Believe it: With Joe Maddon behind them, Cubs think anything is possible

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MESA, Ariz. — Last season, the Cubs were beyond belief.

Lots of people believed the team was going to be good, but not 97 victories good and surely not National League Championship Series good.

“I think we just proved ourselves right,’’ first baseman Anthony Rizzo said Tuesday. “We never go out trying to prove anyone wrong. It’s just a matter of us believing and, throughout the year, we had a stronger belief. Obviously, we fell short, but the experience was a good ride.’’

The issue of belief is a big one, or at least the Cubs believe it is. If there was one thing manager Joe Maddon was brought in for, it was his ability to make players believe in themselves. He could make a mortician believe he’s a big-league shortstop. There’s a decent chance he could convince a mortician that death isn’t an inevitability.

“He’s always going to be positive,’’ said Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist, who played for the Maddon in Tampa Bay. “He’s always going to say we’re going to do it and believe it – but he really does believe that. Half the battle in surging and getting there is you have to believe that you will. You have to believe that you are a playoff team.

“… Sometimes we wait for the action to happen first, and then we believe. He’s all about the opposite of that: ‘No, you’ve got to believe and we’ll see it happen.’ I do understand the importance of execution, and he does too. We all understand at this level that you’ve got to execute. But if you don’t believe it first, then you’re going to have a lot harder time actually executing the way you’re capable of.’’

In 2011, the Rays started the season 0-6. At that point, Maddon convened a meeting and informed the players that they would make the postseason, Zobrist said. And they did as a wild-card team, despite trailing Boston by nine games in September.

“Some of us rolled our eyes,’’ Zobrist said of the meeting. “You have a hard time believing it at that moment, but Joe believed it. The true mettle of our team happened the rest of that month. We ended up playing really well.’’

If the manager always believes, can his belief be trusted? It’s the converse of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. If Maddon is always upbeat, if his message is always that the team is this/close to whatever the goal is, will players eventually stop listening to him? It happened with a few of his players in Tampa Bay.

In the first week of Cubs camp this winter, Maddon has advanced at least two themes for the season – “embrace the target’’ and “the process is the anchor.’’ T-shirt makers are scrambling as we speak.

Do some players listen to Maddon’s slogans and say, “Enough?’’

“Of course,’’ Zobrist said. “Who doesn’t do that with their boss? But at the same time, it’s his job to lead us in the direction he feels we need to go. We don’t have to necessarily agree with everything that he says or does, but we’re all aimed at the same purpose. So if we see him aiming at that purpose in his way, then we’ve got to keep going after it in our way.

“He’s definitely a unique leader in that respect. He does it his way, and he doesn’t care. You can either follow along or not, but his job is to lead the best way he knows how. That’s what we see, his authenticity. The most important thing is authenticity and genuine personality. He really cares. He really wants to win. That’s what we to have to see.’’

The Cubs are coming off one of their best seasons in decades, so all of this might seem like a moot discussion. They seem destined for another great year. There is a glut of belief. But there will be difficulties this season because there almost always are difficulties in a season. Injuries. Slumping players. Friction between teammates.

The Cubs spend a lot of time talking about their culture, which they say is based on being yourself and caring for your teammates. That, they believe, will lead to winning, which is the ultimate goal.

Centerfielder Jason Heyward signed with the Cubs after spending a season in St. Louis. There, he said, players were encouraged to “come and be yourself, care about winning and care about your teammates.’’

There is nothing new under the spring-training sun.

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