INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard knows he needs sleep. The problem is he can't put his smartphone down at night. No matter how heavy his eyes are after another 14-hour day at the team’s facility, Ballard struggles to turn off the device, put it down on his nightstand, and doze off.
Ballard wants to be the best at his job. That’s why his eyes are fixated on his phone screen before going to sleep. Ballard is reading “The Cubs Way,” a book about how Chicago Cubs general manager Theo Epstein helped turn a franchise that hadn't won a World Series in 108 years into the World Series champion in 2016.
“I’m a big nighttime reader,” Ballard said. “Unfortunately, it cuts into my sleep. Because then, you know, when you get into a book and you can’t -- you just keep reading and going. And I’m a big phone [reader], which is probably why my eyes aren’t good. So I got the iBooks on my phone, so I do a lot of reading on my phone. But it’s at night.”
The Colts are nowhere near the position the Cubs were in when Epstein came over from the Boston Red Sox in 2011; Chicago had recorded consecutive losing seasons and would drop 101 games in Epstein's first year in the front office.
Ballard was hired in late January. Indianapolis is coming off back-to-back 8-8 seasons, missing the playoffs in each. Unlike the previous regime, Ballard no longer wants the weight of the organization to be strictly on quarterback Andrew Luck's right arm. The general manager wants a balanced team where all the parts fit together, and he faces the challenge of reshaping the Colts' roster.
This won't be an easy task for someone who is a general manager for the first time in his 16-year career in NFL front offices. Jim Irsay, one of the most outspoken owners in the league when it comes to winning, called Ballard the “best candidate for general manager."
“[Cubs manager] Joe Maddon has a great quote [in the book] when he says, ‘Don’t let the pressure exceed the pleasure of the job.’ I thought that that said it all,” Ballard said. “This is what I’ve done for 16 years, really, even going back to [Texas] A&M 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.”
The Colts were spoiled when Luck helped them make the transition from future first-ballot Hall of Famer Peyton Manning in 2012.
Luck's first three seasons (2012-14) featured playoff appearances, including reaching the AFC Championship Game in 2014 and back-to-back undefeated seasons in the AFC South.
Ballard’s goal is to make the Colts contenders again. The key, though, is patience. He has put an emphasis on not having any quick-fix projects. He wants it done his way, which means building through the draft and not relying on over-the-hill players whose prime has passed.
“It takes time to build a team,” Ballard said. “... Do we have work in front of us? Yes, we do. But it takes time. And the biggest thing that I want to make sure that we’re emphasizing is that competition and they have to earn it. It doesn’t matter where you come from and how we build it or where, from first-round pick to undrafted free agent to street free agent, guy that was cut at the 53-[man roster], future signing.”
It’s not surprising Ballard is reading "The Cubs Way" to find clues to help build the Colts' roster. There’s no obvious ego in him and he knows there's a good chance he'll make mistakes along the way. Ballard, in his short time on the job, often mentions Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid and former Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo as people in the business who have helped prepare Ballard for this role. He said he has “blended what they have taught me through the years and kind of have made it my own.”
What was one of the biggest takeaways from “The Cubs Way” for Ballard?
“Theo -- baseball was getting flat in terms of the analytics and the edge that they were getting from the numbers -- so he kind of took a different approach with character,” Ballard said. “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.”
And if things go the way he envisions, it’ll be the Ballard Way in Indianapolis sooner than later.