By Bruce Levine–
ST. LOUIS (CBS) — As his team hit the field Sunday to start its defense of a championship, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein balanced a cool calm with the excitement of starting a new journey.
“A few of us were talking inside,” Epstein said ahead of Chicago’s opener at St. Louis on Sunday night. “I don’t play, so it’s no big deal, but you still get a little bit of butterflies and nerves. I would have to say less than last year in Anaheim (on Opening Day in 2016). When you win (a title), it takes the edge off just enough in a good way. You still are totally invested and you really care, but it puts you in a good place mentally.”
Epstein has accomplished the impossible for the two most jinxed and hexed baseball franchises in the long history of the game. He built the Red Sox’s championship teams in 2004 and 2007 before leading the Cubs to the title last year.
That puts him in line with all of the best executives of all time and has left MLB commissioner Rob Manfred impressed.
“When you think about it for a relatively young man, he has had an unbelievable career,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. “When you break two streaks like the two he broke, people are going to say good things about you. He is a great manager, a great talent evaluator and more importantly really loves the game.”
The 43-year-old Epstein came to Chicago in October 2011 and promptly declared there would be a “Cub Way” of operating. Epstein refreshingly envisioned long-term success over the course of a decade instead of building year-to-year to win a random World Series.
That hope now continues with a group of players who in Epstein’s mind have the inner motivation to succeed without needed fuel from outside forces.
“I know it is not good for storylines,” Epstein said. “This group of guys need no motivation. They need no maintenance or management. They are self-starters and as a group totally connected — selfless, hungry to win. We are lucky to have this group of guys. They run themselves, and they want it bad. The emphasis is always on the team. We are just lucky to be here while this is going on.”
Of course, that luck has come because of the hard work and brilliant moves of Epstein and his front office. Hiring energetic individuals with a passion for excellence has been the key throughout the organization, from the players to coaches to staffers and more.
Epstein does agree with the premise that having won the big trophy once, may be a driving force for many groups to grab the brass ring again.
“Postseason experience, having come through — that puts people in a really good place,” Epstein said. “This group has now started to accomplish a lot together. They feel good about themselves and know the target is on their back a little bit. Every time teams come to play a series, people are going to want to beat them. They have handled it the right way. I think they are looking forward to going out and competing together.”
Epstein was recently tabbed the world’s greatest leader by Forbes, somewhat to his chagrin and much to the entertainment of those around him.
“World’s greatest leader?” owner Tom Ricketts said “I told Theo I voted for Kim Jong-un. But I’m glad that he won.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.