This is the year

Through the years, there have been numerous fascinating ways to deal with the Cubs Thing. Denial has been the big one. That’s the first stage of grief, right? Cubs Thing? What Cubs Thing? Countless managers and general managers and players and fans have treated it like a monster in the closet, ignored it, denied that there is anything to talk about here. Yes, the Cubs have not won a World Series in 108 years. True, they have not even been to a World Series in 70 years. Well, it’s chance. It’s incompetence. It’s a few ill-timed blunders.

But, they will assure you, there is no Cubs Thing.

What’s next on the five stages of grief? Oh yeah: Anger. Playing the role of anger will be former Cubs manager Lee Elia. When his Cubs started 5-14 in 1983, he gave a thoughtful oration on the Cubs Thing and the role of fans:

“F*** those f***in’ fans who come out here and say they’re Cub fans that are supposed to be behind you, rippin’ every f***in’ thing you do. I’ll tell you one f***in’ thing, I hope we get f***in’ hotter than s***, just to stuff it up them 3,000 f***in’ people that show up every f***in’ day, because if they’re the real Chicago f***in’ fans, they can kiss my f***in’ ass right downtown and … Print it! … Eighty-five percent of the f***in’ world is working. The other fifteen percent come out here.”

Elia was canned a few months after that.

Then comes the bargaining stage. The Cubs will promise to change. In comes a new general manager. In comes a big-time free agent. In comes a new philosophy. Look: The Cubs have had an astonishing ELEVEN Hall of Famers who played 250 or more games since 1946 — only the New York Yankees have had more. With so many good players, with such a huge fan base, with a great television deal, the Cubs HAVE to win at some point, right?

After bargaining comes depression — this shows up in the form of Cubs jokes. There’s such a thin line between comedy and tragedy:

“People always come up and ask me if the Cubs are going to win in their lifetime,” says Steve Stone, a former Cubs pitcher and broadcaster. “And I always give them the same answer: ‘How long are you planning on living?’”

“Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be Cubs fans,” George Will wrote.

“Any team can have a bad century,” former Cubs manager Tom Trebelhorn said.

“We came out of the dugout for opening day,” Cubs pitcher Moe Drabowsky remembered, and this was way back in the 1950s. “And we saw a fan holding a sign: ‘Wait ‘Til Next Year.'”

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And at the end of all of these stages, of course, there’s acceptance. The best example of this might be the 1977 play “Bleacher Bums,” co-written by actor and lifelong Cubs fan Joe Mantegna. It is about a bunch of Cubs fans in the Wrigley Field bleachers talking about their lives and lamenting the Cubs’ losing. Again, they wrote that in 1977. It still plays.

“Reporters would ask me, ‘What’s going to happen when the Cubs win? How will the play work then?'” Mantegna says. “I told then, ‘Um, yeah, you know what? We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.'”

So, what stage is next? The Cubs are about to enter — let’s just say it — their most promising season since Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office. This is the year. This HAS to be the year. The Cubs are coming off a spectacular 97-win season that featured a fascinating array of kids — Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and so on — who should only get better. It also featured Jake Arrieta, who after June 21 pitched about as well as any pitcher in the history of baseball (basic numbers: 16-1, 0.86 ERA and the league hit .150 with two home runs).

Then the Cubs had fantastic offseason, picking up potential MVP candidate Jason Heyward along with the versatile Ben Zobrist and bulldog pitcher John Lackey.*

*It also didn’t hurt that the Cubs took two of those players — Heyward and Lackey — away from their rival St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cubs are the betting choice for the World Series. The Cubs are the overwhelming choice around baseball for the World Series. They are, on paper, a nearly flawless team — the returning Cy Young winner, a full five-man rotation, a promising bullpen loaded with former starters and a powerful young lineup so deep that superstar prospects Jorge Soler and Javier Baez don’t have starting positions at the moment.

What can go wrong?

Wait, what about the Cubs Thing?

“We made a decision to embrace it,” Cubs president Theo Epstein says.

Embrace it? How?

“Well, look at our manager,” Epstein says. He’s talking about Joe Madden, the 45th manager since World War II attempting to take the Cubs to the World Series. Maddon is not denying the Cubs’ history. He’s not angry about it. He’s not bargaining, not depressed, and he has not accepted anything.

Instead, he wears his philosophy on his T-shirt. It is a straightforward philosophy, one that he believes will take end the Cubs Thing forever.

It says, simply: “Try not to suck.”

* * *

Theo Epstein grew up in a family of writers. His grandfather and great uncle co-wrote “Casablanca.” His father Leslie has written nine novels and is director of creative writing at Boston University. His sister, Anya, writes for television (she was a writer and producer for “Homicide”) and her husband, Dan Futterman, is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter.

