(Reuters) - The Chicago Cubs’ dramatic ending of a 108-year World Series drought was not merely a case of baseball’s “Loveable Losers” finally catching a break but the result of a patient strategy five years in the making.
“The Plan”, as it became known by Cubs fans forced to sit through a 100-loss season as recently as four years ago, was hatched when Boston Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein was appointed President of Baseball Operations in 2011.
Epstein, the Yale graduate who at the age of 28 broke the Red Sox’s decades-long World Series curse, sought to “define a Cubs way of playing the game.” On Wednesday, the “Cubs Way” delivered the moment generations had longed for with a thrilling 8-7 series-deciding win over the Cleveland Indians.
“This is just a different place,” John Baker, who played for the Cubs in 2014 and joined Epstein’s staff as a baseball-operations assistant last year, told Reuters.
“My first impression was wow, these guys won the World Series in Boston, they’ve been incredibly successful financially but they are ego-less people trying to provide the best possible environment for a team of baseball players to be successful. That’s the simple goal.”
The masterplan was built on a foundation of scouting and player development, supplemented by a series of brilliant trades and when the time was right, opening the cheque book for go-for-it free agency signings.
Epstein said he would not rest until the Cubs had the best scouting department in the game. His first three top draft picks - Albert Almora Jr, National League MVP favorite Kris Bryant and post-season hero Kyle Schwarber - all played vital roles on Wednesday.
The Cubs went against the grain by drafting bats, not arms, knowing that they could trade for pitchers and polish some rough diamonds. None shone brighter than 2015 Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and Game Seven starter Kyle Hendricks.
Even All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo was disregarded by the San Diego Padres before reuniting with Epstein, who first drafted him in 2007, to become the Cubs’ leader on the field.
“That’s the story of a lot of our guys, they weren’t the best guys right away. They faced adversity and were allowed to develop a way through it,” said Baker, who played in the minor leagues with Rizzo and caught Arrieta’s first game as a Cub.
“They’re the guys that are very difficult to compete against because they’ve been to the bottom, they’ve been beaten but are stronger people for it and when you put four of five of those guys on a field, you have the best team in baseball.”
With Epstein and his team signed on for another five years, Joe Maddon’s young side are primed for sustained success having secured a World Series berth with a starting lineup that had an average age of 23.
That hunger permeates through the entire organization, says Baker, from 16-year-olds being taught how to control their heart rate for their World Series moment to Wilson, the groundskeeper at the Arizona spring training complex, who, like everyone on staff, was flown to Chicago and given World Series tickets.
The talk in Chicago’s North Side is now of dynasties.
“We’re building an army to win as many championships as possible,” said Baker.
(This story fixes wording in sixth paragraph.)
Reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Editing by Frank Pingue