By Sean "Pharaoh" Terry (@Craftbeersochi)
Concepts for most ESPN “30 for 30” episodes begin with the phrase “what if…,” but if a 30 for 30 for the 2018 Chicago Cubs ever appears they may want kick it off with the phrase “what happened?”
It can’t be argued that the Cubs are a fortunate team overall — the club has pretty much in a countdown of its own control now regarding the National League Central and the No. 1 seed in the NL postseason after a much-needed four wins of five games played since losing its second straight series to Milwaukee last week.
While that bump in the pennant race road exposed us to some of the North Siders’ flaws, Gallagher Way and Wrigleyville proper are still pumping out the cash for the team and will be doing so through the remainder of this week in Arizona and “out south” on 35th St in the final games of this year’s Crosstown Classic.
You gotta pay the cost to be the boss though and that ensured that everything wouldn’t be sweet for a team looking for its third straight division title and a fourth straight season making it at least to the NLCS.
As the focus on this team turns more towards the painfully immediate — and we have to measure up how the Cubs will navigate the NL playoffs to possibly make what would be an impossibly soon second World Series appearance in three years — we should maybe examine some of the more visible scars left on this team from its tough fight through the spring and summer.
The Joke’s on Yu (You)
Hindsight is 20/20 and perhaps the coincidence (or, irony) of that late August hot streak had more to do with temporary euphoria than it did doglegging, as the short streak appeared to come off the heels of the club’s decision to shelf failed (so far) free agent pitching signing Yu Darvish for the year.
Oh, how ironic that an actual injury to the elbow was finally discovered only after Yu shut himself down in favor of a second MRI after a final bullpen session on August 22nd.
So, you mean to tell me it really was a legitimate injury and not a player being shook by the magnitude of Wrigley? Uhm, yep… and with that, I suppose the joke is on us Cubs fans and not Yu after all, who in the end is still getting his paper.
Emboldened by the allure of catching an October glimpse of Yu resurrecting himself to salvage hope and put forth a rock-star like performance ala’ Mick Jager – I, for one, stood firm in my conviction all season long despite the narrative around Yu’s injury issues and the enigmatic communication gap between him and the Cubs this year.
At its worst, the drama surrounding Yu left Maddon playing the part of Johnny Depp in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape: drinking wine and answering questions about the pitcher’s long-term mental factions and his desire for greatness despite the ink barely being dry on the type of bag (6 year/$126 million) saved for consistent, ace-level production.
Part of the issue with the way Yu was perceived this year has less to do with an injury that very likely occurred last post-season while he was getting touched up in the World Series for the Dodgers, and more to do with a gross miscalculation by both the Cubs front office AND the media on who Yu Darvish really is as an individual.
The Good, Bad and Ugly
Chicago’s sport scene has somehow long kept a place for eccentric superstars within itself — from Dennis Rodman to Brandon Marshall to Milton Bradley, etc., basically every Chicago team has taken flyers on guys who arrive to the City with a bundle of talent and potential to go along with that other bag – the one full of trace elements and powder that make for a unique type of keg stand.
Believe it or not, for as much as the Cubs sold Yu as an extraordinary talent and a 1-for-1 replacement to Jake Arrieta, the fact of the matter is Yu is a much more complicated athlete personality and the total opposite of Jake in terms of predictability.
Darvish’s track record off the field speaks to his eccentricities on it as he’s less the low-maintenance Ford F-250, and more like that high-maintenance turbo diesel that stays in the shop due to required calibrations and fine tuning.
The talent has always been on display with Darvish – a pitcher who when right can roll off any one of the 6 different pitches from his repertoire to make hitters lock flat out silly. But along with that array of pitches comes a guy who plays by his own set of rules and marches to the beat of his own drummer.
Whether going all philosophical in an interview; calling out an opponent for racy gestures; or accepting the invitation to pose semi-nude in feature spread in a magazine to symbolize how he feels about playing in Texas heat – Darvish is his own man. He’s also the Cubs man for another 5 seasons… SMH.
Needless-to-say the stars were far from perfectly aligned for the Cubs and Yu in this year one assimilation, and given the teams continued lukewarm play of late – many fans are left wondering how this season would look if we still had Jake on the bump.
An Identity in Question
During the time of the season when a winning team’s culture and identity should be fully ingrained and catapulting them towards the playoffs, the Cubs continue to look like a stalled bunch playing absent the burst and urgency that throttled them to success in 2016.
The ever-enthusiast will clap back and say something to the effect that every year’s different, but since the team is still mostly comprised of the same parts as 2016, they can (will) win when it counts. To a degree, those fans are partially right but like I said months ago, Javy can only do so much.
We’re not ready to start cashing in “what if’s” but the Cubs are officially on the clock and the eye test tells me the G’ ain’t the same anymore, despite Maddon’s continued quirks and Captain Rizzo’s admirable efforts to keep the club galvanized.
Perhaps it’s time to park the shagging wagon and lean in another direction to achieve that all so important September urgency: one that leans more towards conventional lineup wisdom, veteran grit, cunning and guile. The parts are certainly there to do so, and strangely enough in a year that was once determined to be defined by the proverbial jump by the other young players (Almora, Happ, Contreras and CJ Edwards) – it’s the old heads that hold the promise for this club down the stretch.
