Theo Epstein is the genius behind two champions

Alan TruexIf the baseball postseason plays out the way it should, the World Series will feature two teams – Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox — that were essentially built by Theo Epstein.

As a 28-year-old boy wonder and Yale graduate, he took over the Red Sox in 2002 — the youngest general manager in baseball history. He redesigned and reconstructed the organization. When he was 30, his Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years. Three years later, they won it again.

How could he possibly top that?

Well, after conquering the Curse of the Bambino, he could move to Chicago and take on the even longer-lasting Billy Goat Curse. In 2011 he became president of baseball operations with the Cubs, who have not won a world championship since 1908.

When asked how long it would take him to build a championship team in Chicago, Epstein said, “It’s going to take a few years.”

Fortunately, Cubs fans are the most patient in the world. They love their team win or lose, and they’re accustomed to mostly losing.

But this year the Cubs put up a major-league best record of 103-58. In Las Vegas they are solid favorites, at 2/1, to win the World Series. The Red Sox are second choice at 5/1.

Epstein, 42 (and looking younger), has drastically changed the formula for building a baseball champion. He was one of the first to embrace sabermetrics, the intense analysis of statistics that goes far beyond the traditional listings of batting average, RBI, ERA, etc.

Epstein also incorporated extensive use of video, not only for evaluating players but to help players evaluate and improve themselves.

When he joined the Cubs he modernized the scouting system with the latest technology, but he broadened the focus from athletic performance to character and intelligence. He insisted on “scouting the person more than the player.”

Joe Maddon, whom Epstein hired to manage the Cubs, said, “He gets it that there’s a balance between the sabermetric world and the real world.”

Epstein told The New York Times that he requires a scouting report to include specific examples of how the prospect had overcome adversities on the field and off.

“In the draft room,” he said, “we will always spend more time talking about the person rather than the player.”

When he became director of the Cubs, he began a thorough house-cleaning. He traded veteran players for draft picks and prospects. This season’s opening-day roster had 22 players acquired by Epstein.

His passion for baseball began not long after he was born, in Brookline, Mass., not far from Fenway Park.

His father Leslie recalled that when he and 8-year-old Theo were watching a ballgame on television, the kid commented that the center fielder should move three steps to his left. The next pitch turned into a line drive that was just out of the center fielder’s reach to his left.

Unquestionably, Theo Epstein is a baseball genius. However, he’s not a nerd but a well-rounded man who enjoys comedy and music. He has appeared on stage to play guitar with his favorite band, Pearl Jam.

He created a stir in the Wrigley Field bleachers a couple of weeks ago when he sat in the stands wearing a fake mustache. After four innings he was recognized because, as he put it, “my fake mustache kept falling into my beer.”

Last week he signed a five-year contract extension, worth a reported $50 million, that made him the wealthiest executive in baseball.

But he’s far from obsessed with money. He’s always been generous with his blessings. Friends tell of him spending large sums to help individuals in distress. He delayed selling his home in Boston because he was letting a down-on-his-luck friend stay there while looking for his own place.

Epstein sees baseball as a means of bringing a community together. His move away from his origins to start an immense and seemingly impossible project in Chicago was “a chance to do it again for another great city that really deserves it.”

Chicago and Epstein seem to be a perfect match. It’s almost enough, perhaps, to turn a White Sox fan into a Cubs lover.

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