Call it rumours, call it speculation, call it wishful thinking, call it a cursebuster’s wet dream. Call it what you will, but Theo Epstein, the man who co-negotiated the Boston Red Sox’s rise from tragical mystery tours to stupefying world championships, and twice in a four-season span at that, is going to have his crack at co-negotiating the Chicago Cubs from a century plus of calamity and failure to a Promised Land they haven’t seen since the Roosevelt Administration. (Theodore, that is.)
Apparently, it’s all done but for the finer details, such as whom the Red Sox will receive as compensation (minor league players are the likely compensation) and how much will Epstein himself receive on a five-year deal. And it arrives, more or less, on the same day during which the Boston Globe published a jarring story that, depending on your point of view, exposes a few more disheartening details behind the Red Sox’s staggering September deflation or throws enough of the team under the proverbial bus.
If Epstein does as enough observers think he’s got a perfect chance to do, and rebuilds the Cubs into a World Series champion, a job he probably never envisioned for himself growing up as the Red Sox fan he was, he’s going to leave enough egg on enough faces to warrant charges of henhouse abuse.
Terry Francona either resigned, was fired, or quit before he could be fired, barely 48 hours after the Red Sox collapse was finalised. Barely a fortnight later, the word from Boston is that enough rats on the Red Sox ship think his regimen of painkillers (after enough knee surgeries to make a football player sympathise) and his apparent marital fracture (he’s said to have spent the season living in a hotel, apart from his wife of three decades) overtook him just enough to leave him a cat vulnerable enough that the clubhouse rats thought they had a free pass on the cheese.
Second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who expressed very public sorrow over Francona’s departure, still refuses to throw any teammate in front of any firing squad. But the collapse is now two weeks old and Pedroia, closer Jonathan Papelbon, and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury seem the only Red Sox left unscathed for the most part by the postmortem finger pointing coming from, well, almost anyone, from the Red Sox innards outward.
Pedroia seems to have found himself a leader without attention. Papelbon, one of the few Red Sox who hasn’t been accused of quitting on the team, seems to have been unable to assert a more forceful accountability among his fellow pitchers, three of whom—starters Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey—have been spanked by accusations of between-starts indulgences and lackadaisacal conditioning. Ellsbury, seemingly, was so stung by clubhouse sniping over the rib troubles that kept him out of most of 2010, that he may have withdrawn from most teammates other than Jed Lowrie, posting an MVP-worthy 2011 but otherwise keeping a profile so low as to make him damn near the invisible clubhouse man.
All of which leaves enough observers counting the hours before the stories start to pour forth regarding Epstein’s actual or alleged character flaws, misdeeds, or maybe hoisting a quaff or three with the good-time Charlies in the clubhouse even once. Not to mention, perhaps, raising questions as to whether the Red Sox brass, their club shoved out of the postseason in the most astonishing fashion, didn’t exactly mind keeping enough eyes upon them no matter the League Championship Series doings between Arlington, Detroit, St. Louis, and Milwaukee. You note that they let Epstein escape in time enough to let maximum publicity milk before the World Series news embargo.
Epstein hasn’t exactly shirked responsibility for some of the elements that led to 2011’s disaster. He doesn’t have to say that the Lackey and Carl Crawford deals have been stinkers thus far. He doesn’t have to say that failing to come up with a starting rotation option better, or at least healthier than Erik Bedard, at the non-waiver trade deadline, was not the sort of thing Red Sox Nation came to expect from a young man of his skill, observatory, and analytical powers. He knows it going in. And, he knows it going out. That’s not why he’s leaving, of course. We’ll know the real (as opposed to the juicily speculative) reason soon enough.
Don’t think for one second that Epstein wouldn’t like a do-over on those moves. On perhaps ignoring Lackey’s tendency to go to war with everyone from teammates to his managers when he doesn’t get his way, especially if things off the field get even dicier for him. On perhaps ignoring Crawford’s actual skills on behalf of his excitement potential and his overrated on-base abilities. On perhaps ignoring the possibility that too much time on the disabled list may have eroded the best of Bedard’s pitching skills. Not to mention, he might like a do-over on ignoring the possibility that his players became too self-involved to see that they were leaving a classic players’ manager, who trusted them to cowboy up without too much if any of the whip from him, in the path of an untenable stampede.
Now Epstein gets to do in Chicago what he did in Boston before the fit hit his shan in 2010-11. Oh, he has a few kinks to wring out right away. Kinks such as a near-complete overhaul of the Cubs’ coaching, player development, and scouting systems. Kinks such as getting people on board with the right blend of sabermetric savvy and scouting sensibility such as that which put two World Series rings on Red Sox fingers in four years. Kinks such as the Carlos Zambrano situation and just how to hustle the human time bomb of a pitcher out of town gracefully, which would be an awful lot better than Zambrano might deserve in enough eyes. Kinks such as a couple of millstone contracts, with Alfonso Soriano and others. Kinks such as whether or not to give Mike Quade, who lost a clubhouse almost as egregiously as Francona’s was more or less robbed from him, one more chance in the dugout.
Kinks such as whether, instead, to cash Quade’s check and bring in a new manager altogether. Say, a certain man now managing in the Phillies’ system, who busted his can for four or five years managing in the Cubs’ organisation, only to have Epstein’s predecessor tell him not to even think about the tiller in the Cub dugout. A man who’d bring about four or five years more managing experience to the Cubs than that guy the White Sox just hired.
If Epstein thinks returning the Red Sox to the Promised Land twice in four years made him a superhero in Boston, just wait until—launching from a rebuilding project pretty close to something slightly worse than even the pre-Theo Red Sox needed—he does it even once for the north side of Chicago, if he does. If Red Sox Nation hung Superman’s cape around him, in Cub Country they’ll form and name a new religion after him.
Now, would the Red Sox object too strenuously if we get back to watching the League Championship Series? Even a Red Sox fan such as yours truly confesses to be thinks the Red Sox can wait until that and the World Series are over before getting back to partying like it’s the winter of 1986.