- Team president Theo Epstein devised a 5-year plan to go from worst to first—starting with a draft that focused on promising hitters and strong character.
- Cubs pitchers allowed the fewest runs in the league and their defense turned more than 70 percent of balls hit in play into outs—the highest percentage in the Majors in 25+ years.
- After injury, star hitter Kyle Schwarber retrained his “batting eye” just in time for the World Series by spending two hours-a-day focusing in on 300+ pitches.
The new baseball season is just beginning, but Chicago Cubs fans are still savoring the last one, thanks to team president Theo Epstein and his manager, Joe Maddon. They made history together taking the Cubs to their first championship in 108 years. Epstein built the team from scratch, choosing players based on statistics and something more: their character. Take a look at what Theo and Joe—and the Cubs—unleashed in Chicago.
The Cubs victory parade attracted more than a million — the biggest turnout Chicago had ever seen for what no living Chicagoan can remember seeing: a Cubs championship. Manager Joe Maddon said, the giant sea of joy, reminded him of Woodstock.
“The 2011 Cubs were the oldest team in the division, the most expensive team in the division and the worst team in the division.”
Joe Maddon: Welcome to Cubstock 2016. Look at this thing.
Joe Maddon: You’re looking out at like this literally this the horizon of people. It was spectacular.
“Spectacular” because they’d ended the longest championship drought in professional sports. The Cubs turnaround began five years ago when the team’s new owner, Tom Ricketts, hired a miracle worker. Theo Epstein had already helped break an 86-year championship drought by bringing a World Series title to Boston. When the savior arrived in Chicago, one paper had him walking on water. But in his first season the Cubs lost 101 games. By the end only his head was above water.
Theo Epstein: I thought it was funny. The 2011 Cubs were the oldest team in the division, the most expensive team in the division and the worst team in the division. And we really needed to start over.
Bill Whitaker: They’re expecting you to deliver.
Theo Epstein: Yeah.
“I just saw over the years that the times that we did remarkable things, it was always because players didn’t want to let each other down. Players wanted to lift each other up.”
Epstein devised a five-year-plan to go all the way from worst to first. Starting with the draft. Most teams take young pitchers but Epstein chose hitters. He said hitters don’t get hurt as much.
Theo Epstein: Not only were they safer bets, but we also felt we could change the culture a little bit easier by building around talented position players with high character.
Bill Whitaker: So you’re looking for more than just their skills. You’re looking for character.
Theo Epstein: Yeah. Because baseball’s a game with a ton of adversity inherent in it. And players that tend to respond to adversity the right way, and triumph in the end are players with strong character. If you have enough guys like that in the clubhouse you have an edge on the other team.
Bill Whitaker: You said, “I used to scoff at character.” What changed?
Theo Epstein: I just saw over the years that the times that we did remarkable things, it was always because players didn’t want to let each other down. Players wanted to lift each other up.
Bill Whitaker: So how do you determine which player has the character traits you’re looking for?
Theo Epstein: Find out how he treats people when no one’s looking. You go talk to their girlfriend. You go talk to their ex-girlfriends. You go talk to their friends. You talk to their enemies.
Kyle Schwarber was a promising young hitter at Indiana University. Many teams had their local scouts interview him. But for the Cubs, Theo Epstein did the interview; then made Schwarber his top-draft pick.
Bill Whitaker: What was it about his character that impressed you?
Theo Epstein: Kyle played baseball with a football mentality.
Bill Whitaker: What do you mean?
Theo Epstein: He would run through a wall in order to catch a ball. He would attack any obstacle that faced the team.
But running flat out, chasing a fly ball, in the first week of his second season: disaster. Schwarber tore his knee ligaments so badly that doctors said he would be out for the entire season. He believed them, but he still attacked his rehab relentlessly.
Kyle Schwarber: I wanted to challenge myself and I wanted to get back as soon as possible. OK, I’m gonna push myself.
While Schwarber was rehabbing, the Cubs were dominating…
The pressure kept building — pressure that could have crushed this young team. Manager Joe Maddon had the antidote for pressure.
