Jorge Soler, Theo Epstein, and the entire Cubs organization have to be breathing an enormous of sigh of relief- it was stopped just in time. Soler completely lost it after the opposing team’s second baseman apparently insulted Soler’s family after Soler slid hard into second base, and after the two exchanged words, they both returned to the dugout but Soler soon reemerged, yielding a bat as a weapon as he ran towards the opposing dugout. His teammates stopped him before he arrived and were able to contain him before any violence ensued, but that didn’t change what Soler’s intentions had been. He was ejected from the game and suspended for five more. Soler and everyone involved were lucky because it could have been much worse- but when it happened, the Cubs were ready for it. From the moment the incident happened to their comments since, they have been able to not just survive the horrible situation but turn into a positive one through their commitment to the emotional development of their players.
Delmon Young seven years ago and Jorge Soler today have a lot in common. Like Young, Soler is a 20 year old top outfield prospect expected to emerge as a cornerstone player for the franchise that signed him. And with this bat incident, their names will be irrevocably linked. Young’s story was different as he actually threw a bat at an umpire. It was not intentional- he meant to throw the bat not at the umpire, but towards the plate to argue a controversial call- but nonetheless it he made a stupid decision to throw the bat in the first place and no one was there to stop it. The critical difference between Young then and Soler now is that Soler has a support system around him, both physically and metaphorically, while Young was much more alone. Young was actually in the major leagues for the Devil Rays by the end of the year, with the team certainly disdaining wholeheartedly what he had done but regarding it as an isolated occurrence that would not happen again and being willing to move on. For Soler, the appearance of his teammates prevented his precipitate rage from turning into something much worse, and then there was Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, who emphasized after what happened that it’s the duty of the Cubs organization to help Soler keeps his emotions in check.
“We condemn the act of what took place, but we support the player,” Epstein said. “We believe in Jorge as a person as well as a player. It’s our responsibility to work with him to make sure he has a better way to channel his emotions on the field and to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. So that’s our responsibility. It’s his responsibility to fully embrace that.”
The Cubs are going to do everything they can to work with Soler to make sure whatever emotional issues he has will be forgotten as he stays calmer and stands out on the baseball diamond for his immense talent and not anything else. Epstein described Soler as “tremendously remorseful” about what happened and unable to fall asleep that night as it set in just how horrible a thing he had almost done. Young himself was “sincerely regretful” about the bat-throwing incident and apologized profusely for his actions. But the difference now is that the Cubs are willing to go above and beyond to work with Soler and give him whatever help he needs to mature as a person. The Rays did nothing wrong, but with so much on the line for Young’s career and for their franchise, they could have done more.
The priority of MLB teams is to find players to help them win games. But baseball is only one peace of the puzzle. Just as much as injuries or mechanical flaws can ruin players’ career, so can emotional issues, and teams have to be willing to confront those problems equally fervently. Every team in baseball has to take note of how Theo Epstein the Cubs conducted themselves in this situation. They made clear first and foremost that Soler’s actions can’t happen but then took responsibility for what happened and stressed that Soler’s continued emotional development has to be as much of a priority for them as his development on the baseball diamond. The Rays for their part have made serious progress in a similar vein themselves, becoming a team that’s more accepting of enigmatic personalities than anyone, signing players like Yunel Escobar and willing to do whatever possible to work with them to be at their best on and off the field. Everyone realizes now that baseball is no longer a game where you can ignore what a player does off the field if he plays well enough when he’s on it, and they have to be able to adjust to that reality.
The Cubs have a long way to go reforming their franchise as they search for their first championship since 1908. However, with a support system in place to help their prospects develop not just as players but as people, they could not be doing anything better for the future of their ballclub. No matter what happens at the major league level for the Cubs the next couple of seasons, there is plenty of reason for optimism about what they can do in the long-term after this Soler situation demonstrated the atmosphere of support for their players that Theo Epstein and the front office has created throughout their franchise. It’s amazing how a team that has found so little success for the past century is quickly becoming a model for the rest of baseball for how to run their organizations.