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"I don't believe in curses," Theo Epstein said at one point during his extended introductory session with Chicago's sports media today. Yet there's no denying curses are exactly what brought him to his new post as the Cubs' president of baseball operations.
Epstein, who still qualifies as a wunderkind of a baseball executive at 37, was the general manager who ended the Boston Red Sox's "Curse of the Bambino" at 86 years when they won the 2004 World Series, and he guided them back to the top three years later just to prove it was no fluke.
Shortly after deciding to can Jim Hendry in July, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts identified Epstein as the best of all possible options to replace him, and when the BoSox's playoff run collapsed in a gloriously record-breaking fashion in the last month of the season, Epstein suddenly became available. Ricketts didn't miss his chance to nab him. While the two teams are still haggling out what prospects the BoSox will receive as compensation for letting Epstein go with a year left on his contract, he took control of the Cubs today.
Epstein said in a Boston Globe op-ed piece printed today (it's blocked by a fire wall, but there's a summary here) that he was inspired by football coach Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers, who said a coach or a sports executive should move on after ten years, lest his team or his own shelf life grow stale.
Yet Epstein is clearly just as inspired by the opportunity to end the Cubs' own legendary (and largely apocryphal) "Billy Goat Curse," which goes back to their last World Series appearance in 1945 and extends all the way to their last World Championship 103 years ago.
If Epstein can pull this trick off in the next ten years, he instantly becomes one of the greatest baseball executives of all time, and that has to be a powerful draw for such an obviously competitive and confident person.
"This is certainly the ultimate challenge," he said, "and I'm ready to embrace it and move forward."
Yet he also said all the right things about instituting "a clear philosophical change" of the team's entire way of doing things to produce "a Cubs way" that instills "a winning culture at the big-league level." He stressed "building a foundation for sustained success" based on player development and emphasizing the fundamentals throughout the system.
"It will not be any one person. It will be all of us," he said, quickly adding, "I can't wait to lead the way."
Of course, there's no lack of those who thought they could do the same. Dallas Green pronounced "a new tradition" of winning on coming to town shortly after helping the Philadelphia Phillies to their first World Series victory in 1980. He was gone before the decade was out. Andy MacPhail was supposed to bring the Minnesota Twins' flair for fundamentals and player development to the Cubs, but turned out to be little more than a glorified bean counter. Dusty Baker said the team had to directly confront its cursed past to get beyond it, only to succumb to an entirely new Bartman curse in 2003. And Lou Piniella said he wanted to instill some "Cubbie swagger," only to crawl home to retirement in Florida midway through last season.
Epstein, however, feels different. He radiates a confidence that suggests he did it before and will do it again, as when he spoke of the great joy the 2004 BoSox brought their fans, and how he looked forward to seeing the same elation on the part of Cubs fans. "When we build that foundation for success and ultimately win a World Series, it's going to be more than a World Series," he said, something that will be true both for the Cubs and for Epstein.