ITTSBURGH — The sky is falling on Cubdom. All hope is lost. Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.
It’s been real, people.
I can’t be the only who heard president of baseball operations Theo Epstein’s appearance Wednesday on the team’s flagship radio station, 670-AM, and had what was left of his or her hopes of a Cubs return to the World Series in 2019 disappear into the summer mist. Or, in my case, here at PNC Park, sink like a stone to the bottom of the Allegheny.
It’s one thing to know the Cubs can’t hit, can’t stop falling behind early, can’t rally, can’t win on the road, can’t win a series — can’t do this thing called playing baseball well at all.
But it’s another thing altogether to hear the esteemed architect Epstein confirm it.
“It’s just the sloppiness and the mental errors and the lack of fight,” said Epstein, adding a few more problems to the pile. “It’s like we don’t have our real identity right now. The identity that we do have, or that it looks like we have, isn’t a good one. It’s not a winning one with the way we’re playing right now. That has to bother you, and it does.”
In his more cheerful moments, when he wasn’t wallowing in the Cubs’ specific flaws, Epstein sounded merely like a guy who’d lost his best friend.
“I’m not going to walk down the street humming my favorite songs and sort of breathing in the fresh summer air while the team is playing like this,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is. I don’t think you’re going to find anyone around the team in a good mood right now. You shouldn’t.”
Ah, but there’s always someone, isn’t there? There’s always a certain untroubled manager who never has a bad day, never has a discouraging word about his players, never stops believing in his own “methods,” to use one of his favorite words.
Maddon knows better than anyone how seriously his team is struggling. Before Wednesday’s tire-iron-to-the-temple 6-5 loss to the Pirates, he pointed to a variety of urgent needs: for the defense to improve, for the starting pitching to be -re-solidified, for the bats to come alive.
Yet he also said a team can’t be -assessed on wins and losses alone. He labeled his interactions with his players throughout the season “spectacular.” He called his retooled coaching staff “spectacular.”
“Everything that we’re doing within the group itself truly can’t be better,” Maddon said. “It’s that good.”
And as for his performance in Year 5 with the Cubs? Maddon stopped short of using “spectacular,” thank goodness. That probably wouldn’t have played well at all with a frustrated fan audience, especially the morning after a ninth-inning meltdown with some egregious defense by second baseman Addison Russell and a first blown save as a Cub for new closer Craig Kimbrel.
But here’s what Maddon did say:
“Yes, I’ve had a good year. I’ve really enjoyed my year, the record notwithstanding. The record is what it is, and there’s a variety of reasons for that. [But] what I set out to do this year, and how I’ve done it, I’m really pleased with that, quite frankly.”
But Epstein came off as less than pleased when talking about his manager. He didn’t criticize Maddon as much as he called for him to adapt and improve.
“Joe has a unique challenge because it’s his fifth year with this team and he’s remarkably consistent,” Epstein said. “But we all contribute to the environment, including the manager. So when players aren’t responding to the environment, I think sometimes you have to sort of do the impossible, which is try to find a new approach and new ways to reach guys while also maintaining one of your greatest strengths, which is your consistency and your ability to be the same guy whether things are going well or going poorly.”
Translation: Maddon’s style has helped make him our best manager, by winning percentage, since Frank Chance a full century ago, but that style isn’t as effective in Year 5 as it was in Years 1 and 2.
Maddon is as untroubled as a manager or coach gets in today’s sports world, but he’s too smart and perceptive not to know when public opinion is swirling against him. And that has happened each season since the World Series victory in 2016, hasn’t it? Many a Cubs fan said after Game 7 in Cleveland that they’d die happy whether or not the Cubs won another title, but it turns out Cubs fans are like all other fans: Anything less than greatness becomes cause for aggravation.
A glimpse of that reality came from Maddon after the Cubs lost on Tuesday, this time with a sorry offensive display.
“All last year, everyone wanted the same lineup,” he said of the denizens of Cubdom, a sardonic smile on his face. “Now that you’ve got the same lineup, nobody wants it.”
Really, all anyone wants is for the Cubs to deliver like the young, talent-laden, hum-your-favorite-tune team they are. Is Maddon the guy to help make that -happen?
Alas, Frank Chance isn’t available.