Dominant Cubs clinch early, but fans still worried

You can sprint in, you can walk in, or you can back in. Getting in is the point, right?

So even if the Cubs fell down the stairs with their shoelaces tied together — losing 5-4 to the lowly Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, then clinching the National League Central a couple hours later when the Giants beat the St. Louis Cardinals in San Francisco — they got in.

It may have been past manager Joe Maddon’s bedtime when the matter was put to sleep.

At 10:30 p.m., Joe said he was going home, West Coast outcome be damned.

A crowd gathered under the Wrigley Field marquee early Friday to celebrate the Cubs' division title. | Sam Charles/Sun-Times

A crowd gathered under the Wrigley Field marquee early Friday to celebrate the Cubs' division title. | Sam Charles/Sun-Times

If he didn’t find out until waking up Friday morning, that was “OK,” he said with a shrug.

His routine would be the usual: “Starbucks, get the lineup in, and get back out here.” He added,
“We have much larger baseball fish to fry.”

So after Maddon was in his onesie at home, counting sheep, the Cards lost and the Cubs thereby snagged the division with a superb 93-53 record, clinching earlier than any Cubs team ever has. You could ride in on a tortoise if that’s how it gets done.

How many times have the Cubs made the end of their season irrelevant? That is, getting to a point where the last days or weeks of the regular season don’t mean anything in particular.

We’re not talking about clinching early. That’s rare.

But often, they are so far out of the running for postseason play that the last days of September are their time to work on late-summer tans while bringing in garden crops and dozing.

Let’s just mention, for example, the half-decade from 2010 through 2014. In those sleepy five seasons, the Cubs finished fifth, fifth, fifth, fifth and fifth in the NL Central. Steady. They averaged 93 losses.

During that spell, managers Lou Piniella, Mike Quade, Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria were sacrificed on the altar of “We Suck-dom.” The tanking and rebuilding led to the abundance of talent the Cubs now have, as well as the acquisition of crafty, champagne-loving Maddon.

From the packed rooftops to the notorious Bartman area to the bleachers to the box seats, everyone knew they were watching what may be as special a Chicago ballclub as there’s ever been.

Imagine, the Cubs have two possible NL MVPs in third baseman Kris Bryant (37 homers, 114 runs scored) and first baseman Anthony Rizzo (31 homers, 38 doubles, 101 RBI). Plus, they have three Cy Young-caliber pitchers in Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta.

They’re loaded everywhere. But you know what the cautionary part is? They’re the Cubs.

What could go wrong? Nothing.

Everything.

I shouldn’t have said that, but what does 108 years of failure whisper in my ear? Never, ever celebrate early. And it’s always early.

“There’s a huge benefit to having the best record in the league,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said before the game.

And there is.

But with all the giddiness, there remains the fact the Cubs have not made it into a World Series — even to lose one — since 1945.

I’m old, but I wasn’t born then. I’m guessing you weren’t, either.

While watching from the press box as the Brewers pulled ahead, I got a call from a friend. “They couldn’t lose 17 in a row, could they?” the friend, a die-hard Cubs fan, asked fairly seriously. See what I mean about history?

Still fresh in fans’ minds are the two excellent seasons of 2007 and 2008, years when the Cubs finished first in their division — by a dominant 7½ games in 2008, even — only to be swept in the first round of the playoffs each year.

So are there problems associated with clinching early? Yes.

“I still think this isn’t the type of team that’s just going to roll over and stagnate and get too rusty,” said Epstein.

He’s likely right. He built this team from the bottom up, saying at the beginning of 2015 that the
Cubs should win, after the lousy product he’d placed before us for several years.

Chicago actor and lifelong Cubs fan John Cusack showed up at the park to root for his team. I idly mentioned to him that one of my favorite movies was the old Disney flick “The Journey of Natty Gann,” in which he played a kid hobo during the Depression, riding the freights with a young girl who had befriended a wolf.

“That was in the fall of 1984, when the ball went through Leon Durham’s legs in the Padres playoffs,” Cusack recalled sadly. “The next day, honestly, I could barely say my lines. I was terrible.”

For now, though, all smiles!

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com


Previously from Sports

Derrick Rose inserts foot in mouth; Rajon Rondo just does work | Chicago Sun-Times
Ditka on Kaepernick: 'It pisses me off royally' | Chicago Sun-Times
Bears put CB Kyle Fuller on IR; out at least 8 weeks | Chicago Sun-Times
Brandon Marshall: I learned from yelling in Bears locker room | Chicago Sun-Times