Will this Cubs era be different?
After new beginnings by Green, MacPhail, fans hope third time's a charm with Epstein
The Cubs have been down this road before.
The drive is a familiar one. The team falls on difficult times and is slow to get up to speed with modern ways of doing things.
So ownership brings in the big name, the championships-on-the-resume, rings-on-the-finger guy to set things right. Hopes are raised along with expectations.
For a team that has been around since 1876, the Cubs have worn out a path on this road. The recent hiring of Theo Epstein marks the third time in 30 years the Cubs have made what we'll call an "epochal" hiring.
Before we go further, and without the benefit of hindsight, I'll say right here that Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts has hit the proverbial home run, maybe even a grand slam, with the hirings of Epstein as baseball president, Jed Hoyer as general manager and Jason McLeod as senior vice president of scouting and player development.
It looked to be that way, too, in late 1981, when the Cubs pried Dallas Green away from the Philadelphia Phillies to revive a moribund franchise. It also looked that way in late 1994 when they hired Andy MacPhail from the Minnesota Twins to be team president.
Both Green and MacPhail made positive changes to the Cubs, but neither was able to capture the ultimate prize of a World Series championship, something that has eluded the franchise since 1908.
There are many historical similarities among the hirings of Green, MacPhail and Epstein. The Cubs now hope the main difference becomes apparent in some October in the not-too-distant future.
With history as our guide, let's take a look at the circumstances surrounding each of these epochal hirings in recent Cubs history.
Building a new tradition:
The Tribune Co. bought the Cubs during the strike-torn 1981 season. The team was floundering to its ninth straight non-winning season, a run of failure more typical than not under the benign neglect of the Wrigley family.
The Trib turned to Green, who had managed the Philadelphia Phillies to the 1980 World Series title. The team's new marketing slogan was "Building a New Tradition."
Brash, bold, cantankerous and sometimes bullying, Green could make a bull in a china shop look dainty by comparison.
But Green also was right in what he was saying, and he was effective. He pushed for lights at Wrigley Field, arguing that the Cubs would lose postseason games if there were no lights. (Contrary to urban legend, the Cubs did not lose homefield advantage in the 1984 National League championship series because they had no lights, but they would have lost it had they reached the World Series that year.)
Green beefed up scouting and player development, and the system under Gordon Goldsberry produced the likes of Greg Maddux, Mark Grace, Rafael Palmeiro, Jamie Moyer, Joe Girardi and Shawon Dunston.
The Cubs won the NL East in 1984, blowing a 2-0 series lead to the San Diego Padres and falling in five games, but things clearly were on the right track.
Injuries derailed the '85 club, and Green eventually resigned in October 1987 after running afoul of Trib management, whom some accused of thinking they had learned the baseball business and didn't need this Philly boor anymore.
The 1989 division winners had Green's fingerprints all over them, but he was gone as the Cubs began another decline, and the farm system went into a tailspin that lasted more than a decade and a half.
Working on it:
Another players strike halted play in 1994, canceling the postseason. The Cubs had no hope of the playoffs that year, as they finished 49-64.
Chaos ruled the day as GM Larry Himes annoyed players and allowed such things as a goat to be brought onto the field before a game to break a mythical curse.
The farm system was barren, and the Cubs were a laughingstock.
Enter the boy wonder from Minnesota.
Andy MacPhail had won World Series titles in 1987 and 1991 as a general manager with the small-market Twins.
Born of baseball royalty, MacPhail's father, Lee, and grandfather, Larry, were successful baseball executives, and even then people were talking about Andy someday becoming commissioner.
MacPhail brought a sense of calm back to the North Side. In laid-back TV ads, the preppy MacPhail urged patience, saying "We're working on it." In 1995, the Cubs held first place in late May before fading and then mounting a late charge before falling short of the postseason.
If Green was brash and bold, MacPhail was measured and methodical. He was deliberate to a fault in weighing decisions on whether to jump into bidding for a key player.
MacPhail was not allowed to be GM of the Cubs from the start because the Twins allowed him to leave for a bigger title. His biggest mistake might have been hiring untested Ed Lynch as GM. A former journeyman pitcher, Lynch oversaw two miserable seasons in 1996 and '97 and later traded away future pitching stars such as Jon Garland and Kyle Lohse.
The Cubs won the wild card in 1998 and the NL Central in 2003, coming within five outs of the World Series.
The club declined and finished the 2006 season with a record of 66-96. By that time, a Trib heavy named Crane Kenney had taken a more active role in the baseball team, and he forced MacPhail out in a power play.
With the Trib ready to sell the team, it spent wildly after 2006, and the Cubs won back-to-back divisions in 2007-08, but failed to win a playoff game.
MacPhail's farm system was a disappointment, and the club wasn't able to restock sufficiently from within as it began yet another decline after the 2008 season.
A little luck is a good thing to have, and the Cubs got a couple pieces of it when the Boston Red Sox blew a nearly insurmountable wild-card lead this year and management engineered the ouster of field manager Terry Francona.
Epstein and Francona were tight, and Francona's firing seemed to be the final push to get Epstein to leave Boston.
While Ricketts looked to be hiring just a GM when he began his search, he instead gave Epstein the title of president of baseball operations and allowed him to bring along former Boston protégés Jed Hoyer as GM and Jason McLeod as senior vice president of scouting and player development.
The 37-year-old Epstein was at the top of Ricketts' wish list, and for good reason. He put together world-championship teams in 2004 (breaking an 86-year dry spell for the Red Sox) and 2007.
His teams in Boston took part in an expensive arms race with the New York Yankees, their ancient rivals, and they had to contend with the upstart Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East. Like all GMs, some of Epstein's signings were good, others not so.
Epstein has been a leading proponent of sabermetrics, the quantitative analysis of baseball relying heavily on statistics. But in addition to relying on stats such as on-base percentage, Epstein also went old-school in '04 when he added speed and defense with the acquisitions of Dave Roberts and Doug Mientkiewicz to help seal a postseason berth and a dramatic comeback series win over the Yankees to reach and win the World Series.
By focusing on the farm system, Epstein was able to package prospects to trade for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.
During his introductory news conference last week at Wrigley Field, Epstein seemed to downplay the computer-driven, stats-only approach.
"You have to balance traditional scouting with objective analysis, and that's not just a line," he said. "Our goal is to build the best scouting department in the game, as far as player development goes. We will define and implement a 'Cubs Way' of playing the game, and we won't rest until there is a steady stream of talent coming through the minor league system, trained in that 'Cubs Way.'"
The "Cubs Way" has been the punch line of jokes more often than not, but Epstein talked in terms not heard of in these parts before.
Words such as "parallel fronts" and "supply and demand dynamics" haven't been part of the North Side baseball lexicon, but neither have "World Series." Temperamentally, Epstein seems much more like MacPhail than Green. Those who know him say he is an enthusiastic listener, one who hears out all sides thoroughly, and a consensus builder.
Yes, it's another new era at Wrigley Field. We've heard some of the same kind of optimistic talk before, perhaps phrased differently.
Maybe this time it will work.
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