In early November 2004, Theo Epstein walked into a small, wood-paneled bar in a South Florida hotel that was hosting baseball’s annual general managers’ meeting. He proceeded to quietly receive handshakes and congratulations from many of his peers in the industry.
Epstein was only 30 then, but he had just been part of a historic moment. The Boston Red Sox, whom he presided over as general manager, had rallied from a three-games-to-none deficit to beat the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. Then they had won the World Series for the first time in 86 years.
While the handshakes from the other baseball executives in South Florida did not quite compare to the Champagne-drenched celebrations that accompanied Boston’s stunning accomplishment, they were satisfying nonetheless.
On Monday in Scottsdale, Ariz., Epstein was set to be saluted yet again by the many people with whom he normally competes. And once again, the setting would be the annual general managers’ meeting, this time coming five days after Epstein’s Chicago Cubs, over whom he presides as president for baseball operations, ended a 108-year championship drought with a dramatic seven-game victory over the Cleveland Indians.
The general managers’ meeting follows quickly after the World Series concludes, which allows the front office of the winning team to strut just a little in front of everyone it just beat out for the title.
Not that Epstein struts, although in breaking two famous curses in a little more than a decade, he has already made himself a candidate for Cooperstown.
Epstein was modest and eloquent in 2004 in St. Louis, after the Red Sox had completed a sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series. He said the championship was not only for the current players and fans, but also for all the Red Sox players who had come before, and the many generations of fans who had rooted for them across so many painful years.
Having grown up in Brookline, Mass., not far from Fenway Park, Epstein, now 42, knew the exact note to hit. And a dozen years later, he went back to that same script when the Cubs prevailed on Wednesday night.
“I want to thank everyone who has ever put on a Cubs uniform and anyone who has ever rooted for the Cubs,” he said. “It has been 108 years of love and support and patience waiting for a team like this to make it happen on a night like this. You guys are all world champions tonight. I couldn’t be more happy for you.”
When the Cubs hired Epstein after the 2011 season, everyone was aware that he was being asked to repeat what he had done in Boston. Which, just five years later, he has. And although the ability to spend money on players and some good fortune were involved in the Cubs’ success this year, there is also something about Epstein’s calm, confident attitude that probably contributed to the end of both championship droughts.
Consider Epstein’s responses to questions from reporters during the 2004 A.L.C.S. With the Yankees up by three games, reporters spoke with him on the field at Fenway Park before Game 4. The premise of their questions was that the series was all but over and that it was already time for Epstein to start talking about 2005 and what changes might be in store for the Red Sox’ roster.
As the reporters fired away, Epstein gracefully acknowledged why the questions were being asked but politely declined to answer them.
Walking backward up the first-base line, he kept noting that the series was not over yet. The Red Sox still had a game to play that night, he said, and if they won it, there would be another. He was polite but firm in refusing to accept the thinking behind all the questions.
This year, Epstein’s Cubs faced a task almost as daunting. They lost three of the first four games of the World Series to the Indians, and no team in the previous 31 Series had overcome a deficit that large. Faced with that challenge, Epstein, not surprisingly, demonstrated the same composure he had in 2004.
The Cubs proceeded to win Game 5 at Wrigley Field. Then, before Game 6 in Cleveland, Epstein walked from his hotel up East Ninth Street to Progressive Field along with a few members of his staff and a sea of Indians fans expecting to celebrate their first World Series title since 1948.
It was an unusual moment, but wearing a blue dress shirt and carrying his black backpack, Epstein looked calm, as if he were on his way to a seminar.
The Cubs won the next two games and their first World Series since 1908. Then, after a couple of swigs of Champagne, Epstein thanked everyone in the Cubs’ organization, including the players, the coaches and the scouts, for their effort. He made note of all the time that people in the organization had spent looking at video, lifting weights, throwing batting practice and compiling scouting reports.
And there was a joke, too. “I’m relinquishing my presidential duties,” he said, adding that his general manger, Jed Hoyer, would be in charge while he went on a monthlong bender.
“Wake me up for the winter meetings” was his punch line. But those are in December, and all joking aside, Epstein was present and accounted for on Monday in Scottsdale.
He signed a five-year extension with the Cubs in September, and just as he did with the Red Sox in 2007, he will try to win at least one more championship in Chicago.
And after that? Well, there’s always Cleveland.
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