Column: Theo is restless in a way the rest of us are not
CHICAGO -- Theo Epstein is restless in a way most of us are not.
No one is more invested in finding out whether he can repeat in Chicago what he did in Boston a dozen years ago - win a World Series in a town that measures its disappointment in decades.
But it's not just the short-term goal that commands Epstein's attention. In the middle of a vacation with family or the middle of an inning surrounded by staff - sometimes even in mid-sentence - Epstein will extricate himself from the group, pull out his mobile phone and laser-focus on the longer-term target: building a dynasty.
That's why no box has gone unchecked. It's why Epstein spent days poring over brochures for sectional sofas to furnish the Cubs' luxurious new clubhouse, but also why he spent five years tracking the ups and downs of a former Red Sox prospect named Anthony Rizzo, then traded for him when the time - not to mention the price - was right.
"We've made plenty of mistakes," Epstein said on the field at Wrigley hours before the Cubs beat the Dodgers to wrap the NLCS last week. "But the ones that we've hit on, we've gotten lucky with; some impact guys back, some best-case scenarios as far as how the guys have turned out.
"We knew," he added a moment later, "that we didn't have a chance to rebuild twice in a market like this."
When Epstein came on board with the Cubs in 2011, his task was to turn around an aircraft carrier-sized organization. He put back together his sabermetric-styled band from earlier stints in San Diego and Boston - front-office execs Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod - and rolled up his sleeves.
During the first phase, he set out to shed what was essentially a roster of bad contracts and spare parts, then went searching for difference-makers largely through the draft. Cub fans, meanwhile, struggled to see what difference all that attention to data and detail made.
The team lost 101 games in Epstein's first season on the job, then 96 and 89. But in 2015 with manager Joe Maddon and a roster stocked with promising young talent and a few savvy veterans, it became clear the rebuild had paid off.
Rizzo was a budding star at first base. Across the diamond was draft choice and soon-to-be Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant. Up the middle, Addison Russell locked down the starting shortstop job at 21, and Javier Baez began realizing his offensive promise. Behind them in center was Dexter Fowler, who hit for more power than ever before.
Despite his reputation as a numbers guru, one factor in many of Epstein's trade and draft decisions was actually a hunch. He prioritized hitters with power instead of pitching, betting that one little-examined consequence of baseball's toughened-up drug policy would be a dearth of the former and a surplus of the latter. This season made him look like a genius.
It didn't hurt, of course, that pitching coach Chris Bosio turned pitchers Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta from afterthoughts into tough-as-nails, front-of-the-rotation starters. Or that Epstein was given a Monopoly-money checkbook to add expensive complementary parts like veteran pitchers Jon Lester and John Lackey, and switch-hitting, infielder-outfielder Ben Zobrist, whom Maddon uses like a Swiss Army knife.
None of this comes as a surprise to Cleveland manager Terry Francona, who had the same job in Boston when Epstein, only 31 and still regarded as a wunderkind, rebuilt the franchise and reversed his first "curse." He'd seen him at work before. He knew how much the infighting in the wake of all that success in Boston had stung Epstein.
"I saw him in spring training when we played them. He made a point of coming down actually during the game. And we text every so often," Francona said on the eve of the Series. "Something comes up or something happens that he thinks is funny, or jogs a memory. We've texted back and forth during the last couple playoff series. We were together eight years.
"Eight years in Boston is, I would almost say miraculous. There's a lot of fond memories and we got through some tough times together and came out in the end. I knew when things got tough," he said, "where I could go."
That kind of loyalty and toughness impressed itself on Maddon when he interviewed for the Red Sox job that Francona - who had much more experience at the time - wound up getting. What he's learned about Epstein since made him even a bigger admirer.
When he scans the clubhouse and sees the team his boss has assembled, Maddon marvels that there's not a prima donna in sight. Just like the couch and the ottoman he plops down on occasionally, Epstein has covered every detail ahead of time. Not just the new-age business tools like NASA-caliber scouting reports, but the old-school nod to issues like personalities and character.
"I think sometimes in the game today, it gets to the point where it's just about acquiring a number," Maddon said. "I'm a big believer in that, but I also like the balance between the person and what the back of his baseball card says. Our guys do a wonderful job of balancing the math with the actual person."
Thank Theo's restlessness for that. Four more wins and generations of Cub fans will be doing the same.
Jim Litke is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com and https://Twitter.com/JimLitke .