Think of the giants of the industry. Pat Gillick, the most recent of the position to reach Cooperstown, brought four different teams to the postseason as a general manager. Larry MacPhail established night baseball in Cincinnati before winning pennants with both Brooklyn and the New York Yankees. His son, Lee, served as GM of both the Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles.
The name most relate with greatness at the position, Branch Rickey, served in the role for four teams. He is best known for signing Jackie Robinson, but is also credited with creating the idea of a full-fledged farm system while building the great St. Louis Cardinals teams in the 1920s and 30s. He also signed a guy named Roberto Clemente before leaving the post in Pittsburgh.
It is simply the nature of the position. Sure, there are outliers. A few. But just like John Henry said himself, there is a “certain shelf life” for general managers in baseball. Eventually, for one reason or another (but usually because of the need to be challenged), those lives end in one city and begin anew in another.
If anyone was going to test that theory, it was going to be Theo Epstein. He was a local boy who cut his teeth in other organizations before returning to the Fenway Park fold as the golden boy, the man who would help lift a beloved franchise to greatness that hadn’t been seen in generations.
Epstein succeeded, belying his youth and his relative lack of experience in the game to create a juggernaut, both on the field and off, that transformed the city. While doing so, he wed, had a son and put down roots that seemed at the time to dig deep into the soil from whence he came.
However, even Epstein is not immune to the lure of the next great challenge, for it comes calling to every GM who has had even a tiny taste of success in this game. And if he is successful in turning around the Chicago Cubs, he may one day be mentioned in the same breath as Rickey, Gillick and the MacPhails.
Realistically, Epstein couldn’t accomplish much more in Boston. Sure, he would’ve been lauded for cleaning up the mess that was 2011 (much of it due to his failures, he admits), but even if the 2012 team rose from the ashes and won it all, that trophy still might get tucked behind ’04 and ’07.
He succeeded in his mission of creating “a scouting and player development machine,” as he had promised when he stammered through his introductory press conference in 2002 like a middle schooler giving an oral report on a book he never read.
And while many of his free agent moves have failed, Epstein at least made his mark in closing deals. He was as active as they come and never shy about pulling the trigger, something he displayed early on with the nervy Nomar Garciaparra deal.
Those qualities do not translate as well when an organization is simply going through its ebbs and flows, trying to go from OK to good or good to great, or just searching for an identity. GMs with the acumen and ability like Epstein either need to take on that massive rebuild or have the opportunity to maintain dominance if and when the club achieves it. The Red Sox were in neither position.
With the Cubs, it’s so obviously the former scenario, but one that does nothing to deprive Epstein of the resources he needs and the attention he may covet. Despite annually ranking near the top in terms of payroll and fan adoration, Chicago is coming off its worst season since 2002, hasn’t won a playoff game since 2003 and, as you all know, is without a World Series title since 1908.
It has an improving but still substandard minor league system, a park about ready for a massive revitalization and a relatively new ownership group looking to build the Red Sox of the Midwest. All of these factors make Epstein the perfect hire. Essentially, he’s been here before.
While it ended with a thud, Epstein’s tenure in Boston had moments of greatness. He himself has not reached that level yet. Like those that came before him and left their indelible marks on the game, Epstein will need to do it again.