SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Theo Epstein is rising to a new reality.
“For the last few years I’ve had a semi-recurring dream, maybe five or six times, where I’ve woken up, wow, we just won the World Series with the Cubs. That’s unbelievable,” he recalled Monday night.
“And then about 10 seconds later I realize it was just a dream, and then the rest of the day stinks, right? It’s a pretty great feeling and then back to reality. The last five days or whatever it’s been, I’ve been waking up with the same realization and then it takes a couple seconds. Wow! It really happened!”
Days after the team he designed ended a long championship drought, Epstein was voted The Sporting News Major League Baseball Executive of the Year for revitalizing the Chicago Cubs.
Balloting by 56 big league executives took place before the postseason. The Cubs led the majors with 103 wins during the regular season, then beat Cleveland in a seven-game World Series last week for their first title since 1908.
“During the parade I kept telling my wife we need to go home to change some diapers and do some laundry, because this is not real life,” he said. “We’ve got to get our feet back on the ground.”
Epstein was presented with the award at the start of the annual general managers meeting. He received 13 votes, followed by Cleveland’s Chris Antonetti (nine), the New York Yankees’ Brian Cashman (eight), Texas’ Jon Daniels (seven), Cleveland’s Mike Chernoff and Washington’s Mike Rizzo (three each), and Baltimore’s Dan Duquette and the Cubs’ Jed Hoyer (two apiece).
Now 42, Epstein was the youngest general manager in major league history when Boston hired him at age 28 in November 2002. He helped the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series, their first title since 1918, and a second championship in 2007.
“Winning at 42 vs. 30, I have a greater appreciation for how hard it is and how many people have to contribute and how lucky you have to get along the way, too,” he said.
Epstein left Boston after the 2011 season to become president of baseball operations with the Cubs, who lost 91 games that year. As he rebuilt the team, the Cubs dropped 101 games in 2012, 96 the following year and 89 in 2014. They won 97 games last year to gain a wild card, returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 only to get swept by the New York Mets in the NL Championship Series.
This year, Chicago defeated San Francisco in the Division Series, overcame a 2-1 deficit against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series and then became the first team to rally from a 3-1 World Series deficit since the 1985 Kansas City Royals.
Chicago’s 10th-inning rally in Game 7 was sparked by Albert Almora Jr., the first player drafted under Epstein’s regime, taken sixth overall in 2012. Third baseman Kris Bryant was drafted in 2013 and outfielder Kyle Schwarber in 2014, and the Cubs traded for pitcher Jake Arrieta (from Baltimore), first baseman Anthony Rizzo (San Diego) and shortstop Addison Russell (Oakland).
Jon Lester was signed as a free agent after the 2014 season and fellow pitcher John Lackey, all-purpose player Ben Zobrist and outfielders Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward were signed last offseason.
Chicago gave Epstein a new five-year contract in September. Now the challenge is to win two in a row and match the 1907-08 Cubs.
“It does make you hungry just to validate it. When you can win two, I think it means even more,” he said. “We’d love to be the type of organization that national baseball fans think of when you think of October baseball.”
Aroldis Chapman, Fowler, Jason Hammel and Travis Wood have become free agents. Epstein already has been thinking about roster alterations.
“The mix has to change a little bit,” he said. “If you look to just bring back every single component and try to recreate the past, it’s going to change by definition. Group dynamics change. Human beings change. And so maybe it’s better to change it in some small ways on your terms and some intent behind it rather than just let it come back exactly the same and be stale. … We’ll make some smaller changes, but I do have a feeling this nucleus is going to stay intact a lot longer than what we did in Boston.”
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