There’s been a palpable difference from the Cubs teams we’ve seen over the last couple seasons and those that burst on the scene in 2015 and then took the league by storm the following season. And as much as their World Series title exorcised legions of demons, the previous season probably offered the most unadulterated fun of any in recent memory. Those young Cubs didn’t know what they didn’t know as they eschewed old-school decorum for playground pleasure and never seemed to let the pressure get to them.
But there’s a sense that finally pushing that boulder over the top of the mountain left them tuckered out and needing to sleep, like a hybrid of Sisyphus and Rip Van Winkle. And in the two seasons since, with a third off to a decidedly slow start, it just feels as though the whole organization is still blinking away the tattered remnants of an unplanned afternoon nap.
The Cubs used to be cutely oblivious to anything beyond the present, now they’re acutely aware of exactly what they are and what they need to be. They embraced the target and tried not to suck, but attempting to own it now has them reaching for their collective wallet and realizing there just isn’t any more money. To make matters worse, the register doesn’t accept Apple Pay and the clerk isn’t about to extend good faith.
The whole “Just one before I die” thing has quickly morphed into “It’s killing me that they haven’t won at least two.” It’s not for lack of effort, of course, since the Cubs have done all they can to implement new guidelines for behavior on and off the field as they try to recapture that edge. It’s all based on the idea that man sharpens man, just like waffle iron sharpens waffle iron, except less spontaneous.
Or at least that’s what we see from the outside. And what we’ve seen so far across social media, comment sections (which you should never read unless it’s your duty to curate them), and sports radio callers is whole lotta doom and gloom. Based on some of what’s out there, you’d think Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein had gone on record as saying they hated babies and chönky animals.
Seriously, there is a not-inconsiderable segment of Cubs fandom that truly believes Maddon and the front office are going all Kramer vs. Kramer with the bullpen. Sorry, beat writers, I can’t deny that it’s out there in my menchies. It may be asinine and completely contrary to what everyone in the organization believes, but it’s a symptom of a fanbase wallowing in a highly disappointing 2-7 record and grasping at straw men.
“They can do whatever they want,” Baez said Sunday about how fans react to the slow start. “I don’t control them. They don’t control my game or our game. We just gotta keep everything out of the clubhouse and just block everything negative that is coming to us right now and go out there and have fun.
“We’re the Chicago Cubs. Obviously everybody’s gonna talk about us and about 2016 and all this bullcrap. But like I said, I don’t control that. I like it, ’cause when people talk about you, it’s ’cause they care. They either care or they hate you.”
And that’s just it, the fans are pissed because they care. Well, that and they’ve had to give up their season tickets or go to fewer games due to escalating prices. Or because they don’t like the way ownership has condescended to them over the last few months in regards to the budget. Then there’s the political drama and the rafts of emails revealing an unsavory side of the Ricketts family that no longer meets minimum standards of plausible deniability.
For a great deal of fans, though, nothing that happens off the diamond makes a lick of difference. All they care about is the score of the game and where the Cubs sit in the standings, because baseball is an escape. But for the first nine games of the season, it’s been a windowless cell with three hots and a cot. Some days it’s not even that luxurious.
Perhaps the worst part of the whole deal is that is feels like the Cubs should be so much better. I mean, not just because they’ve got loads of talent up and down the roster and have averaged 97 wins per season since Maddon rolled into town. It’s that they’re hanging crooked numbers and still getting beat, that every attempt at the prestige ends up in them clumsily revealing their lack of real magic.
Leave it to El Mago to offer a solution.
“We’ve been hitting the ball,” Javy said. “It’s just everything’s been going the other way. We gotta make the adjustment and just try to get out of it. We just gotta keep staying positive and move on to the next day.”
It’s not a matter of prestidigitation or even the darker form of legerdemain practiced by those birds to the south, but these early woes may still serve as a canary in a coalmine. Which is to say that there are some legitimate issues that need to be addressed, like the bullpen and every starter not named Jon Lester being unable to consistently record outs.
The framework is there (unless we’re talking about Willson Contreras behind the plate *wink, wink*) for a quick resurgence, now it’s just a matter of the Cubs actually making it work.
Jake Arrieta famously clapped back at a Pirates fan ahead of the 2015 Wild Card by saying, “Whatever helps keep your hope alive, just know, it doesn’t matter.” Perhaps now we can turn that on its ear and say, “Whatever makes you think hope is dead, just know, it doesn’t matter to the Cubs.”