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Theo Epstein tells grads ‘character matters’

Epstein at Yale Class Day.
Arnold Gold/New Haven Register via AP
Epstein at Yale Class Day.

Whether he has a future in politics or not, we know that former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein can deliver a decent speech.

Epstein, president of baseball ops for the Chicago Cubs, proved that over the weekend with his Class Day speech at his alma mater, Yale, where he talked about the traits that make a winner — and it turns out it’s not all about numbers for the celebrated stats geeks.

Epstein began by giving a shout-out to his father, Leslie, and sister, Anya, both of whom also graduated from Yale.

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“I know, despite your great faith in me, that you’re a little surprised that I’m the one up here today. I understand that,” he joked.

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Epstein said he knows baseball is just a game; he’s not curing cancer or fighting climate change.

“[Baseball] is largely just part of the bread and circus of society, entertaining and distracting us, while others like my twin brother, Paul, who is here today, a social worker, do the real work of holding our communities together,” he said.

Still, the challenge of winning a World Series with the Cubs was no small thing considering the franchise’s impressive legacy as a loser and an also-ran.

“The Cubs had not won a World Series since 1908. Think about that, 1908,” Epstein said. “That’s the Teddy Roosevelt administration. The Ottoman Empire was still around. Kidding. That’s two world wars ago. Which, I haven’t checked the news since breakfast, just give me one second. (Checks phone) Good news, that’s still just two world wars ago.”

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Much as he did in Boston, Epstein said he devised a rebuilding plan that emphasized individualism and oneness.

“We asked our young players to be themselves, to show their personalities. To have fun. To be daring. To be bold,” Epstein said. “The dress code was changed from a suit and tie to ‘If you think you look hot, wear it.’ ”

Epstein admitted he hadn’t always thought this way.

“Early in my career, I used to think of players as assets, statistics on a spreadsheet I could use to project future performance and measure precisely how much they would impact our team on the field,” he said. “I used to think of teams as portfolios, diversified collections of player assets paid to produce up to their projections to ensure the organization’s success...That narrow approach worked for a while, but it certainly had its limits.”

He went on to tell a story about watching Game 7 of last year’s World Series with his 8-year-old son, Jack. You’ll recall that just when it seemed the Cubs might win, the Indians tied the score and suddenly it seemed the Cubs would lose. And then there was a rain delay.

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But rather than hang their heads and sulk, Epstein said, Cubs players came together in the clubhouse for an impromptu team meeting. They won the game in the 10th inning.

“There will be times when everything you’ve wanted, everything you’ve worked for, everything you’ve earned, everything you deserve, is snatched away in what seems like a personal and unfair blow,” Epstein told grads.

What happens next is what matters, he said.

“A player’s character matters. The heartbeat matters. Fears and aspirations matter. The player’s impact on others matters. The tone he sets matters. The willingness to connect matters. Breaking down cliques and overcoming stereotypes matters. Who you are, how you live among others, that all matters,” Epstein said.

“Please remember that even though so much can be quantified these days, the most important things cannot be,” he said. “And finally, when things go really, really wrong, and then when it rains on top of everything else, fingers crossed for tomorrow, I ask you to choose to keep your heads up, and come together to connect and to rally around one another, especially those who need it the most. It is likely to uplift you all.”