TELANDER: Cubs keep calm and carry on
Instinct tells us to freak out when things abruptly get disastrous.
Panic is a button nature pushes for us when the wolf appears.
Were we chickens, our beaks would be wide-open and our eyes would be bulging from our tiny heads as we turned the coop into a feathered froth of insanity.
So when the Cubs looked like a mediocre team in the first half of the season, many of us flipped to panic mode.
My God, this team won the World Series in 2016, had seven All-Stars, and now it’s as bad as a Triple-A team?
Fire the manager! Trade the outfield! Buy Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and the height-challenged Jose Altuve. Get every great pitcher on every team! Collect ’em all, money be damned. It ain’t mine!
And, finally, fire Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and the whole lazy front office. There’s panic for you.
And there were the Cubs, with a 43-45 record at the All-Star break, still acting as though the sky were blue and calm.
Manager Joe Maddon didn’t panic. He didn’t call tense team meetings, schedule extra practice, scream at batboys or put holes in the ‘‘Guitar Room’’ walls with a Stratocaster.
And Epstein, the scientist behind the curse-breaker last year, went about his business, knowing that no team is set in stone, that change is inevitable and that you can’t go from genius to moron in six months.
Maddon tinkered with the lineup, rested players at key times — because, yes, the slow grind of baseball does take its toll — and never trash-talked his team.
Veteran catcher Miguel Montero was sent packing for being too critical of pitcher Jake Arrieta, and that incident reminded players that this is a job, not a joke.
That move carried weight because it actually hurt the roster. Young catcher Willson Contreras has been starting game after game without relief, and catching is a grueling job in the summer heat.
The Cubs know they need another quality catcher, and rumor is they’ve been talking with the Tigers about acquiring Alex Avila, who entered play Tuesday batting .292 with 11 home runs, 29 RBI and a .938 OPS — the best among major-league catchers — in 68 games.
We’ll see what happens before the trade deadline July 31, but Epstein and his crew already have done one thing that was needed: They traded for White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana, who already has won a game for the Cubs and dramatically has shored up their dicey starting rotation.
Moreover, left-hander Jon Lester, who could have imploded after his absurd 10-run first inning on July 9, looked like his old self when he beat the Braves 4-3 on Monday in Atlanta.
Nobody on the Cubs panicked.
I would have. I’m human, and my first instinct — like that of most sports fans when things are going bad — is to say: ‘‘Back up the truck! Put the coaches on a train to Palookaville! Trade everybody!’’
But doing radical, freaked-out stuff is stupid and counterproductive to real success. Instinct and emotion must be controlled. Deep breathing. In, out.
I always settle down and look at tenures such as Bill Belichick’s with the NFL’s Patriots or Gregg Popovich’s with the NBA’s Spurs. Somebody higher up said many times: ‘‘These are quality men. Let them do their work.’’
The Cubs entered play Tuesday with 70 games left, and letting them get coached back to greatness is the rational way to go.
Maddon, we feared — OK, I did — was a leader who was mainly good at coaching players toward the top. Once at the peak, he didn’t know how to inspire the troops.
That was a gut reaction, but I think it’s wrong. His steadiness is what all good managers must have. If you or I were at the tiller, the Cubs’ ship might have run aground by now.
The Cubs might lose a dozen consecutive games as soon as this is printed. But they have started to hit and pitch better, and right-hander Kyle Hendricks soon should be back from his hand injury.
The Cubs, believe it or not, are not far from where they want to be.
Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.