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Theo Epstein

Drop the mic? No, says Theo: `There’s a lot more work to be done’

SHARE Drop the mic? No, says Theo: `There’s a lot more work to be done’
SHARE Drop the mic? No, says Theo: `There’s a lot more work to be done’

HOUSTON — Tracing the story of Theo Epstein and baseball always seems to involve Game   6 of the 1986 World Series, when 12-year-old Theo and his brother stood on their couch in the den of their Brookline, Massachusetts, home, anticipating the final out of what looked like, finally, the elusive championship for their beloved Boston Red Sox.

“To be jumping in midair during that moment,” said Paul Epstein, Theo’s fraternal twin. “The jump happened, but the ball went through the legs. The elation didn’t happen.”

That story got circulated widely after Theo helped end his, Paul’s and the rest of Red Sox Nation’s baseball misery with a 2004 championship in his second year as the Red Sox’ general manager.

Thirty years and a week after Bill Buckner’s error on the TV in the den that night, the kid on the couch also achieved the most elusive championship in American sports, sending much of Chicago so high their feet still haven’t hit the ground.

Just like that, the Cubs’ team president had a spot reserved in the Hall of Fame and joined the likes of Branch Rickey in the conversation for baseball’s greatest executive. Never mind beating out the pope for the world’s greatest leader (just look it up in Fortune magazine).

Now what?

If there’s such a thing as a drop-the-mic moment for a baseball executive, last fall’s World Series was it.

“I just think there’s a lot more work to be done here,” said Epstein, who at 43 is in the first year of a five-year, $50 million contract extension. “If we go and have four bad seasons now, I’ll feel like I didn’t do my job — I didn’t do my whole job. We’re trying to turn this place into a perennial contender and hope to win multiple championships. There’s still a lot more work to be done here. I just think it’s navel-gazing to sit here and contemplate legacy or contemplate next steps when there’s so much more to be done right now in the moment here.”

For now, that means trying to engineer the first World Series repeat championship in 17 years, and the first for a National League team in 40.

It means continuing to search for the starting pitching that can sustain the Cubs’ recent success after Jake Arrieta and John Lackey hit free agency.

Dynasty?

“They’re going to be a force to be reckoned with for a while,” Pittsburgh Pirates general man-ager Neal Huntington said the week after the World Series.

“The sky’s the limit,” said New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman, whose teams won four of five World Series from 1996 to 2000.

It’s still hard to imagine topping what Epstein already has accomplished in Boston and Chicago — and to imagine what’s left for him to do in baseball, whether in the context of this post-Series moment or at the end of his contract.

But during that conversation in the middle of the Cubs’ playoff run last fall, Paul Epstein found it hard to imagine his brother doing anything else, in any other industry.

“He was definitely a total stat-head and ripped the sports pages out of my hand and read the box scores before I could even get it,” Paul said of their childhood, calling it “a complete and total obsession with the sport.”

“I know this is where he wants to be,” Paul added. “And it didn’t surprise me that he wanted to re-up regardless of what happened [in 2016]. There was so much speculation about if they win, would he be out. . . . He wants to be here.”

Clearly, everything has changed for the organization and everyone connected to it since the championship. But those in the front office say the changes are minimal, if any, with the guy running the operation.

“Just wearing a hat a little more often,” Theo said of the Cubs’ overall higher profile. “You just get recognized a little more. It hasn’t really changed that much.”

Beyond this year, and certainly beyond the contract, Epstein swears he hasn’t given thought to what he might do next.

“I’ll know when it happens,” he said.

It might not be too far outside the box when it does. Politics? Football? Basketball?

“A lot of people seem to think he’ll do something outside the sport of baseball,” said Paul, a social worker at Brookline High School, the brothers’ alma mater. “Given his passion for the game, his love of the game of baseball, his skill at doing things within the sport, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a baseball lifer.”

Of course, the commissioner’s seat is already taken for the foreseeable future, with Rob Manfred taking over last year.

“I’m not looking beyond this. I’m not looking to next,” Theo said. “If you’re constantly looking for the next thing, then you never truly enjoy where you are. And right now is a great time to enjoy being in the Cubs organization.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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