Next Year is Coming
Man I love baseball. In the sea of a sports climate that’s these days is dominated by a lemon shaped ball (that may or may not have enough air in it, or so I read), baseball still strikes a chord with me. Where both footballs are tests of endurance, basketball is a study of grace and athleticism and hockey is a blend of speed and grit, baseball remains a tone poem in the form of a marathon. It requires patience, timing, practice and sometimes even luck for the teams, the players and yes, even the fans to get through. You could perhaps say that about all sports, and frankly, you’d probably be right. And yet, why does it feel more so in baseball? No other sport’s icons live on like baseball’s does, nor does any other sport produce heroes in all shapes, sizes and star power the way baseball has. Tom Brady may be the most famous (or infamous) Quarterback on the planet right now, but will he be talked about the same way fifty years from now the way we’ll probably still talk about Babe Ruth? And where else can you find a place where people like Joe Carter, David Friese and Francisco Cabrera can be heroes the same way Hank Aaron, Pete Rose (before gambling) and Carlton Fisk were? All it takes is one pitch, one swing to be remembered forever, to add yourself to the next stanza, the next verse.
The Chicago Cubs placement in the poem that is baseball is perhaps the most tragic of any sports team, let alone baseball team. For almost a hundred and fifty years, the boys on the North Side of Chicago have roamed the world’s most famous diamond, first as the Chicago White Stockings before finally adopting their more famous name in 1903. It was destiny that the Cubs would become a household name in the history of sports and they have for numerous reasons, be it their famous ballpark Wrigley Field (still around today 104 years later), famous players (Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Ryne Sandberg to name a few), great fans or even moments like the legendary (and hilariously) named Merkle’s Boner. Of course, there’s one thing that stands out more than all of those things, a depressing mark that the Cubs once only shared with their neighboring Chicago White Sox and the tortured Boston Red Sox. If you’re a fan of any sport over 5, you’ll know that it’s been almost one hundred and seven years since the Cubs last won a World Series, the top prize in baseball. It’s the longest championship drought in team sports by about a hundred country miles; so long, that I’m pretty sure no one alive now has ever seen a Cubs World Series win.
Hell, not many have seen the Cubs in the World Series, with their last appearance being in 1945, back when my grandparents on my father’s side were both teenagers. Since then, nothing, with the closest appearance to the big dance coming in 2003, when Dusty Baker, Alex Gonzalez and one terrible, terrible play led to the Cubs unraveling in the NCLS quicker than a ball of my cat’s yarn. You would think in a way that this kind of longing and waiting would take on a form of a Shakespearian tragedy for the Cubs and their fans. And yet, aside from Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS against the Marlins, a cameo appearance by a cat in the 1969 season that coincided with a collapse and some bizarre story about a Billy Goat, the Cubs history doesn’t have the sort of dramatic collapses as say the Red Sox or the corruption of the White Sox. The White Sox (who went 88 years before winning a World Series) were just kind of there. The Red Sox were the chokers. The Cubs have been, and this is tough for me to say, the losers. You’d rather not be any of them, but if you’re picking, I would think most would choose being the forgotten red headed step child or the one who always got so close and threw it away than the one that never, ever got close at all.
Why am I telling you this? Because as a Cubs fan, this is the part of the poem that my fellow fans and this team have taken up for far too long. It’s sad and beautiful all the same; every year when the Cubs begin another season, every year me and several million other fans (trust me, there’s a lot of us Cub fanatics out there) let ourselves believe this could be the year, and every time it gives way to a long summer and a cold December where the dream starts over again (how very F. Scott Fitzgerald of us, I know). As a twenty six year old fan who has really started to feel the weight during the twilight of the Jim Hendry years, a time of short term fixes that ultimately led to less hope as their record only slightly improved, it’s heavy. I can’t imagine what it must be like for the people who have waited thirty, forty, fifty, even sixty years and beyond for that moment, for next year to finally come. That’s the sad part. The beautiful part is that we all still show up every year, the same hope, the same belief that this is going to be different, this is going to be next year. Even when it predictably never comes, we still come back for more the next year. I guess we all believe the odds have to work out in our favor sometime, right?
