The Chicago Cubs will be champions again

Tomorrow afternoon the Chicago Cubs begin their season and their quest for another championship. They will get started in Texas against the Rangers. The roster has not changed much from the crew that won ninety-five games last year but stumbled in the playoffs. The biggest difference is that the players are healthier now, and they are determined to make their fans forget about last year by winning it all this year.

My parents were die-hard Cubs fans, and it was natural for me to follow in their footsteps. We listened to games on the radio back when the announcers were Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau. (My father was not fond of Jack Brickhouse, the television announcer.) I vividly remember the Cubs of 1969: Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Don Kessinger, Randy Hundley, Fergie Jenkins—they even had a pair of pitchers whose names were Hands and Fingers. The ’69 Cubs were far ahead of the competition all season, only to be overtaken by the Miracle Mets in September. Many people in Chicago joked that the Cubs were going to move to the Philippines and call themselves the Manila Folders.

Gradually in the 1970s the Cubs lineup changed, as all professional sports teams must do. Players came and went: Rick Monday, Jose Cardenal, Bill Madlock, Rick Reuschel, Bobby Murcer, and Dave Kingman. Although they started some seasons strongly, the Cubs never put together enough wins to enter the playoffs in the 1970s or at the start of the 1980s.

This changed in 1984. Dallas Greene had been named General Manager of the Cubs, and he pulled together a championship-caliber team. He exchanged shortstops with the Philadelphia Phillies and persuaded them to toss in a young infielder, future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg. Greene traded for starting pitchers Dennis Eckersley and Rick Suttcliffe, and the Cubs won the National League East Division. They were favored over the San Diego Padres, winners of the West Division; but after winning the first two games in Chicago, the Cubs lost three straight in San Diego, coming from an early lead to fall behind in each game.

The Cubs were expected to do well again in 1985, but injuries to their starting pitchers triggered a losing streak in May from which they never recovered. They returned to the playoffs in 1989 but were handled by the San Francisco Giants, who were on their way to an earthquake-interrupted World Series against Oakland. In 1994 the Cubs earned a Wild Card berth in a season that included record-level home run prowess from the Cub’s Sammy Sosa and the St. Louis Cardinal’s Mark McGuire, but they were beaten in the playoffs by the Atlanta Braves.

Hopes were high in 2003 when the Cubs won the National League Central Division. For the first time since baseball’s playoffs involved more than the World Series, the Cubs won a playoff series, beating the Atlanta Braves. The Miami Marlins were the Cubs’ next opponent. The Cubs were five outs away from earning the National League Pennant and a trip to the World Series in game six, played in Chicago, when the wheels fell off the cart. Surrendering eight runs in a disastrous eighth inning, the Cubs lost game six, the Cubs went on to lose game seven the next night, ending their championship hopes. They returned to the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 but failed to win a single playoff game either year.

In 2011 the Cubs organization hired Theo Epstein to handle the structure of the team. He came with a plan, warning fans that it would take several years to bear fruit. Before the 2015 season, Epstein hired Joe Madden to manage the Cubs and then signed free agent pitcher Jon Lester. The team came together during the course of the summer and won enough games to be one of the two National League Wild Card teams. The Cubs beat the Pittsburg Pirates in the single Wild Card game, then went on to beat the Cardinals before being swept for the pennant in four games by the New York Mets.

The year 2016 was magic for Cubs fans. The team dominated baseball all season, winning the division by a clear margin. In the National League playoffs they outperformed the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers, bringing the first National League Pennant to Chicago since 1945. In the World Series they faced the Cleveland Indians. Trailing three games to one, the Cubs roared back to force a dramatic game seven in Cleveland in November. Despite several puzzling moves by Joe Madden, the Cubs jumped out to a five point lead. Four outs away from a championship, the Cubs allowed the Indians to tie the score. After nine innings the score was still tied. A rain delay allowed the Cubs to regroup, and they scored two runs in the top of the tenth. Although they allowed one run in the bottom of the inning, the Cubs managed to procure the final out. Early in the morning of November 3, 2016, the Cubs were finally world champions. Their previous championship had come in 1908, exactly 108 years earlier. There are 108 stitches in a baseball.

The Cubs returned to the playoffs in 2017, overcoming the Washington Nationals in a hard-fought series before bowing to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2018 the Cubs won 95 games but were tied with the Milwaukee Brewers atop the Central Division. Losing a single tie-breaking game to the Brewers in Chicago, the Cubs lost again the next night in a Wild Card game against the Colorado Rockies. This led to a long winter of discontent and a spring full of hope that this is the year the Cubs will return to their champion ways. J.

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The Chicago Cubs

Now that the World Series is under way, I will write about my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. They are not playing in this year’s World Series, but only two years ago they won the World Series, ending the longest championship drought of any professional sport.

