Long before Cubs, Theo Epstein was a toddler bucking trend

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You know Bill Murray wishes he’d done the Will Ferrell thing and played in the big leagues — even if it was just spring training.

Lord, what able, or disabled, fan wouldn’t want to?

Which brings us to Cubs president Theo Epstein and the question of why a brilliant child, the boy from an extended family of academics and writers, would dedicate his life to the silly game of baseball.

Let’s go back to his birthplace, New York City.

‘‘My parents would always tell this story,’’ he begins, trying to explain what he calls his intuitive and ‘‘natural connection’’ to the game. ‘‘I was 2 years old and they would throw Wiffle balls to me in Central Park, and I would hit bombs. It would attract big crowds. People coming to watch. Really.’’

The mind reels at the sideshow. Little Theo (that’s his entire first name) cracking fly balls in front of  moms, nannies, panhandlers, lovers, tourists, cops.

‘‘At age 2!’’ he says with a chuckle. ‘‘I peaked early.’’

Now that the Cubs could be emerging from the three-year trash-it-all hibernation Epstein laid on them, the intricacies of the mind that conceived the re-do are compelling. His mind.

Maybe he got to be that Will Ferrell make-believe ballplayer at such an early age that it formed him as a man. Theo can’t remember a time when baseball didn’t call to him with a passion.

The family would soon move to Boston, where Theo’s father, Leslie Epstein, a novelist and professor, is the long-tenured director of the creative writing program at Boston University.  Leslie’s dad, Phillip, and his uncle Julius Epstein, of course, famously wrote the screenplay for ‘‘Casablanca.’’

Theo’s sister Anya, a television writer, is married to Dan Futterman, an actor and screenwriter who earned Academy Award nominations for his screenplay for ‘‘Capote,’’ starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the recent wrestling movie ‘‘Foxcatcher,’’ starring Channing Tatum.

It’s a brainy, creative legacy quite apart from building baseball teams. Theo knows this.

‘‘My mom had to occupy us kids [three, including Theo’s twin brother, Paul], so, at a very young age, at 4, I would watch a whole baseball game on TV, all the way through,’’ he said.

‘‘Then at age 9 or 10, my parents asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I said, ‘If I’m not doing something in baseball, I won’t be happy.’ ’’

The folks weren’t nuts about the idea, and Theo recalls feeling ‘‘pressure to excel academically, even if it wasn’t specifically about writing.

‘‘I benefitted from that, though,’’ he adds. ‘‘Because when we were growing up, my dad had this rule: For every minute of television we wanted to watch, we had to read for a minute. So if I wanted to watch a Red Sox game on TV — 2½ hours — I had to read for 2½ hours. Any kind of book. But usually my dad recommended it. So I’d read a lot of the classics by the time I got to high school.’’

The mind reels a bit more: a kid reading 50 pages of James Joyce to watch 150 minutes of Jim Rice.  Somebody could do a short story about that.

Then there was playing the game. Epstein played shortstop and pitcher in high school, and, as he says, ‘‘I always developed a good relationship with the coaches. I would talk about the game a lot.’’

As for his playing potential?

‘‘I pretty much threw my arm out early,’’ he says. ‘‘Threw too many curveballs, looking for glory.’’

But that glory was going to come inside baseball, somehow. Epstein is a fierce competitor, well-liked by his co-workers, and he had great success guiding the Red Sox for years. This Cubs tank-job, however, has hurt him. As well it should, since the tear-down is unprecedented for a big-market team.

‘‘The sacrifice of being largely irrelevant for a few years on the national scene,’’ says Theo, clearly wounded, ‘‘that wasn’t fun.’’

Good. It should hurt.

The former sports editor of the Yale Daily knows that ridicule and cynicism are what you can expect when you run a losing team.

And his education and book knowledge — don’t forget law school and passing the California bar — have helped him make sense of it all, in a literary, symbolic, holistic way.

‘‘You dig deep enough into anybody’s life and it reads like a Russian novel,’’ he says. ‘‘The twists and turns. And there’s a reason for everything.’’

There’s no doubt about the reason the Cubs have been so bad recently. Now, as Epstein says, there’s no reason they can’t win.

‘‘Now I’ll find out with you guys,’’ he says, meaning us skeptics. ‘‘Now the hard part starts.’’

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com

Twitter: @ricktelander

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