Carl Edwards Jr: ‘it’s going to come back to me soon’ (NBC Sports Chicago)
Before this thing goes belly up, I’d love to see Maddon chill on the lineup shuffling and stick to lineup script. More than anyone else on this team, Edwards could probably gain the most from a little consistency heading into October, as Maddon has officially blown thru his bullpen faster than white lines at a crazy-80’s party.
Pressure Bursts Pipes…
And right about now the Brewers appear to be putting the squeeze on the Cubs. The Brewers have had the Cubs number to the tune of 8 out of 11 games and with the division now up for grabs, the reality of a 1st round/Wildcard showdown with Brew Crew is a very likely scenario.
For the first time since joining the organization, Maddon’s back is against the wall and for as much as I want to say he’s running thin on his bag of tricks, the truth of the matter is the Cubs needed this sudden dose of reality a long time ago (probably around the time Ben Zobrist went all rogue on MLB for making him take off the PF Flyers).
With nothing to lose, Ben should tap into Gorilla Zo’ mode and bring back the Flyers. And while he’s at it, the black gloves to match wouldn’t be so bad either – sure as hell beats wearing dirty uniforms on an airplane back home. To me, that smells more like guys reaching at straws to find an identity.
Embracing the grit never sounded so apropos for Cubs fans, as this first-place team is officially one hot or cold streak away from going to the dance or going to the convenient store for some more scratch off cards.
If it seems like I’m the one grasping at straws, trust me I’m not. More than any other sport, we’ve seen it proven time and time again that momentum going into October baseball can be (and usually is) the great equalizer.
The Cubs have struggled to find themselves all season long and while I’m not completely ready to see Joe Maddon sent packing, I do believe the result of whether or not he can galvanize his club these next couple weeks will prove itself to be the true testament as to whether or not the right man is at the helm to lead a club under duress to multiple championships.
There’s Blood in that Water
In reference to the Bulls dynasties of the mid/late-1990’s or the more recent Blackhawks dynasty, Chicago fans have the fortuitous experience of seeing what it takes to transform a one-time wonder into a multiple time champion.
When Theo Epstein speaks of “sustained success,” he isn’t just giving lip service to the media. Instead, his words were more about laying the framework of an organizational ethos built around winning it once, then continuing in that upward trajectory for many years to come.
What Theo may leave out in these mission statements however is an explanation to Cubs nation on what the residue of championship growth will look like in the years to come. Most Chicago fans can remember how the Bulls and Blackhawks dynasties molded those teams from jubilation to grit.
And like many other sports dynasties (New England Patriots, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Yankees, etc.) in recent decades, the process of reshaping a club for multiple championships either leaves an organization and its players hardened from the experience, or left mumbling “what if?”
Despite those teams winning championships during the dynasty years I speak of, I can honestly say I don’t recall seeing too much levity or smiling on any of those teams. And while the mojo for the Cubs in 2016 was all about adages like “It’s Magic!” – baseball reality dictates in a sport that grinds longer than any other, a new outwardly disposition and attack is needed to recreate absolute success despite being the hunted.
How About This for a T-Shirt
Delusions of grandeur and over-confidence by Cubs fans have irked me since they strolled out from behind the ivy to start the 2017 season. A little hype never hurts, but part of the fan delusion stems from the fact that, minus Dexter Fowler, Jake Arrieta and Aroldis Chapman, the current club is largely comprised of the same guys that won it all in 2016. And since they’re still a somewhat youthful bunch, they should be able to just flip the switch and start winning with the same mojo, right?
Unfortunately, since there’s no such thing as a magic button and the juju doesn’t work that way.
And so, I’ll leave you with this @Cubs – some might say even though we’re in first place it feels more like the walls are closing in; some might say they don’t see the Grit or the sense of urgency anymore.
But this fan has been a rider since 1985 and I say its time to ride a new wave and embrace a new look.
#BringBackDaStash is more than just a catchy slogan… it’s Chicago in a nutshell.
“Da Coach” Mike Ditka made rocking the stash (mustache) more than just a fashion statement, he made it a lifestyle. And for this young yet seasoned bunch of Cubs the time has come for the adoption of a more outwardly mature approach to winning. This refined disposition needs to convey “we mean business and we are coming for what’s rightfully ours.”
The veteran heads have done all they can to lead by example, and your most recent acquisitions (Daniel Murphy and Cole Hamels) are the essence of “Strictly Business” – especially in October.
But the juju extends beyond the players, it trickles into the veins of the fans and creates a unifying effect. Listen up Cubs nation, please don’t wait until Halloween to embrace your inner Ditka, for if you wait til then it might just be too late.
Turn back the clock now and trim up that stash like your name was Tony Selic. For something so simple is the one thing Chicago players and fans alike can truly embrace as symbol of unfeigned hope and the driving force behind another push towards that other stash (Commissioner’s Trophy). Let’s get it…
Sean Terry is a co-founder of WARR, he writes about the Chicago Cubs and Major League Baseball