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Epstein relishes challenge in Chicago

THEO EPSTEIN Reenergized

MESA, Ariz. - The stance is the same. Arms folded, sunglasses down, face turned toward early drills on a spring training field populated by players in red and blue. There is mid-February warmth, there are baseball diamonds, there is Theo Epstein, watching his team.

But this is not Florida. These are not the Red Sox. And yet, it feels so much like all those years in Fort Myers. Like the early years, when Epstein and his callow front office faced the task of building a winner out of a loser - the task of creation.

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They’re older now, the gray showing in Epstein’s close-cropped hair. They can’t arrive at 7 a.m., toil all day, work out together, get dinner, and go back for more. There are wives, families, and now the desire to accomplish something that Boston could no longer offer.

Still, the new Cubs president said, “I don’t really feel like I’ve really left it behind at all. It’s part of who I am, it’s part of my experience. I think about it every day.

“It’s almost like I’m still connected there because so much of what we do in baseball is informed by the past.’’

It’s informed by his time in Boston, by his successes and failures, by his growth from a too-young promotion to general manager - as he said, “the whole thing was a little silly’’ - to a place at the pinnacle of the baseball world.

His success, in fact, enabled him to leave. And to start over.

As word leaked out of Chicago last year that the Cubs were looking to make a change, a high-profile hire, Jason McLeod started wondering. McLeod had worked under Epstein in Boston as director of amateur scouting, and he knew that Chicago’s big-market status, 103-year title drought, and sports-mad culture might just be perfect for him.

McLeod, now the Cubs assistant GM, said Chicago was “probably the only place I could have ever imagined him coming to.’’

Epstein had, after all, done everything he could in Boston. He had built a major league roster, won a World Series, built a farm system, won another World Series.

“Building’s more fun,’’ Epstein said. “I think it depends on one’s personality to a large extent, but maintaining is not quite as exhilarating because there’s less growth, by definition. You’re working hard to fix things, make sure the standards are met, you’re not regressing, continuing to grow.

“Not that we did everything great. We didn’t. Obviously. But when you’re building, there’s really a separation between where you are and where you want to be.’’

A vision is needed. There are changes as an organization sheds its old skin and grows another.

It is, Epstein said, “a thrilling process. It gets you out of bed every morning, gets you going.’’

This clearly is the fun part for him: defining a plan, and putting that into place.

And while no one will say that Boston got stale - that seems to go too far - the message is that Epstein sought change, that he needed it in many ways.

In Chicago, he seems to have been unburdened. Working without the expectations and pressure that dogged him in Boston - the sort that led to panic after the 0-6 start in 2011 - has been “freeing,’’ he said.

“I do think that building something and watching the constant improvement and having an enormous goal, I think that is more enjoyable and gratifying than maintaining,’’ said Jed Hoyer, the Cubs general manager who was Epstein’s assistant GM in Boston.

“I think he’s reenergized by the challenge.’’

Attention to detail

Not everyone is convinced. Even with the hype and the expectations and the “Theology’’ T-shirts in Chicago, Epstein has yet to accomplish anything with the Cubs.

“He had big shoes to fill after Jim [Hendry, former Chicago GM] left,’’ said pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who grew up in Cubs territory in Indiana. “But after meeting with Theo and these guys, they have a lot of the same characteristics when it comes to baseball and how they approach things.’’

There is hope. There is excitement. There is belief in his methods, especially in his scouting and development record.

“That’s how you keep a championship-caliber ball club, is bringing people through the farm,’’ said pitcher Matt Garza. “I think it’s awesome. I think the route we’re going is awesome. I think the direction we’re going is awesome. It was time for it.’’

There remain things to be worked out, including how the division of duties between Epstein and Hoyer will shake out, because it isn’t in Epstein’s nature to sit back. Epstein, of course, had a famously complicated relationship with Red Sox president Larry Lucchino.

“His attention to detail as far as watching minor league games or going out and watching guys for the draft hasn’t waned at all,’’ Hoyer said. “A lot of people in this position will stop doing those things and just focus on the major league team. Theo has never gotten away from that.’’

He isn’t interested in passing up trips to Single A ballparks or junior college outposts. That is, McLeod said, “in his DNA.’’

He wants to see his players, get a feel for them, know what’s happening, as they work to build the Cubs farm system. The idea is to replicate the success of 2007 - a World Series title based on drafting and development - more than 2004.

“He’s not going to ever be satisfied with it until we win a World Series here,’’ Hoyer said. “In Boston, for better or worse, once you win that first time, it’s never going to be quite the same.

“That experience was so incredible. And just how incredible that 2004 experience was, I think, is a huge part of the allure. I think the one place in sports that you can have a similar experience is the Chicago Cubs.’’

Skidding to a stop

He has not left Boston behind, not entirely.

The Red Sox are his hometown team. They brought him to this point, to where he could leave, even if the circumstances weren’t what he envisioned. That part still hurts.

He was no longer needed in the trenches, no longer needed to get dirty. Others in the organization earned more freedom, got a little leeway. It made sense. But, suddenly, as Epstein said, “It’s a machine that’s running its own way.’’ And that way wasn’t always good.

“Maybe some of that manifested last year in the clubhouse a little bit,’’ he said. “We knew there were things going on that weren’t right, and it was just hard to figure out what to do.

“We brainstormed a lot of ideas, things that we could try. Threw out a lot of them because they were just ridiculous. Tried a few of them that were also ridiculous. And nothing worked. There was just a lot of momentum that was hard to turn around.’’

So they collapsed, missing the postseason, and leaving Epstein with an ex-manager and a mess. The Cubs were the right job, the right place. He could let Ben Cherington take the lead in Boston in a time of turmoil, could make his escape.

It was not how he had pictured it. It was not walking away after another World Series. Still, to Epstein, Chicago is where he should be, where he can build and create, where he is energized and invigorated.

And September 2011 hardly erases what he accomplished in Boston, what they accomplished in Boston, what his tenure meant to the franchise and the city.

“If we sat there in 2002 and said this is what’s going to happen the next 10 years, you would have given anything to sign up for that,’’ Epstein said.

“I’m proud to have played a small role in that. I think the last paragraph doesn’t necessarily change that. It’s not how I wanted it to go, but it doesn’t change in my mind, and I think with the benefit of time, most people will see it that way.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.
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