CHICAGO (Reuters) - Theo Epstein took the reins of the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday, declaring he would engineer a “culture change” for the long-suffering club and recreate the excitement he had with his former team, the Boston Red Sox.
Epstein, 37, acknowledged he had his work cut out for him as the team’s new president of baseball operations -- the Cubs’ 103-year championship drought is longer than any other major North American professional team sports at 103 years.
The ultimate goal for the Cubs, who last appeared in the Series in 1945, is to win a Major League Baseball championship and break the drought, “but that does not happen overnight and it does not happen because of one person,” Epstein cautioned.
“Our goal will be to build the best scouting department in baseball. We will create a ‘Cubs way,'” he said, including a written manual for players teaching them how to play the game the right way.
Cubs owner Tom Ricketts introduced Epstein to the media at Wrigley Field, where the electronic billboard on the outside of the ballpark read: “The Cubs Welcome Theo Epstein.”
The graduate of Yale University is among a new breed of cerebral baseball executives who employ data analysis as well as traditional scouting methods to define players -- exemplified by the Oakland Athletics’ Billy Beane and described in the book and movie “Moneyball.”
“We’re going to have to grind our way to the top,” said Epstein, who was given a five-year contract at undisclosed terms. “The good thing is we are ready, and we are hungry.”
He said the “culture change” would begin in the front office and extend to the players’ clubhouse. Hard work by front office staff would find and develop dedicated players who “would have each others’ backs.”
The Red Sox staged an epic collapse in the final weeks of the 2011 regular season and missed the playoffs, with much made in published reports of a divisive clubhouse where players ignored manager Terry Francona and drank beer in the locker room during games.
Epstein made a passing reference to his former team’s fall from contention, but remarked on what was memorable about his tenure. Red Sox flags flew, fans would hang jerseys on cemetery graves, people hugged each other after the first championship and Fenway Park was renovated into a Boston jewel.
The same could happen in Chicago, he said, where fans suffered through a fifth-place finish in the National League Central division in 2011 with 71 victories and 91 defeats. Century-old Wrigley Field is also in need of renovations.
“There’s a gap between where we are and where we want to be,” Epstein said, adding he would allocate resources to build up the farm system, and international scouting and recruiting.
The Cubs and the Red Sox must still reach agreement on player compensation for Epstein, who was still under contract to the Red Sox. He said the negotiations were friendly.
Epstein is also expected to assemble a staff, which could include a replacement for field manager Mike Quade. Several published reports indicated would add old friend Jed Hoyer from the San Diego Padres as general manager.
Asked whether he would be spending on free agent players, Epstein said the goal was to build with home-grown players, acknowledging his own missteps in hiring established stars.
“The key is to pay for future performance, not past performance,” he said.
Epstein said he was ready to come to Chicago from Boston after two World Series championships in 2004 and 2007, with the first breaking an 86-year championship drought.
He followed the philosophy of Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh who said it benefited both the person and the club to seek out a new challenge after 10 years, Epstein said.
”I was ready for the next big challenge,“ Epstein said. This is certainly the ultimate challenge.”
Editing by Frank Pingue