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Epstein changed culture of Cubs. And in process, cursed them

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 9/13/2019 By Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune

WILLIAMSPORT, PENNSYLVANIA - AUGUST 18:  Chicago Cubs general manager Theo Epstein signs autographs before the game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs during the MLB Little League Classic at Bowman Field on August 18, 2019 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) © Elsa/Getty Images WILLIAMSPORT, PENNSYLVANIA - AUGUST 18: Chicago Cubs general manager Theo Epstein signs autographs before the game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs during the MLB Little League Classic at Bowman Field on August 18, 2019 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) CHICAGO — In the not-so-distant past, a Cubs team competing for a postseason appearance would create a frenzy during the final homestand.

But as the Cubs limp into Wrigley Field on Friday for a crucial 10-game homestand, the race to pin the blame for the 2019 season already has begun, even before the body is cold.

This is all Theo Epstein’s fault, of course.

Not just for the roster construction, which he played an integral part in, but for the overwhelming need to declare 2019 a failure because of what it’s not, instead of enjoying a wild race that may go down to the final day again.

Epstein built a championship team in four years and promised the Cubs would contend for years. That’s exactly what happened, but now contending for a wild-card spot isn’t good enough, so heads must roll after season’s end.

That means Joe Maddon, whose obituary already was being written Thursday afternoon on WMVP-AM 1000, with host David Kaplan and ESPN MLB insider Jeff Passan agreeing it’s time for Joe to go. Meanwhile, on their rival station, WSCR-AM 670, Epstein was taking some of the blame for his team’s downfall.

“If you go back 12, 13 months, it’s just been marked by underachievement and uninspired play,” he told the “Mully & Haugh Show.” “And that applies to us in the front office too. Everyone is in this together. It’s just been uninspired and unacceptable. This is clearly our chance to get it right. Like I said, we can’t take that lightly.”

Epstein presumably also was including Jason McLeod, who was bumped up to player personnel director Wednesday despite failing to draft and develop even one reliable pitcher in his eight years.

It pays to know the right people.

If this really is the front office’s fault, Epstein probably should demote himself to general manager, as President Andy MacPhail did in 2000 after firing the clueless GM Ed Lynch and taking over dual responsibilities.

“Either I’m going to get it or it’s going to kill me,” MacPhail famously said. “Hopefully we’re not presiding over a funeral in a few years.”

MacPhail survived but couldn’t get the job done. He ultimately handed it off to Jim Hendry, who built three playoffs teams in 2003, ’07 and ’08 before being let go by Chairman Tom Ricketts in 2011. Epstein left an ugly environment in Boston to take the Cubs’ newly created job as president of baseball operations, while Crane Kenney was moved over to president of wheelbarrow operations.

Epstein promptly brought in his old Boston pals, GM Jed Hoyer and McLeod, while gradually changing the culture of the organization. The Cubs are now lumped in with the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers, where October is not only expected but demanded.

No one blames Epstein for trading Gleyber Torres to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman in 2016. It led to the only championship in our lifetime, even if the Cubs gave up a perennial All-Star. For that he gets a lifetime pass, something White Sox fans somehow failed to give vice president Ken Williams after 2005.

But Epstein does deserve blame for trading Jorge Soler to the Royals for closer Wade Davis, giving up a potential 50-home run hitter for a one-season rental. And not making any significant changes after what he now admits was the Cubs’ “uninspired” play last year also is on the boss.

Epstein doesn’t need to worry about his job. But Maddon doesn’t have that luxury. If his players continue their September slide, he’ll be the one taking the fall, with the so-called reckoning to follow in November and December.

Maddon is not blameless, of course. His lineups and pitching decisions can be mind-boggling at times. But he also didn’t sign or acquire any of the players who contributed to the “uninspired” atmosphere.

We might as well start the going-away party now. A shot and a beer for everyone this week. Put it on the media’s tab, since we’ve spent the last five years portraying Maddon as a combination of Casey Stengel, Woody Guthrie and Steve Martin.

We’re all guilty, so blame us too — except Kaplan, naturally. Maddon treated everyone with class, and we all had a lot of laughs. It’ll be tough to see him yukking it up with the writers in New York or Philadelphia, but life goes on.

There’s still a chance the Cubs can sneak into the postseason, upset the Nationals in the wild-card game, shock the Dodgers in the division series, win the pennant and head to the World Series against the Yankees or Astros.

Maddon presumably would have the last laugh if that happens. But the way this season has gone, that’s an unlikely scenario.

No one believes the Cubs will go far in October, even if they get in.

Epstein forever changed expectations surrounding this cursed franchise, and all it took was one championship.

Now it’s his curse to live with.

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©2019 Chicago Tribune

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