I can’t be Joe Maddon. That’s not self-awareness at work. It’s physics. The Cubs manager has said he doesn’t vibrate on my frequency, which is too bad. My frequency has its own party room.
But if I were Maddon for a day, I would have a simple message for Cubs players. It would be uplifting, perhaps not in the way he does uplifting, all cotton candy and balloon animals, but in the way that personal responsibility can be an uplifting call to arms.
Here’s what I would say, calmly:
“You’re a .500 team waiting for someone to rescue you. I have news for you: Help is not on the way. The cavalry is not coming. If you’re looking for a savior at the trade deadline, you’re going to have to grow your own. Justin Verlander is not being measured for a Cubs uniform. You’re the defending World Series champs. You guys got yourself into this mess. You get yourselves out.’’
Cubs president Theo Epstein said it in nicer terms Thursday, telling reporters that he believed the current roster is capable of solving its own problems. And Maddon agreed Friday at Wrigley Field, saying the answer “is in the room.’’ Now, whether any of that is true, I don’t know. Maybe Epstein is waiting to pounce on an offer.
But standing pat seems like the right thing to do. The righteous thing. The Cubs are too good to have played the way they have played in the first half of the season. They didn’t just Embrace the Suck, one of Maddon’s slogans. They exchanged vows with it. Cosmic justice would argue that they don’t deserve to be bailed out by a trade-deadline deal. They need to do this on their own. They need Jake Arrieta to pitch better and Kris Bryant to hit better, among many Cubs who need to do something better.
With a few exceptions, they have the same team they had when they won the World Series last season. The same amount of talent, minus Dexter Fowler and plus Kyle Schwarber, who missed almost all of last season with a knee injury. The same manager. And a much easier division.
For three months-plus, they have been living in a bubble, with sound piped in that says their middling record doesn’t mean anything. Bryant said Friday that he and his teammates haven’t once sat around and tried to figure out what was wrong with the club, even though that’s what many people in Chicago have done daily.
The players wait for the wind to change direction, instead of huffing and puffing themselves. I can’t imagine where they get that from.
Here’s Maddon’s synopsis of what he told his players at a team meeting Thursday, before the Cubs lost 11-2 to Milwaukee:
“I wanted to remind them that we’re kind of in good shape right now. We had a tough first half. Maybe we all haven’t played up to our capabilities yet, but we’re still in really good shape. Now it’s really time to sharpen our focus. I’m not accusing anybody of being satiated. I’m just telling them that this is what I’m seeing right now. We’ve had two long years. We’re in good position right now. Let’s really kick in the focus.’’
The “two long years’’ line doesn’t hold up, not when Epstein’s goal for the franchise is “sustained success.’’ Sustained success involves October and early November games. Long years should be cause for celebration, not rationalization.
The Cubs are looking forward to starting over after the All-Star break, and they should be. This team is unrecognizable from the one that won the World Series.
I don’t know where Schwarber fits with the club’s struggles, whether he was the start of all of this or just the darkest reflection of it. Although Maddon refuses to budge on the painful idea of Schwarber as a possible leadoff hitter again, he did acknowledge Friday that he made a miscalculation with his 24-year-old leftfielder. It’s probably as close as Maddon has gotten to admitting a mistake in Chicago.
“The overreaction on my part was the fact that I did not take into consideration that he did not even play last year,’’ he said. “That to me is the one part that probably more than anything has created a little bit of a setback for him.’’
The best thing about referring to a .168 first-half batting average as “a little bit of a setback’’ is that you’ll look like a genius if the player happens to turn it around. In the meantime, you look like a struggling player’s best friend, which is important. But at some point, Schwarber is going to have to get out of this on his own.
And the Cubs are going to have to rescue themselves from the possibility of finishing behind the Brewers the season after winning the World Series. It would be that much sweeter without a trade.
It’s not punishment. It’s a challenge.