Joe Maddon: I talked about pressure and expectations as being positives. And they are. Embrace it. Embrace the target. Embrace the pressure. Embrace expectations. Because if you do, you could end up winning the first World Series in 108 years in Chicago.
Maddon came to the Cubs two years ago, after managing in Tampa. Once, when Tampa got off to a terrible start, what Maddon did…shows why everyone would want to work for him.
“Embrace the pressure. Embrace expectations. Because if you do, you could end up winning the first World Series in 108 years in Chicago.”
Bill Whitaker: Your team lost the first six games.
Joe Maddon: Oh yeah.
Bill Whitaker: And you’re flying off to the seventh. And you go through the plane and you pour a drink for each one of your players. And they have no idea why you’re doing this.
Joe Maddon: I had this really good bottle of whiskey. Pour a little shot in each guy. And then I went up to the front, got the P.A. system and I announced, to the best 0-6 team in the history of Major League Baseball.
Bill Whitaker: So what was the lesson from that? What did that do?
Joe Maddon: It’s about never quitting. It’s just to break the tension. So burden lifted. Pressure eased. And I could play baseball again.
Maddon puts his own motivational sayings on T-shirts which he gives to all his players.
Bill Whitaker: You have a favorite?
Joe Maddon: Try not to Suck.
Bill Whitaker: That’s pretty good.
Joe Maddon: I think that’ll endure—the test of time.
Theo Epstein: Joe’s the best I’ve ever seen at getting players to just relax, be themselves, have fun, and prioritize winning.
In modern baseball all teams mine statistics to gain an advantage. By last season, the fifth of Epstein’s five-year plan, the Cubs had taken it a step further. Scouting the opposition in minute detail to know how to get opposing hitters out.
Theo Epstein: We try to do a great job of understanding the opposing hitter and his tendencies. Maybe understand the hitter better than he knows himself.
Bill Whitaker: You said that having all of this information was almost like having a cheat code.
Theo Epstein: It almost feels like cheating. You give your pitcher so much confidence they know that we’re calling the right pitch. ‘Cause you’ve broken down the opposing hitter so well.
Joe Maddon: We’re really good at it. We’re good at it. Pitcher’s got the ball, he knows what he wants to do. Defense is being set based on like, I don’t know, 250 at-bats or plate appearances. It’s really solid stuff.
Using those stats, Cubs pitchers allowed the fewest runs in the league. And the Cubs positioned their defense so well that they turned more than 70 percent of balls hit in play into outs—the highest percentage in the Majors in more than 25 years.
Joe Maddon: It’s all about defense. We’re gonna go back to the World Series, because we play the same level of defense.
And Cubs defenders are so versatile that catchers, infielders, and sometimes pitchers also play in the outfield. Here’s pitcher Travis Wood in left. That versatility allows the team to carry an extra pitcher instead of a backup fielder.
Joe Maddon: When we move guys around, we’re still really solid on defense. It lengthens the bench, more maneuverability, and also again, giving guys days off. But there’s also the component that some guys like it.
Bill Whitaker: You have said that fun is a big part of success. Why is fun so important?
Joe Maddon: I have never done anything well that I didn’t have fun doing. I believe –the more freedom in a sense that we give our players, the greater respect and discipline we get in return. Thus you get a better player. And one of their best, Kyle Schwarber kept rushing through rehab. Then to everyone’s surprise, his doctor cleared him just in time to play in the World Series.
Kyle Schwarber: He’s like I’m not gonna hold you back, but I could blow out, a hamstring, or an oblique by trying to do this. And I was like, “That’s fine. I got the whole off-season to take care of it, But (laugh)—
Bill Whitaker: I’ll worry about that later.
Kyle Schwarber: Yeah, exactly. I can worry about that stuff later.
But Schwarber hadn’t batted for the entire season. Hitters need weeks to retrain their eyes to face hundred-mile-an-hour Major League pitching. Schwarber only had a few days—and medical restrictions.
Bill Whitaker: Your doctors, I think, had told you, you should only swing like 60 times a day?
Kyle Schwarber: Yeah.
Bill Whitaker: So how in the world did you get your batting eye back so fast?
Kyle Schwarber: I want to set up a pitching machine. I want to set you know, fastballs, sliders, and curveballs where I could just stand at the plate in a batters’ box and watch these pitches go by—
Bill Whitaker: Just you can see it?
