The pronouncement that the Cubs have to win the World Series for this season to be a success is an easy one to make until it runs into a wall. The wall is that baseball is strange, the postseason is stranger and good luck trying to get the deposit back on those parade buses.
The capriciousness of the sport would be a logical explanation for the dominant Cubs if they don’t win the title – except for one thing. Through their hot start, their roaring success, their season-long focus on being fresh come playoff time and their very vocal confidence, the Cubs have built a World Series-or-bust narrative all by themselves. They don’t need any outside agitators doing it for them.
They’re not just embracing the target on their backs, as manager Joe Maddon preached during spring training, they’re embracing the inevitability of a World Series. They haven’t shied away from all the attention that comes with being the best team in baseball. They’ve basked in it. From the first game, this has been a season-long party, like a turnstile that has never stopped spinning from Wrigley to Murphy’s Bleachers and back.
I don’t know if the approach is admirable or insane.
Let’s address the insanity possibility first. We’ve been told a million times to pay no attention to the fact that the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908. A tired story, we’re told. A new day, we’re told. But how do you ignore the corpse at your feet? The common-sense, don’t-tempt-fate approach would be to acknowledge the obvious, lie low and hope another team gets all the publicity. To scoff at the World Series drought would be seem to be the definition of insanity.
But maybe something resembling a strut is the right way to approach the curse, the century-plus of bad baseball decisions or however you want to explain the desert that has been the Cubs for so long. Maybe the way to do this is to act like you’ve actually won something when you haven’t yet. The Cubs have every right to think they’re better than everyone else, so why keep it a secret? And who in his or her right mind thinks a superior Cubs team would not be the story of any season? You’d have an easier time hiding an elephant in a kitchen cabinet than hiding the Cubs’ excellence.
This is still new for a lot of us around here, even after the team won 97 games last season and went to the National League Championship Series. It’s new even though the Cubs were the World Series favorites before the season began. It still feels risky for those of us who have witnessed the debacles of the past.
Part of how the Cubs have acted this season is a function of having built a huge division lead, and part of it is being very good and wanting people to know it. But they could have taken a quieter approach. There didn’t have to be a party room at Wrigley Field for the players to celebrate every victory. But there is. Maddon didn’t have to have his players don onesies on the flight home from the West Coast again. But he did. There’s a bit of a dig-us vibe to this club that irritates other teams.
Too many coaches and managers keep everything close to the vest. Maddon would probably take off his shirt if you asked him to. So there will be no complaints here about his openness or exuberance. And he knows the bull’s-eye that comes with it. But I’m not sure he fully understands that he had a hand in drawing that massive bull’s-eye.
Many of the moves Maddon has made this season have been with the playoffs in mind. He has shifted players around in the field and in the lineup to keep them both rested and engaged, all with the idea that the regular season is prelude to something bigger.
Let the record show that the Cubs don’t see themselves this way. They see themselves as completely focused on the immediate, whether that is a game or an at-bat.
“Baseball is a really humbling game, so if you do start getting ahead of yourself, it will cut you down pretty quick,’’ team president Theo Epstein said Monday before the Cubs-Pirates game at Wrigley.
But Epstein knows what the goal is, and he knows that you know what the goal is. And he knows that the World Series-or-bust debate will just keep gaining steam.
“Realistically, you don’t back away from that and just say, ‘Yeah, we’re happy if we don’t win the World Series,’ ” he said. “You can’t back away from it. As (John) Lackey would say, that’s the big-boy prize and that’s why we’re all here.”