Around Christmas of 2016 I told my father that I hoped the Cubs would take after the (basketball) Chicago Bulls of the 90s who won six championships in the span of eight years. I hoped that they would not take after the (football) Chicago Bears of the 80s who assembled a talented team but only won one Super Bowl. I regret to say that, over the last two seasons, the Cubs have resembled the Bears more than the Bulls.

This year the Cubs won ninety-five games. That tied them for most wins in the National League, which is a good thing. They were tied with the Milwaukee Brewers, who—like the Cubs—play in the Central Division of the National League. Because they were tied, the teams had to play each other in one game to determine who would represent the Central Division in the playoffs. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies, both in the West Division, also finished the season with the same number of wins and also played one game to name the division champion. This is the first time that two extra games have been added to the schedule at the last minute to determine the championship of two divisions.

Because the Cubs won more than half the games they played against the Brewers this year, the tie-breaking game was played in Chicago. The Cubs lost that game 3-1. The Rockies also lost on the same day. This led to the Cubs and Rockies playing a game to determine the Wild Card team. Because the Cubs had the better record, that game also was in Chicago. The Cubs lost again, this time 2-1.

It is possible to win a baseball game 1-0. In fact, it happens quite often. Usually, though, when a team scores only one run, they lose the game. When Chicago’s offense fails in the two most important games of the year, fans like me worry. Granted, they were one of the best teams all year long. Granted, they have been in the playoffs the last four years, making it to the pennant-deciding games three of those years. And granted, they have recently won a championship in memorable style. But champions cannot rest on their laurels.* Their fans expect them to succeed every year.

The Cubs have assembled a team with awesome talent. This season they had to contend with injuries and other distractions. They still did very well. But only one team can be a champion. Cubs fans waited 108 years to see the Cubs win a World Series. (They won the World Series in 1907 and again in 1908.) They do not want to wait another century for another championship.

A meme was posted on Facebook by a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. It depicted a “participation trophy” for the 2018 Cubs in the postseason. That was clever. It was also painful to see.

The bright spot is that the Cubs were beaten by the Colorado Rockies. There are ten teams in the National League East and West divisions, and now eight of them have blocked the Cubs from advancing in the playoffs. Aside from the Dodgers, who took the pennant from the Cubs in 2017, no National League team has stopped the Cubs in the playoffs more than once. Every time the Cubs faced a team in the playoffs more than once, the Cubs won the second time. (On the other hand, every East or West Division team that met the Cubs in the playoffs for the first time beat the Cubs—until 2017, when the Washington Nationals broke the pattern by losing to the Cubs.) So, according to that pattern, only Philadelphia stands in the way of a Cubs Championship in 2019.

Cubs fans have suffered from the slogan “Wait til next year” for most of our lives. The great players wearing Cubs uniforms today owe it to their fans to do more than participate. They are paid to be champions, and champions they will be.

 

*The expression “rest on your laurels” comes from the ancient Greek Olympic games. In the ancient world, winners were not given gold medals. They were given laurel crowns—C-shaped ornaments worn on the head, woven from branches taken from a laurel tree. Julius Caesar wore a laurel crown. So does the cartoon Little Caesar of the pizza chain. Laurel crowns dry up quickly. They become brittle and fall apart. Therefore, athletes need to go out and win new crowns. They cannot rest on their laurels. J.

World Series memories part three

The Chicago Cubs won their last World Series 108 days ago.

If you follow baseball even with mild interest, you will remember last season when baseball announcers were obliged to mention, every fifteen to twenty minutes during every game, that the Cubs had not won a World Series in 108 years. Their last championship was in 1908, setting a record of futility for professional American sports teams that may never be broken. Their last National League pennant and World Series games happened in 1945. Most Cub fans had never seen a World Series game played in Wrigley Field. Year after year, faithful fans supported the team skeptics called “the Lovable Losers.” In some ways, it was more painful to come close in 1969, 1984, and 2003 than it was to accept another losing season and move on to football in the fall.

The climb to a championship began when the Chicago Tribune Company sold the Cubs to Tom Ricketts. Ricketts then hired Theo Epstein to oversee the rebuilding of the Cubs. Epstein concentrated on acquiring young talent. The team in Chicago fared badly at first, while the future Cubs worked their way through the minor leagues. Then, one by one, they began appearing in Chicago. The new leadership traded experienced Cubs for prospects and projects. Epstein brought in manager Joe Maddon. He also signed expensive free agents John Lester and Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward. By 2016 the magic was ready to happen.

