GREENBERG: It’ll never be the same with the Cubs as it was in 2016
I probably should warn you that a hot take is coming. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s a hot take. I’ve never accused anyone — least of all myself — of hot-taking, and it’s possible I don’t really even know what it is.
But let’s just agree that this is going to be a hot take. And here it is:
The 2016 Cubs are in danger of becoming the 1985 Bears.
What, you’re scoffing already? And rolling your eyes? Look, I admit I’m still trying this opinion on for size. I realize it could be dead wrong. The Cubs might win another World Series very soon, and then another after that. Perhaps they’ll become baseball’s successor to the Giants, who won it all in 2010, ’12 and ’14. Or, better analogy: Maybe they’ll turn a lengthy run of excellence into a few championships like the Blackhawks have done.
Or they might remain stuck — forever — on one, which you don’t need me to tell you is what happened to the core of stars on those outstanding Bears teams of a generation ago. In baseball, the same thing happened during a Braves run that, incredibly, spanned 14 consecutive division titles.
Just one championship. Hey, it could be worse, as Cubs fans the world over know all too well.
Yet consider this: After the glory of ’16, a seeming chorus of millions said essentially the same thing: Even if the Cubs never win another World Series, getting off a lifelong schneid was special, thrilling and good enough. But then came the ’17 season, when the Cubs often struggled — to win consistently, to hit the ball, to manage the game — and a steady stream of criticism gushed into a flood.
Kyle Schwarber is a bum! The bullpen is a disaster! Joe Maddon is crazy!
For the most part, there were only feel-good moments in 2015 as the Cubs became a force, and the following year as they became rock stars. Not so last season, despite the fact they reached the postseason for the third consecutive year for the first time in a century. The season just wasn’t special enough or thrilling enough or good enough. It turned out that Cubs fans were no different than those of other teams: Once folks have tasted a title, nothing less completely satisfies.
What does any of that have to do with the Bears of yore? Maybe nothing.
But holding on to that magic, to that mojo, to that immeasurable thing that gets them over every last obstacle, seems to be the hardest part for championship teams. How many times have we seen, for example, one instance of a player letting go of the proverbial rope — even for a moment — that seems to beget another?
Which brings me to pitcher Mike Montgomery, one of the most pleasant and well-liked Cubs. This week, he told the Sun-Times’ Gordon Wittenmyer that he isn’t cool anymore with going back and forth between the bullpen and the starting rotation. If anyone had a reason to feel taken for granted by the Cubs last season, it was Montgomery. He wants to be a starter, period.
“I’m going to be nice,” he said. “I’m not going to say, ‘Trade me or else.’ I just want them to know I am serious about starting. I’ve always been team-first, but I don’t know if the role I’ve been doing the last few years is physically in my best interest. Going back and forth is really tough to do.”
Well, what’s going to happen if and when the Cubs jerk Montgomery around again? As you read this, team president Theo Epstein almost surely is in a secret bunker finalizing plans to acquire another starting pitcher. Have fun — again — in that “No. 6 starter” role, Monty.
Who will be next to let go of the rope? Will Javy Baez get sick and tired of not playing every day despite the irrefutable fact he’s one of the most talented infielders in baseball? Will Albert Almora Jr. become frustrated if his career trajectory is lowered by another year of platooning? Shoot, I would if I were them.
When the Cubs won it all, the collective cause was so much bigger than anyone’s individual concerns. It was everything. Is it still? Besides that, in a little over a year, the Cubs have gone from being the “it” team in all of sports to being, what, a borderline top-five contender for the 2018 World Series? The Astros and Dodgers certainly look better. After adding Giancarlo Stanton, the Yankees are back to being the Beatles. If you go by the oddsmakers, the Indians, Red Sox and Nationals are in better positions to win it all, too.
My goodness, this is too negative. The Cubs are still terrific. They’re still prominent in the championship picture.
It could be that this is a more apt (and slightly less hot?) take than the one at the top of this column: It’ll never be quite as great again with the Cubs as it was in 2016.
Either way, I’d love to be wrong.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.