Well, maybe they finally have. I wasn’t the only one who took notice a few years ago when new owner Tom Ricketts finally fired Hendry and replaced him with wunderkind/best looking man at the annual end of the year baseball executive party Theo Epstein, the man who took the Red Sox choker’s label and wiped it off the face of the earth. I also wasn’t the only one who grumbled for the three years that the Epstein led teams spent cratering to the bottom of the league while seemingly avoiding free agents and potential big names. Sure us Cubs fans may be a patient bunch, but that doesn’t come without the occasional disenchanted restlessness either. And make no mistake; the first three years of Epstein’s tenure with the Cubs were trying, seemed to go nowhere and added more time in an odyssey that already feels like forever (regardless of what age you are as a Cubs fan). But there’s a reason that Epstein (and his GM/lieutenant Jed Hoyer, who definitely deserves credit as well) was able to turn things around in Boston, and slowly but surely, it became clear here. Instead of trading for big money, big name stars, Epstein used the MLB draft and international free agency pool to bring in top level prospects. Instead of splurging the Cubs massive budget on free agents, he signed mid level guys to short term deals and then flipped them for prospects when they performed better than expected. Perhaps most importantly, instead of finding his long term solution at manager right off the bat, Epstein avoided public pressure to sign big names or hometown heroes (Ryne Sandberg) and instead brought in two smaller name guys to run the ship before the right man (Joe Maddon) became available. And for that, Epstein’s three years in limbo may have led to a lifetime in the promise land.
As it stands right now, the Chicago Cubs have an 89-65 record, tied with the Kansas City Royals for the fourth best record in baseball. It happened almost exactly as Epstein drew up; almost off the position players the Cubs have are former top baseball prospects. Anthony Rizzo, the team’s first basemen, was chosen by Epstein over big name free agents like Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder; he’s now perhaps the best first basemen in baseball at only 25 years old. 22 year old Catcher/Outfielder Kyle Schwarber already looks like a top slugger. Third basemen Kris Bryant, only 23, looks like he could be the best player in baseball going forward (he’s pretty good right now). The middle infield features a rotating platoon of the unpredictable but talented Starlin Castro (still just 25 despite six years in the league), the free swinging Javier Baez (21) and the defensive maestro the Cubs stole from the A’s in the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammels trade, Addison Russell (21). In right field is Jorge Soler, a 23 old Cuban born signee who on any other team would be their rising star and will most definitely have a big moment for the Cubs somewhere down the road. And in the starting rotation, the Cubs employ a group that includes Jon Lester (Epstein’s first free agent gamble that has paid off), Hammels (yes, not only did the Cubs get Russell for Hammels, but they got Hammels back a year later!) and Jake Arrieta, a 29 year old who was floundering before the Cubs got him for Scott Feldman in 2013 and watched him turn into the best pitcher in baseball.
Certainly, there’s more to it than just those guys listed there; the Cubs would be nowhere without the Dexter Fowlers, Chris Coughlan’s (the best move Epstein made that no one talks about) and Hector Rondon’s of the world. But as important as all the pieces for this team are, it’s the core I mentioned above that has not only made this season special, it’s made it different than the playoff teams from the twilight of the Hendry years. While good, those teams were built on overpaid, fading stars that eventually broke down and left the Cubs with little. Not here. The oldest players in this core group are on the pitching staff, and Arietta, Lester and Hammels are all still relatively young. As far as position players go, almost all of them are 25 or younger, which is telling for several reasons; not only are they good now, they should be able to get even better. As painful as those three years Epstein spent assembling this team may have been, it looks to be all worth it in the end. There are certainly no guarantees in baseball or in life, but if the Cubs core stays healthy (and together), this season isn’t just the start of a good team; this season is the start of a potential dynasty, a championship contender, a squad that makes “next year” possible.
Keep in mind that doesn’t mean “next year” is this year. The Cubs are without question a great team now; the problem is so are the Cardinals and Pirates, two division rivals who are the only teams in baseball better than the Cubs. Because of this, the Cubs will have to play the Pirates in the dreaded one game Wild Card playoff, which offers no guarantees and a whole lot of stress. They’ll probably have to play the Cardinals at some point, which is a whole other can of eggs. And even if they get to the World Series, teams like the Blue Jays and Royals (two squads looking to wipe away their own recent tortured history) would likely await in match ups that, to be frank, terrify me. I’m not trying to be Mr. Negative here; I’m simply saying that there may unfortunately be a little bit more tragedy before we reach our final destination, even if I hope there’s not. What I can say is that, for the first time that I can remember, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. This isn’t like the Sosa led 90s teams that never quite got there, the 2003 team that was one and done or the 2007/08 teams that were good, but not that good. There’s legit hope, belief that something is coming, that there’s not an Alex Gonzalez bobble or a Steve Bartman fiasco waiting around the corner to send us into the fetal position. For the first time, I believe the Cubs can win a World Series. For the first time, I believe that the legacy of this team and us fans will be something more than just the “lovable losers.” And this wonderful, fun season is just the tip of the iceberg.
Someday soon, that baseball poem on the Cubs is going to change. I can feel it. I can see it.