Yay, Ems! Go, Cubs!

Allan Benavides has one of the hardest jobs in baseball. As the general manager for the Eugene Emeralds, he’s on the field only when the stands are empty. He pitches his team to the Chamber of Commerce or to corporate clients, hoping for a hit. He switch hits every day, alternating short-term gains enjoyed locally with the long-term interests of his parent club in Chicago.

Every minor league baseball team is an exercise in divided loyalties. Winning games is good and fun, but that’s not the ultimate goal for Benavides, Ems manager Jesus Feliciano, or for any of the players on the team. Everybody wants to see this particular group of men score more runs in nine innings than their opponent, but that’s not really the point.

Northwest League is a short season training league. The team’s major league sponsor, the Chicago Cubs, sends prospects to Eugene to work on skills. There’s a slugger who pulls every pitch, a speedster who can’t bunt, a pitcher whose slider sails when he’s behind in the count.

They hone those skills in practice, but also under pressure — when a game is on the line. Any coach or educator will tell you that failure is the best teacher, and yet the team still wants to win every game. That’s why Benavides and Feliciano have such hard jobs.

Losing games the right way is what they are paid to do, but sport is never completely predictable, so every night also offers the possibility of winning a game the wrong way. Things don’t always go according to plan, and that’s the plan. If an infielder misses a cut-off throw, does the catcher position himself correctly? Does the pitcher run to back up the first baseman for routine ground outs? Is the center fielder alert, in case a runner attempts to steal second?

Those are the lessons the players are here to learn. Their competence at this level earns them a higher rung on the ladder to the big leagues. Players who succeed are rewarded with a promotion, and the Eugene Emeralds receive a new player to take his place, with different skills to be perfected.

A man in a similar line of work once described this sort of nurturing churn as “laying eggs on an escalator.” You do the work to get things started, but the real success will happen elsewhere, while you’re getting more things started. It never ends, and that’s by design.

The Emeralds reached what feels like an end this week, when they won their first league championship in 41 years. After decades of futility playing for the San Diego Padres, their new affiliation with the Chicago Cubs produced a winner almost immediately.

That might be because the Cubs hired wunderkind Theo Epstein as general manager, hoping to reverse a century of being Chicago’s lovable losers. I grew up cheering for the Cubs, who borrowed the Washington Senators’ unofficial motto. The Cubs were always “first in our hearts, and last in the National League.”

Epstein went all in for youth. He stocked the Cubs’ farm system with good players. He paid extra for excellent managers, who could get the most out of those players. Suddenly, the Emeralds saw above them a crowded escalator filled with hatching eggs.

The Cubs offer no glide path to the Mother Ship for promising phenoms. The lanes ahead of them are crowded with other good players. So the Northwest League’s best pitcher, Manuel Rondon, stayed put in Eugene. He didn’t graduate to a more advanced team in the Cubs’ system. He pitched the team’s final game and collected the trophy with his teammates on Tuesday.

Winning is a skill that Epstein wants all of his players to experience and master. Football coaches teach players how to celebrate when they reach the end zone with this bit of pith: “Act like you’ve been there before.”

And so this baseball team, and each of its members, learned a new skill this week — trophy-hoisting. That’s a skill and a memory they’ll take from Eugene. And someday we’ll say we remember them back when.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.