By:  Holly Horning

Don’t be alarmed Tiger fans. We are not turning our blog into Completely Cubs or Mostly Maddon. This despite the fact that today’s blog also comes on the heels of Kurt’s visit to Wrigley Field. It appears that Kurt and I both had Cubs baseball on our minds at the same time – but for different reasons.

The Cubs were on my radar even before last year. And the reason? Theo Epstein. And he is the reason why the Cubs were able to break sports longest championship drought.

Epstein is in his early 40’s and became a GM at the age of 28. In his first 9 years, he took his team, the Red Sox, to the playoffs 6 times in 9 years and collected 2 World Series rings. This from a guy who never played baseball, majored in American Studies and has a law degree. A guy who was grabbed as soon as he resigned from the Red Sox because ownership tried to implement a policy where their marketing department was going to have a significant say in which players were signed.

The Cubs new owners, the Ricketts family, did not hesitate in snapping him up as their President. And with his hiring of GM, Jed Hoyer (also in his early 40’s), the Cubs turned the corner. They took one of baseball’s most antiquated Front Offices and renovated it top to bottom. They turned baseball’s oldest, worst and most expensive team (in its division) into one of the sport’s best.

If you really want to know how serious a team is about winning, you have to scratch below the surface. Does the team put all its money into player salaries or do they spend on the structure that supports the players? The structure that fans don’t see? The structure that isn’t sexy and doesn’t put fannies in the seats?

In other words, does the team only focus on the flowers of the tree or do they focus on the roots which feed, maintain and create the flowers?

In stark contrast to the Tigers, the Cubs have an extensive Front Office. Many more departments including a state-of-the-art medical/training/conditioning program as well as a separate Sports Psychology division. A huge Research and Development office as well as a Strategy and Development Office that handles everything from analytics to education of all employees, including the scouts. And a focus that placed an emphasis on hiring employees with math and science degrees.

Epstein introduced so many new concepts that it’s impossible to describe each one, but here’s a quick summary of some of the more notable changes:

– Parallel programs specifically designed for their Latin players to successfully navigate the differences and expectations in language and culture.

– The introduction of neuroscience, and its off-shoot, neuroscouting, that go beyond the stats and gives weight to the intangibles.

– The latest technology system and tools that everyone, including the scouts, must use.

The Cubs’ Way – a 100 page manual every player is given on their first day and emphasized as the team’s “Bible” because it clearly outlines the expectations of how each player should address batting, fielding, mental fortitude and team-building skills.

But as with any great venture, it’s not enough to simply spend money and add some nice toys to your organization. Winning takes a whole lot more. Winning goes beyond the stats to consider other factors. The intangibles.

That is what the Cubs do better than any other organization. Scratch below the surface, and there’s a lot going on. A solid foundation. The right blend of people. And the necessary mindset that creates winners.

All interesting details that will be covered in Building a Winner, Part Two, next week.

And this is when we will naturally want to compare the Cubs to the Tigers. And in a year that is expected to bring changes in Detroit, this could be a very interesting analysis. Stay tuned…..

8 thoughts on “BUILDING A WINNER (PART 1)

  1. There is another model here in Chicago that I would study if I were Illitch the Younger, and that is Rocky Wirtz. In a very comparable scenario, he took over the Blackhawks when his formidable father Bill died. He managed to completely change the culture, clean house, and turn a moribund reactionary franchise into arguably the NHL’s most well-run and successful organization.


    • Opus 131, I get what you’re saying. It doesn’t hurt that Rocky hired Scotty Bowman’s son to run the day to day activities and brought on Scotty as a consultant!


  2. Chicago had a 100 year history of losing, NO yearly seasonal expectations. ZERO WIN NOW marketing requirements with HUGE base of Season ticket holders. Detroit HAS been the opposite, always on the “cusp” of something great. So what is it that I’m saying. In Cubbie town a “scrap it,” start from “scratch”, NEW blueprint was MUCH easier to implement.


  3. I would love if the tigers brought on a student of Epstein. What about the GM who’s team crushed the tigers in the ’13 ALCS on their way to a WSC. All the while he built a great farm system DD is now emptying out to surround his great core of home developed players like Bettis. I believe Boston made a big mistake ridding themselves of Epstein and his assistants!


    • That guy you mentioned, Ben Cherington, is now VP of the Blue Jays. No way will the Tigers hire someone like that under current ownership. Besides, Al Avila is a seasoned baseball executive! At this moment I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing.


  4. Martha Ford reached out to the NFL to hire an assistant personnel guy from the Patriots and changed things with Lions. Time for Illitch family to do the same with the Tigers and Red Wings – or – sell! I think selling is in the relatively near future for Tigers and possibly the Red Wings!


  5. While I agree with Holly as a general matter, I am not inclined to rail against the Tigers’ “win-now” approach from 2012-14. Very few teams in history–the 56 and 61 Yankees, who else?–have had at the same time the best hitter in baseball and the second-best pitcher in the game, both in or barely past their prime. With that once-in-a-century asset, you have to go for it, the future be damned.


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