SEATTLE – Imagine that you’ve ended a combined 194 years of curses, winning two World Series with the Red Sox, one with the Cubs, thus ensuring that you are forever legendary in each city.
But you want one more challenge, another seemingly impossible task that will cement your legacy as the greatest executive in sports history.
Theo Epstein, do I have a team for you.
In the wake of former team president Kevin Mather’s ugly departure from Seattle last week, it’s a pertinent – and obvious – question: Could Epstein, still a relatively young man at 47 despite his vast accomplishments, be lured to Seattle to run the show?
You talk about challenges. Seattle is the only team in MLB never to make the World Series. The M’s have just four postseason appearances in 44 years – and none since 2001, the longest playoff drought in major pro sports. And their reputation is in tatters after Mather’s offensive stream of consciousness at the Rotary Club Meeting Heard ’Round The World.
Mariners chairman John Stanton, who assumed Mather’s duties on an interim basis when Mather stepped down as president and CEO, said last week that the search for a replacement would begin immediately.
The Mariners have a strong internal candidate in Kevin Martinez, senior vice president of marketing and communications. Martinez has spent 30 years valiantly and effectively promoting a team that often didn’t give him much to work with. He would be a positive, personable and forward-thinking presence as the frontman of the organization.
But Epstein is the one person any team, in any sport, would move heaven and earth to get into their corporate hierarchy. In 2003, he took over a Red Sox team that infamously hadn’t won the World Series in 86 years, and they shattered the Curse of the Bambino to take the title in 2004 and ’07. Then Epstein moved to the Cubs, a team without a crown since 1908, and finally turned them from Lovable Losers to Lovable Champions in 2016, ending 108 years of futility.
The good news is that Epstein is something of a free agent after stepping down from his position as the Cubs president of baseball operations in November. He did take a consulting position with MLB to help it improve its on-field product, and just a few days ago joined Arctos Sports Partners, a private equity firm that buys minority shares of professional sports clubs, as “executive in residence.” In that role, he will advise the owners of teams that Arctos invests in.
Despite that seemingly busy agenda, Epstein has indicated that he would be up for one more baseball challenge. Not this season – he wants to decompress from the stress of building and maintaining a ballclub. But in a letter to friends that was obtained by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, Epstein wrote, “I do plan on having a third chapter leading a baseball organization someday, though I do not expect it to be next year.”
Epstein also made it clear that he wants his next job to be higher up the organizational ladder – like all the way to the top, such as an ownership stake.
“Being part of an ownership group is something that has always appealed to me,” Epstein said in his Cubs farewell news conference, “but it can seem so unattainable that I haven’t been really realistic about it yet. … A lot of things would have to go right for that to happen.”
The Mariners provided Mather an ownership stake, so it seems well within the realm of possibility they could do the same to entice Epstein. Certainly, the challenge of putting the Mariners over the top is something that would likely appeal to Epstein’s curse-busting sensibilities. He admitted he had grown stale in Chicago, just as he had previously in Boston. It seems that chasing the prize is much more alluring to Epstein than the pressure to maintain it, as he acknowledged at his farewell news conference.
“If you look at my track record in Boston and then here, in the first six years or so, we did some pretty epic things,” Epstein said. “The last couple years weren’t that impressive. Maybe what that tells me is I’m great at and really enjoy building and transformation and triumphing. Maybe I’m not as good and not as motivated by maintenance, so to speak.”
And the beauty in Seattle is that the organization, three years into a rebuild, has already done a lot of the heavy lifting. Epstein could walk in, preside over the finishing touches, and, if his magic touch holds true, reap the rewards.
That’s not to say this will happen, though Jon Heyman reported in November – right after Epstein left the Cubs, and long before Mather imploded – that the M’s were one of two teams, along with the Phillies, interested in Epstein.
Even if Epstein entertains the idea, the competition would be fierce. The Mariners would be far from the only MLB team to pursue him, and many have speculated that he could view building up a possible expansion team from scratch as the ultimate challenge. Some see Epstein as the next commissioner. Or he could decide he’s done enough in baseball and move on to another arena.
Seattle has multitudes to entice anyone as a city – including the presence of Epstein’s good friend Eddie Vedder, frontman of Theo’s beloved Pearl Jam. But Epstein (despite a stint attending law school in San Diego and working for the Padres) is an East Coaster through and through, as is his wife. That could be a sticking point. The Mariners would no doubt also have to open up their wallets wide – something for which they are not renowned. Epstein was reportedly set to make $10 million in 2021 before he stepped down. And also be willing to cede power to Epstein – another stretch.
Mather’s position as president/CEO has always been a more business-oriented one than focused on baseball operations, though he had authority over that department. Many teams have their organization structured with a head of business operations alongside a head of baseball operations. Epstein seems ready to move beyond the job of assembling a baseball team, which is the province of Jerry Dipoto, who has earned the right see this rebuild through. The Mariners likely have a year to work through the logistics while Epstein recharges.
Asked at his news conference about a possible restructuring of upper management, Stanton replied, “This is an opportunity for us to look and see if there are opportunities to do things better. But from my point of view, I don’t begin this role with any expectation that there will be meaningful changes in the structure.”
All that could be sorted out later, if the Mariners can convince Epstein to write the third chapter of his career in Seattle. The Executive of the Century meets The Challenge of the Century.