So innovatively and historically successful, he became the rare non-athlete in sports to be known by just a first name.
It meant Theo Epstein, the baseball executive who accomplished something no one had done for generations in the American League … and then did the same thing in the National League. It was astonishing. If two different men had been the top baseball ops executives to break the Red Sox and Cubs curses, both men would’ve gone down in history, side by side, as legends of the game. And to think — the same man did both things!
(Incidentally, typing “man” and “men” here was done with caution. Following the Marlins' historic hiring of the first female to run baseball ops in the MLB, we can no longer just refer to the general “men.” Though, in this instance, we’re looking back at history, not forward).
As for Theo, news was announced Tuesday that he’s stepping down from running the Cubs. Jed Hoyer,— his longtime No. 2, who married St. Louisan Merrill Muckerman — will now run the Cardinals’ baseball rival. The Theo news was big in many regards (What’s the Cubs' future trajectory? Will Kris Bryant re-sign? What’s next for Theo?), but if anything, it temporarily ends Epstein’s run as St. Louis' nemesis.
It began back in 2004, when the Cardinals fielded, arguably, their greatest team ever . . . but it didn’t even win one game in the World Series against Theo’s Red Sox. And then, nine years ago, Epstein returned to the lives of St. Louis baseball people. Could Theo “Theo” the Cubs, too? In those early years, he and Hoyer did a famous rebuild. While the Cardinals won the 2011 World Series, and annually made the playoffs in the first half of the 2010s, the Cubs stunk. But they drafted up a smart plan and drafted what would become some famous names. And in 2015, in what some wondered was “a year too early,” Theo’s Cubs made their big step — they made the playoffs.
The 2015 season, though it didn’t feel like it at the time, was the transitional year in the division, as the Cubs went one way, and the Cards went the other. I say it didn’t feel like it at the time, because to me, it felt like was the beginning of a Yankees-Red Sox situation, with two juggernauts in the same division. One team would finish first, the other team would nab the a wild card, and they would each make hay, October after October. Of course, that didn’t happen. The Cubs symbolically ousted the Cardinals in the 2015 National League Division Series, and the Cards didn’t return to the postseason in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The Cubs, we all recall, won the World Series in 2016 and made the playoffs in 2017, 2018 and 2020.
Theo upped the stakes in the NL Central. He changed Cardinals history by changing Cubs history. He challenged (forced?) the Cardinals executives to rethink plans, to alter strategies. He lured Jason Heyward from St. Louis to Chicago, which was a huge deal at the time. He won a bunch of ballgames. Yes, many thought the Theo Cubs would win (or at least even make) more than one World Series. That Cubs team might be remembered in the same way the 1985 Bears are. Still, that one ring changed everything.
Now Theo is gone … for now.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Epstein told friends he wants to return as a baseball executive, but it won’t be in the 2021 season. So a rejuvenated Theo could be back for a third act. Cardinals fans should hope it’s in the American League.
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