The ’dog days are here again for the Cubs, and can we just be honest about this? It’s a beautiful thing.
It’s playoff time, and the Cubs — who open Wednesday against the Marlins at Wrigley Field — are precisely nobody’s favorites to win the World Series. Or to win the National League pennant and get to the World Series. Or to even be struck by fantastical thoughts about the World Series.
Even in an impossibly strange 2020 season when anything might happen, there’s a sense of hierarchy in baseball. In the NL, the Dodgers are the elites, the Braves are right behind them, and the Padres are the new-money darlings. If you wanted to wager on who’s going to win it all next month in Arlington, Texas, you’d find there are half a dozen American League teams, too — including the White Sox — who have better odds than the Cubs.
An email popped into our inbox Monday from a betting site that has the Cubs at 16-to-1 to hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy. Seriously, 16-to-1? There’s a better chance the trophy will be officially renamed the Rob Manfred Hunk of Metal.
And here’s what we’re saying about all of the above: Phew! What a relief. The Cubs are underdogs, and it’s kind of nice.
“Sometimes you get so close to a team, and expectations get so high, that you end up swimming in the natural frustrations,” team president Theo Epstein said.
Isn’t that the truth? There was no frustration — only sudden, intoxicating bliss — when the Cubs came out of nowhere to reach the National League Championship Series in 2015. A season later, as they marched to their first championship in 108 years, fans believed in their bones that one World Series would be enough to die happy. But one wasn’t enough. In sports, it never is.
In 2017, there was decidedly less romance surrounding a team that was under .500 at the All-Star break. Slugger Kyle Schwarber was demoted to the minors because he couldn’t hit. Catcher Miguel Montero was shipped out for criticizing pitcher Jake Arrieta. Shortstop Addison Russell was under a league investigation into allegations of domestic violence. The Cubs again reached the NLCS, but players admitted to being tired through the season and especially down the stretch.
In 2018, free-agent additions Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood blew up in Epstein’s face, the offense cratered late, and the Brewers and Rockies danced on the Wrigley infield after winning a division crown and a wild-card game, respectively. There was a sourness to it all.
In 2019, a 1-6 start put instant pressure on Joe Maddon — a lame-duck manager as it was. The Cubs missed the playoffs in his fifth and final season, and it seemed almost like a load off for him and his players.
But 2020? You know, it’s just different in every way. The pandemic that shortened the season — that made it unlike any before it — also galvanized the Cubs, the only team in the majors to make it to the end of September without a single positive coronavirus test among players. Star players such as Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and Schwarber struggled — enormously — yet the prevailing narratives are all about accomplishment. The Cubs won their division. They stayed together, took care of one another. They rolled with things the best they could.
“Coming out on the other side of a season like this really feels rewarding,” manager David Ross said. “This was a unique season, a challenging season for a lot of reasons. All that these guys have been through . . . I think it’s just a huge bonus they’ve gotten this far. And [now] it’s almost like a reset.”
If the Cubs were feeling pressure, especially about their light hitting, Bryant may have gotten rid of it all over the final weekend with a pair of long-awaited home runs and a perfect summation of his concerns about what those outside the team are thinking: “I don’t give a [expletive].”
It became a rallying cry from the Cubs’ dugout in Game 60. Might as well carry it over to the Marlins series and beyond. And by that, we mean way beyond.
“We’re very grateful to be in the playoffs,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said, “but our expectation is to win the World Series.”
These aren’t the 2016 Cubs. These are the 16-to-1 Cubs. And they don’t give a blank.
Some ’dogs are just crazy enough to convince themselves they can go all the damn way.