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Girardi only choice who makes sense for Cubs

If Epstein can't bring in Yankees manager, he risks compounding his original mistake

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

October 1, 2013

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Surprisingly last spring, the voice inside Theo Epstein's head started asking whether Dale Sveum was the right manager for the Cubs.

Steadily throughout the summer, a chorus of praise outside Wrigleyville — "Around baseball, the story is the Cubs are coming fast and the Cubs are coming strong,'' Epstein said — persuaded Epstein to consider the answer sooner than he ever expected.

Epstein officially delivered it around noon Monday in a 589-word statement the Cubs should consider marketing as an e-book. The Cubs fired Sveum with one year remaining on his contract, even if everybody at Clark and Addison took great pains to avoid making it sound that terse.

In the announcement any English teacher would love, Epstein praised Sveum's strength, dignity and "authentic way.'' At a news conference later, Epstein carefully avoided making Sveum a scapegoat for the Cubs' worst two-year stretch ever and left the vague impression that an Ivy League executive and a Harley-riding manager simply were too different to chart the same course to prosperity.

"We need certain things that, in my opinion, we are more likely to find from someone outside the organization at this point,'' Epstein said. "Some things you just can't get from the status quo.''

Some things you need to get from the Yankees — but more on that later.

We can debate until the Cubs introduce his successor the fairness of firing Sveum and evaluating a major league manager Epstein saddled with minor league talent, but it's a moot point now. Since the All-Star break, when Epstein invited Sveum for a "brutally honest'' meeting about unspecified concerns, inevitability loomed around the manager's office.

We can wonder whether Sveum should be held responsible for the stunted growth of shortstop Starlin Castro, who regressed after adjusting his approach at the plate to conform to Epstein's Cubs Way. But something in Epstein's cryptic explanation screamed change for the sake of change whether Castro and Anthony Rizzo developed or not.

The more relevant point was that on a day the Cubs should have been beginning renovations on a 99-year-old ballpark, Epstein was acknowledging a 324-game mistake. That less than a year after suggesting Sveum's demeanor could lure free agents to the Cubs, Epstein was implying Sveum lacked the personality to lead the organization to greatness.

The final day of the Sveum Era coincided with the end of Epstein's extended honeymoon in Chicago. If Epstein was wrong about Sveum, people gradually will begin to examine what else he got wrong as the losses mount. That clock on the venerable center-field scoreboard just started ticking a little louder for Epstein, whose move makes it harder for the next manager to meet raised expectations the roster might not be ready to meet.

The Ricketts family always could help by allowing the Cubs to spend like a big-market team over the winter, but chances are, their marquee offseason addition will be the manager, whomever he is.

"It's really difficult to hire managers and difficult for a manager to see through the building process where he has to endure the weight of losing,'' Epstein said. "You're trying to thread a needle. We had hoped that Dale would continue to grow and see it through. In the end he did grow … and is now a better fit to apply that elsewhere — because we need that spark of a winning culture.''

To find it, Epstein needs to wake up Tuesday morning and call Yankees general manager Brian Cashman for permission to interview Joe Girardi, whose contract expires Oct. 31. Girardi downplayed his Cubs ties to reporters Sunday in Houston and intimated he will manage the Yankees next year if he manages at all. You can call that disappointing. I call it negotiating.

If the Cubs cannot land Girardi, a perfect fit twice before, it will become fair to ask whether Epstein tried to correct one mistake by making another. No other realistic candidate with the managerial experience Epstein seeks makes more sense than Girardi. Nobody can be sure a potential replacement without experience would be any better than Sveum. Anybody but Girardi risks being a letdown or setback.

Epstein and Girardi represent two similarly bright, confident, strong-minded baseball men. They could shake hands on day one and butt heads a day later. But it's worth the chemistry experiment.

When Epstein described seeking somebody with a track record of developing major league talent who is dynamic with energy and creativity, he might as well have made a crew cut a criteria. He was describing Girardi, a smart Northwestern graduate who just might have a silly dream of winning a World Series with the Cubs.

"We're actually on target with our plan,'' Epstein said.

Hire the right manager this time, and it will be easier to agree.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh