For Theo Epstein, the writing was on the wall for a career path
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
In 1993, a 19-year-old sportswriter for Yale’s student newspaper wrote that the school’s long-time football coach should be fired. Considering the coach had won 10 Ivy League titles, it caused a stir. But the Bulldogs were on their way to a 3-7 season, the coach was at the tail end of his career and maybe it was time for a change.
For the writer, though, the column wasn’t an example of heartfelt conviction so much as journalistic coin flip.
“We had a meeting and decided one person would write backing the football coach and one would write saying to fire him,’’ Theo Epstein said. “It was a lesson in the way that the world of journalism sometimes works. It was an eye-opener for me. I regret it, and I’ve happily moved on.’’
He might have a future in this whole baseball thing. Under the direction of their president of baseball operations, the Cubs are headed to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Epstein took a wrecking ball to the organization when he was hired in 2011, rebuilt it over three painful seasons and here the Cubs are, with the chance to win a championship for the first time since 1908. They face the Indians, starting Tuesday in Cleveland.
Epstein also did OK in a previous stop, winning two World Series with the Red Sox.
Journalism’s loss, possibly. Baseball’s gain, definitely.
“I realized I didn’t want to be a sportswriter when I was interning with the Orioles back in ’92, ’93, ’94,’’ Epstein said. “I did do a lot of media-relations stuff, and I saw that the life of a sportswriter is pretty lonely. You kind of work by yourself, sit there by yourself in the press box, go back to the hotel bar. Not to generalize.’’
No worries. I’ll be right back just as soon as I go kill myself.
“I really do like working shoulder-to-shoulder with other people for a common goal,’’ he said, “but I really respect writing and respect sportswriters.’’
Epstein isn’t a one-dimensional baseball savant, but he’s not sure if there’s another profession where his particular skill set would translate. Anybody looking for a man who sees the poetry in Javy Baez’ tagging ability at second base, knows how to negotiate a contract and understands that WAR is a stat, not a scourge?
“I have a special connection with baseball,’’ he said. “I’ve been following it closely since I could walk, basically. Someone asked me, ‘Would you ever go work in football?’ I considered the question disrespectful to everyone who works in football. You build up a library of knowledge about players and plays and dynamics of the game that you can’t replicate. You can’t buy that. You can’t go buy a degree in it.
“It’s why the best scouts are 70. It takes a long time to build that up. I’ve had 25 years in the game now, and I think that’s what contributes to doing well when I am doing well and not screwing something up – there’s a lot of both. But there’s a lot of trial and error and a lot of experience – 25 years. I think that can be overlooked sometimes in the game.’’
He’s right. There’s a reason Supreme Court justices aren’t 30. Wisdom comes with age, though that doesn’t explain how Epstein became the Red Sox’ general manager at 28 in 2002. He’s smart, he can look a problem broadly and he hires good people.
In 2014, he hired Joe Maddon to manage the Cubs, but that wasn’t his first meeting with the skipper. Epstein, along with current Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer, had interviewed Maddon for the Red Sox managerial position in 2003. The job went to Terry Francona, now the Indians manager.
“What I remembered was the organization of the meeting, the well-thought-out component of the meeting,’’ Maddon said. “For example, they gave me maybe a list of 10 different items, and I had to list them in order of importance. For example, creating your lineup, handling your bullpen, talking to the press, empowering your coaching staff. I think those were four of the examples. And then you have to list them in the order which you think is the most important thing to do on a daily basis. I thought that was interesting. So, that was part of it.
“And then just handling difficult moments. Certain player becomes difficult and he’s a star or got a great status, how do you deal with that? So you have to run by that potential scenario also. Another good question.’’
Several of the people who work with and for Epstein have called him the smartest guy in whatever room he’s in, which has always made me want to get Bill Gates in a room with Epstein to see if opinions would change. Epstein doesn’t like the “smartest guy’’ label.
“I’ve hired a lot of people who are smarter than I am,’’ he said. “I don’t understand most of the stuff our analytics guy do, but I have a decent feel for how to hire them and how to apply it. But I couldn’t do that stuff. I’d probably have to go back to school for some of the math part of it.’’
There has been pushback from Epstein and Maddon against the perception that they are stats-driven geeks who leave no room in their computing for flesh and blood and emotion. Maddon even talked about it hours before the Cubs celebrated their pennant Saturday night at Wrigley Field.
“Don’t forget about the heart, don’t forget about the mind, don’t forget about the motor that exists within the person,’’ he said. “That all matters when it comes to success.’’
When Epstein was the Padres’ director of player development in the mid-1990s, his office was situated between the offices of the scouting director and the head of analytics. Neither man liked each other, he said, but both liked Epstein.
“When they let their guard down around me, they’d share how they viewed the game,’’ he said. “That’s where I got my perspective that the game is a little bit of both. The best moves that you make, the best evaluations make sense though the scouting director’s lens and also through the analytics guy’s lens. You take a little bit of both. That was a long time ago, before most organizations were thinking that way, and they are now. And that helped me get a little advantage.’’
Epstein can’t recall any writers calling for his firing in either Boston or Chicago, though he is quick to point out that the Sun-Times featured him walking on water before the 2012 season and later under the water when the season was over. But firing him? No, not yet anyway. And not anytime soon with the team he has built.
He would like a do-over of that Yale column from 23 years ago, now that he’s older and wiser. But he also realizes the fallout from it was a learning experience.
“The coach was pissed, and he brought it up in the press conference after the game,’’ he said. “It was uncomfortable, but you write something, you’ve got to back it up.’’
He’s got that right. It’s one of many things he has gotten right.