he went to the emergency room at one point for treatment before the viral pneumonia and high fever began to improve.

The vast majority of players insist they want to play, including Rodríguez, even after his heart diagnosis. More than 20 others have opted out because of the risk, including All-Stars Buster Posey, David Price and — in the past week — Lorenzo Cain and Yoenis Céspedes.

Obviously the owners want to play, with more than $1 billion in recouped revenues at stake in a season of deep financial losses.

“Everyone that I know outside of baseball who’s become positive, who’s gotten COVID-19 at some point, did everything right — washed their hands, wore masks, socially distanced — and they still became positive,” Epstein said. “They don’t know where. It could have been the grocery store. It could have been walking down the street.

“And as far as I know that’s the case inside baseball, too,” he added. “This is everywhere in the country and unfortunately going the wrong direction nationwide. It’s a fraught environment out there that we’re operating in, and we’re going to need to do our absolute best and also be fortunate.”


Cubs-Cardinals series postponed after Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak worsens

Cubs-Cardinals series postponed after Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak worsens

The COVID-19 pandemic finally caught up to the Cubs, who had their weekend series against the Cardinals postponed Friday after the Cardinals' coronavirus outbreak worsened by three positive tests before the teams were scheduled to open a three-game series in St. Louis on Friday night.

The Cardinals, who haven't played since last week because of an outbreak that now includes at least 16 players and staff, scrambled to test and retest personnel Friday as Major League Baseball wiped another series off their schedule.

Cardinals president John Mozeliak said Friday the latest players to test positive are outfielder Austin Dean and pitcher Ryan Helsley. The club announced Tuesday catcher Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong recently tested positive.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since intake testing began more than a month ago, had not lost a game on their schedule because of coronavirus issues.

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The Cubs (10-3) were scheduled to fly home from St. Louis Friday night and are not scheduled to play again until Tuesday in Cleveland. This weekend's series has not been rescheduled yet.

“Based on the information MLB has shared with us, postponing this series is a necessary step to protect the health and safety of the Cardinals and the Cubs,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said in a statement. “Therefore, it is absolutely the right thing to do.

“While it’s obviously less than ideal, this is 2020, and we will embrace whatever steps are necessary to promote player and staff wellbeing and increase our chances of completing this season in safe fashion,” he added. “We will be ready to go on Tuesday in Cleveland. In the meantime, we wish the Cardinals personnel involved a quick and complete recovery.”