Originally Published: November 5, 2014 6 a.m.
The second dance with Joe Maddon turned out to be the charm for Theo Epstein.
When Epstein was hired as the general manager of the Red Sox in 2002, he interviewed Maddon for the team's vacant managerial position. Maddon had been a big league coach for 10 years, but his lack of managerial experience and Boston's intense media market led Epstein to opt for Terry Francona. Tampa Bay had no such qualms when they hired Maddon as their manager in 2005. In nine seasons at the helm of the low-budget Rays, Maddon earned a reputation as one of the best managers in the game.
When former Rays' president Andrew Friedman was hired by the Dodgers two weeks ago, Maddon became a prime topic of conversation. A clause in his contract gave him the option to become a free agent if Friedman ever left the Rays. The Twitter-verse was rife with questions. Would Maddon exercise his option? Would Friedman fire the manager he inherited, Don Mattingly, and be reunited with Maddon? Would another MLB team jettison their manager to accommodate Maddon? Soon enough, the questions were answered.
First, Maddon wasted little time in exercising his option. That's when Epstein, now the President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs, sprang into action. He fired his manager, Rick Renteria, after only one season and with two more years remaining on his contract. Then Epstein announced that the team had reached agreement with Maddon on a reported five-year deal at $5 million per year. The rapidity of the moves triggered a new series of questions. Did the Cubs tamper with Maddon while he was under contract with Tampa Bay? Did the Cubs - and Maddon - treat Renteria unfairly? Would the Rays file tampering charges with MLB and request compensation for losing Maddon?
The Cubs were most likely guilty of tampering. While they may not have had direct contact with Maddon before he opted out of his contract with the Rays, they certainly had contact with someone from Maddon's camp, most likely his agent, Alan Nero. If you think such action is tasteless and unethical, you're right. But that's the way things are done in the real world of billion-dollar companies. No one in Maddon's situation gives up the job they have unless they're assured of a new one. The rumors that Maddon would sit out a year and become a talking head for ESPN or the MLB Network were hogwash. Maddon is wired for the dugout, not a microphone.
Everyone, including Epstein, agrees that Renteria was treated unfairly. Epstein said as much in announcing Maddon's hiring. "Rick deserved to come back for another season as Cubs manager," said Epstein. But when Maddon became available, "We saw it as a unique opportunity and faced a clear dilemma: be loyal to Rick or be loyal to the organization. In this business of trying to win a world championship for the first time in 107 years, the organization has priority over any one individual. We decided to pursue Joe."
The articulate Epstein summed up the move succinctly. The Ricketts family, owners of the Cubs, hired him to win a World Series. Sentimentality takes a back seat when your mission is to overcome more than a century of futility. Epstein's loyalty is to the cause, not to his manager. If he had traded players instead of managers, he would be applauded. And Renteria's resume can't compare with Maddon's. But caution is in order. Like all trades, the managerial switcheroo should be evaluated in hindsight, not on paper.
Maddon expressed remorse for Renteria's situation and he would do well to heed his former fraternity brother's fate. If he doesn't win a championship, Maddon will suffer the same demise, probably with Theo in tow. Only this time it will cost the Cubs more than the $800,000 per year they will pay Renteria.
We don't know if the Rays will file tampering charges against the Cubs. If they do, it's doubtful they will be successful. Unless Nero is put under oath - and tells the truth - proof of tampering will be hard to come by.
With Maddon in the dugout, the Cubs are closer to their goal of winning a World Series than they were with Renteria. Messy and distasteful though it was, Theo made the right move.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.