Inside what was an otherwise depressing Major League Baseball preview issue that properly pegged the Cubs to finish dead last, ESPN the Magazine carried a feature on Cubs president Theo Epstein that crapped muted, cheerful hope as only America’s most-watched sports network can.
Tim Keown’s March 31 article from spring camp in Mesa, Ariz., hit on the usual high points sung by Cubs diehards: Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant; the juxtaposition of Epstein’s 21st century business method against Jim Hendry’s archaic “he’s a physical specimen” style of decision making; and, of course, the plans to renovate Wrigley Field.
Overall, the crux of the piece took its cue from one important Epstein quote:
A lot of local beat writers ask us all these pessimistic questions. … There’s definitely a dichotomy with how we’re perceived from the outside and how we feel about ourselves as an organization. There’s a great vibe around here. The sense of progress and potential is palpable. We all feed off that and enjoy coming to work each day, so those questions stand out as being a bit disconnected.
I’m often very suspicious of anyone that uses the word “vibe” and “palpable” seriously, but the negativity that Epstein references toward beat writers is the same pessimism I’ve witnessed from many Cubs fans, even in the Theo years.
And don’t think I’m judging here. While I’m an optimist in all things real life, I’ve spent the last four seasons as backup singer to the band of North Side misanthropes.
I blame my own impatience for that. As a fan, I’ve always hated sports preseasons, including spring training, as well as developmental leagues.
I covered single-A baseball for five years as a sportswriter, and on some of those summer nights, the seats were packed. While I loved that beat, I was also realistic: More than 90 percent of those butts in the seats were there for baseball’s outdoor experience, not to soak up the excitement of bearing witness to an ambiguous “future of baseball.”
I don’t blame them. As fans, these things mean nothing. I want the real thing. Bring me a World Series. Now.
But if you can manage to strip out that emotion and look at things objectively, you do begin to see that Epstein is doing some pretty amazing things.
Want proof? Set aside an hour to read this long but deeply reported piece by Brett Taylor at Bleacher Nation. Among other things, he describes a remarkably tangled Cubs sale from the Tribune Company to the Ricketts family. In the end, there might not be as much money for Epstein to play with as we think.
Also, as Keown aptly points out in the ESPN the Magazine article, the MLB shored up one of the key strategies Epstein utilized in Boston: the more free agents you lost, the more draft pick you got, and you had a better chance of landing the big one by flashing big bonus cash. But the bonus cap killed that.
Yet, Epstein is still reeling in young talent. In one of Keown’s best line of the piece, he writes:
“…Beneath the surface, Epstein is buying and flipping veteran free agents the way investors buy and flip run-down houses with good bones” (see Matt Garza trade).
I know some fans are still hungover from “In Dusty we trusty,” but perhaps there’s time yet for “In Theo we trust.”
I’m willing to be patient.
But I do hope they hurry.