As the hours wound down to the start of the 112th World Series, many eyes were focused on the various star players for the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs, and rightly so. But many others note the 108-year title drought that the Cubs franchise is so desperate to break. And who better to break a curse than someone who has already done it?
Epstein, Francona Reunite as Opponents
Theo Epstein’s SABR metric brilliance has already ended one city’s run of futility. When he first became President and Chief in Boston in 2001, the Red Sox were not far behind where the Cubs are now. They hadn’t won a title since 1918, and after a near miss at a Fall Classic appearance in 2003, Epstein hired Terry Francona for his second managerial job. In 2004, the Sox found themselves down to their final three outs. In the ninth inning of game four of the 2004 ALCS, when Dave Roberts, himself now a manager with the Los Angeles Dodgers, stole one of the most important bases in World Series history with the greatest closer of all time on the mound. Bill Mueller drove him in with a crucial RBI single, and the legend of Theo Epstein, and an eight-year run of success for Francona in Bean Town, was born. On the way, he would capture two world championships and make several playoff appearances.
Epstein left Boston after 2007, when the Red Sox obliterated the Colorado Rockies to win their second title in four years. Francona was ousted after the Sox’s disastrous September collapse in 2011. Five years later, they find themselves with new pennant-winning organizations, in practically the same positions they were in when they worked together in Boston.
The Current State
Epstein found another tactically brilliant, SABR metric-friendly manager to make his brilliantly constructed rosters go in Chicago. His outstanding pedigree and modern style enabled him to tempt Joe Maddon away from Tampa Bay, where he had brought about his own baseball revolution under a young front office genius in Andrew Friedman. In retrospect, it was probably inevitable that both would move on from the small-market, poorly supported franchise in Tampa to bigger and better things. In his second year on the job, Maddon has managed Epstein’s Cubs to a 103-win season and the franchise’s first World Series appearance since before World War II.
Francona, meanwhile, moved on to Cleveland after being let go by the Red Sox. He found himself in a much smaller market and with a franchise with its own run of title-free play. The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948, and have had several heart-wrenching finishes to very promising seasons, most notably in 1995, when they had one of the best offenses of all time but lost in the first round of the playoffs. Injuries and disappointing performances by Indians players, as well as being in a tough AL Central (the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals have appeared in three of the last four World Series) have prevented Francona’s tribe from making a run until now. This year, Cleveland won 94 games, an AL Central title, and a pennant of its own.
While Epstein and Maddon clearly have the more talented roster, this is where the history between these baseball minds becomes interesting. Both sides have shown a willingness to think outside the box to maximize their teams’ effectiveness in the past, but Francona has been better in that regard this postseason. Only two words are needed to support this claim: Andrew Miller.
Miller, who was acquired before the trading deadline this July, has been used so expertly by Francona this October, as a multiple-inning relief weapon rather than a traditional ninth-inning closer, that he was easily and deservedly named ALCS MVP. He appeared in all four of the Indians wins over Toronto, and pitched in multiple innings every time. While the Cubs have their own trade acquisition reliever stud in Aroldis Chapman, he has been their closer. It will be interesting to see if Maddon changes things up to match Francona’s aggressiveness.
Regardless, this is about as interesting of a coaching/front office matchup as you can have in a World Series. Both sides have broken curses before. But only one can do it again.