In other words, Theo instinctively knows a good story. He lived a pretty good one already in Boston. Epstein, of course, grew up a Red Sox fan, suffered with the rest, then became general manager and helped guide Boston its first World Series championship in more than 80 years. That seemed about as good a story as baseball could get.

This story would be better. The Red Sox Thing and Cubs Thing are often compared, but they’re not very much alike. The Red Sox always were more star-crossed than cursed. After all, Boston went to the World Series in 1946, 1967, 1975, 1986 — they just happened to lose those series. They had a bunch of other near misses. The Red Sox through the years were almost always good, sometimes even great, but they just could not quite clear that last hurdle. It made for good poetry in New England, but, come on, it really wasn’t all that bad. The Red Sox have WON 700 or so more games than they have lost since World War II.

The Cubs, meanwhile, have LOST 700 more games than they have won since World War II.

Yes, the Cubs Thing is fundamentally different. There have been a few brief bursts of moderate sunshine — the joy of Ernie Banks, the Ryne Sandberg hope, the young pitching of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior — but it has been mostly dismal on the North side of Chicago. The Cubs have had 48 losing seasons in their last 70. The Red Sox have had just 19.

The Cubs’ situation was typically dismal when Epstein took the job five years ago. He and his friend Jed Hoyer, who became general manager, looked around the organization and, well, honestly, they didn’t see much to work with. The Cubs had lost 91 games. Epstein and Hoyer suspected that there was exactly one player in the entire organization — shortstop Starlin Castro — who was of championship caliber. Meanwhile, the big league club was bloated with overpriced contracts.

This, of course, is how good stories begin.

I remember seeing Epstein then, just after he took the job, and he was so energized. He showed me a thick book called “The Cubs Way.” This was a living document he was writing with the Cubs coaches and scouts and instructors. He planned for “The Cubs Way” to describe exactly how the Cubs would play baseball. It would deal with every detail imaginable, from what foot Cubs players would use when rounding first base (right foot) to what kind of players Cubs scouts should look for (pitchers and hitters who can control the strike zone) to the Cubs’ philosophy of how baseball should be played (loose and fun).

“I’ll tell about one of my best days of the year last year,” Epstein said back then. “I was walking on the field of our instructional league. We had our new farm director, our new field coordinator, our coaches, our young players, the energy they were putting out was off the charts. We had a talented group of young players who were clearly proud to be Cubs. … I walked off that field thinking we’re definitely heading in the right direction.”

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Yes, well, the victories were small at first. But Epstein had made one promise to himself after his time with the Red Sox ended unhappily: He would not allow temptations to distract him from the plan. He had definitely let that happen in Boston; in his final couple of years with the Red Sox, he had let the New England pressure of winning every year push him to make some bold, expensive and, ultimately, doomed moves. The Red Sox traded for Adrian Gonzalez. They paid big money to Carl Crawford and John Lackey and, weirdly, Bobby Jenks. Epstein promised himself he would not make mistakes like that again.

And so, the Cubs lost a lot for his first three years. They mostly stayed out of the free-agent market, drawing complaints that they were a big-market team acting like a small-market-one. But all the while, they were making some sensational moves that were going unnoticed. The Cubs traded for the young Anthony Rizzo, who looked hopelessly overmatched in a brief tryout with San Diego. They traded for a one-time Baltimore prospect named Jake Arrieta. When pitcher Jeff Samardzija emerged as a bit of a star, Epstein traded him to Oakland for a shortstop prospect named Addison Russell.

All the while, the Cubs’ lousy records put them in position to have high draft picks, and they took Kris Bryant with the second pick in 2013 and Kyle Schwarber with the fourth pick in 2014. When the time was right, he spent some big money to bring in pitcher Jon Lester. Then, crazily, the perfect manager, Joe Maddon, happened to come free.

And it all worked, all came together for a magical 2015 season that happened much earlier than just about anyone expected.

“We thought that if virtually everything broke our way,” Epstein says, “we could stay in contention through the entire season and maybe do some things late to be the wild card. But everything had to go right. That meant Arrieta had to continue the breakthrough that happened in the second half of 2014. It meant Jon Lester making a good transition to the National League. It meant getting help and contributions from the rest of the starting staff. It meant that a bullpen kind of assembled on the cheap becoming dominant.

“That was just to start. After that, we still needed multiple young players to make their debut in the major leagues, adjust quickly and step up in the second half. It meant the veterans that we acquired would come in and not only have good years but would embrace the young players and help them grow. It meant getting great leadership from Joe Maddon. We believed all those things COULD happen. But when does it all go right?”

