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Can Theo Epstein Deliver for the Cubs?

One of the brightest of baseball’s new breed of data-driven front-office execs, Theo Epstein is being hailed as the Cubs’ savior. But don’t order those World Series tickets just yet

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Yes, but when I think of that amazing 2004 season, I don’t think of Epstein. I think of the Red Sox refusing to quit. Down three games to none against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, the Sox stormed back to beat them and rode that wave to a sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series. I think of Curt Schilling pitching with a bloody sock. I think of Manny Ramirez and the big grin on his face as he belted line drives all over the field. I think of manager Terry Francona in the dugout, cool as ice.

Epstein deserved credit for putting those men in position to win, but he didn’t swing the bat or pitch with a bloody ankle or decide when to call the bullpen. GMs exert only so much control. And there’s no better proof of that than the 2011 Red Sox, one of the greatest train wrecks I’ve ever seen in the world of sports. The same smart executive who put together championship teams in 2004 and 2007 presided over one of the most disastrous collapses in baseball history this fall. Leading the wildcard race by nine games in September, the Red Sox fell apart.

And when the season ended, the Boston media revealed that several members of the team had been drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse during games, taking advantage of Francona, who may have been distracted by personal issues, including a divorce.

Was the collapse Theo Epstein’s fault?

I don’t think so. But it came on his watch. He built teams that brought both glory and shame, and I think it raises the question of whether character still matters to the stats-oriented bosses who assemble teams today. Do they care if their players are good citizens? Do they believe that, beyond the numbers, building a winning team requires athletes with discipline, dedication to their teammates, and respect for authority? Do they care what sort of man wears the team’s uniform or only how he is likely to perform in it?

A bigger question would be: Is the GM a leader of his team or merely its architect?

The group Epstein inherited in Boston had some difficult personalities, but it also had talent. He tinkered with the roster in 2004 and somehow created a winning spirit in the clubhouse. In Chicago, the job might be more difficult. Epstein takes on a roster not just lacking in talent but also spotted with players who have shown little desire to work hard and improve. He recently told reporters that he was not giving up on one of the worst offenders, Alfonso Soriano. “I think it’s a sign of a good organization to look at every player and ask, ‘How can we get the most out of this guy?’” Epstein said. “I think with Alfonso there’s more in there.”

More of the same, maybe.

The best thing Epstein could possibly do is dump Soriano and Carlos Zambrano and build a team with character.

Baseball is losing its grip on this country. The Cubs have been losing their grip on me, that’s for sure. Players are spoiled. Ticket prices are too high. The romance of the game has been sacrificed at the altar of big business.

That’s not Epstein’s fault, and I don’t expect him to solve the problem singlehandedly. All I ask is that he put some talented, fun-loving kids on the field. All I ask is that he give me a team that looks excited to be there every day, a team that appreciates that I spent 200 bucks to bring my wife and kids to the park. Give me a lanky right-hander who throws so hard he bruises the catcher’s hand. Give me a beefy young slugger whose bat thunders across the rooftops of Wrigleyville.

I’ll cheer for them, and I’ll forget all about Theo Epstein.

Because that’s the way it should be.

And when the World Series parade rolls down LaSalle Street, I’ll notice Epstein on the lead float and think about him for the first time in months. Then I’ll cheer for him too.


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