Before their big comeback win against the Nationals on Thursday, president Theo Epstein addressed the media about the state of the Chicago Cubs. The message was, well, one of concern – just not necessarily about the team’s production.
“I don’t think we’ve established our identity yet. I don’t think we’ve found our edge yet that we’ll need to play with to win games,” Epstein said, per Cubs.com. “Wins don’t just happen because you’re talented and you show up. You have to come to the park with an edge every day and come together as a team and play together to win and play with a certain edge. We’re going to find it.”
I’ve never been one to subscribe to this sort of sports analysis. The type that often sounds like, “Oh, clearly LeBron didn’t want it as badly as Steph Curry,” or whatever. Because, frankly, I think almost all professional athletes, and certainly the ones on the Cubs, are competitors who want to win all the time and are giving it their very best.
But, then, maybe I’m looking at things too narrowly. Perhaps there’s something to be said about finding an identity. And it doesn’t have to be an identity as broad as “we want to win,” because duh. Instead, I think it can be more specific than that.
In 2014, the Cubs’ identity (in Chicago, at least) was about turning the corner. Jake Arrieta was inching closer to no-hitters, the Cubs were beating the Red Sox in Boston, the prospects were on the brink of debuting (and some already had), etc. And ultimately, that second half of the season was the most fun we had watching Cubs baseball since 2009.
In 2015, the Cubs’ identity was tied to the fact that no one saw them coming (right or wrong). They were the young, counted-out team and they won, a lot. And, probably more so, they had fun doing it. Everything was light-hearted, everything was a game, everything was a joke. And it worked.
Then, in 2016, their identity had more to do with coming back late. Yes they were a good team and yes they were still a fun team (and both certainly helped prolong the narrative), but when you build up a persona as a team that never quits, maybe something actually changes at the margins. We can’t know for sure, of course, but it’s pretty easy to look back at the 2016 Cubs and say that they were NEVER out of any game (or series, for that matter) because they were down early.
But what’s the 2017 Cubs’ identity? Without joking about something negative, can you really identify what this team’s thing is? I know I couldn’t, until I heard one take from Jed Hoyer. In a perverse way, the Cubs sees the team’s struggles (both on and off the field) as a potential positive -perhaps even as their thing. “I look at the situation as a negative, but I look at having adversity as sort of a good thing,” Hoyer said, per ESPN.
Hoyer was talking about Miguel Montero’s comments in particular when he made that statement, but it certainly applies to the season as a whole, doesn’t it? Adversity is the Cubs identity this year. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. There are distractions everywhere (on and off the field), the team is just barely over .500, and every day a new starter gets hurt … and yet, the Cubs aren’t out of it yet.
Maybe the adversity that comes along with climbing Mount Everest, or running a marathon, or eating an entire Crave Case from White Castle in one sitting is more motivation than anything else. After all, isn’t succeeding in the face of adversity more impressive and more compelling? Maybe the Cubs needed to face significant adversity after winning it all last year to get a certain feeling back?
“We’re right there,” Jon Lester said, per CSN. “The record and the way we’ve been playing is not ideal. We all can admit to that here in this clubhouse. But at the end of the day, we’re one (Milwaukee) loss away from being in first place. That’s what you’re playing for during the season – to make the playoffs – no matter how you get in.”
Yep. That’s it, right there. The Cubs have already failed to repeat their 2016 (and probably 2015) regular season success. But they can still very much win it all. They just need to get into the playoffs – in the face of adversity – by any means necessary and roll the dice in October.
It’s a lot easier and prettier the other way, but maybe the 2017 Cubs will succeed in spite of their identity not because of it. Either way, they need to figure out who they are, and fast.