Kyle Schwarber: Yea, Just so, just so I can see it and train my eyes all over again.
Each day he spent two hours focusing in on more than 300 pitches. Schwarber told us he knew of no one who had ever done that before so he wasn’t sure it would work.
Kyle Schwarber: I just tell myself over and over again that you know, I’m a good hitter, like I can do this.
Bill Whitaker: In the World Series you hit over 400.
Kyle Schwarber: Lotta luck, I guess.
Bill Whitaker: Lotta luck.
Kyle Schwarber: (laugh)
But in Game Seven of the World Series, just four outs from victory, the Cubs blew a three-run lead.
Tied six-to-six, after nine innings. A rain delay stopped play. It turned out to be a godsend. The Cubs were dejected, shocked, stunned. Then, another triumph of character. Outfielder Jason Heyward, who’d batted terribly all series, suddenly called a team meeting.
Theo Epstein: It really stands out too that Jason Heyward, who had the toughest season really of any of the individuals in that room, would have the courage to stand up and call that meeting.
Bill Whitaker: So how many times in the season had a player called a full meeting?
Jason Heyward: We didn’t have any. Didn’t have any player meetings.
Bill Whitaker: Never.
Jason Heyward: Because we never needed one.
Heyward told us, during the season if a player got down, the other players would pick him up. But this time…
Jason Heyward: We all needed to be picked up at the same time. We all felt frustrated. We all felt confused.
Bill Whitaker: So how did you know what to say?
Jason Heyward: I didn’t know what to say. I just told ’em that I loved ’em. I said, “We are the best team in the game. We’re gonna win this game.” And guys started saying, “Fight the fight. We got ’em where we want ’em. Let’s go do what we do.”
Kyle Schwarber: You could feel that energy in that room to where it shifted from, you know, being dead to being, you know, we’re gonna win this game.
Bill Whitaker: After that meeting you said, “I’m gonna get on base.”
Kyle Schwarber: It’s just you get that gut feeling. Like, you know, you feel really good before you go up to the plate and you know you you’re gonna do something. And I could’ve been just talking’ a lot of crap too, but I really believed victory parade on Nov. 4, 2016.
Schwarber’s single started the rally that won the World Series. The Cubs scored twice—Then pitching and defense did the rest.
(Here’s the 0-1. This is going to be a tough play. Bryant the Cubs win the World Series. It’s over. And the Cubs have finally won it all.)
They all shared the joy, but on this team. No one wanted the credit.
“Our ‘C’ our logo it used to stand for loveable loser or just loser. I want that to stand for excellence, for players who do things the right way and I want that to stand for winning.”
Bill Whitaker: Joe Maddon told us flat out, without you, the Cubs would not have won the World Series.
Kyle Schwarber: Oh, my God. I guess that’s a compliment, right.
Bill Whitaker: I guess that’s a compliment.
Kyle Schwarber: I don’t like to think that way, you know? I like to think that it’s always—there’s always that team effort.
And that, right there, is the character this team was built on.
Bill Whitaker: You have said that “You love your numbers geeks.” But that’s not what won Game Seven of the World Series.
Joe Maddon: That’s right.
Bill Whitaker: What did?
Joe Maddon: The heart– The heartbeat won the World Series. By the end of the day, man, it was a group of guys getting together during a rain delay and they rallied around one another. That had nothing to do with math whatsoever. Not a thing to do with math.
Team owner Tom Ricketts has become a rock star in Chicago. Ricketts hopes the championship will be transformational.
Tom Ricketts: Our “C” our logo it used to stand for loveable loser or just loser. I want that to stand for excellence, for players who do things the right way and I want that to stand for winning.
Theo Epstein: We have one of the youngest teams in baseball. Almost all of them are going to be together through 2021 at the least. It gives them a chance to try to be the type of team that shows up and plays well in October year after year after year. I think everyone deserves more than one World Series every 108 years so. We have some making up to do.
Produced by Robert Anderson and Aaron Weisz.
Thank you to Tom Verducci – author of “The Cubs Way” – for his insights in the reporting of this story.