So here it is, finally, after all those months of winning and, at the risk of a city sounding cocky, all those months of waiting. The ride was enjoyable, but the destination was always the thing. The only thing, really.
It’s go time for the Cubs, as Jon Lester put it the other day. It’s time to do what master planner Theo Epstein constructed this particular team to do. It’s time to win a World Series, which is a hell of a declarative sentence if you’ve paid any attention to franchise history. Step 1 is Friday night against the Giants in a best-of-five National League Division Series.
The default question for every Cubs team since – oh, let’s pick a random year and say 1908 – has been the ominous and innocent, “What could go wrong?’’ I’m not saying the Cubs are above experiencing a tremendous meltdown in the playoffs, of being the baseball equivalent of a glacier crashing into the sea. That would be like saying a duck is above quacking.
But this is the best Cubs team in more than a century. It seems emotionally equipped to handle the occasional sky-is-falling error, the what-was-he-thinking managerial decision or the voodoo-induced hamstring injury. It’s true that regular-season good isn’t the same as playoff good, but from top to bottom, this is the best team in baseball, no matter the month. That’s a self-evident truth. So is the fact that the Cubs are the favorites to win the World Series and have been since before the season began.
They wear that designation like a second skin. That can happen when the two pitchers with the lowest earned-run average in baseball are yours and neither are named Jake Arrieta: when two of your hitters are vying for the National League Most Valuable Player award; when your closer’s fastball causes windburn among hitters; and when your manager is a groovy, unflappable dude.
Their challenge starts Friday at Wrigley Field. The Giants were not put on earth to give the Cubs a motorcycle escort into the NL Championship Series. They have Johnny Cueto, who will start Game 1 against Lester, and they have Madison Bumgarner, who is ridiculous. They have won every even-numbered World Series since 2010, which is either a numerologist’s steamy dream or another ingredient in a Cubs fan’s stew of worry. Whatever, the Cubs have a lot of hard work to do.
Weird things happen in the playoffs. That’s always the warning label on the package. Favorites don’t always win. Actually, they often don’t win. Is this team above that? It has enough to rise above just about anything. A lineup that has Dexter Fowler, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Javy Baez and Ben Zobrist isn’t failure-proof, but it does offer strong safety netting. So does one of the best defenses in baseball. So does Kyle Hendricks, the Game 2 starter.
But now we get to the raging inner debate: the excellence of this Cubs team against what could happen because something always has in the past.
What could go wrong? Cubs pitchers could suddenly have a group epiphany that they’re human. Cubs hitters could ask what happened to their aluminum bats. I don’t know. What I do know is that atmosphere could play a role. In 2003, if we can probe the wound one more time, the Cubs were five outs from the World Series when shortstop Alex Gonzalez misplayed a groundball at Wrigley. There was a deathly silence in the ballpark, a bracing for more bad things to come. And come they did.
Some of you are conditioned to fear the worst because the worst has camped out at the Cubs’ door the previous 107 seasons. It’s human to think that way. It’s also contagious, and players aren’t immune, no matter how much they disagree. It spread to the Cubs on that October night in 2003. They were deeply affected by all the contorted faces in the crowd. We’ll see how far the newer breed of Cubs fans, the ones who boldly see multiple titles ahead, have come.
This is the only year that matters. For all the predictions of sustained success, this is the one the Cubs need to grab. There might not be a better opportunity. The future is promised to no one, and all that.
If this year’s ride means anything, if 103 regular-season victories have any weight, all the bad memories are about to be softened. The Cubs are that good. The playoffs are upon us, at last. This is what all the fuss was about. The destination.
It’s time to win a World Series.