If you had asked me right after the 2016 World Series to describe how the next five years would play out for the Cubs, ‘‘long and tedious’’’ wouldn’t have crossed my mind. With all that talent on the roster and all that brainpower in the baseball-operations department, I expected fun, interesting things.
The metaphor for what happened to the Cubs’ purported ‘‘championship window’’ was the second half of the 2018 season, when the team forgot how to hit. In 22 games during that span, they scored one run or fewer, including a 3-1 loss to the Brewers to determine the National League Central champion and a 2-1, 13-inning loss to the Rockies in a wild-card playoff game. It was as though Phil Mickelson had looked at his golf clubs and said, ‘‘What are these things used for?’’
It’s not even that the franchise didn’t win another World Series after 2016, though that was certainly disappointing. It’s that the whole idea of the Cubs As Special was being dismantled, first emotionally and eventually physically — but all of it so slowly that it took a long time to grasp that there wasn’t going to be anything close to the 2016 season again. They should have been better in the ensuing years. They just weren’t, and it played out like a time-lapse film of a building being neither built nor razed. Just standing there looking nice.
On Thursday, the Cubs traded first baseman Anthony Rizzo to the Yankees for two prospects. It was met with predictable fond farewells from Cubs fans. He had played a huge part in helping the franchise win a World Series for the first time in 108 years. He would be missed, the fans said, and they were right. He would be. But the past two years have been an exercise in waiting for some combination of Rizzo, third baseman Kris Bryant and shortstop Javy Baez to be traded. So it wasn’t a bombshell when Rizzo left for New York. It was a cigarette finally being snuffed out by a heel.
Then came Baez being traded to the Mets on Friday. Then Bryant to the Giants.
It was the longest, most-drawn-out sudden departure in recorded history.
Manager Joe Maddon, who saw things only he could see, for better or worse, had been the first to go, shown the door after the 2019 season. In the three years after the World Series, the Cubs had lost in the NL Championship Series, lost a wild-card game and didn’t make the playoffs, respectively. President Theo Epstein thought complacency had set in after the 2018 season, and, as I think about it now, perhaps that feeling of self-satisfaction had been one of the culprits all along. That, along with ownership’s refusal to pursue additional talent. Whatever it was, it made for a slow, steady, unfulfilling descent.
Critics have gotten on Cubs fans for being ungrateful after the 2016 World Series, but I’m not sure what should have been expected of them. The Ricketts family had cut back on payroll spending while continuing to use Wrigleyville as a private cash machine. The franchise didn’t keep up with other contenders in terms of on-field talent. It settled for being very good instead of great. The idea — always — is to win. Cubs fans got that, which is why they were irritated when the club didn’t get a whiff of the World Series again.
Ah, but there were still Rizzo, Bryant and Baez. They were comfort food for the masses. They could distract you from the Cubs’ decline, the way Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Billy Williams could make you forget what 1969 was really about.
And there was still Epstein, a man with the ability to change everything with a few shrewd personnel decisions. Until there wasn’t Epstein anymore. He resigned in November 2020, and if there was any doubt an era was over, it finally was laid to rest.
The Cubs already were declining in those first few years after the 2016 World Series, even if few of us fully realized it at the time. Something like that had happened when the Cubs were rebuilding, too. There were those three or four dark years, and even though people hoped for good things ahead, all the losing made it hard to see sometimes. Then came 2015, when a young team won 24 more games than the season before and made it to the NLCS. Then we knew.
When Epstein left after the 2020 season, we knew it officially was The End. Seeing Rizzo get traded Thursday, although sad, was inevitable. Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel getting traded to the White Sox was huge news for the Sox on Friday. It was a shrug for anyone associated with the team from the North Side. The operative word: Next.
I don’t know what happens with the Cubs from here, but I’m tired of it all. You know the sleepiness you paradoxically feel when you’ve slept too long? It’s kind of like that.