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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Epstein is bright and all, but he can't save Cubs by himself


The Theo Epstein Era in Chicago is rapidly sliding downhill. He's been running the Cubs for hours, and St. Louis and Texas are still playing in Game 6 of the World Series on Wednesday.

The Cubs' motto remains unchanged: What's a World Series?

Bless their little Cubbie hearts. At what was more Inaugural Address than introductory news conference, Epstein, the new president of baseball operations, wasted no time in unveiling his foreign policy.

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"Over time, we will build a consistent winner," he said. "A team that is playing in October regularly and, ultimately, a team that will win a World Series."

You didn't have to be a dying Cubs fan with a last request to appreciate the new day blown in from Lake Michigan. Everyone from the bicyclists pedaling along the Gold Coast to the baristas at the Wrigleyville Starbucks has been breathless over Theo for weeks.

This is the most anticipated executive hiring in baseball history. Period. There is not even a close second. The only moment even in the running is when the Red Sox attempted, unsuccessfully, to woo Oakland GM Billy Beane back in 2002.

John Schuerholz from Kansas City to Atlanta? He wasn't yet THAT John Schuerholz. Andy MacPhail from Minnesota to the Cubs in 1994? Please, the Internet had barely been invented. Branch Rickey from St. Louis to the Dodgers? Pre-Jackie Robinson.

The winter(s) of the Cubs' discontent has led to the autumn of the rock star GM. First Brad Pitt as Beane in Moneyball, and now Theo as himself in Wrigleyville.

Theo: "It's not that hard to win a World Series. Tell them, Ernie."

Ernie Banks: "It's incredibly hard!"

Technically, Epstein's title is president. Emperor, maybe. Grand Master and Wizard? Doesn't appear to be much difference, given the lead-in. All this off-the-charts swooning, I fully expect Starbucks in Chicago to change its name to Theobucks by opening day for a few skinny, half-caf caramel macchiatos to be named later.

"It truly feels great to be a Cub today," Epstein proclaimed, a statement as rare as "This economy is really booming -- I've got three job offers!"

There is something truly entertaining about the Cubs, the Cubs, hiring the man who most recently presided over the biggest September collapse in baseball history. How perfect is that? And yet, given Boston's two championships with Epstein pulling the front-office levers, there is only one way his tenure in Chicago will not be a crashing disappointment. And that way is if he molds the Cubs into a World Series winner.

It makes no sense, and yet it makes all the sense in the world. It is a perfect Cubs moment.

There is so much work to be done with a sad-sack club that went 71-91 and has not even played in a World Series since 1945.

As Epstein said, one key is to "actively pursue the best and the brightest from other organizations." To that degree, Padres GM Jed Hoyer and his assistant, Jason McLeod, will be joining Epstein in Chicago in short order. They were with him in Boston a few years back, and it's right out of the Blues Brothers: Theo's getting the band back together. A shout-out to Joliet Jake.

He will build the "best scouting department in the game" through traditional scouting and objective analysis. He plans to implement "the Cubs' way" through writing a player development manual explaining such things as the appropriate way to play defense at all positions.

Memo to Theo: Make sure to include a chapter explaining to Carlos Zambrano that slugging teammates in the dugout is a no-no ... unless it's Sammy Sosa, and he's got the volume on his boom box turned up to, well, booming.

Epstein said he will visit with soon-to-be-fired manager Mike Quade to discuss all aspects of the club. Among other things, it is imperative that Theo learn which of his new starting pitchers has an affinity for fried chicken, and from which joint. Does Ryan Dempster, for example, prefer Popeye's? Church's? Kentucky Fried Chicken?

Wait, whoops. Wrong team.

But the parallels are there. Theo might have walked across the Lake Michigan water to reach this press conference with a halo overhead and the wind at his back. But Cubs fans need to remember one thing: like the Bruce Springsteen song goes, it's hard to be a saint in the city. While Theo has 2004 and 2007, he also has Julio Lugo and Carl Crawford on his resume.

And Zambrano's contract suddenly looks pretty good when measured against John Lackey's.

As many great things as he did in Boston, Epstein also laid some real clunkers. Mike Cameron was going to last in center field for a full season at 37? Really?

Memo to owner Tom Ricketts, who said he sought advice from more than 20 people he trusts around the game and who said he "simply cannot imagine a better person for the job": Make sure to go back and re-listen to the part of Epstein's introduction where he said, "When we do achieve sustained success and win the World Series, it won't be any one person, it will be all of us."

Epstein ticked off several things here, including the area scout who drove an extra six miles to find a player, the rookie-ball coach who helped a pitcher find the right grip on his change-up, the Double-A manager who motivates his players to buy into "the Cubs way."

The takeaway from Tuesday in Wrigley is this: Bright as Epstein is, the parameters of today's game are such that one man does not spin magic. The Cubs Way is 103 years without winning a World Series. Compared to that, the Red Sox were on training wheels when Epstein helped lead them to breaking their 86-year drought.

There are those who say that if Epstein can win it all with the Cubs, he'll go straight to the Hall of Fame as an executive. I'd say that woefully underestimates this job.

If Theo can get the band back together and win a World Series with the Cubs, forget Cooperstown. He'll qualify for sainthood.

Until then, it's a lot premature to canonize him.


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