The Chicago Cubs, my favorite team, and Casablanca, one of my all-time favorite movies, share so many common threads. One could say they are cut from the same cloth. Strangely enough, they really are.
The movie’s screenplay was written by twin brothers Phillip and Julius Epstein. Cubs president, and chief architect, Theo Epstein is the grandson of Phillip Epstein.
The Epsteins did not create the script for the movie, it was an adaptation of an unpublished play written in 1939. Theo Epstein did not create the Chicago Cubs, he took an organization that was going nowhere in 2012 when he came in to rebuild the team. He inherited some decent players like Ryan Dempster who he traded for an unknown minor league pitcher named Kyle Hendricks who might win the Cy Young Award this year.
The Epstein brothers were free agent writers who were brought in and paid $30,000 to rescue the script which had been started by Howard Koch but was considered unusable by Hal B. Wallis, the brilliant producer of Casablanca. Wallis had Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman for the leads, but he knew the script was broken, just like Theo Epstein knew he had great position players in June of 2016 but had a mediocre bullpen. He knew he needed relievers to improve the odds of winning a World Series. In a dynamite trade he sent a potential star from the Cubs A-ball minor league team to the New York Yankees for flame throwing closer Aroldis Chapman.
This was a difficult choice for Theo Epstein, the baseball purist, who had built the Cubs with players of great character and grit like cancer survivors Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester, and white bread stars like Kris Bryant who has never tasted alcohol, and Ben Zobrist, whose wife travels the country as a Christian singing icon. Theo is a lot like Bogart’s Rick Blaine who was conflicted by love, patriotism, and the demands of running a popular gambling joint in Vichy occupied Morocco. Rick held the ultimate prize during war, “letters of transit,” that were stolen by a murdered thief. Those letters meant freedom for two desperate people that he could choose, most likely himself and the love of his life, Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa).
Theo has had his moral conflicts this season. Aroldis Chapman is an accused abuser of women, but he can throw a baseball 105 miles per hour, left handed. He is the most feared relief pitcher in the game. He was deemed the piece the team had to have even if he is no saint. Like in war, in a baseball season sometimes you compromise your ethical standard for the greater good – life, victory, a World Series.
Theo Epstein is a twin, just like his grandfather and great uncle. His brother is a guidance counselor back in his home town, Boston, but his professional brother, Jed Hoyer, is his fellow architect of the Cubbies. They both came to the team via San Diego and then Boston. The folklore of Casablanca says that the Epstein brothers were struggling to come up with a conclusion for the screenplay which would tie up the loose ends. Supposedly Ingrid Bergman didn’t even know which man she would ultimately end up with when she made the movie, her husband the freedom fighter, Victor Laszlo, or her passionate lover of the past, Rick.
The climax of the movie takes place at the Casablanca airport (actually filmed at Van Nuys Airport in California). The plane is waiting. Rick holds the “letters of transit” and the Nazis are coming. Rick gives the precious documents to Victor and commands Ilsa to go with her husband for the greater good of the world. The Nazi Colonel, Strasser, arrives to stop the plane and Rick shoots him.
The Epstein brothers were allegedly discussing the ending while driving down Wilshire Boulevard in Hollywood. They came to a stop and suddenly both twins yelled out simultaneously “Round up the usual suspects,” the famous line of Inspector Renault the corrupt French police commandant. It meant Rick was off the hook for killing the Nazi officer.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer do not know how the Cubs season will end. The odds say the Cubs have a one in four chance to go all the way. Those odds haunt Theo, the workaholic perfectionist. But one thing is for sure, this year the Cubs are much more than just the “usual suspects.”
Question: Will this be the year for the Cubs?