Last year was a dream for the Cubs and their fans.
Actually, it was more than that — it was a dream fulfilled, a nourishment that many thought might never occur in their lifetimes, no matter how young they were.
But there it is: 2016 World Series champions. Forever.
So remember this: Winning the World Series is hard, and you never know when it will happen again. (You could ask the Rangers, Rockies, Astros, Padres, Rays or Mariners about that because they have never won it all.)
The Cubs may have had the best team in baseball last season — by far — but dreams vanish from night to night, year to year.
Indeed, the 2017 Cubs are as different from the 2016 Cubs as a fairy tale is from a fever dream. The players are basically the same, as are the owner, president, general manager, manager, hitting coach, assistant hitting coach, bench coach, pitching coach, first-base coach, bullpen catcher, quality-control coach and third-base coach (and fungo expert) Gary Jones.
But you can’t hold pitch speed or zone control or batting prowess in your mind and make such things happen upon command.
Remember Saint Kyle Schwarber from last postseason, up from a knee-induced grave, crushing the ball, a hero with only a handful of major-league games under his belt, a young Ruth on the rise?
Now, consider his .173 batting average, his 29 hits, his 57 strikeouts, his .294 on-base percentage going into Tuesday, and tell me if he’s ready for a trip to Cooperstown or a bus down to Class AAA Iowa to work on his plate skills? Schwarbs is close on so many pitches. But he’s just not . . . there. Like so many Cubs.
Shortstop Addison Russell is struggling, with his .220 batting average and .299 OBP, which are well below his 2016 marks. We could go on. Infielder Javy Baez, he of the wondrous glove skills, seems to be swinging wildly even on two-strike counts. And slugger Anthony Rizzo needs to get on a hot streak to raise his .235 average.
After 50 games (through Monday), the Cubs were 25-25, which says middle of the road as clearly as a dead skunk on the center line. Last season after 50 games, the Cubs were 35-15.
There’s the possibility that the glory of 2016 will recede in the rearview mirror the same way 1908 did for generations before. But that seems unlikely. This management behind Theo Epstein and lieutenant Jed Hoyer seems too competitive, too smart and too well-funded (the Cubs make about as much money as any team in the league) to nosedive for long.
The three ace starting pitchers — Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester — hopefully will get back to their 2016 grooves, and the bullpen might get a surprise addition at the end of the season, the same way it was gifted with Aroldis Chapman last season.
Then, too, there is this good news — the National League Central is hardly the place for a middling team to lose hope.
If you fear the Brewers, then you’re likely afraid of bunny rabbits, too. Even while up and down and all around, the Cubs are in the thick of the race. If they were in the NL West, it would be another story. But they’re not.
‘‘We haven’t even come close to playing our best baseball,’’ manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday.
And we hope that’s true, that the great defense from last year, and all that offense and lock-down pitching become the norm. Remember how Maddon toyed with the lineup last year because he had the luxury to do so, because the lead was so huge?
From July 27 to Sept. 2 last year, the Cubs went 28-7. That’s crazy. But then, they started the season 25-6, so it was crazy all along. Crazy good.
Still, it came down to an extra-inning Game 7 of the World Series before the Cubs blew up all curses and beat the Indians 8-7.
The dreaded Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 after a middling 83-78 regular season. Don’t forget that. All a team needs to do is get to the postseason, then anything’s possible.
Let’s hope the Cubs are just toying with us now. Because hope is what we’ve got.
Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.