In a 30-minute presentation Monday at the esteemed Economic Club of Chicago, Cubs President Theo Epstein dazzled an audience of 800 local movers and shakers with a detailed plan of player development.
Epstein kidded about the club's presumption he would be available on the same night as a World Series game and came armed with PowerPoint slides full of baseball data. He interrupted his monotonous, monthlong manager search to talk about talent acquisition.
As he has consistently since coming to town two years ago, Epstein impressed everyone with natural charm and humor that complemented his obvious intellect. Even a White Sox fan emailed praise.
"People were gushing,'' another level-headed executive said.
Of course they were. Life under Epstein's Theocracy all but guarantees a rousing response to his rhetoric. My first honest, instinctive reaction to the consensus of positive reviews about Epstein's appearance surprised me.
Stop telling people what your plan is, Theo. Start showing them.
That isn't necessarily fair or full of context, but it reflects a growing sentiment of folks wondering when the Cubs' process will start producing progress. And I don't mean the Class A Florida State League championship, however promising.
Unlike Epstein's first two offseasons in Wrigleyville, doubt accompanies hope. Firing manager Dale Sveum gave Epstein a refreshing opportunity to acknowledge a big mistake, but nothing in the last month convinced me he isn't on the verge of making another one.
Two more intriguing Cubs managerial candidates emerged recently in Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo and Padres special assistant Brad Ausmus, who reportedly was taken off the market late Saturday night by the Tigers. Neither was named Joe Girardi. Neither had proven enough to know the Cubs will be more right than they were about Sveum.
On the day Epstein introduced Sveum after an exhaustive interview process that included managing simulated games and a news conference — and Epstein calls the Cubs manager job "the gauntlet" — he probably never expected the man he hired struggling to communicate the organizational message. He never figured disagreeing with Sveum over whether to bench shortstop Starlin Castro the day after another dumb Castro mental error (Castro played). He believed in something Sveum never delivered.
What makes faith in the next manager any less blind?
Ausmus and Lovullo were the sixth and seventh known candidates, which hardly speaks well of the first five men who met with the Cubs. Obviously, none struck Epstein as someone he had to hire before another team beats him to it. If Rick Renteria really wowed the Cubs, for instance, would they really have let a guy groomed to manage interview with the Mariners and Tigers? The longer this drags, the more the late emergence of Ausmus and Lovullo merits close inspection.
Lovullo, 48, possesses five years of managing experience in the minor leagues, worked under Epstein with the Red Sox's Triple-A team and offers the cachet of a World Series champion as confidant/numbers-cruncher for an Epstein associate, manager John Farrell. In a revealing interview about managing at FanGraphs.com, Lovullo practically read from Epstein's manual on developing players.
"We get a notebook's worth of information that we condense to two pieces of paper we can reference quickly,'' Lovullo said. "We have great advance reports every time we play a team, and we use that in combination with other data we've compiled. We're very thorough."
Likewise, Ausmus operates on Epstein's level intellectually in a way Sveum didn't. A Dartmouth graduate who caught 1,938 major league games, Ausmus assembled a data base of opposing hitters on his home computer as a player. His favorite book is "A Schopenhauerian Critique of Nietzsche's Thought'' — written by his father, Harry, a retired professor of European history.
Ausmus, 44, became known for a sense of humor every Cubs manager needs. When Ausmus, who is Jewish, sat out on Yom Kippur in 2001, he explained he was "trying to atone for my poor first half." Joe Torre thought so highly of Ausmus that he let him manage the Dodgers for one game at the end of the 2009 season.
Still, Ausmus lacks experience Epstein said he preferred and represents a riskier hire for a rebuilding team such as Cubs than he would for a winning team on autopilot like the Tigers. If I were ranking candidates for Epstein, Ausmus would fall behind the smartest choice, Lovullo, and Renteria. Maybe losing him to the Tigers isn't so bad.
But Epstein is the man who now has contributed to three World Series titles, the third Wednesday night. Yes, Epstein deserves credit for the Red Sox winning. Look at their roster, especially the key players, and you easily can find Epstein's fingerprints.
Of course, that means little to Cubs fans, many of whom expected Epstein to make a bigger mark in Chicago before he hired his second manager. Many still are waiting for Epstein to do something that makes them gush like a banquet crowd.