It all did happen, and the Cubs won those 97 games and reached the postseason*.  Then they made it to the National League Championship Series. The magic ran out there (because the Mets’ starting pitchers dominated and Daniel Murphy briefly turned into Babe Ruth) but there wasn’t all that much angst about it. Everyone can look at the Cubs and see — this team should only get better.

*Epstein, Maddon, and all the players will remind you, the Cubs did get the last wild card spot. “People keep asking us if we will be overconfident,” Epstein says. “I tell them, ‘Overconfident about what? We finished in third place.”

This year? Well, the Chicago Cubs are the envy of baseball.

Repeat that: The Chicago Cubs are the envy of baseball.

And the Cubs Thing?

“The players want it,” Epstein says. “They sense that they can be special. They sense they have a special opportunity. How can you have that mindset and then try to avoid the obvious talk of this team being good and having a chance to do some, let’s face it, historic things. It doesn’t make sense to do that. We acknowledge it. Then we turn our attention inward and understand that pennants aren’t won on paper.”

* * *

When the magical 2015 season ended, Epstein and his staff looked at the team and made a comprehensive list of its potential weaknesses:

1. Outfield defense.

2. The depth of starting pitching.

3. They don’t put the ball in play enough.

4. Control of the running game.

The defensive problems in the outfield — which did play out in the Mets series — led the Cubs to Heyward, who is among other things a Gold Glove right fielder. Epstein has grown skeptical of free agency because of his experience in Boston, but Heyward is a different kind of free agent. He’s only 26 years old and, so, he’s much younger than most free agents. He is one day younger than the Cubs’ other MVP candidate, Rizzo.

“It didn’t feel like a big free agent signing where you have all that anxiety with it,” Epstein says. “He fits our organization perfectly because he’s the right age, he’s a complete player, his skills complement the rest of what we have so well. He perfectly addresses so many of our weaknesses.”

Heyward also helps give the Cubs a bit more versatility in the lineup. Last year, Chicago struck out and walked more than any other team in the league. You can score a lot of runs that way, assuming that you hit home runs. But it’s a limited sort of offense that can be susceptible to slumps. Heyward and Ben Zobrist put the ball in play a bit more.

As far as pitching, this is the second time Epstein has signed John Lackey as a free agent, but it’s a different situation from Boston. This time, Lackey is coming in to be a third or fourth starter. And the Cubs have a lot of other options at starting pitcher, including former All-Star Trevor Cahill, experienced starters Travis Wood and Clayton Richard along with recently acquired Adam Warren. They have backup plan after backup plan for the rotation.

That doesn’t mean that those flaws are just gone. Kyle Schwarber still figures to be a big defensive liability in left field, and Dexter Fowler is seen by many as a below-average centerfielder. Teams will still run on the Cubs’ pitchers, particularly Lester (who is trying to overcome his difficulty of throwing to first base) and Arrieta. Key injuries can expose teams in unexpected ways.

Epstein knows this better than anyone. But he also knows that the Cubs have depth everywhere, and they have loads of excess talent to deal in the case of emergency. Perhaps most telling, they have perhaps the best and loosest manager in the game in Maddon. He just exudes confidence. That’s a big difference from, say, Washington, which went into last season as a heavy favorite. Then, when the Nationals ran into injuries and trouble, the players turned and saw an inexperienced manager in Matt Williams with his teeth clenched and worry across his face.

Epstein knows the Cubs will run into some trouble because every team does, and knowing that Maddon is there makes him sleep so much better.

“I don’t wake up and worry about not winning a World Series,” Epstein says. “I think about how we’re going to win a World Series and then try to defeat all the obstacles that we can envision along the way. I want us to get a little bit better all the time. And with Joe there, I give Joe a lot of credit for creating an environment where players can utterly and completely be themselves. I don’t have to think about that. That’s a big deal.”

* * *

Joe Mantegna says something funny about this upcoming Cubs season. “I can judge a person’s age by how enthusiastic they are about the Cubs chances this year,” he says. “Makes me long to be young and optimistic again.”

Mantegna has promised himself, again and again, not to raise his Cubs hopes. He’s had those smashed enough. He is 68 years old and everything he has learned in his life tells him that the Cubs will not win, not ever, because that’s the way of the world. That’s the Cubs Thing.

But, deep down, well, maybe even he thinks it could be different this time around. They’re SO talented. They’re SO confident. The Cubs aren’t hiding from their history anymore. They’re not mocking their history either. They’re not even trying to CHANGE their history.

Nope, all they’re doing is following their manager’s advice and trying not to suck. And that, as a devoted old baseball pitcher and fan named Robert Frost once wrote, might make all the difference.

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