The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse
"Tom Verducci. . . has written one of the best books on baseball in recent years."
The Cubs won the 2016 World Series. For any of the millions of faithful who have followed the travails of the Chicago baseball club, their first title in 108 years will live in memory. But how did they do it? How did they turn a hopeless franchise into a Midwestern powerhouse that should remain among the best in baseball for years to come?
The same question can be raised regarding any business. Unless a company develops a new product that commands the marketplace and a human resource plan that gets the very best out of its workforce, turn-arounds are difficult to accomplish. A sports franchise has even more constraints—bound by the limitations of a collective bargaining agreement with the players union. The Cubs were a hopeless loser that was remade into a powerful baseball club. The Cubs achieved all of that in a few short years. All business managers can learn from the successes of the franchise on Chicago’s Northside.
Tom Verducci, an award winning author and baseball television analyst, has written one of the best books on baseball in recent years. The Cubs Way is an impressive story, well told, and comprehensively researched. He had unlimited access to Cubs personnel. It is a big-league baseball book, retelling the stories that every Cubs fan carries in his heart. The ultimate victory in the 10th inning of the seventh game of the World Series is heart-pounding. Even though readers knew from the beginning how it ultimately turned out, Verducci’s account is built on suspense. Would the bedeviled Cubs lose again? Are the curses real or imaginery?
There are two stars to Verducci’s account: Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon. Neither picked up a bat or a glove during that championship year, but they had rebuilt the Cubs into a winner. Their appealing methodology—Verducci refers to it as “Zen”—can be followed by any enterprise. Verducci’s text is much more than a baseball book.
Theo Epstein, of course, was the wunderkind of the Boston Red Sox who, as general manager, retooled the Fenway Park club to successfully terminate its 86-year victory drought. Verducci details how he did the same thing for the Cubs.
At the core of Epstein’s methods is an abundance of respect for the game and the men who played it. Combining the best of modern baseball analytics with a humanistic approach to relationships with his players, Epstein assembled a young team of talented athletes who had solid and positive attitudes. Using the tools that were available to every club, Epstein drafted the right people, traded to meet needs and signed free agents who would turn a good club into a champion.
Joe Maddon was the unconventional field manager who took the tools that Epstein had secured and motivated them to achieve their aspirations: to be the best at the game. He worked hard to keep his club loose, first by getting to know the young Cubs and then getting them to trust him. Maddon is a new-age manager who was schooled both in the traditions of the game and the present-day technologies. He made baseball fun.
Verducci’s book details how Epstein built his club, starting first with position players as opposed to pitchers who are the usual focus of baseball general managers. In particular, he sought players who would work as a team, rather than a collection of individuals. Maddon was the source of endless motivational aphorisms, many silk-screened onto banners and T-shirts. He was eccentric and superstitious, unpredictable to opponents, and treasured by his players.
Verducci uses the seven games of the Cubs-Indians World Series as the organizational leitmotif of the book. By its conclusion, readers have learned much that is new about the men who played the game and the men for whom they worked. The Cubs Way well deserves a place on the bookshelf of every sports fan and on the reading list at every business school.