February 27, 2017

McDEVITT | Theo Epstein Still Has Some More to Prove

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The last 10 months or so have been among the craziest in sports history. LeBron James and the Cavaliers overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat one of the greatest basketball teams of all time to win Cleveland its first major sports title in 52 years. The New England Patriots overcame a 25 point deficit and won their fifth Super Bowl in stunning fashion.

And, yes, the Chicago Cubs ended their 108-year title drought.

With position players reporting last week, many eyes are turning to Mesa, AZ, where the Cubs spring training camp is freshly underway. The defending champs certainly have a chip on their shoulder, and deservedly so. This is a young and talented team with solid leadership and a dedicated fan base, and they have every right to celebrate being World Champions. But the pressure is high on the Cubs’ front office going forward.

These days, Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein is among the most exalted executives in sports — and for good reason. Epstein ended Boston’s 86-year World Series title drought in 2004, and now he has brought the Commissioner’s Trophy back to the North Side of Chicago for the first time since 1908.

Both in Boston and Chicago, Epstein accomplished something dozens of predecessors could not. Clearly, his methods are quite effective. Many are clamoring for Epstein to be enshrined in a building of his own; he has likely already punched his ticket to Cooperstown. Yet, as it stands now, Epstein’s case for greatest baseball executive of all time is not that great.

Arguments for Epstein notwithstanding, the title of greatest executive in history belongs to Ed Barrow, the man who converted Babe Ruth from a pitcher to an outfielder and turned the New York Yankees from a perennial bottom feeder to the greatest dynasty in the history of professional sports. Barrow led the Yankees to their first World Series title in 1923 and finished his career with 10 rings, more than most teams in their entire histories.

Reaching that figure would certainly be a tall order for Epstein, and in today’s baseball climate, it is not likely. Epstein’s ability to reboot teams that have not won for countless decades and turn them into winners is nonetheless remarkable, and it should mean something. Prior to the 2004 season, the two longest championship droughts in all of pro sports belonged to the Red Sox and Cubs. Epstein has now ended both of them. But there is a little more to the story.

In fact, Epstein went on to win another title in Boston in 2007, and the team won yet another in 2013, one season removed from his departure. He didn’t just end the Red Sox’ drought, he turned them into a regular contender. Today, the Curse of the Bambino and the title drought in Boston have been relegated to the annals of baseball history, and everyone around the league respects the Red Sox as a storied franchise.

Epstein must do the same in Chicago. It’s one thing to win a championship, but it is entirely another to win two, three or even four. Epstein’s legacy hinges on his ability to restore a winning tradition to Wrigley, and turn the awful 100-plus year stretch the team endured into a distant memory for Cubs fans, just as he did for the Fenway Faithful.

He is off to a pretty good start, but he has a long way to go. The Cubs are well positioned with a young and uniquely talented team, and expectations should be high. This is a team that should have several more postseason runs in them and at least one or two more titles to show for it. What Epstein has built in Chicago is great, but he must maintain the greatness, and continue to produce a winning team. This Cubs team has the tools to be a dynasty, and it is on Epstein to turn them into one. Then, and only then, might he give Ed Barrow a run for his money.