MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

With title and award, Epstein feels he 'belongs'

Cubs president is Sporting News' 2016 MLB Executive of the Year

With title and award, Epstein feels he 'belongs'

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- In the beginning, Theo Epstein suffered through every single loss, even though he knew he was working for something larger. When he took over as the Chicago Cubs' president of baseball operations in 2011, he knew he had a blueprint that had worked before, and he never lost faith that he was headed in the right direction.

He had surrounded himself with good people, and they got through the toughest days together. At times, though, he was tested in ways he never imagined, as the Cubs averaged 95 losses in his first three seasons.

"Look, we believed in the vision," Epstein said on Monday night at the annual General Managers Meetings, where he was recognized by his peers as Sporting News' 2016 Major League Baseball Executive of the Year, selected by 56 Major League executives. "And we were so appreciative of the support we had from ownership, and the support and patience we had from our fans.

"But there were moments, especially early on, when we'd look at our board and have our roster planned out for the next four or five years and we'd ask, 'Where are the impact players going to come from?'"

He eventually could see the Cubs getting better day by day, little by little. Winning the World Series last week was validation of his hard work and his genius.

"Let's be honest. It's 100 percent an organizational award," he said of the Sporting News recognition. "It's an award for the whole Chicago Cubs baseball operations department. I made that clear in accepting it. The head of the department is always out front getting the credit when things go well, but it's hundreds of people and thousands of small sacrifices no one sees that make a great baseball operation."

Epstein was 28 in 2001, when the Red Sox made him the youngest GM in baseball. Three years later the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.

Epstein celebrates win

"That was the best part of the whole Boston decade I held onto the most," he said. "Seeing how many people were fulfilled and how their lives changed back in '04. To feel like you played a small part in that was incredibly gratifying and resonated forever. Today a Boston fan came up to me and said, 'Thank you for '04.'

"That stayed with me. It was so meaningful. Re-creating that to a certain extent was part of why I took the Cubs job. I knew that if we won in Chicago, it would mean that much to people. It didn't let us down. It has been equally passionate, emotional, meaningful as it was in Boston."

For the Cubs the wait was 108 years, and even if Epstein does not work another day in baseball, his place in history -- and the Hall of Fame -- is assured.

He's 42 now, and when he stood in front of his peers to accept the award, he was more gratified on a variety of levels.

"When I got my first GM job, I was 28 and didn't feel like I had fully paid my dues or that I was fully ready," he said. "I probably felt a little bit on the outside looking in the GM fraternity. Now, many years later, it's been a lot of hard work and learning from a lot of great people. It's nice to get this award and feel like I belong.

"I feel like I appreciate this more now. I know how much hard work from so many people it took and that you have to be a little lucky, too, more than I [was] in 2004."

In the days since his Cubs winning another World Series, his life has taken on a magical quality even as he focuses on returning to business.

"During the parade, I kept telling my wife, 'We need to go home and change some diapers and do some laundry,'" he said. "This is not real life. We need to get our feet back on the ground. It's crazy the reception everyone got from the city of Chicago. It's fun and will be a lifetime memory, but we do have some work to do."

Epstein and his GM, Jed Hoyer, visited pitcher Jason Hammel on Saturday to tell him his option wasn't being picked up. The Cubs also have two prominent free agents, closer Aroldis Chapman and center fielder Dexter Fowler.

But the Cubs' core of position players is one of the youngest in baseball, and even though change is inevitable, the team is positioned to win for a while.

"The mix has to change a little bit," Epstein said. "We had great chemistry. We had a bunch of high-character guys who care about winning and care about each other. But if you look to bring back every single component and try to re-create the past, it's going to change. Group dynamics change. Human beings change. Maybe it's better to change it in some small way on your terms. But we're excited about what the future brings."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.