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What could’ve been: Cubs President Theo Epstein nearly hired Joe Maddon in Boston after 2003

Theo Epstein, Joe Maddon
Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon, right, celebrates with Theo Epstein, president for baseball operations, after Game 6 of the National League baseball championship series against the Dodgers on Saturday.
(Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

Chicago Manager Joe Maddon will have a chance to end baseball’s longest championship drought when he leads the Cubs, who haven’t won a title since 1908, into the World Series against the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night.

The former Angels bench coach came very close to having a chance to end baseball’s second-longest championship drought.

Maddon, who spent 30 years in the Angels organization — 18 as a minor league player, coach, manager, roving instructor and scout and 12 as a big-league coach — interviewed for the Boston Red Sox manager job after the 2003 season.

The Red Sox were coming off a disappointing loss to the New York Yankees in the 2003 American League Championship Series, and Theo Epstein, the Red Sox general manager at the time and now the Cubs president, thought the club needed a more seasoned field boss to replace Grady Little.

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So he hired Terry Francona, who guided the Red Sox to a 2004 World Series win over the St. Louis Cardinals, which ended their 86-year championship drought and the so-called “Curse of the Bambino,” and another World Series title in 2007.

Maddon, the runner-up in Boston, eventually got the Tampa Bay job in 2006 and guided the expansion Rays, who finished last in the AL East in nine of their first 10 seasons, to the 2008 World Series and three more playoff berths before he signed a five-year, $25-million deal in 2015 to manage the Cubs.

Ironically, Maddon’s opponent in the Indians dugout will be Francona, who took over in Cleveland in 2013.

In reflecting on that 2003 decision before the Cubs’ 5-0 National League Championship Series-clinching win over the Dodgers in Wrigley Field Saturday night, Epstein had no regrets about his choice.

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“In the end, we loved [Joe], but we thought taking over a veteran team in a big market, there would have been some risk involved because he’s so unique,” Epstein said. “I think it worked out best for both sides.

“Joe could go to Tampa Bay, which was really a petri dish at that time, to try things out, grow into it with young players and blossom. And for us, having Tito, already having been in the big leagues, it worked for both of us.”

Epstein said the Maddon he hired before 2015 was essentially “the same guy without the managing pedigree” that he interviewed in 2003.

What stood out in his first interview with the quirky Maddon, who has a passion for cycling, fine wines, good fiction, catchy motivational slogans and spends much of the off-season in a 45-foot recreational vehicle he nicknamed “Cousin Eddie?”

“Just how different he was than anyone else we’d interviewed for a managing job,” Epstein said. “His humor, his language, the way his mind works, his mode of transportation. Everything about him is different than everything you’d expect from a managerial candidate.”

Maddon is a baseball lifer who has worked in just about every capacity in the game, and he acknowledged those vast experiences — as well as the longing of Cubs fans whose team hasn’t played in the World Series since 1945 — in the flood of emotions that hit him in the hour after the Cubs’ win Saturday night.

“It’s one of those things that it’s everything you think it is, but then again, you have to … you need time to really process the entire situation,” Maddon said. “You stand on that platform afterwards and you’re looking at the ballpark and the fans and the W flags are everywhere, and truthfully, I do think about everybody. I think about the fans and their parents and their grandparents and great-grandparents and everything that’s been going on here for a while.

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“I think about my coaching staff that gets to go to the World Series. From a financial perspective, that’s great for them because coaches at the major league level don’t really make that much money. People don’t realize that. So I think about them and their families. I think about my wife, Jaye, my kids, my mom back in Pennsylvania, my dad, who wasn’t here. It’s pretty overwhelming, and it’s awesome.”

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna


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