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Saturday 10 December 2016

Neil Francis: Joe Schmidt and Cubs guru Epstein share the gift of turning base metals into gold

Theo Epstein performed miracles with Red Sox and Cubs - and Joe Schmidt is cut from similar cloth

Published 13/11/2016 | 18:30

This is a rugby column, except that this week there is a heavy baseball slant to it - be patient, it will be just about worth it. I love baseball. I could watch it all day. I watched the Yanks play a double header on a rainy Tuesday in July; nine hours. Couldn't move after it; it had nothing to do with the seating; it was the nine hot dogs I consumed.

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I have watched the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yard, the Red Sox in Fenway and the Yanks at Yankee Stadium (Old and new). I watched the Chicago Cubs in Wrigley Field and even went to watch their cross-town neighbours the White Sox over on the south side of town two years ago. I had tickets to watch the Mets at Shea years ago but I'd rather have my leg off than watch that lot. I have seen the Yanks play a dozen times - so yeah, I'm a Yankee.

That wasn't always the case. A lot of Irish people, for whatever reason, end up watching their first game of baseball at Fenway; there is an affinity there with the Red Sox - rite of passage and all that. It is a great little ground and a fantastic buzz in the immediate vicinity and I do still have a Red Sox cap at home somewhere. Problem was the Yankees just kept beating them, so there was a simple solution: change allegiances to a winning side. This paid huge dividends particularly in the late 1990s as the Yanks won four out of five World Series in that period.

The Red Sox? Well, a bit like your first love, you'd always remember them, but they had done nothing since 1918 and the sheen and intrigue had gone, and well nostalgia is great but I needed to move on. It wasn't them it was me. . . I'm lying, it was them.

I was in Boston in 2004 and picked up the Boston Globe coming out of Logan Airport to see what was happening in town only to find out that the Red Sox had stiffed the Yankees in a game in the regular season. Wow, that doesn't happen too often. The Red Sox had hired this kid Theo Epstein in 2002. The neophyte was at 28 the youngest ever general manager of a Major League Baseball franchise. Epstein was a Yale graduate, really bright and articulate and like myself had Hollywood A-list good looks. As the line in 'Blazing Saddles' goes, "what is a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?" Baseball is a rum business: clean-cut Chino-wearing college boys don't last long there.

The Red Sox squeezed out of their division in 2004 as a wild card after winning 23 out of their last 25 games. All on the back of some very astute trades by Epstein. They ended up playing their eternal nemesis the Yanks in the American Conference decider and were down 3-0 in a best of seven and on their way out, after losing one of those games 19-8. They managed an unlikely victory in Game 4 and kept it going to Game 6 and then a moment of sporting theatre.

Curt Schilling, one of Epstein's key trades, was to pitch in Game 6 but had surgery to his ankle and could only play with the help of three sutures which stabilised the injured tendon. As the whole world looked on, Schilling's wound opened up and blood poured into his sock and shoe. The pitcher's sock went a deep crimson. The Boston Red Sox - you couldn't think or make it up. A selfless performance of heroic virtue which won thunderous approval from the Red Sox fans who sobbed at this incredible act of defiance as the Sox dared to win it. They polished off the Yankees in Game 7 and swept the St Louis Cardinals aside 4-0 in the World Series.

Steve Hansen said last Saturday that omens don't win Test matches but in the final game of the 2004 series there was the most spectacular lunar eclipse on the night of the match. . . the curse of the Bambino expunged and a first World Series in 86 years.

The Red Sox did it again in 2007 after Epstein had initially left but came back to guide them to more glory.

I have listened to Epstein speak to camera on a number of occasions. He has a disarming sense of humour and for such a successful operator he is highly self-deprecating - maybe it's a bit of a defence mechanism. One of the smartest talkers I have heard in or out of sport - the flow of conscious thought and balanced rhetoric. He could sum up a three-hour game in 60 seconds and stump his interviewer with no more following questions to ask. His real skill, though, was his judgement and pragmatism when it came to moulding a team - a real craft.

In 2011 the Chicago Cubs, a franchise with an even bigger drought than the Red Sox, came calling. Tom Ricketts knew who he wanted to shake up his newly acquired but moribund franchise. The financial offer was huge but it was the challenge that was irresistible. The Cubs had finished last in their division for the previous five years. Not just last but Paddy last! One of those seasons, they managed to lose over 100 games. It takes a special type of talent to be that bad.

Epstein would by choice have to head out of a safe harbour into a force-five hurricane. Yet again he would have to trust his instinct and the ideological purity of his baseball philosophy.

Epstein got the balance right again and the Cubs came back again against all the odds from 3-1 down to win quite improbably away from home against the Cleveland Indians. I was one of the sad sacks who stayed up all night to watch the sort of ballpark nirvana that comes once every dozen years or so.

In the post-match, Epstein - drunk on champagne but still amenable and engaging - made sense of what had just happened. There had been heavy rain and during the rain break the Cubs went into the Indians' weights room. All set for a pep-talk for the team, which was outside of his job description, Epstein realised the mood of the team and walked straight back out, taking Joe Maddon the head coach with him.

The Cubs had just blown a 6-3 lead and the game had finished all square, requiring extra innings. The team's psychological resilience was obvious to him and the players had figured out what needed to be done themselves - "it's our time" - and did not require any further input from anyone. The Cubs sealed the deal with unyielding determination. "Let's grind," they said. Epstein said afterwards that the ethos of the team was "a thousand small sacrifices when no-one was looking, the players working on their weaknesses on down days and coaching staff pulling all-nighters to get even the smallest detail right." Does that remind you of someone?

Epstein had great empathy with his two under-performing franchises, and their respect and reverence for him ran just short of fear. For the curse breaker to win against the odds with two such awful bottom-dweller franchises? Well you tell me.

Most of the Irish rugby fans who arrived in Chicago in the lead-up to the big match managed to piggy-back on the wild celebrations, where upwards of four million people came to party in the Windy City. Of course it just happened to be the week that the Cubs had put 108 years of pain and frustration behind them. Did it just happen? Was it luck or providence or the fact that at some stage the Cubs would get their opportunity? I don't think so. If Epstein had not arrived, the Cubs would still be a wealthy and well supported but still shite baseball franchise.

Did Ireland's win last Saturday just happen, or was it down to the moment where the gods decreed we would eventually beat New Zealand? You know, after 111 years or so we would eventually get there. . . or would we?

Joe Schmidt brought unparalleled success to Leinster. He has continued that formula with Ireland. He won 77 of 99 matches with Leinster and has lost only 11 of his 35 matches with Ireland. Epstein-like!

The key to success in sport is to find an Epstein or a Schmidt and recognise what you have: a motivator, an innovator, a leader who takes charge and a thinker who has that indispensable quality of turning vision into reality.

There are very few of them out there and after the dismay and disillusionment of events last Tuesday in the States, many Americans would swap their pensions or their grandchildren for a four-year term with Epstein in the White House just to see what a real leader would do, and while you are at it. . .

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