These aren’t your father’s Cubs: This team is built to last
s its delirium rises, an increasingly large segment of Cubdom seems to believe team history began with the arrival of Theo Epstein in Chicago, or maybe David Ross. Not true. It may be an inglorious one, but the Cubs have a postseason legacy that predates last year’s nine-game, three-round, 4-5 skirmish with the Pirates, Cardinals and Mets.
Some of it involves the San Francisco Giants, their opponent in this season’s National League Division Series, which they see as Step 1 in a march to end a century of frustration.
The 1989 NL Championship Series between the Giants and Cubs is best remembered for lusty hitting by the respective first basemen, Will Clark and Mark Grace. Clark, then 25, went 13-for-20 (.650) with two home runs and eight RBI, and his rifle-shot, run-scoring single off Mitch Williams in the eighth inning of Game 5 at Candlestick Park broke a 1-1 tie and effectively ended the series 4-1 in the Giants’ favor.
Grace, also 25, hit a mere .647 (11-for-17) with a homer, and he matched Clark’s eight RBI.
Grace was still a Wrigleyville fixture nine years later, when the Giants and Cubs required a play-in game to determine the NL’s wild-card qualifier for 1998. Gary Gaetti’s two-run homer off Mark Gardner lifted the Cubs to a 5-3 victory at Wrigley Field, earning them the right to take a 3-0 spanking from the Braves in an NL Division Series.
Not to relive the nightmare that was 2003, but ol’ Five Outs Away remains the closest the Cubs have come to the World Series since they last appeared in one in 1945, even if last year’s division-series dispatch of the dreaded Cardinals felt like something more than that. NL Central titles in 2007 and 2008 produced nothing more than feeble first-round sweeps by the Diamondbacks and Dodgers, respectively.
Seven playoff appearances in 27 years shouldn’t confer been-there, done-that swagger on a team, but it does run counter to the aura of abject futility that clings to the Cubs as surely as vines of ivy cling to the walls at Wrigley Field.
I know, it has been 108 years since the Cubs won a World Series, and there are 108 stitches on a baseball, and there are any number of silly things that suggest This Is The Year, all of them more contrived than conclusive.
But there is a different feel to the anticipation accompanying the current playoff push, and there should be. It’s credibility. The Cubs are the best team competing in an eight-team tournament, status they earned with as well-rounded and dominant a regular-season performance as the city has seen since the 72-win Bulls of 1995-96.
Simply put, the Cubs have played championship-caliber baseball in all phases, all season.
Playoff baseball, of course, is a different animal — all aces and closers and fielding artistry in support of small ball-inspired timely hitting. Ask the 1988 Athletics or the 2001 Mariners what 100-plus spring and summer wins amounted to in the crucible of Fall Ball.
But the Cubs, with their depth, their versatility and their carefully assembled blend of youth and experience, have the resources to cope with postseason vagaries better than any other member of this year’s field, including the suddenly vulnerable Red Sox and Giants, who have won three World Series apiece since the century turned.
Moreover, they are built to last. Five of their previous six playoff entrants — all but last year’s — gave off a thrown-together vibe, teams of transient parts adding up to a surprisingly workable whole, or what Lou Piniella might have termed a “Cubbie occurrence” with a favorable outcome.
The current Cubs are about as patched together as Pat Riley’s wardrobe. Careful research went into every acquisition, producing a 20-something core of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Baez, Willson Contreras, Kyle Hendricks, Kyle Schwarber and even Jason Heyward that is the envy of baseball.
It’s not going anywhere, unless some part of it is needed to fortify a pitching staff with some age spots. If so, there are replacements at the ready. And as Wrigley Field and the surrounding area evolve into a money-printing gold mine, Epstein will have the resources to fund the “sustained excellence” he spoke of when he arrived. What do you imagine the Cubs’ TV rights will be worth in the next negotiation?
Don’t be misled by anything that might take place over the next three weeks, good or bad. These aren’t your grandfather’s Cubs, or your father’s, or even your older brother’s. Sustained excellence has arrived.