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Cubs should give bear hug

TOM RICKETTS A big opportunity TOM RICKETTS A big opportunity
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / October 6, 2011

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The Chicago Cubs have an interesting decision to make: Go all out for Theo Epstein, or settle for second-, third-, or fourth-best.

Seems to me, if you’ve gone 103 years without winning a World Series and you feel Epstein is the general manager/president you’ve been waiting for, then you do whatever it takes to get him.

If you don’t do it because you feel the compensation is too high, what a disservice to your fans. Players can be replaced - bought or traded - but the right leader for an organization is so hard to find.

New Cubs owner Tom Ricketts has a tremendous opportunity to hit a grand slam with his first major hire. This is a move that could propel the Cubs into a decade of glory or keep them languishing in the malaise they’ve been in for some time.

Epstein successfully implemented his vision with the Red Sox , building up the farm system, the scouting department, and the major league squad.

You can argue now that some of that has broken down and perhaps the vision isn’t sustainable for the long run. But it was enough to produce two World Series championships and six playoff appearances.

If there’s hope in Chicago, it would lie with the possibility that Epstein could duplicate that. He could be the guy who turns around the fortunes of two of the more stored franchises in baseball history, teams that until recently were known more for their futility than their success.

Epstein loves challenges, and at 37, he’s young enough that he can meet a few of them in the next 15-20 years. The Cubs fix won’t be overnight. There are some long-term commitments to players who didn’t work out. Epstein knows too well about that. Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano are reminiscent of Carl Crawford and John Lackey. But he also would have good young players and an owner who will spend money to fix what is wrong.

Money isn’t as abundant with the Cubs as it is with the Red Sox, but they’re not far apart. Chicago would embrace a different way of doing things, a man with a plan that has worked - at least for most of his tenure in Boston.

Some would say, well, Epstein succeeded because he had a passion for his boyhood team. Maybe that’s true, but he understands history and he understands how Cubs fans feel about their team. Any organization that draws 3 million fans with a lousy team has something special going on, and Epstein knows that well.

The Cubs are a team for romantics, the lovable losers. It’s a label the Sox had for a long time until they finally won in 2004, so what better person to show Rickets the blueprint than Epstein?

He is an analytical GM who uses statistics as well as traditional scouting to put together a team. Ricketts, being a businessman and a numbers guy, would love Epstein’s style. In many ways, Ricketts is not unlike John Henry in that regard.

There are so many things that are intriguing about this possibility.

One Cubs insider said Epstein could hire Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg as the manager, which would make him even more popular.

I asked Sandberg yesterday about the situations with the Red Sox and the Cubs, and he said, “My goal has always been to be a big league manager, and that hasn’t changed.’’ He would love nothing more than to manage the team he played with for so long.

Sandberg also would love the Red Sox job, but he turned down a chance to manage Pawtucket last year and chose to go to Lehigh Valley, the Phillies’ Triple A affiliate. Sandberg has been a very good manager wherever he’s been and is willing to pay his dues, even with his status.

Former Cubs GM Jim Hendry always liked Sandberg but didn’t believe he was ready for the major league job. Sandberg lost out to Mike Quade, who did a nice job as interim manager in 2010 after Lou Piniella left, and then got the job in 2011, with disastrous results.

Hendry since has been let go. The Cubs have only Ricketts and president Crane Kenney running the show. They still have some of their valued scouts, such as former Pirates GM Dave Littlefield, and Ricketts also rehired his scouting and farm directors even ahead of naming a new GM.

Ricketts is a quiet guy who keeps things close to the vest. He has said there are a lot of strong candidates out there for the GM job. Don’t be shocked if Yankees GM Brian Cashman, despite his denials, is one of them. Andrew Friedman, J.P. Ricciardi, and Joe Garagiola all would be strong candidates.

But we know what Ricketts really wants: Epstein.

The only way he can get him is to go all-out. He should offer a record contract, the title of president of baseball operations, and complete control over the organization. Ricketts would have to hand over the keys to Epstein and he would have to pay the Red Sox for their loss.

Now that Epstein’s name is out there, now that the Cubs have asked permission from Major League Baseball and the Red Sox to speak to him, the appetite of the Chicago fans has been whetted.

It’s obvious that Epstein is The Choice. And now Chicago fans will see what Ricketts does to get the job done. It may define Ricketts as an owner in the Windy City.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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