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Right now, Chicago is his kind of town

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / October 14, 2011

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CHICAGO - It was a rainy day in Wrigleyville, and people were moving quickly through the raindrops. There were no lines outside the ticket windows at Wrigley Field to reflect any boost from the big news that Theo Epstein was coming to town.

Heck, even with the chaos and awful season the Cubs had, they managed to draw more than 3 million fans, though the natives say the no-shows became the norm rather than the exception late in the season.

“I had stopped being a Cubs fan,’’ said a caller to a morning-drive sports radio show. “When you guys talk about the Cubs, I just turn the station. But now that we have Epstein, I’m back.

“For the first time in over 100 years, we have a winner - a proven winner - running the team. I’m back. I want to see what he can do.’’

The caller was reminded that Andy MacPhail came to the Cubs under similar circumstances in 1994. He was 41 years old and had won two World Series in Minnesota. He was mostly the president of the organization, hiring Ed Lynch and then Jim Hendry to be his general managers.

MacPhail, who recently stepped down as president of baseball operations for the Orioles, said, “I’m very excited for Theo. It’s a great opportunity for him and a challenge I’m sure he’ll enjoy.’’

It’s been a long time since MacPhail left, so the similarities don’t resonate with most Cubs fans. But it is clear that the “lovable losers’’ tag no longer applies.

Cubs fans have gone through two years of losing since Tom Ricketts bought the team from the Tribune Company, and fans were getting angry that changes had been very slow in coming.

“Cubs fans are more excited about this than when Ricketts bought the team from the Tribune,’’ said longtime Chicago media personality and former Boston sportscaster Tom Shaer, who is now president of TSM Media in Chicago. “Theo has a proven track record.

“There was excitement when Ricketts bought the team from the Tribune but people became very critical of Ricketts because there were essentially no changes made the last two years when the team performed very poorly.

“Jim Hendry was allowed to stay on as the GM. They definitely wanted new blood and a new way of doing things and that seemed slow in happening.’’

Chicagoans don’t seem to care that Epstein’s team didn’t make the playoffs the last two years and is now in utter chaos. They don’t seem to care that in some ways his track record with big contracts is similar to that of Hendry, who dished out huge money for Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Zambrano, Kosuke Fukudome, Ryan Dempster, etc.

“We need someone who can come in and start bringing in the right players and who has a good plan to rebuild,’’ said a fellow taking a tour of Wrigley Field who identified himself only as Tom.

“Theo Epstein is a breath of fresh air. We’ve finally got someone taking a modern approach to the running of a baseball team and not the old ways that haven’t worked here for so long.’’

Jennifer, a Cubs fan from Milwaukee, thinks Epstein “will get a fair chance to turn things around before the fans get on him.’’

But Shaer feels it won’t be the easiest of beginnings for Epstein. He pointed out that both corner infielders - Ramirez and Carlos Pena - are free agents. Ramirez had a decent year and is already making waves about his next contract. Pena might be brought back, but who knows if Epstein has bigger thoughts for first base, such as Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols?

“I don’t think Tom Ricketts wants that payroll to get back up beyond that $140 million mark,’’ said Shaer. “I don’t think he’s interested in that. I think he wants to build this with controllable players and a good farm system that puts out good players every year.’’

Epstein’s first act probably has to be a decision on the manager. Mike Quade is in place but in limbo. There will be pressure to hire Cubs great and Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, the man many fans thought should have had the job after Lou Piniella retired in 2010.

Epstein, who had his own problem children in Boston, will inherit Zambrano, who can still pitch at a high level but whose off-field antics might make him someone Epstein has to get out of town.

There’s also, as Shaer pointed out, a “country club’’ atmosphere in the Cubs clubhouse - not as severe as the one that existed in Boston, but an issue nonetheless.

Epstein will have to upgrade the starting pitching and address the situation with closer Carlos Marmol, who has been erratic.

Would Jonathan Papelbon be a fit?

“If we can get Fielder or Pujols and maybe Papelbon, this team would look a lot better,’’ said Tom, a Cubs fan who was sitting at a Starbucks across from the ballpark.

There also has been talk about Epstein trying to deal for Kevin Youkilis to replace Ramirez at third or Pena at first.

The possibilities seem endless.

Phil Rogers, the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, wrote in his blog, “What will the Cubs do with Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano? Not sure, but I do know this: Theo Epstein is the right man to make those kind of decisions.’’

Rogers cited the Nomar Garciaparra deal in 2004 as a key element to the Red Sox winning their first World Series championship in 86 years.

“The guy can make the tough calls,’’ wrote Rogers. “It’s in his DNA.’’

That, in a nutshell, describes the confidence in Epstein that is evident here. It seems a far cry from what he’s leaving in Boston, where polls taken by multiple media outlets around New England are showing that fans mostly blame him for the Sox’ demise.

Now the slate will be wiped clean. Epstein has a chance in the eyes of these fans to become the town’s next Mike Ditka or George Halas.

There could even be a favorite restaurant of sports enthusiasts called “Epstein’s’’ or “Theo’s.’’

Or, he could fail to conquer.

MacPhail rode into town with the same enthusiasm and promise some 17 years ago. The Cubs are still searching for that elusive championship.

Is Theo the one to get it?

The fans and media of Chicago are building him up about as high as they possibly can. He is being portrayed as the savior of the franchise.

We will see if there is such a thing.

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

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