• The Star Staff

Theo Epstein leaves the Cubs, but plans to stick around baseball


By David Waldstein


Theo Epstein, the baseball executive and architect of two of the most remarkable championships in sports history, announced earlier this week that he would step down from his post as president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, saying the time was right to hand the reins to Jed Hoyer, the Cubs’ general manager, and move on to another venture.


For an instant, Epstein became the most highly prized baseball executive available, but soon said in a news conference Tuesday that he did not envision working for a team in 2021. He outlined plans to serve the game in a general capacity and said that he plans to lead another club someday, perhaps even as part of an ownership group. He also noted that he wanted to spend more time with his wife and two sons.


But Epstein did not unequivocally rule out joining another team for the 2021 season, saying he would answer his phone if any team were to call.


“I’m open-minded about my future,” he said, “but those are my plans. I don’t expect to jump in with another team right now, and I’m really looking forward to the freedom to explore lots of different things.”


The New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies are both looking for someone to lead their baseball operations, and either would be a logical candidate to pursue Epstein, especially the Mets, who have not won a World Series since 1986. After all, Epstein has a well-earned reputation for ending lengthy championship droughts.


Even if he never works in the sport again, Epstein has already carved out a Hall of Fame career with the Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, helping both franchises win championships after each had gone multiple decades without a World Series title.


Beginning with the 2012 season, he engineered the comprehensive roster rebuild that led the Cubs to the 2016 World Series title, thus closing the book on 108 years of frustration and futility on the Northside of Chicago.


Before that, he had been the youngest general manager in baseball when he took over the Red Sox, the team he followed as a child, in 2002 at age 28. Two years later, Boston won the World Series to end its 86-year stretch without a championship. Epstein was also in charge when the Red Sox won the 2007 World Series, but left for Chicago after the 2011 season.


Epstein, 46, said he planned to buy season tickets to the Cubs and also discussed areas where he could help build the game as a whole, perhaps in a role with the commissioner’s office. An early devotee of data analysis, he took some responsibility for problems with the game because of the expanded reliance on advanced statistics, which he believes has made the game less entertaining.


Epstein had one year remaining on a five-year, $40 million contract extension he signed with the Cubs in 2016. But he has long held to a belief, which he credits to former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh, that 10 years are the optimal period of time to remain in one venture. Epstein said his real skill was building teams into champions. “Maintaining” them, he said, is not as much of a strength for him.


“In the first six years or so, we did some pretty epic things,” he said. “And the last couple years weren’t as impressive.”


Tom Ricketts, the chairman of the Cubs, has stated that baseball is facing significant financial stress because of the coronavirus pandemic, and Epstein, presumably referring to the cost of his contract, said the projected rebuild of the team would be “easier” without him there. He said his departure would allow Hoyer, who spent two years as general manager of the San Diego Padres, to make long-term decisions about the Cubs’ current roster.


When Epstein took over the Cubs after the 2011 season, the team went through a painful rebuild in which it finished fifth in its division three years in a row, and he felt the burden of trying to end the longest championship drought in the sport. But through a combination of astute draft picks, trades and signings, he built a team that won a seven-game World Series against the Cleveland Indians, who have not won the Series since 1948.


During those early years in Chicago, Epstein said, he often dreamed that the Cubs had won the title, only to wake up and realize they were still in fifth place. Then, after they beat the Indians, he returned home from a night of celebration in Cleveland only to wake up later with that same feeling. For an instant, Epstein wondered if it had all been that same tantalizing dream.


“And then I realized it was real life and had this incredible rush of just joy and pride in collective accomplishment and freedom,” he said, “realizing that I had done what I set out to do and could be free from that burden going forward.”

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