We all knew it was coming, but seeing the Cubs put out a press release this morning saying Theo Epstein was stepping down from his role as omniscient leader and President of Baseball Ops was still jarring. For the past nine years, Cubs fans have attached to Epstein their wildest hopes and dreams. He was, the Cubs said, not just a guy who would get us to the mountaintop, but a guy who would give us a chance at it year after year.
That’s not really fair — it’s hard enough to win one World Series, much less multiple times. But that was the expectation, spurred on by Epstein himself in his introductory press conference.
To be clear, once the Cubs burst into the playoffs in 2015, there was never a year when they were totally out of the race for the postseason. On the few occasions they didn’t make it, it was easily chalked up to underachieving lineups. A certain “something” that was missing. A fire. A spark. But they had the horses. Year after year.
Twitter today is full of Cubs fans posting “thank you” messages to Theo Epstein. I suppose I should, too. After all, before Epstein came to town, there was a better than 50 percent chance I wouldn’t see a World Series on the North Side in my lifetime. He changed all that. He changed the front office, the farm system, how players were scouted, how players were developed, even at the major league level.
But there were other changes, too. Changes that were less easy for me to live with. For the first time, under Theo Epstein, I had to root for openly bad people. Of course I’ve cheered for bad people before, but at least I didn’t do so knowingly.
It started with the Cubs trading Gleyber Torres to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman. Just days before, I had been chatting with someone in the know about an NL West team backing out on Chapman after they read the full copy of the police report filed when his panicked girlfriend, hiding in some bushes, called the police. The report detailed how Chapman had choked his girlfriend and fired a gun seven times in his garage, despite his newborn baby being in the house.
It never occurred to me I’d be watching this person pitch in a Cubs uniform. But suddenly, there he was. Sitting in the Cubs dugout, growing increasingly agitated as reporters asked him about the domestic violence incident, for which MLB had suspended him 30 games, despite Epstein’s insistence that Chapman was regretful and understood what was expected of him. It became clear that Chapman was not regretful and, if the Cubs talked to him about how to handle questions about his personal life, he didn’t listen.
Then there was the acquisition of Daniel Murphy, an out homophobe, who had been picked up and plunked down in Wrigley Field, smack dab in the middle of one of the biggest LGBTQIA+ neighborhoods in the country. Back in 2015, Murphy had this to say about openly gay former player Bill Bean, who’s MLB’s first Ambassador for Inclusion:
“I disagree with his lifestyle. I do disagree with the fact that Billy is a homosexual. That doesn’t mean I can’t still invest in him and get to know him. I don’t think the fact that someone is a homosexual should completely shut the door on investing in them in a relational aspect. Getting to know him. That, I would say, you can still accept them but I do disagree with the lifestyle, 100 percent.”
Did I mention that Murphy started the game on “Out at Wrigley,” the Cubs’ version of Pride Night?
You would think by the time the Cubs got around to handling their second player accused of beating his significant other, they’d have learned from their mistakes with Chapman. They didn’t. After Addison Russell’s wife published a heart-wrenching blog post about what life was like with the Cubs shortstop, the team sat him for exactly one day before putting him back in the lineup. They then trotted him out for an ill-advised press conference for which he was completely unprepared. Manager Joe Maddon told the press he didn’t even read the blog post.
After Russell served his 40-game MLB suspension, he went right back into the Cubs lineup, where he proceeded to stink up the diamond with his play for another season before they finally cut ties; in the process, issuing a statement that they were absolutely not releasing Russell because of the domestic violence allegations.
Through it all, you got the idea that Theo Epstein, a staunch Democrat who raised money for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, knew what the right thing was. He just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Because baseball.
There were other things along the way. Defending Todd Ricketts’ fundraisers for Trump at Wrigley Field. Wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt when baseball resumed this summer, but heading up a team that left Jason Heyward as the lone protester on the night teams from around the sports world decided not to play three days after Jacob Blake was shot in Kenosha. Even the BREWERS sat that one out, for crying out loud.
Between the players we’ve been asked to root for, and the problematic owners who have turned Wrigleyville into something less of a neighborhood and more a theme park, a lot of us are struggling with our Cubs fandom lately.
There’s no doubt Theo Epstein is a lock for Cooperstown after leading not one but two cursed franchises to their first world championships in over 100 years (a little less for the Red Sox). There’s no doubt he is excellent at what he does. Like my colleague Sam Fels said, three division titles, three appearances in the NLCS, four playoff appearances in five years, and a World Series is what Theo Epstein will be remembered for. And rightly so.
I can already hear the roars of indignation from Cubs fans: “Can’t you ever be positive about anything?” “If you hated it so much, I’m sure you’d be willing to give back your World Series!” “Why do you always have to find something to bitch about?”
But the truth is, my feelings about the Cubs changed under Theo Epstein and the Ricketts, and not for the better. I learned that baseball, like money, interferes with everything. And just because you share a similar world view with someone doesn’t mean they’ll act accordingly. The reality is that no team cares how often a man beats a woman,or how full of hate someone’s heart is if they can hit a baseball or strike out the side.
And sometimes even winning a World Series isn’t enough to ever make you feel okay about it.