The Cubs, the Ship of Theseus, and the Threshold for Change

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The Cubs, the Ship of Theseus, and the Threshold for Change

Chicago Cubs

I recently listened to a podcast on the concept of the Ship of Theseus (yeah, I’m exactly as nerdy as you think I am). Here’s the gist of what this metaphysical thought experiment is about, as well summed up by Wikipedia:

“[S]uppose that the famous ship sailed by the hero Theseus in a great battle has been kept in a harbor as a museum piece. As the years go by some of the wooden parts begin to rot and are replaced by new ones. After a century or so, all of the parts have been replaced. Is the ‘restored’ ship still the same object as the original?”

The nut of the question is whether there is a totally different reality for that object at the end of the process, and, if so, when a thing ceases to be that thing. Maybe we could point to a singular tipping point – a plank replaced that makes 50.000001% of the ship “new,” for example. When I was nerdily mulling this topic earlier this month, I think that’s more or less where I landed.

But what if the example were more challenging? Like the paradox of the “heap of sand“: imagine a large heap of 1,000,000,000 grains of sand. You look at it and think, “Yup, that’s a heap right there.” Now take away a single grain of sand. Still a heap, right? One more. Still a heap. One more. Eventually, that heap of sand will no longer be a heap, and yet rationally, there will never be a singular moment when you could say the group there went from being a heap to not being a heap. So when did it happen? What was the threshold? Can you ever know?

Why am I mentioning these things right now? Am I just bored of the offseason and diving too deeply into the philosophical world for distraction? Well, yeah, maybe. But I do have an actual baseball point here, and it was jolted into my mind by something I read this week at The Athletic by Sahadev Sharma. The entire piece is, of course, worth a read, but here’s the part that really stuck in my brain, and made me start once again pondering The Ship of Theseus:

“Many around the Cubs have wondered whether this group is a little too laid back and only performs when their backs are against the wall. In 2017, the World Series hangover was a kind of excuse. But that wore off when they were 43-45 and sat 5 1/2 games back of first place at the All-Star break. There was no excuse this season. And perhaps the best thing that came of their early exit was the public acknowledgment of the issue.

The Cubs were a couple balls finding holes away from advancing. If Victor Caratini’s 102.3 mph hopper in the 11th inning of their 2-1 loss to the Colorado Rockies is a foot to the left or right, or if Anthony Rizzo’s final out the day prior carries a few extra feet, do the players ever admit publicly, or even to themselves, that this issue even exists? Nobody with the Cubs wanted the season to end this way, but as Lester said and Epstein echoed, perhaps it’s what they needed.”

When did it happen? When did the offense become “a problem”? When did the team lose its “edge”? What single thing could have gone differently that would have prevented this transformation? And if the Cubs had advanced a little further in the postseason with a lucky bounce here or there, would we even let ourselves be confronted by the need for significant change?

The thing is, I don’t think you could point to that single moment during the course of the season where Definitive Reality X became Definitive Reality Y, and that’s why it’s probably a very good thing that the season ended the way that it did. The ending crystalized that no matter when it was that the Cubs’ offense ceased to be a heap, you could look at it now and know that it wasn’t. Whatever that threshold for change was, the Cubs crossed over it at some point. That much was clear by the time the Rockies finished off the Cubs’ season.

Of course, winning the whole dang thing would have been a preferable outcome. Shy of that, though, I do wonder now, with the benefit of hindsight and the inevitable optimism that greets every fanbase in the offseason, whether what happened was the best possible outcome for the Cubs. Maybe the individual players needed the thud. Maybe the coaching staff needed the thud. Maybe the front office needed the thud.

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Sports teams actually make for a natural Ship of Theseus parallel. Although the pajamas more or less stay the same from year to year, the players, like planks on an aging ship, are removed and replaced as time goes on. The roster changes a little in the offseason. It changes a little during the season. It changes a little more the next offseason. Then the owners change. And the front office changes. Then there are more changes to the roster. After many years, are you really rooting for the same team? What is a “team” anyway?

In this way, I often think that it’s actually the fan base – the community around the sports team – that is the thing that remains. Like the crowd that gathers around the harbor to view the museum piece that may not really be the Ship of Theseus anymore, fans enjoy watching their team play baseball, and following the necessary changes over time that seek to aid in the performance of that team in coming years.

With the Cubs – a team that won 95 freaking games in 2018 – we will continue to watch as they make the changes necessary to keep the ship afloat in 2019 and beyond, likely at a more accelerated pace this offseason than would have been the case if the end of the season wasn’t so awful.

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.