The biggest sports story in recent memory happened last November, when the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series title in 108 years as they defeated the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 in extra innings.
It was a thrilling playoff run and it was the culmination of a five-year rebuild that Cubs president Theo Epstein had undertaken. He rebuilt a team that was known for losing into the best team in baseball, and the Cubs broke the curse to finally win a title. It was a remarkable job of rebuilding a team into a champion to break a curse - just like Epstein had done with the Boston Red Sox years earlier.
So Colts general manager Chris Ballard, himself facing a rebuild of sorts, is trying to learn from Epstein and the Cubs rebuild. One thing that really stuck out to him is a quote from Cubs manager Joe Maddon.
“Good question. I’ve had a lot of people ask me that,” Ballard said yesterday in response to whether he’s having fun or whether he’s nervous. “I am reading a book right now, The Cubs Way; it’s about their story, Theo, and how he put the team together. Joe Maddon has a great quote when he says, ‘Don’t let the pressure exceed the pleasure of the job.’ I thought that that said it all. This is what I’ve done for 16 years – really even going back to A&I when I was in Kingsville bringing in players, this is what I’ve done, this is what I know. It’s exciting, it’s an exciting time. It’s exciting, really cool, really cool to be able to do it.”
Ballard has been around the game for long enough that he knows what to expect, but still he’s a first-time GM. He’s following Maddon’s advice and not letting the pressure exceed the pleasure, which is the right way to go about it.
But he’s also learned from the example of Theo Epstein. In the book The Cubs Way by Tom Verducci (which I can attest is a tremendous read), there is a big focus on Theo Epstein’s emphasis on character. He wasn’t just looking for the most talented guys but guys who would be leaders, good fits in the clubhouse, good representations in the community, etc. It’s that type of culture that Chris Ballard is also looking to create in Indianapolis.
“Really interesting to read about character and how Theo – baseball was getting flat in terms of the analytics and the edge that they were getting from the numbers,” Ballard said. “So he kind of took a different approach with character. We want high character guys that love football, that will hold each other accountable, that will be good teammates. It stuck out like a beacon light. Look at the teams that win in this league. It’s culture. Culture wins. It absolutely wins. Football is the greatest team sport. It really is because guys want to have individual success, but they can’t have individual success without their teammates. They can’t do it. Not in this sport. It’s too hard.”
We’ve already seen that emphasis on character show up in many ways throughout Ballard’s short time with the Colts. He has spoken about the importance of the locker room quite a bit, and he has maintained that you can’t buy a locker room. Throughout free agency, character and locker room impact were key factors in his decision making. Furthermore, Ballard has been trying to create an atmosphere of competition, where players truly have to earn their jobs. That brings out the best in players, and it seems like Ballard has already brought about that type of culture within the locker room. That idea of culture shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to building a championship team.
Nobody is comparing Chris Ballard to Theo Epstein. Epstein was recently named the greatest leader in the world by Fortune and also made Time’s list of the 100 most influential people, he’s broken two of the most notable curses in American sports, he’s headed for the Hall of Fame one day, and there’s arguably nobody better at his job in sports than Epstein is. So it’s not a comparison - plus, it’s a different sport and the Colts are nowhere near as bad as the Cubs were when Epstein took over - but Chris Ballard is obviously trying to learn what he can from the model of Theo Epstein, Joe Maddon, and the Cubs.
That’s not a bad model to follow, either.