MESA, Ariz. – Yeah, but can you win two World Series in a row?
That seems like the only logical question for the Cubs, given the ardor of Las Vegas oddsmakers and baseball experts, and given the pep rally that has gone on unabated in Chicago since the team made it to the National League Championship Series last season. If public expectations for a 2016 title were any higher, they would come with overhead bins, flight attendants and small plastic cups of pop.
Trying to throttle down the outside excitement is futile, and the Cubs, who haven’t won a World Series since 1908, know it.
“I’m really a big believer in running toward the fire, as opposed to away from it,’’ manager Joe Maddon said Friday.
“Trying to tamp it down doesn’t really accomplish a lot,’’ said Theo Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations. “After the first road trip of the season, that won’t be the narrative anymore. Either we’ll have a bad road trip, and the narrative will be, ‘What’s wrong with this team and maybe we were all wrong thinking they were really talented,’ or we’ll have a good trip and everyone will be excited to come home and they’ll be talking about whoever had the game-winning hit the game before.’’
Hmmm. That journalistic approach does sound vaguely familiar.
Cubs pitchers and catchers reported to spring training Friday, with the first workout set for Saturday. For fans, it means that, after an offseason of dreaming, the barnacles of hope finally have a working ship on which to attach themselves. For Maddon, it means that he can deliver to the players his theme for the season: Embrace the target. The team that won 97 games last year now has a bull’s-eye on its back. Enjoy it.
“To embrace the target, what does that mean?’’ Maddon said. “You talk about the expectations and the word ‘pressure’ that are attached to it, which I believe are really positive words. You take those concepts or those thoughts, and what does that lend to, what does that lead to? To me, that leads to really focusing on the day, focusing on the process of the day. And the process needs to be our anchor.
“You’re going to hear all this noise coming from without to within – a lot of really nice things. There’s nothing to be upset about. People are saying really nice things about us. That’s good. But at the end of the day, we have to take care of our own business, and that is about utilizing the process as an anchor on a daily basis.’’
After listening to Maddon for a half hour, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you just attended a three-day corporate team-building retreat.
“If you look at our roster and the more recent additions and the veteranship among them, I want to believe — and I do believe — that those are the kind of guys that would prevent any kind of take-it-for-grantedness from happening,’’ he said.
“Grantedness’’ is not a word, nor, for that matter, is “veteranship’’ but Maddon was on a roll, and, really, all that matters is if a bunch of ballplayers understand him. They understood him all the way to the NLCS last season. They have added Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist to a team that already had Jake Arrieta, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell. That’s why the Cubs are the favorites in many corners to win it all this season.
“I don’t want us to become outcome-biased, in a sense, or outcome-based,’’ Maddon said. “Yes, talk about playoffs. Yes, talk about winning the division. Yes, talk about playing the last game of the season and winning it. But you don’t want to just get caught up in that thought. How do you do that? That’s where I’ve really been focused on.’’
Considering the team’s history, it’s hard to use “Cubs’’ and “overconfidence’’ in the same sentence. But it says something about how far the organization has come that a reporter could use those two words in a question to Epstein and not be struck by a meteorite. And, no, Theo doesn’t think overconfidence will seep under the Cubs’ door in 2016.
“I think we trust the character of the players, and beyond that, we are proud of and trust the culture of the organization, which transcends the circumstances you may find yourself in in any one year, whether you’re picked to finish first or you’re picked to finish last and you have some things to overcome,’’ he said. “This is a special place and a special time to be in this place.’’
Or, as Maddon put it, “There’s so much more to accomplish.’’