CINCINNATI – Seven years ago Thursday, Cubs manager Lou Piniella, his staff and players met in their Wrigley Field clubhouse for a final, brief reminder that nothing about the previous 100 years of Cubs history mattered – only the next few hours and, maybe, the next few weeks.
But as soon as Piniella reached the Cubs’ dugout upon leaving the clubhouse, he ran headlong into a century of lunacy and superstition.
A Greek priest enlisted by team president Crane Kenney was in the process of blessing the dugout area in a not-so-veiled attempt to help break the “curse” and find a place in Cubs lore – infuriating Piniella and general manager Jim Hendry.
When the team with the best record in the National League then lost its playoff opener that night, and went on to get swept by the Dodgers, the episode did, indeed, find a place in Cubs lore, alongside black cats and Billy goats.
“Being Roman Catholic, I don’t know if I can do that,” joked Joe Maddon, the Cubs manager who has this year’s upstart team in the playoffs for the franchise’s next shot at breaking the curse.
The story about that 2008 team is not so much a study of comparison to this year’s incarnation as stark contrast.
Somehow the perception of responsibility to repair a century of franchise failure in a single October has eluded this Cubs playoff team.
Maybe that’s about a sense of Theo Epstein’s hiring marking the start of some new Cubs calendar, Maddon’s live-in-the-moment lifestyle and message, or a function of players too young to appreciate the enormity of 107 years of anything.
“I know kind of the gist of it,” said rookie shortstop Addison Russell, 21, who debuted in late April. “I really wasn’t born in Chicago or a fan or anything like that. For me, I’ll embrace it. I think we all just try to embrace it and just play ball.
“I mean, we can’t really be up there at the plate, 3-2, with the game on the line, and, `Oh, 100 years.’ We just have to live in that moment.”
Why didn’t Leon Durham think of that? Or Alex Gonzalez? Or even Piniella in 2007, when he took ace Carlos Zambrano out of a 1-1 Game 1 in Arizona in the sixth inning, at 85 pitches, to save him for a Game 4 that was never played?
“That was a break for the Diamondbacks,” said Miguel Montero, who was a backup rookie catcher for the D-Backs team that beat the Cubs 3-1 on a seventh-inning homer in that opener on the way to a sweep.
“In the playoffs, there’s no tomorrows. You’ve got to win today and then figure out what you’re going to do tomorrow. But you’ve got to win today first.”
Maybe it’s that simple. Maybe it’s that much easier said than done, too.
What’s certain is that past playoff Cubs over the years have acknowledged the pressing responsibility of becoming that team for that fan base in that adoring city.
“I do vibrate on a different frequency, man,” said Maddon, who made believers out of similarly young and supposedly overmatched playoff teams in Tampa. “I don’t understand those kinds of concepts.
“I think we’ve built up a nice method of operation this year that our guys have adhered to.”
If anything, you do less, practice less – even think less – once you’ve played well enough for six months to get to October, he said.
“The trap is to overthink it,” Maddon said. “That to me is the worst thing you could possibly do.”
Just ask the Cubs’ resident curse-buster, hitting consultant Manny Ramirez – the 2004 World Series MVP when Epstein’s Boston Red Sox finally broke the 86-year-old Curse of the Bambino.
“I remember when we were in the playoffs in Boston, and Pedro [Martinez] brought in one of his friends, a midget, and we were just there having fun,” Ramirez said. “We didn’t really care. We were having fun and enjoying the game.”
Ramirez is referring to 2-foot, 4-inch Dominican actor Nelson de la Rosa, who became an instant team favorite and “lucky charm” throughout Boston’s historic title run.
De la Rosa, who died of heart failure two years later, helped keep the team loose, Ramirez said, and was in the clubhouse for the championship celebration and part of the parade in Boston.
“I wasn’t there with the Cubs,” Ramirez said. “I don’t know what kind of guys they had and how people took it.”
The Cubs don’t appear to have their version of “Nelson” for this playoff run. At least as important, there doesn’t appear to be any holy water in the vicinity, or goats on the brain.
“I don’t think nobody is thinking about that here right now,” Ramirez said. “We’ve got a good group of guys and they’re just thinking about what they’re going to do today, not thinking about 100 years from now or 80 years from now.
“It’s a good energy here.”
And if the reminders get louder and more frequent as that Oct. 7 playoff game approaches – if they run headlong on game day into even more lunacy?
“We’re reminded every single day,” Russell said,” with all the fan interaction, all the things we get over social media. And just people constantly reminding us, like, `Cubs lose.’
“But it’s a new age. And today’s a new day.”