Speaking to members of the media from the visitors dugout at PNC Park, Theo Epstein discussed the five-year extension that has reportedly made him baseball’s highest-paid executive. He didn’t address specifics, but went into more of the emotional and professional reasons for wanting to remain in Chicago.
“When we had dinner at Spring Training, (Tom Ricketts) started it off by saying some really nice things about me that might’ve hurt his leverage a little bit,” Epstein said of a conversation in Mesa that likely took place around the same time Ricketts vowed to pay his baseball boss commensurate with his value. “And then I returned the favor by telling him that even if we couldn’t work out a contract it would get awkward because I’d keep showing up to work as an employee at will, ruining my leverage. So that was a nice way to start the negotiation and, really, the entire process reflected that spirit.”
And that’s the thing, there was never any worry from either side that a deal would get done. If it wasn’t already clear from Epstein’s explanation, both sides have been incredibly transparent in their desire to keep the band together. Fans may have been holding their breath, but the folks in the know were never in doubt. Much of that was due to team ownership handing the baseball ops team the reins and letting them go to work.
“I’m really appreciative, grateful, to (the Ricketts family) for this contract and this show of faith in our entire baseball operation, but really for everything they’ve done for me and my family in the last five years. I took a bit of a bit of a leap of faith coming here, in them, and they’ve lived up to everything they said they’d do. They’ve been incredibly supportive, they’ve been incredibly patient…they’ve given me great freedom to operate within baseball operations. They’ve given me the resources that we’ve needed to make this baseball operation healthier and thrive. And it’s everything I could’ve ever asked for. There’s no place I’d rather be. I’m thrilled that this worked out.”
Remember a few years back when people were bellyaching about how cheap the new ownership was and how Epstein was complicit in their penny-pinching. Tinfoil hats and willful ignorance aside, there was legitimate reason for the casual fan to worry about the direction of a ballclub that was setting records for futility. Those who were paying close attention saw the team of leadership Epstein had assembled and knew it was only a matter of time before their plan bore fruit.
The real key to this whole thing working as quickly and as smoothly as it has is the assembly of hand-picked lieutenants to oversee various parts of the organization. Chief among them are GM Jed Hoyer and senior VP of player development Jason McLeod, men who have been on other teams’ radars in the five years since joining Epstein in Chicago. McLeod was viewed as a frontrunner to take over baseball ops for the Minnesota Twins, but was informed that he was being passed over for Indians assistant GM Derek Falvey. That was good news for the Cubs.
“(Hoyer, McLeod and I) continue to be like-minded about how we view the organization and the role in baseball operations,” Epstein continued. “There hasn’t been any conflict here. Again, it’s been…I’ve felt completely supported in a lot of different ways. There really wasn’t anything important to me besides finding common ground, making sure that we could stay and see this thing through. Our mission has not been accomplished yet.”
It’s really pretty incredible when you think about it. In an industry in which egos can quickly get out of control, the Cubs brass appears more like a group of buddies than a bunch of suits trying to get theirs. So often the goal in coaching or team management is to get to the top. What if the Cubs have actually established a front office that, just like the team they’ve put together on the field, is attractive enough that talented baseball minds just want to be a part of it? Crazy, I know.
Even crazier is the idea that Epstein truly doesn’t seem to be concerned about the money and that Ricketts may have opened up the checkbook more as a matter of principle than as the result of hardball negotiation. This wasn’t about a free agent demanding a raise, more like just paying a guy what he’s worth. Except Epstein isn’t worth $10 million per season, or whatever it is he’ll be earning. He’s worth more. Same goes for his cohorts.
They know their work isn’t done until they #FlyTheW in celebration of that long-awaited title. And then they’ll get right back to work on doing it again.