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updated: 10/13/2011 7:38 PM

There are lessons for Theo Epstein in Cubs history

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  • Theo Epstein must learn from the Cubs' past if he's going to succeed here, Barry Rozner says.

      Theo Epstein must learn from the Cubs' past if he's going to succeed here, Barry Rozner says.
    Associated Press

 
 

Theo Epstein is not charged with anything outwardly grand.

He must merely walk on water, heal a fan base in its entirety and solve a 103-year-old riddle.

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And he must do it by Valentine's Day.

No big deal.

If that seems a bit unfair, it might be a tad.

The great miscalculation by so many who have had the misfortune of running the Cubs -- in various titles and positions -- is that winning must come immediately, and that rebuilding will not be tolerated.

This is, of course, a fallacy. If communicated properly, Cubs fans will be willing to watch youth stumble and grow, preferring it to the aged bumble and wallow.

Theo Epstein can sell this and he must keep his bearings while all about him have lost theirs.

It sounds simple, but men just as smart -- if not smarter -- have fallen into the trap of rushing the process, men like Dallas Green and Andy MacPhail.

With scouting director Gordy Goldsberry at his side, Green was well on his way to rebuilding the Cubs by drafting players like Greg Maddux, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark Grace, Joe Girardi, Shawon Dunston, Jamie Moyer, Kevin Tapani, Ray Lankford, Mike Harkey, Rick Wilkins, Jerome Walton, Jim Bullinger, Frank Castillo, Matt Walbeck, Damon Berryhill, Matt Franco and Jeff Cirillo.

Not all were signed and not all became Hall of Famers, but there was a plan in place.

And then, 1984 happened. Green saw a chance to win quickly and he almost did, sacrificing some young players along the way. But with a first-place team in June 1985 he lost half a starting lineup and eventually an entire starting rotation to injuries. The Cubs got old quickly and the next couple years were ugly.

Still, Green had a plan and it was about to produce a number of good, young players -- until Tribune Co. stepped in, insisted he manage the team after the 1987 season, and Green fled in protest, tired of the meddling and interference from above.

To this point, Green is still the best GM the Cubs have had in the last half-century, and there's no telling what he might have accomplished had he been given the chance to do his job.

In the fall of 1994 came the Boy Wonder, Andy MacPhail, winner of two World Series in Minnesota. As president and CEO, and with the promise that he would watch over and counsel rookie GM Ed Lynch, MacPhail also insisted the Cubs would do it the right way.

MacPhail arrived here in the middle of a strike. The owners had unilaterally imposed rules, which included a salary cap and restricted free agency for players like Sammy Sosa, who had a deal in place with Boston and the Cubs had no intention of matching the Red Sox' offer sheet.

The strike ended in April 1995 when future Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor -- as a U.S. District Court judge -- issued an injunction against the owners, supporting the players' NLRB unfair labor complaint.

The old rules were back in place, Sosa remained in Chicago, the wild card was all the rage and the Cubs found themselves with a chance to make the postseason in MacPhail's first year here.

They took it down to the final weekend of the season before being eliminated, Sosa was signed to his first big contract and the Cubs believed there was an opportunity to compete every season.

Over the years, they continued to re-sign Sosa and continued to pay him huge money to play terrible baseball while selling millions of tickets, jerseys and cups of beer.

It was the easy way out.

The Cubs never did rebuild, they never did make it to the World Series and MacPhail resigned in disgust at the end of the 2006 season.

Andy MacPhail had a great baseball mind when he got here, but he lost his way when he got to Chicago and probably regrets not having stuck to his plan.

But it is so tempting when you run the Cubs to go for the quick fix, to try to win immediately with a fan base starving for a title.

So now comes Boy Wonder II.

And you think of the Central Division and you wonder what might become of it if Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder depart.

And you envision the Cubs going young, but perhaps improving more quickly than one might expect.

And you hope that Theo Epstein doesn't fall victim to the mistakes other smart men have made before him.

I don't believe that will happen to Epstein, but you never know when an owner might get involved and push for something, or other team executives with authority might get in an owner's ear and force action that doesn't benefit the long-term process.

Odd things occur when you expect it the least, especially when it comes to the Cubs.

They have just fallen hat-backwards into great fortune, a confluence of events in Boston and Chicago that has led Tom Ricketts to a great hire that may someday make Ricketts a hero in the eyes of Cubs fans.

Let's face it, the Cubs were due for some luck.

But it is still the Cubs, after all, and so Theo Epstein must fight that history.

He can also, however, learn from it.

brozner@dailyherald.com

• Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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