The Cubs had won the National League wild card in 2015, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates in a one-game play-off and then defeating the St. Louis Cardinals before being swept by the New York Mets. The four embarrassing losses to the Mets may have been one of the best things to happen to the Cubs; they energized them for the next season.

The Cubs roared off to a great start in April and never looked back. More than half their starting lineup was voted onto the All-Star team. The Cubs’ only slump in the season came just before the All-Star break, but they were stronger than ever after that. They coasted through September, using extra pitchers to keep their starters from tiring. Then they met the San Francisco Giants in the playoffs. Giants fans thought that their team should be favored—they had won championships in 2010, 2012, and 2014, so it seemed that it was their turn again. The Cubs denied that destiny. Then they moved on to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers won two of the first three games against the Cubs, causing the Cubs batters to saw at the air chasing pitches the way they had done against the Mets a year earlier. In the fourth game, Zobrist turned the tide by laying down a perfect bunt. Somehow that was the crack in the dam which broke. The Cubs bats awoke, and they easily disposed of the Dodgers.

Their World Series opponent was the Cleveland Indians, who had not won a championship since 1948. The Indians’ manager was Terry Francona, who had managed eight victories in World Series games with the Boston Red Sox without a single loss. The American League had won the All-Star game, giving the Indians a home field advantage. That ended up being an advantage for the Cubs. Their young power hitter, Kyle Schwarber, had been injured on the third game of the season. He missed the rest of the season and the first two rounds of playoffs due to surgery and recovery. Now doctors said he was fit to bat and run the bases; he just could not play a defensive position. American League ballparks allow one batter (called a designated hitter) to bat but not play a position, relieving pitchers of the obligation to bat. Schwarber was that designated hitter four times for the Cubs, helping lead the team to victory.

Even so, the Indians won three of the first four games against the Cubs. They needed only one more victory to become champions; the Cubs needed to win the next three games. Once again, pitchers for the opposition had been fooling the Cubs’ batters, inducing them to swing wildly at bad pitches. But the Cubs had some good pitchers of their own. Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta held the Indians’ offense in check while the Cubs recovered their ability to score runs. The fifth game was a 3-2 nailbiter, but in the sixth game the Cubs broke out early and maintained their lead for the victory. Admittedly, Maddon overused his ace reliever, Aroldis Chapman, a pitcher who regularly throws the ball more than one hundred miles an hour. Chapman prefers to pitch just one inning (usually the ninth), but Maddon  brought him in earlier, which would have dramatic consequences in game seven.

Once again the Cubs broke out with an early lead, and all over the world Cub fans prepared to celebrate. Kyle Hendricks was pitching a gem of a game, but Maddon replaced him in the fifth inning to bring in Jon Lester along with catcher David Ross, who planned to retire at the end of the season. After Lester, Maddon brought in Chapman, and the Indians fought back. Chapman surrendered a game-tying home run in the bottom of the eighth inning, horrifying Cubs fans everywhere. (It was in the eighth inning in 2003 that the Cubs lost a big lead in a key game due to a freak circumstance which does not deserve to be mentioned.) Neither team scored in the ninth, bringing the game to extra innings.

Rain delayed the game, and Jason Heyward called a meeting in the weight room by the visitors’ locker room. There he reminded his teammates that they were talented, that they had won games all year, and that they were capable of winning this game. A string of hits in the top of the tenth inning gave the Cubs a two run lead. They gave up one run in the bottom of the inning, leading Maddon to change pitchers one last time. Mike Montgomery threw two pitches. The second pitch was grounded to third base, where Kris Bryant, wearing a huge grin, captured the ball and threw it to first base. Anthony Rizzo caught the ball, raised his fists into the air in victory, and slipped the ball into his pocket.

One hundred eight days later, the joy has scarcely diminished. The players are gathering for spring training, preparing to battle toward a second championship. Chicago sports fans have high hopes, but also long memories. In the 1980s the Chicago Bears assembled a talented team of great personality who had a marvelous season in 1985, ending with the Bears’ first Superbowl victory. The team should have been a dynasty, but they failed to return to the Superbowl. On the other hand, in the 1990s the Chicago Bulls also assembled a talented team of great personality, centered around Michael Jordan. His team won six championships in eight seasons. Cubs fans hope that the current Cubs will imitate the Bulls and not the Bears. Either way, the names will remain engraved forever in our memories. Bryant, Russell, Baez, Rizzo, Contreras, Schwarber, Fowler, Heyward, Zobrist, Arrieta, Lester, Hendricks, Lackey, Chapman, Montgomery, Edwards, Almora, Montero, and Ross: most of them are young as well as talented. Chapman and Fowler have moved on to other teams and Ross has retired, but the rest of them are back and ready to play again. On behalf of Cubs fans everywhere: Go Cubs, Go! Bring home another trophy! J.