During his nine seasons as general manager of the Red Sox, Theo Epstein helped deliver the franchise’s first World Series title in 86 years, then three years later after that 2004 championship, collected another.
His quest to help another storied franchise end its prolonged championship drought officially began today.
“I was so lucky to spend a decade in the Red Sox organization, and I consider myself very, very lucky to be a Cub today,” said Epstein during a press conference that commenced at noon and lasted approximately 50 minutes at Wrigley Field, where he was introduced as the franchise’s president of baseball operations. “I appreciate your faith in me, and I promise to repay you with the hard work and dedication you deserve.”
Epstein faces a daunting task, at least in the near future. The Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908, the longest drought in American professional sports. They have a thin farm system, and the big league roster of a team that finished 20 games below .500 in 2011 is dotted by bad contracts, such as those to pitcher Carlos Zambrano and outfielder Alfonso Soriano.
“With this ownership, I firmly believe I can preserve all of those things that make the Cubs so special,” Epstein said. “Over time, I believe we can build a consistent winner, a team that is playing baseball in October regularly.”
The Cubs, who have not even played in a World Series since 1945, have a reputation as lovable losers. Until the Red Sox won in 2004, the franchises were considered kindred spirits, and Epstein acknowledged that the approach to helping the Cubs overcome their history is similar to what he had to undertake in Boston.
“I promise not to refer to the Red Sox in every answer, but I think it’s apropos here,” Epstein said. “When I got to Boston, they hadn’t won in 86 years and we didn’t run from that challenge. We embraced it, and we decided that the way to attack it was to build the best baseball operation that we could, to try to establish a winning culture, and to work as hard as possible, and to bring in players who cared more about each other and more about winning than about what the people around them thought or the external expectations or the external mindset.”
His comments were reminiscent of when he became the Red Sox general manager in November 2002 and spoke immediately of building a “player development machine.” His job may have changed, but his philosophy hasn’t.
“You build it up through scouting and player development and build a foundation that allows you to have success year in and year out. That’s something we’re going to focus on every single day, all of us in baseball operations,” Epstein said. “There’s a parallel front to build up the major league team, because every opportunity to win is sacred. . . . I will say that every decision we make will be with the best interests of the Cubs in the long run in mind.’’
There were moments of levity and humor. Epstein joked that during his last few weeks with the Sox but when the move to the Cubs was inevitable, he worked at a desk in the basement with a Swingline stapler, a reference to a character in the movie “Office Space.’’ And he confirmed that the lookalike spotted a Starbucks near Wrigley Field a few weeks ago was indeed him.
With Epstein in Chicago and Cherington taking the reins in Boston, the only matter remaining is the compensation the Cubs will pay the Red Sox for hiring Epstein with a year left on his contract. Commissioner Bud Selig has said he will step in if the teams can’t come to an agreement by Nov. 1.
“I’m sure the issue of compensation will be addressed in the coming weeks either between the clubs in their best efforts to get it done or by a third party. But I think the bigger picture here is that we got this done, the organizations are still allied and have amicable relations,’’ Epstein said. “They were able to make a lot of progress. I’m being announced as the president of baseball operations here today, Ben Cherington is going to be announced as the general manager of the Red Sox, and both organizations are going to move forward and attack the offseason with all we have.”
During the press conference, Epstein was joined on the dais by owner Tom Ricketts, who began the highly anticipated event by saying he “could not imagine a better person” for the job than Epstein.
“As the team chairman, I’m extremely pleased with the results of our search,” said Ricketts, who has led the Cubs’ ownership group since the Ricketts family purchased the team in October 2009. “As a fan, I’m truly excited for the future of this team. But now, it’s time to go to work.”
Ricketts introduced Epstein, who in a statement lasting more than five minutes quickly thanked Red Sox players, former manager Terry Francona, and Red Sox ownership and management, including John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino.
“I’d like to thank [Henry, Werner, and Lucchino] not only for allowing this move to happen, but for giving me my original opportunity as a GM nine years ago, for supporting me along the way personally and professionally.”
Epstein, who grew up in Brookline as a Red Sox fan, also saluted those who work at Fenway Park and fill the ballpark’s seats night after night.
“To my friends, all my co-workers with the Red Sox, and especially the fans, thanks for all the great times together,” Epstein said. “I’m really proud of what we accomplished there and I wish you nothing but the best going forward.”
He added a well-wish for his friend and successor, Ben Cherington — “good luck to Ben” — before expounding on the appeal of the challenge of joining the Cubs.
“It truly is an honor in a privilege to join such a special organization,” Epstein said. “To me, baseball is better with tradition. Baseball is better is with history. Baseball is better with fans who care. Baseball is better in ballparks like this. Baseball is better during the day. And baseball, best of all, is better when you win. And that, ultimately, is why I’m here today.”