Baseball is glorified rounders, right?
Not that I’m knocking rounders. Far from it. Of all the games there are, it has always been, and remains, my favourite to play. Easy, fast and never a dull moment.
But I wouldn’t necessarily pay to watch someone else playing it. Or, I guess, baseball for that matter. But plenty of people do. And, in the US, they have just had their very own Andy Murray and Wimbledon moment after the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908.
The man responsible for the resurgence and success of the Cubs is Theo Epstein, who was appointed as the team’s Head of Baseball Operations in 2011.
Think of it as the sport’s equivalent to Director of Football. That much maligned non-position. At least in popular theory anyway.
But I’m having a bit of a rethink on that after learning about what Epstein did in the role.
When Epstein took the job he immediately sought out talks with the club’s chairman. Hardly surprising. The Cubs weren’t so much a sleeping giant as one that had virtually decomposed and been forgotten, certainly as far as a winner of the ultimate prize was concerned. Indeed, their lack of success had become a laughing matter, both within the game and US culture as a whole, as this clip from Back To The Future II demonstrated.
Turns out they were only one year out.
I’m guessing that Epstein came to the job with the express wish of not being seen as the man at the helm of a team of professional failures?
A sporting joke.
So he decided to do something about it.
The upshot of Epstein’s meeting with the Cub’s chairman was a root and branch review of every single baseball related issue at the club. Yes, the Cubs were working as a business. They had a large and loyal fan base, they were commercially viable, and they were a name.
Which is never a bad thing.
But did all this come at the cost of the baseball itself? Had something been lost along the way?
Epstein thought so. Hence the review. And the seismic change of strategy that came from it.
One which meant the team knowingly and voluntarily taking two, if not three, steps backwards in the hope that, step by step, they’d eventually move forward again. But not only that. For, with their new sporting policy in place, they’d go onto not only regain the ground they had lost but, in time, make further progress; the sort of progress and achievements they hadn’t accomplished since 1908.
What they ended up doing relates nicely to what a former professional footballer and coach once told me in the course of a chat about the game.
He said that a club looking to buy players should never look to bring in a player, any player, who, upon signing for and joining that club regarded the move, professionally speaking, as a sideways step.
And as for someone who sees it as a downward one, then don’t even think about it. That player, he admitted, will, for the entirety of his time at his new club think he has done them a favour by going there; that he is, in effect, too good for the club he has joined and has only done so for three reasons.
He has to get out of his current club and the club intent on buying him are the only interested party. So he’s moving for personal reasons rather than professional ones. It’s not unknown either. Professional footballers have their problems just as we all do. And, more often than not, the best remedy is to get as far away from the source of the problem, the person, the addiction, whatever – and as soon as possible.
He sees the move as a short-term stepping stone to another move, a period in the shop window. A self-centered and calculated move designed to get his career back on track; one year where he doesn’t really want to be, for three or four where he does want to be.
Thirdly, and finally, he does it for the money. It’s like the tradesman you get to call round to do a job. Of the three quotes you’ve been sent, one was for £400, another was for £375. But this tradesman has sent in one for £900. It’s his way of saying he isn’t remotely interested in doing the work “…but look, if you’re going to pay me silly money then I’ll come. And more fool you…”
Builders and footballers. They both have the same economic mindset.
In all of those examples, the footballer doesn’t want to be at your club. But it’s serving his purposes. And he’ll never let anyone forget that he’s doing them a favour by being there.
“If…”, my subject concluded, “…you are signing a new player for your football club, then make sure that he wants to be there, that he sees it as a step up and that he owes you for giving him the opportunity… not the other way round”.
We’ve translated that at Norwich in recent years as players who are “young and hungry”.
Who have something to prove. And who will be more than happy to justify the faith that has been placed in them if only someone, somewhere, will give them a new and bigger stage.
We’ve seen them at Norwich. I could do a long list of footballers who the Canaries have plucked from either obscurity or near footballing oblivion who have, in time, embraced the opportunity given to them to prove themselves, who have felt wanted and have, in turn, wanted to be here.
I’ll name just three.
Marc Tierney. Oldham, Carlisle, Shrewsbury and Colchester. The proverbial journeyman pro.
But one who raised his game enough at Norwich to play, and not look out of place, in the Premier League.
Here’s a name for the older readers out there: John Ryan.
Rejected by Arsenal followed by several seasons busying himself in the lower leagues with Fulham and Luton Town, yet he showed enough, both as a player and, crucially, as a person, to John Bond, to up his game and play in the top flight for us; sharing the same dressing room and team as Martin Peters and, at the end of the 1977/78 season, winning the Barry Butler as being the club’s top scorer.
Yep, more goals than £1 million Kevin Reeves.
Then there was the old fashioned centre forward who was made to play on the wing at Nottingham Forest before, nearing 30, he was bombed out to Shrewsbury Town.
He might have thought that was bad enough. But losing 7-1 on his debut? Some would have wanted out there and then. Some. But he stayed. And how he prospered.
Grant Holt wanted it.
Many a bigger name would have ran for cover. Holty faced it down and ended up, amongst other things, scoring for us in the Premier League at Liverpool and being talked of as a possible England player.
The only thing that let him down there was his playing CV, reputation and perceived playing style. Seen as weaknesses on the international scene, maybe. But three great strengths of character as far as he and Norwich City were concerned.
Epstein, when taking command at the Chicago Cubs, talked of “…scouting the person more than the player”.
And that’s the approach he took with player recruitment as the Cubs sought to be winners again.
The club’s new policy meant shipping out their famous, more established and well-known players, almost en-masse and replacing them with, in Epstein’s words, “…younger, lesser known prospects”.
Epstein and the club knew it was a risky strategy and that they would feel the effects of implementing it.
And not in a good way.
Out went the stars. And in came the starry eyed hopefuls. The ones with something to prove.
It showed. In his first two seasons at the Cubs, the team lost 60 per cent of all their games played.
If we apply that to one football season of 46 league games, that’s around 28 defeats.
If it had applied to us in the 2015/16 season as well as this one (84 Premier League and Championship games in total) then that’s 50 defeats.
And yet, and yet…
The Cubs stuck with the plan and with their man. And it has paid off. Those “starry eyed hopefuls” developed as players and as a team. With the World Series a very firm and unshakeable legacy of that policy.
They had faith in the plan and the players, the players had faith in the plan as did, critically, the Cubs’ fans.
Their reward is vindication for taking a longer-term view; of building not only a team but a philosophy and approach that decries the conventional or safe way of doing things.
I salute them for doing so and having the courage of their sporting convictions.
But it wouldn’t stand a chance in English football would it?
More’s the pity.