Up until 2016, you could always tell when a Chicago sportswriter was up against a deadline and a serious case of writer’s block. Because that would inevitably lead him to pen the latest in a never-ending series of columns asking “If the Cubs won a World Series, would Cub fans face an identity crisis?”
It was a sports page premise so hacky and overdone, you could practically hear the headline being read by Jay Leno. As if the moment Kris Bryant’s throw settled into Anthony Rizzo’s glove, the Wrigley Field bleachers’ most infamous fan had no choice but to legally change his named to Ronnie Meh Meh.
Two years later, the idea of our lifelong dream coming true forcing us to spend the rest of our lives staring into the void is still ludicrous. We’ve already done that and it was called “The Mike Quade Era.” But as anyone who’s watched the Cubs over the past two years can verify, it turns out that maybe we should have been focusing on how winning an historic World Series would affect the players themselves. Because as several of them have admitted, after achieving the closest thing to baseball immortality, they’ve struggled to figure out how to cleanly break with that moment and put it in the past for good.
The “what next” phenomenon hit Willson Contreras especially hard in 2018. After winning the World Series in his rookie year, establishing himself as one of the best catchers in baseball in his sophomore season, and making his first All Star team, Contreras crashed hard in last year’s second half. Like .200/.291/.294 hard. Baseball Reference officially classifies his OPS+ in that time period as “Metaphor for the Last Two Days of the Season.”
Over his final 56 games, Contreras seemed so determined to do the most spot-on Koyie Hill impression ever that Theo Epstein wrote a clause into his contract preventing him from setting foot within 100 yards of the Lowe’s power tools aisle.
Recently, Contreras opened up about his second half swoon to NBCSports Chicago’s Kelly Crull as to what had gone wrong in the second half...
“I used to get to the ballpark, like I did in 2017, and I’d usually get on the elliptical or bike or stretch or lift. To be honest, I didn’t lift at all [as 2018] went on. I came out of my routine completely. I didn’t deserve to have a good year last year.”
It was the first anyone had heard of the Cubs’ catcher putting less than the very maximum amount of effort into anything baseball related. The idea that Contreras is even capable of less than max effort is perhaps the most astonishing surprise of all. Just ask Anthony Rizzo’s glove hand after any third strike in the dirt.
And Willson’s act of contrition wasn’t done...
“I was too comfortable last year, to be honest. It kills me. I was like, way too comfortable...I didn’t do my best on my routine because the season before, I hit 21 homers and I told myself, ‘OK, if you hit 21 homers one year, you can do it again next year.’ But it doesn’t work like that.”
As has become abundantly clear over and over throughout Cubs history, one of the biggest problems that arises with hitting a career peak at such a young age is the tendency for a player to think that such a performance automatically becomes their new normal. And because they make that assumption, they stop putting in all the work that got them to that level of greatness in the first place. Before they know it, they’ve become the latest addition to a list that includes names like Jerome Walton, Rick Wilkins, and Geovany Soto.
This is not to castigate Willson for becoming a victim of this mindset--because he’s already done that himself. If this interview got any more self-flagellating, Contreras would become the villain in a Dan Brown novel. In fact, he actually deserves a bit of credit for owning his mistake and being so open and honest about it in such a public forum. In doing so, Contreras has become quite possibly the best illustration for how pervasive such a mindset can become in baseball and how easy it is for anyone to fall victim to it.
After all, this is Willson Contreras. The last player on the Cubs roster you’d ever accuse of taking a game off or not caring. A catcher who treats a runner leading even a micrometer off first base as if he’s trying to steal the Holy Grail. The man whose celebrations of big hits look like what would happen if you gave Redd Foxx amphetamines in the middle of his “I’m coming to see you, Elizabeth!” bit.
Hell, Contreras is the one who responded to the Wild Card Playoff loss by weeping openly in the locker room. He cares at an almost profound level. But after reaching the pinnacle at age 24 and 25, even he found himself falling into the trap of complacency. The trap of “what next?”
And Willson was hardly the only Cub to fall victim to that difficult question. A few weeks before Contreras’s interview, Ben Zobrist released an episode of The Show and Go podcast where he opened up with Tommy La Stella about how the question of “What next” had affected his mental approach and preparation for the daily grind of a new season...
“For the longest time in my career, there was a carrot. My journey is this carrot, right? And as long as I had a carrot out in front of me, I could keep going. That motivation...I’ll just get to this next level, this next level...and I achieved all of those things up until the point where I was World Series MVP for the Cubs. And at that point, what other carrots do you have to go for...?
“And when that carrot went away after ’16, bro, I hit the pause button on life. I was like, ‘What do I do now?’”
First off, the entire podcast is worth a listen just to hear Ben Zobrist attempt to use the word “bro” in conversation--if only to cement his image as the Cubs’ “Leader of the youth group who’s trying a little too hard.” You can almost hear him spinning his folding chair around so he can sit on it backwards and “rap” about how “the most important bro in our lives is our brother from a virgin mother.”
In Zobrist’s case, the question of “What next” and beyond fighting back against complacency. It practically became an existential dilemma, making him ponder the question “Once I’ve achieved my ultimate goal, how do I even keep going?”
That’s heady stuff. And it would be quite a story if the greatest night of his baseball life was responsible for making Ben Zobrist go goth. Perhaps Zobrist was wearing black cleats last year because they went best with his fishnets, Florence and the Machine shirt, and copy of Camus’s The Plague.
So how did Zobrist manage to shake off his inner Robert Smith in time to put up 3.3 WAR in 2018?
“The other side of it is to play the game in a much more wholehearted, joyful way that you actually love it like a kid again. Because you’re not trying to achieve something as much as you’re enjoying the process of it.
“You’re growing through all the ups and downs, the failures and the succeeding. That, to me, is where we all really want to go with the game but sometimes the trophies and the stats and everything everybody else says it’s about...it’s a facade. It really is. It doesn’t actually give you what you really want at the end of the day.”
And that appears to be the closest thing to a solution to the dilemma of “What next?” After achieving all the goals that had been his professional reason for being, Zobrist found his motivation to continue playing by remembering what got him into the game in the first place.
The World Champion Cubs changed all of our lives--mostly for the better. For instance, they made it possible to type the phrase “World Champion Cubs” for a reason other than signaling to your audience that your story takes place centuries in the future. For the actual World Champion Cubs, that moment changed their lives as well. But at some point, they had to go back to playing another season of baseball where that championship no longer meant anything.
Willson Contreras and Ben Zobrist represent two of the ways in which all of the Cubs have had to struggle with following up on the pinnacle of their respective careers. And it’s telling that for both of them, the solution was to channel the players who they used to be. For Contreras, it was the prospect who put in all of the work after just being promoted to the big leagues. For Zobrist, it was the kid who just discovered how much he loved playing the game.
For the sake of the 2019 season, let’s hope that this idea works out. And if the rest of the team wants to channel the players they used to be in 2016, that would be cool too.
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