I can’t speak for everyone here, but I know I was worried when the Chicago Cubs ended their 108-year-old championship drought roughly two years ago. After the elation faded, I mean. I was worried that being a Cubs fan would never quite be the same, now that our entire identity – the lovable losers, the perennial chase of something unreachable – was about to be ripped away.
And what if, my fear continued, that apathy spilled over into the readers here at Bleacher Nation. What if, just one year after I began writing about the Cubs, this dream job all came to an unexpected end? After all, if much of the interest in the team was predicated upon this historic and world-famous drought, the team would surely lose some of their charm – their sparkle – right? I mean, what’s left after your most defining, unique, and unchanging characteristic is gone?
Well, it turns out plenty.
As far as I can tell, none of the above was actually ever worth worrying about. Cubs fans are still as hungry and desperate to win as ever. Maybe more so. Perhaps the casual viewer isn’t – and never will be – as invested in the team from hundreds of metaphorical miles away, but the broader, truer Cubs fanbase is still here, and ready to scream, cheer, cry, clap, and, sometimes, get just a pinch angrier than expected when the season comes to a grinding halt just two days after the end of regulation.
But, the thing is, those worries about the fan base – even if they proved unfounded – came from somewhere real. Somewhere plausible. And that place doesn’t just impact the fans. It impacts the entire organization, too.
“Theo alluded to this in his press conference, but I’ll say it again as well: I think we’ve had a feeling for two years that we didn’t have the same urgency, we didn’t have the same energy, the relentless that we had in 2015 and 2016.
“You can never re-create trying to win the first World Series in 108 years and we’re not naive about that. That’s a goal that while you’re chasing it, you can’t fake that. That is such a great goal to go after. But with that said, we haven’t had that same relentless quality. When we are at our absolutely best as a team, we are really hard to beat. We grind every at-bat. We have really good pitching. We’ve had good bullpens. We’ve had fantastic defense. At our best, it always feels as though we’re a tough team to beat. And if you beat us, you’ve earned it and then we move on to the next day.
“I think with this team and even last year, we felt as though we fell into some ruts where we weren’t that relentless team. You can’t call yourself relentless and score zero or one runs 21 times in 71 games after the All-Star break.”
Hoyer didn’t stop there.
In related comments – more of which you can find at NBC Sports Chicago – Hoyer explained that although this is a “players game,” meaning that he wants his team to be relaxed and have fun throughout the season (partially because those very feelings of relax and camaraderie tend to be good for, you know, winning) – the front office and coaching staff has to do everything they can to “prod and push that message [of urgency]” to the players.
For one specific note, Hoyer wants the team to know that while winning 2 out of 3 in May (or whenever) is of course impressive, it can become all too easy for a team to fall back on that being “good enough,” while not pushing for that sweep. And then you regret it when the Brewers force a game 163 and you lose the division by a game before being “swept” out of the playoffs in a one-game Wild Card match-up.
Even more specifically, Hoyer discussed the lack of power in the second half, the lack of situational hitting for certain players throughout the year, and the lack of drive early in the season, as players reminded themselves that the Cubs have always been a good second-half team. No need to worry now. We’ll be better in the second half.
Wherever could they have gotten that idea?
BN: The Second-Half Cubs Have Been Extremely Good Over the Years, and You Can Largely Thank Joe Maddon for That https://t.co/YV83JkilBH
— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) July 27, 2018
Hoyer doesn’t want this sort of thought process during the season and it seems the broader trend of keeping the pedal off the metal early on might be under review. Don’t get me or Jed Hoyer wrong: Joe Maddon’s clubhouse management, his rotations, and extra rest early in the season have typically kept players healthy and productive for strong second halves. It was just extra challenging on that front this year. And perhaps there’s a teachable moment in that. Perhaps there’s a middle ground, where, sometimes, you just need to go for that extra run, out, win, sweep, regardless of the calendar or who’s up next.
After hearing both Hoyer and Cubs President Theo Epstein express almost the exact same sentiment – indicating, to me, that this wasn’t just an end-of-the-season knee-jerk reaction, but rather a broader discussion they’ve been having for a while – I think you might see some of that urgency return early in the year next year. They might need it to win.*
*After finishing an article like this, I can sometimes hear myself complaining about the very things I just wrote, like a commenter below: “Oh, the Cubs need to ‘get something back,” in order to win? Give me a break, they won 95 games this season. That’s a ton. One more bounce here or there and they’re in the NLDS for the fourth straight year.”
There’s something there, sure, but maybe that’s not a high enough standard for the current iteration of the Chicago Cubs. This team has a truly fantastic (and still young (and still mostly cheap)) core of players to build around, one of the smartest front offices in the game, and darn-near close to all the resources they could ever ask for. Right now, the NLDS is the minimum expectation. If it takes 89 wins, it’s the expectation. And if it takes 100 wins, it’s the expectation. They need to be there, because that’s how good they are, and this window to win championships will not last forever. It’s okay for us to be “unreasonable.” Because right now – during this particular window – there’s no reason the Cubs shouldn’t be the very best in the division.