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Theo Epstein comes away from mentoring session ‘a better man’

Theo Epstein, Cubs president of baseball operations, participates in a Becoming A Man mentoring meeting at Hyde Park Academy High School Wednesday. | Fran Spielman

Theo Epstein grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, and graduated from Yale. He’s the millionaire boy wonder baseball boss who led his hometown Boston Red Sox, then the Cubs, to World Series titles.

On Wednesday, Epstein engaged in a bit of culture shock that, as he put it, “made me a better man.”

The Cubs president of baseball operations joined Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a Becoming a Man mentoring session at Hyde Park Academy for at-risk youth.

For more than an hour, Epstein “put myself in their shoes.” He came away with the “empathy” needed to make BAM a possible grant recipient for his “Foundation To Be Named Later,” which has already donated $9 million to programs for at-risk youth.

“I was really impressed with the candor. How the kids were willing to open up their worlds to a complete stranger in me and the mayor, but to each other more importantly and look for the kind of support that we all need to get through the day to get through adversity,” Epstein said.

“Young men in high school — at least when I was in high school — aren’t always willing to talk about the troubles they have. … There’s a tendency to internalize … and maybe feel like you’re the only one facing those types of problems. Having open discourse is a really important step in finding support.”

Epstein couldn’t help but think about the difference between his own privileged upbringing and the challenges the kids he joined around the circle face just surviving every day.

“I wish every kid were lucky to have all of the advantages I had growing up, but that’s not realistic. So, it’s incumbent on those who have had the advantages to stay engaged, stay connected and take responsibility for trying to become part of the solution,” he said.

Becoming a Man is a school-based group counseling program that teaches young men values, redirects their anger and helps them navigate through grades 7 through 12 when the choices they make can have life and death consequences.

Wednesday’s session began with a highs and lows segment.

Seated around a group-therapy-type circle, participants share what made them angry and happy over the last week.

One of the young men choked back tears as he talked about the break-up of his parents.

“It’s pretty hard to talk about. … She still has love for him, but she just don’t like what he does. That’s why she moved away from him. It’s like taking her soul. I just don’t like seeing my mom stressed out,” the young man said as a phalanx of television cameras recorded his inner thoughts.

And his high?

“I see that my mom is a lot more relaxed moving away from my dad,” he said.

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Another young man talked about his frustrations about a cracked screen on his IPhone. Yet another was angry after breaking his Apple watch playing basketball. But, he was excited that his uncle was taking him to an outlet mall to get a new pair of shoes.

Epstein’s high was a long-awaited date night with his wife. His low was a frustration at work that he did not identify.

Emanuel’s high was the fact that his teenaged kids were in a good place and becoming thriving young adults and Epstein had agreed to join the B.A.M. session. The low was Chicago’s never-ending cycle of gang violence.

“It’s just a real low point in my day, as it was today,” the mayor said.

A circle is formed to kick off the Becoming A Man (BAM) meeting at Hyde Park Academy High School. It is a Youth Guidance Program at the school. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Theo Epstein, President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs were present on Wedn
A circle is formed to kick off the Becoming A Man (BAM) meeting at Hyde Park Academy High School. It is a Youth Guidance Program at the school. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Theo Epstein, President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs were present on Wednesday. | Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

After that, the media was dismissed so the participants could talk more openly. Epstein distributed Cubs hats and came away from the closed-door session “struck” by how the program reminded him of the Cubs “when we’re at our best.”

He noted that the Cubs new clubhouse was a circle and, “We did that on purpose.”

“Not to trivialize the real-world issues that we have. But, in a small way at the Cubs, that’s how we succeeded this year. Guys leaning on each other, opting into the group and helping their brothers overcome adversity.”

The young men came away equally impressed with Epstein.

It may have been a cameo appearance by a millionaire baseball boss whom they will never see again. But, the fact that Epstein took the time out of his busy schedule to share an hour or two with them made them feel special.

“He inspired us all here today,” said a young man who identified himself as Omarion , but refused to give his last name.

“I learned that anybody can set their goals and, even if you make a mistake, you can do better the next time around.”

Another young man whose first name is Maurice added, “He came here. He gave his time. I felt inspiration. I felt like all of my hard work is finally paying off. I’m gonna meet important people who can actually do something to help my life. I’ll strive for success so I can be in the same position that he’s in today—or even higher above.”

As for the three years he’s spent in the B.A.M. program, Maurice said it put him on the road to college.

“Before, I was lazy and late with my school work. B.A.M. taught me different life skills,” he said.