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How the Chicago Cubs fixed a 'bad business culture'

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Author Rich Cohen says that when the Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series last year for the first time since 1908, “It wasn’t just huge for baseball, it was huge for the world, and humanity, really.”

That’s a stretch, of course, but Cohen’s new book, “Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse” makes a convincing case for why the Cubs are at least bigger than just baseball. Cohen turns the years of failure, coincidence, and bad luck into a business cautionary tale.

Theo Epstein and ‘gut renovation’

“The curse, to me, was like a bad business culture,” Cohen says. “And we look at the team, but the team is really just a product of the business. If the culture is bad, the product is bad. So basically what [general manager] Theo Epstein did with [owner and chairman Tom] Ricketts was fix the culture. The result is a much better product.”

The Ricketts bought the Cubs in 2009 — the family fortune comes from TD Ameritrade, which Joe Ricketts founded — and hired Epstein in 2011. In his book, Cohen recounts that when Epstein met with Tom Ricketts before taking the job as Cubs GM, he asked, “Was he willing to let the team get really bad? As bad as it’s ever been? Was he ready for the pressure that would come from the fans and reporters when we got rid of their favorite players and lost a hundred games? Because that’s how bad we’d have to get to get good.” Ricketts consented — it worked, but it took until 2016 to get a championship team. (Cohen also weighed in on a popular debate at Yahoo Finance: Who is the face of baseball in 2017? Surprise: Cohen thinks it’s Javier Baez.)

Epstein’s staffing philosophy was: Clean house in order to set up for long-term success. Accept and embrace short-term failures in order to build. In baseball, it meant cutting expensive contracts, even of beloved players that were supposedly stars, to recruit young talent and utility players.

Epstein, in the book, chalks the Cubs’ years of failure to focusing on the near-term: “They always wanted to make sure next year’s team looked like it had a chance to win because the team was going to be up for sale at any moment… If it’s 1988, it means making sure the 1989 team looks like it has a chance… It means lack of long-term planning, focus on the short term, focus on optics.” Epstein zoomed out, looking down the road, prioritizing the development of minor league prospects.

It was a form of what the author Michael Lewis would call “Moneyball.” (Epstein tells Cohen that Lewis’s book “completely” changed the way he approached the GM job in Chicago.)

Cohen likens the Epstein process to “a gut renovation.”

[Cohen was the latest guest on our Sportsbook podcast; you can listen on iTunes or scroll to the bottom of this post.]

The Chicago Cubs celebrate on Nov. 3, 2016 after defeating the Cleveland Indians in the World Series. (AP)

Identity crisis for Cubs fans

Now that the Cubs have finally ended the 108-year curse, there’s an awkward feeling for lifelong fans conditioned to expect failure: Now what?

“Your whole point as a Cubs fan is to be on the road trip that never ends,” Cohen says. “You’re always going, never arriving. And suddenly, you’re there — and what now? I know how to lose, I’ve been losing my whole life. I don’t know how to win. But it had to happen. I just wish I was 20 when it did, because I’d have a more healthy attitude.”

Cohen’s book conveys the journey perfectly — it is breezy, brainy, and charming. The 262 pages turn, without the endless examples of disappointment ever feeling tedious. (A 539-page biography of Muhammad Ali, this is not.)

“The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse”

This book isn’t just for Cubs fans who will empathize with Cohen’s gripes. Fans of any team will learn largely-forgotten baseball lore that makes for great dinner party anecdotes: Frank Merkle’s base-running mistake in 1908 that would keep the New York Giants out of the World Series that year and let the Cubs in; the “Gatorade glove” of Leon Durham in 1985; and the racism of PK Wrigley, one of 15 owners to initially vote “no” on letting Jackie Robinson into the league.

Cohen writes of Wrigley: “He was not a bad man, but he was a product of his time… It probably wasn’t that he was a racist, but he believed his customers were.” The anecdote has obvious relevance today to the NFL and whether any teams will sign free agent Colin Kaepernick. “Not only was it morally wrong,” Cohen says of Wrigley’s racism, “it made the team bad. It was bad business.”

Business readers will learn, among many surprising history lessons, how the “lunch counter king of Chicago” Charles Weeghman set up the rival Federal League in 1913, lured a number of star players with better salaries, and ultimately got the American League and National League to fork over $600,000 to get the Federal League to disband. The Chicago Whales of the Federal League merged with the Chicago Cubs.

It sounds like precisely what Donald Trump and the team owners of the United States Football League wanted in 1986 when the USFL sued the NFL, seeking a merger, but instead got a judgment of $1 and went out of business.

There’s a laugh-out-loud passage early on when Cohen is describing the World Series-winning team of 1908. A father at one of the games, Cohen images, “would have dropped an arm across the shoulder of the boy and said, ‘Remember those names, son, for these are the Cubs, who will certainly win many more World Series in your lifetime.’ As we know, the father would grow old and die and that boy would grow up and make predictions to his children and grow old and die… and so on for more than a hundred years and still we would be waiting.” Cohen makes you feel as though he lived through all 108 of those years.

The wait ended last year, giving Major League Baseball (and its TV ratings) an invigorating jolt—now how long will Cubs fans wait until the next one?

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwriteSportsbook is our sports business video and podcast series.

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