This excerpt from ‘‘The Plan: Epstein, Maddon, and the Audacious Blueprint for a Cubs Dynasty’’ by David Kaplan is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, visit triumphbooks.com/ThePlan.
CHAPTER 3: THE GM JOB
So while the 2011 Cubs were floundering on the field, the state of the Cubs’ minor-league system was even worse. The various levels of the Cubs’ minor-league system were devoid of many impact prospects. Players who appeared to be future major-league stars were few and far between. Add in an aging stadium, antiquated spring-training facilities and the smallest front-office staff in all of baseball, and you had a franchise that was one of the worst in the sport. In short, the Chicago Cubs’ future was as bleak as any in baseball.
Tom Ricketts decided to conduct a study of every team in baseball to see what executives were the best at building through the draft and international free agency. He surmised after talking with dozens of baseball types that unless he had the resources to spend on a par with the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox on an annual basis, he had to be willing to tear his baseball team down to the foundation and then rebuild it with a series of astute draft picks, trades and less expensive free-agent signings.
He also knew that to execute that plan, he had to hire someone with an outstanding record in that department, but it also had to be someone with a proven record as winner. That would give his rabid fan base reason to believe the rebuild would work.
It would also buy time for the franchise to rebuild the physical infrastructure of the Cubs’ facilities in Chicago, Arizona and the Dominican Republic, where the Cubs were trying to grab their share of that country’s incredibly rich teenage talent base.
Who could the Cubs find who had a proven track record of success and was willing to leave their current job and would want to take on a challenge as great as the Cubs’ rebuild posed?
Several names drew speculation, including New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman, Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane and several up-and-coming executives who had little or no experience running their own baseball-operations department. One name, though, piqued Tom Ricketts’ interest more than any other. It was a name that most observers thought would have little or no interest in uprooting his young family and leaving the job that he had as the GM of his favorite team as a child.
That name was Theo Epstein, and he had already won two World Series as the general manager of the Boston Red Sox and, in the process, had helped to end the Curse of the Bambino. A curse which fans of the Red Sox believed in since their team had not won a World Series since then-Boston owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920 for $125,000 to finance several Broadway plays he was producing.
After a detailed background investigation into Epstein’s availability and after doing informational interviews with a handful of well-respected baseball minds, including current Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, current Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn and former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Dan Evans, Ricketts began his pursuit of the youthful Epstein. The pursuit of Theo was on.
‘‘I only interviewed one person for the Cubs job,’’ Ricketts told me. ‘‘I met with a few people as I waited to pursue Theo, but those other meetings were informational only or just an opportunity for me to get to know some of the other names who were well-respected in case we couldn’t reach a deal with Theo. He was the only candidate that I officially interviewed to work for us.’’
One thing that most observers of the Cubs don’t know is who was quietly advising Tom Ricketts as he went about the process of learning the world of Major League Baseball. With Tom Ricketts and his siblings having absolutely no experience in baseball or having any close confidantes that were well-versed in the inner workings of the game, Tom Ricketts needed a sounding board that he could trust. A person who had no hidden agenda. Someone who only wanted the best for Tom, the Cubs and Major League Baseball.
I said to Tom Ricketts when we met in June 2016: ‘‘Someone had to advise you as the process went along. There is no way that you learned the game and the business on your own. So who was your most trusted and influential advisor?’’
Ricketts chuckled as he said to me: ‘‘So you don’t think I learned all of this by just studying and watching? Of course I had help, and almost all of the advice that I got came from Bud Selig. He was tremendous to deal with.
‘‘Bud knows everything about the game and the business of baseball. He helped advise me through the process from the time we became a serious candidate to buy the franchise through the time we decided to pursue Theo. He was always there to answer any question that we had.’’
In addition, Ricketts had received not only financial advice but, unbeknownst to anyone, excellent baseball advice from an unlikely source as he prepared to buy the franchise. White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf told Ricketts during a U.S. Cellular Field meeting with Sal Galatioto that he didn’t need to worry about big decisions on the baseball side of the Cubs.
‘‘Jerry was very nice to me,’’ Ricketts said. ‘‘He invited me down to a game, and as we talked he told me to not worry about my GM or my field manager or anything on the baseball side of the business.
‘‘He told me to concentrate on getting our deal done and finalizing the sale process. He told me there was plenty of time for the rest of the baseball side of the business but not to concern myself with that side at the start. He recommended that I learn the business first. It was great advice.
‘‘Had I changed GMs right away, I would have gone into the search not having any idea what I really wanted in a front-office executive. I would have ended up hiring someone who may or may not have been good. But it would have prevented me from making a change after I spent some time learning the business and, more importantly, the inner workings of our franchise. By waiting, we had a much better idea of what the strengths and weaknesses of our organization were and exactly what type of a person we wanted to lead the baseball-operations side of the business.’’
Coming Monday: ‘‘Building the Best Front Office in Baseball’’