In 2012, the Sun-Times ran a photo illustration of Theo Epstein walking on water – you know, just in case anyone had missed the news that he was being viewed as the Cubs’ messiah.
The real miracle arrived four years later, when the team won the World Series. But even during the darkest years under Epstein, the relationship between the Cubs president and the fan base never seemed to waver. Despite a 101-loss season in 2012, followed by 96 losses in 2013, most fans stayed on board with the rebuild. They couldn’t always see what Epstein was doing, but they trusted that his vision would get them where they wanted to go.
It’s 2019, and the honeymoon is over. That might seem like an odd statement, given that the Cubs are coming off a 95-victory season and had been to three straight National League Championship Series before that. And, oh, yeah, that 2016 World Series title.
But people want more. That’s one of the byproducts of wild success. Of course fans should be forever grateful to Epstein for doing what no Cubs executive had been able to do for 108 years. Of course fans should have his photo prominently displayed in their homes.
But, if it’s not asking too much, can he feed the multitude now? Here are five loaves, two fish and Yu Darvish.
It’s time to deliver.
“We are really optimistic about this season, but I completely get it from a fan standpoint,’’ he said Friday at Cubs Convention. “I know there are a lot of questions out there. I actually appreciate that, just to have fans who are as passionate about baseball and about winning and about the Cubs as we are. We can’t take that for granted. Even if the tone isn’t what you always want to hear sometimes, it’s coming from the right place.
“It also reflects the fact that standards have been raised around here quite a bit. We’re coming off a 95-win season. We’ve won more games than any other club the last four years, and yet there are loud, legitimate questions from our fans. I think that’s a good thing.’’
It’s a big season for manager Joe Maddon, who is in the final year of his contract. Some of the young players did not progress last season the way the organization hoped they would. So it’s a big season for Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr.
But as long as we’re on the topic of big seasons, this one is massive for Epstein.
Good or bad or in-between, this year, more than any other since he was hired in October 2011, will be on him. Will the Cubs bounce back after last season’s wild-card loss to the Rockies? Was that just a hiccup for a team built for postseason success? Or are the Cubs slowly heading in the wrong direction?
There’s an edginess rumbling underneath the surface of a team that went 95-68 last season. Fans and front-office types alike are aware that championship windows generally don’t stay open very long.
Ownership apparently has not given Epstein the money to pursue free agent Bryce Harper, who would have added a much-needed left-handed bat to the Cubs’ lineup. With their payroll expected to be above $200 million for 2019, it’s hard to make the argument that Epstein’s hands are tied. Or, if you do want to make that argument, you’ll have to acknowledge that he supplied the rope by signing Darvish and Tyler Chatwood last season, two moves that blew up in his face. And if you’re nostalgic, don’t forget Jason Heyward’s big contract.
If the Cubs are intent on being a major-market team – and their pursuit of their own TV network says they are – then allowing Epstein to go after Harper is the cost of doing business. If you have the chance to get a player like him, you go for it.
But that’s not going to happen. Epstein has said he’s comfortable rolling out much the same team he put together last season.
If it makes you feel any better, he said he has never worked harder in an offseason as he has this one. He did not like watching opponents celebrate at Wrigley Field the last two games of last season. The Brewers won the division in a tie-breaker one day, and the Rockies won the wild-card game the next day. It was a fitting end for a team that seemed to run out of gas.
“I had a significant role in it,’’ Epstein said. “I made a lot of decisions that didn’t turn out the way we wanted them to, and that contributed to us not getting where we wanted to go.’’
After the 2012 season, the one in which the Cubs lost 101 games, the Sun-Times ran another photo illustration of their president, this one of him walking underwater. We were clearly in the minority in the doom and gloom and glub-glub-glub department. Most fans were right there with him, their air bubbles rising to the surface as they waited patiently for the rebuild to succeed.
Now they want more, and they should. It’s time for the Cubs to deliver again. Epstein understands.
“We had fans who waited the better part of a century to be on top and love the way it feels up there and don’t want to leave,’’ he said. “We have that in common.’’