What could go wrong in the Cubs’ manager search?
Depends on who you ask.
This will be the fifth search for Theo Epstein, and perhaps the most important of his career after the controversial decision to launch the manager who ended the 108-year championship drought.
“You always learn a lot when you have an opportunity to do a managerial search,” Epstein said Monday at Wrigley Field in an 81-minute filibuster. “Manager of the Cubs is such an esteemed position, you should have access to just about anyone in the industry you want to talk to.
“And through the managerial interview process I think you learn a lot about what you’re looking for, too, because the right candidates can open your eyes to things you never even thought of in the first place.”
If there’s a pattern to Epstein’s process of determining the right guy, it’s hard to detect. He’s interviewed all kinds of candidates — young and old, analytically minded and old school, nice guys and crusty guys.
Some of his choices fell through, and he was forced to turn to a back-up option. Sometimes he wound up with the perfect man.
After firing Grady Little in Boston for leaving Pedro Martinez in too long in the Game 7 loss to the Yankees in the 2003 American League Championship Series, Epstein’s first hire was A’s bench coach and former Phillies manager Terry Francona.
Epstein, who was just about to turn 30, also interviewed Dodgers third base coach Glenn Hoffman, Rangers first base coach DeMario Hale and Angels bench coach Joe Maddon.
“He just told me it wasn’t me,” Maddon said afterward. “We had a nice exchange and he was very complimentary and I was the same to him. There’s nothing to get upset about.”
That same quote could’ve been used by Maddon Sunday when he was let go by Epstein as Cubs’ manager.
Life is so weird.
Like Maddon in ‘14, Francona was the right man at the right time. The Red Sox won a championship in 2004 to end their 86-year drought, led by a mischievous group of players who called themselves “The Idiots.” When they won another one in ‘07, Francona was seemingly secure for life.
But four years later he was gone, victimized by the “shocking” revelation Red Sox players, including Jon Lester and John Lackey, drank beer and ate fried chicken in the clubhouse during games. Epstein left soon afterwards to take over as Cubs baseball operations president, and his first managerial hire in Chicago came after he interrogated and fired Mike Quade.
Brewers hitting coach Dale Sveum and Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux were considered the two favorites over Indians coach Sandy Alomar Jr. and Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin. Epstein, in a bid to be transparent and see what the candidates looked like while dealing with the Chicago media, had them meet with reporters at Wrigley after each had interviewed with Epstein and general manger Jed Hoyer.
Maddux, the brother of Cubs legend Greg Maddux, had everyone in stitches with remarks about volatile Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano.
“Heard he was a big teddy bear,” Maddux said.
Asked how he’d handle Zambrano if he was Cubs’ manager, Maddux replied: “I might take him up and just burp him.”
We would’ve hired him on the spot, and most seemed to think he was Epstein’s first choice. But Maddux wasn’t ready for the Cubs job and took himself out of consideration at the last minute.
Francona stood by as a mystery candidate. He told the Tribune he was “trying to stay under the radar,” but sources said he badly wanted the job. Epstein wasn’t interested in totally recreating the Boston Show in his first year in Chicago. He instead turned to the no-nonsense Sveum, whose nickname was “Nuts,” to manage the start of the vaunted rebuild.
“He’s going to not get caught up with the trappings of the job,” Epstein said. “He’s going to connect with 25 players. He’s as comfortable in his own skin as anyone I’ve ever been around. That’s a good sign.”
But Sveum was not a fan of analytics, coining the word “cybermetrics” for sabermetrics. During some early struggles at the start of the 2013 season he threatened demotions for two core pieces, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, though everyone knew that was not going to happen.
Sveum’s tough-love approach to young players, especially Castro, ultimately was deemed too harsh by Epstein. Sveum’s imminent firing, like Maddon’s, was well known for weeks before it happened. Yankees manager Joe Girardi was already under consideration when Epstein was asked in late September if Girardi could replace Sveum.
“He is with another team,” Epstein said. “I would never comment or could never about someone who is with another club. That question is borderline disrespectful.”
Sveum was fired at the end of ‘13, after the second year of a three-year deal. Girardi opted to remain in New York with a new extension, and some in the Cubs’ hierarchy felt he used their interest to get a better deal in New York.
With Girardi no longer in the picture, Epstein’s next search was longer — 38 days — and considerably more under-the-radar. He waited until after the World Series because he wanted to snag Red Sox coach Tory Lovullo, but Boston president Larry Lucchino, who didn’t like Epstein, refused to let the Cubs talk to Lovullo, citing an agreement made after Epstein left for the Cubs’ job.
The other candidates were Padres bench coach Rick Renteria, former major league managers A.J. Hinch, Eric Wedge and Manny Acta; Dave Martinez, Maddon’s bench coach in Tampa, and former major league catcher Brad Ausmus.
Renteria, whom general manger Jed Hoyer and scouting and player development director Jason McLeod both knew from their days running the Padres, was given a three-year deal to take the rebuild to the next stage: contending.
“I know everybody thinks I’m nuts,” Renteria said on his introductory conference call. “But any team has a chance to move forward if really you believe in the concept of playing as a team.”
Renteria was nuts to believe the Cubs could win in 2014, but his positivity and ability to communicate with young players were attributes Epstein and Hoyer were seeking.
“Rick’s reputation is impeccable, and he stood out during the process,” Epstein said.
While ‘14 was a key year in the turnaround, with Jake Arrieta emerging, Rizzo becoming a star and Kyle Hendricks impressing after his call-up, Epstein made the cold, business-like decision to fire Renteria one year into a three-year deal after an opt-out clause allowed Maddon to flee the Rays.
This time the interview process consisted of one candidate, some cold beers and wine, and a beach in Pensacola, Fla.
It’s unlikely Epstein and Hoyer can ever top that. But who knows?
Epstein said the process to replace Maddon will be “as public as it needs to be,” but won’t include post-interview press conferences at Wrigley.
“We’ll try to make sure it’s a smooth process and you guys can follow along at an appropriate distance,” he said.
In other words, check your favorite Twitter account every 10 minutes.