I distinctly remember being disappointed when the New York Yankees acquired Alex Rodriguez in the 2003 offseason. I was pretty much alone in that opinion. I can recall all the fellow Yankee fans that I knew at the time celebrating and looking forward to the 2004 season. In 2003 the Yankees had made it to the World Series but had lost to the Florida Marlins and hadn’t won a World Series since 2000. Yankee fans, having gotten used to winning a lot in the late 1990s with 4 World Series titles in 5 years, grew more impatient at every passing year in which we didn’t win it all. As if we, by right or fiat, we were entitled to the World Series or something.
Then the worst happened in the postseason of 2004. Despite acquiring Alex Rodriquez, the Yankees gave up a 3-0 series lead to Theo Epstein’s Boston Red Sox. Having accomplished one of the greatest comebacks in sports history they went on to win the World Series.
How did the Yankees respond to such tragedy?
Instead of taking a step back and rebuilding from the ground up, which is what led to their success in the 1990s, they went out and acquired more superstars like Randy Johnson and Carl Pavano. In 2005, they got off to a horrible start, made it to the playoffs but did not win the World Series.
When Theo Epstein took over as General Manager in 2011 one of the first messages he had for Cubs fans was that it was going to get worse before it was going to get better. Here was Theo Epstein taking on the role of healer for the tragedy laced organization known as the Chicago Cubs. Rather than seeking a quick fix like throwing money at big name super stars and high profile players with the hopes that they’d bring home a championship Theo decided to go down further before going back up. There would have to be total and complete death before there would be resurrection. In other words, through the use of analytics he would dig down to the rock, to the firm foundation before actually building the house. This took patience, skill and simple hard work. When the storm came, that of being down 3 games to one in the World Series this past week, the house stayed firm and did not blow over. In fact, it came back and won.
One of the genius of Theo Epstein and the likes of Billy Beane, who is mostly responsible for bringing analytics into the game of baseball, is that they went against conventional baseball wisdom and tried something new. They didn’t immediately go for the big names but for those who would contribute greatly to the greater cause of attaining wins and, hopefully, a championship. That meant putting together a team that could work well together and it also meant not always going after the big name or big superstar. Interestingly, they were looked down upon as being foolish and maybe even childish in their thinking. Fascinatingly enough, the old model had clearly not worked for organizations like the Red Sox and the Cubs who had no shortage of money and ability to acquire the big names. Rather like a child exploring, playing and trying things for the first time they set out to do something new and different not being inhibited by the traditions, laws and standards of the past.
Coming full circle, one of the ironic things about the Yankees is that they’ve only won one World Series since 2000. That was in 2009. Yet the spending and the acquisitions have not stopped and generally speaking they are able to put up good teams and good numbers. But what has been lost on many Yankee fans is that it was thoughtfulness and patience that built the Yankee dynasty of the late 90s. Bear in mind that the likes of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Andy Petite all came from the Yankee system. What’s more, the acquisition of the likes of Paul O’Neill, Wade Boggs, David Cone and others were deeply thought out. Interestingly, it was while George Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball that the digging down to the bedrock of what would become the Yankee dynasty had been done by General Manager Gene Michaels.
I write this because I couldn’t help but see all of the gospel themes permeating throughout the Cubs journey to finally winning the World Series. It took doing away with the old and trying new things and seeing things in a new light. Players formerly seen as valueless because they didn’t hit too many homeruns are now seen as valuable because of their on base percentage. Rather than going after the easy fix which is a continual message that saturates our consumerist culture Theo Epstein took his time. He did the hard work and dug through the rough rocky soil, he pruned the branches so that they would bear good fruit. And indeed they did. With the Cubs there was death and, boy, there was Resurrection.
Congrats Cubs fans!!
Oh…and Indian fans, I’m pulling for you next year!