The tweets and the calls to radio talk shows started rolling in Tuesday morning, well before the Cubs’ wild-card game later that night: No matter what happened, they said, the season was a success.
It was predictable, maybe even understandable. It was fans’ defense system at work. Their team had won 90 or more games for the fourth straight season so, by that definition, you couldn’t call the team a disappointment. Perhaps they were bracing themselves for the worst against the Rockies at Wrigley Field.
The worst arrived after midnight, with Colorado winning 2-1 in 13 innings, stopping the Cubs in their tracks in the National League wild-card game.
We need to start talking about what the goal is here, or what it should be. We’ve either lost sight of it or never had it properly in our sights.
Given what the Cubs have accomplished the past several years, how much money they have at their disposal and the template they follow (the Red Sox), anything less than a trip to the World Series should be considered a disappointment.
There has been a shift in thinking in Chicago since team president Theo Epstein rolled into town, and that’s a very good thing. The 2016 World Series changed everything for the better. But the conversation should be about whether you’re happy with a single World Series title. If you are, fine. That one swig from the champagne bottle offered quite a buzz.
But if the idea is greatness, and it should be, then one is not enough. Whenever the Red Sox and the Yankees fall short of that annual goal, few people who work for them or root for them say, “Nice job!’’
Those two franchises don’t talk about taking advantage of seven-year competitive windows. They don’t talk about windows at all. If they fail, they practice self-mortification in the offseason and then it’s World Series or bust the next year.
That’s where the city should be with the Cubs. And if you think I’m holding the franchise to an unrealistic standard, know that it’s the Cubs who raised those expectations. They’re the ones who put us here.
And I can’t emphasize this enough: It’s where everyone should want to be.
If you’re worried about making Epstein, manager Joe Maddon or the players feel bad for winning 95 games this season, don’t. You certainly can’t feel as bad as Epstein does when his team falls short of the goal. Of all people, he knows where the Cubs stand in the bigger picture and he knows what they’ve frittered away when they don’t make the World Series.
And even though Maddon took time before Tuesday’s game to discuss the difficulties his team encountered this season, which included injuries and what he considered to be an exceptionally grueling schedule, he knows what the target is every season.
“It’s always disappointing when you don’t reach your ultimate goal, which it should be on an annual basis, and that’s to play the last game of the season and win it,’’ Maddon said. “Even last year, getting to the NLCS for three consecutive years, the two years we did not win the World Series, we consider those disappointments.’’
Perhaps some fans got complacent after the success that followed 108 years of disappointment. But that long stretch of futility shouldn’t be the measuring stick by which we judge these latter-day Cubs. If it is, then you’ll be sure to die happy, even if you die 30 years from now.
Tell me, Cubs fans: Are White Sox fans, 13 years after they won a World Series, content because they had waited 88 years for one? I don’t think so. They’ll tell you they wished the club had accomplished more in the years after the title.
I’ve heard this a lot from Cubs fans: All we want is a chance to get to the World Series every season. And by that measure, their team has been great. It’s the sustained success Epstein talked about when he arrived in Chicago in 2011. But at what point is that not enough? At what point, do you start measuring yourself by World Series appearances? Especially with a core of Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant?
The Royals, with a World Series appearance in 2014 and a World Series title in 2015, have more recent World Series success than the Cubs have had. Few people would say that they’d prefer the Royals’ situation over the Cubs, but the point is that you have to take advantage of the chances put in front of you. The Cubs have had a lot of chances in a short amount of time and figure to have more.
This isn’t a eulogy for a season. It’s a call for an attitude adjustment.
The Cubs had the third-highest Opening Day payroll ($181.8 million) this year. That’s another reason to expect much from the Cubs. No, payroll doesn’t necessarily correlate to success, but it does show a franchise’s intentions. The intention in what chairman Tom Ricketts is willing to spend is a World Series every year.
I wonder if the disappointment over this season will increase their desire to pursue Manny Machado. It’s what a hungry, talent-heavy franchise would do.
There was a lot of fire in this team. Before Tuesday’s game, Baez said that if the Cubs play hard, “there’s no team that can beat us, and they know that, so that’s why they run their mouth a lot, because they know we’re the best. Even when we’re struggling, we are the head of everybody.’’
Who’d been running his mouth?
“Everybody, fans,’’ he said. “Who cares? I don’t pay attention to it, but it’s around us, and if we pay attention, we get in their trap.’’
To recap, Javy doesn’t pay attention to what anybody says!
Put Baez in the category of people who aim high, always. Time for more people to join him.