The baseball offseason, much like the season itself, usually seems to evolve slowly and in stages. But unlike the season, which always feels like it is over and gone far too quickly, the offseason can be painfully slow. Much like a lot of you, I spend most of the winter wistfully staring off into the distance waiting for the first hints of spring. Sure, I am happy to watch the Bulls and my favorite college basketball team, and the NFL will do in a pinch. I even try each October and November to get into hockey, but it just doesn’t take hold. No other sport comes close to baseball. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to articulate just why I love it so much more than any other sport, but I have at least reached the point where I know that this is the case, and I’m good with it. So, I wait for the true arrival of spring, which is in February when pitchers and catchers report, as any real baseball fan understands. And like Jayson Stark said, something about seeing the calendar roll over into January makes the arrival of spring training and the baseball season suddenly feel so much closer.
As we wait, we have an offseason developing before us that is unlike most offseasons that we have experienced as Cubs fans. While we have held fast to the mantra of waiting for the next year and the new hope that it will bring, we have seen in the past that the letdown following a very successful season can often be very, very hard to bear. Just before Christmas, a certain Cubs writer for a certain major paper in Chicago wrote something kind of silly, comparing the 2016 Cubs to the Cubs of 1985 and 2004, particularly. You can read the whole thing here, but while some parts of the comparison hold true, the premise is kind of ridiculous.
Lesson 1 can focus on 1985, when the Cubs were among the preseason favorites after winning the NL East in ’84, making the postseason for the first time in 39 years before blowing the NL Championship Series to the Padres.
Like the 2016 Cubs, the ’85 edition returned most of the same position players and pitchers, including reigning MVP Ryne Sandberg and Cy Young Award” href=”http://www.chicagotribune.com/topic/sports/baseball/cy-young-award-EVSPR000088-topic.html”>Cy Young Award winner Rick Sutcliffe.
Really, other than the uniforms they wear and the stadium they play in, these two teams possess so little in common that it’s almost worthless to even draw this comparison. Heck, why not compare the 1876 team to those losers in 1877? Talk about a letdown. The article goes on to mention the 2004 team and the hype going into the 2008 season, but the point is clear. After such a distinctly successful 2015 season, it seems almost as if we have to brace ourselves for massive disappointment in 2016, right? No, not at all. To me, that notion doesn’t work simply because historical comparisons ultimately end up working like apples and oranges. They are really not the same, so no, the Cubs of 1985 and 2004 don’t have much, if anything to teach us.
A couple of weeks ago, Myles did an awesome job of dissecting the different types of expectations that Cubs fans tend to have, and along with that, I think we see a bit of trepidation rising among some parts of our fanbase. A wringing of hands, nervously expecting the collapse, or just foolishly assuming that simply because they’re the Cubs, it will never work, sort of like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. Sure, we have seen them go wrong enough times that it either thickens our skin or forces us to give up on the idea of following this team altogether, but while historical precedent works in many types of situations, it’s not very reliable in this one.
The difference here is that, instead of continuing to try the same thing like Charlie Brown, the Cubs as an organization shifted in direction several years ago. Smarter minds than mine could (and have) better elaborate on the business mechanics of it all, but after Tom Ricketts bought the team 6 years ago this month, he made clear from the start that things were not going to proceed as usual. Remember those “Year One” billboards that popped up that spring? A lot of people scoffed then, but we are seeing the fruits of that work now. It took some patience and some sitting through really, really putrid teams in the last few years (faithfully following that whole 2012 season has to be worth a merit badge somewhere), we saw the first NLCS appearance in 12 years. True, it went poorly, to put it lightly, but I can’t remember a team that was as much fun to watch as this past one was. They had a magic that had always seemed to work in the reverse in previous years. Even as I sat far back in the seats down the right field line during game 4 of that NCLS, I still thought there was a chance. Heck, as they sort of rallied in the 9th inning, I still sat there thinking that maybe this was the start of something. Down 3 games to none, and after a brutal first inning in which Daniel Murphy was like Babe Ruth and Jason Hammel was like me trying to pitch out there, I still thought something could happen.
My mom, an avid Detroit Lions fan, has always watched them with the sort of resigned expectation that every game was just a matter of how they would find a way to blow it. “Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” is what she and other relatives of mine call it. She’s a faithful and patient fan, but I don’t think she has any hopes for a Super Bowl appearance, and she’s fine with it. I have just never been able to approach the Cubs that way. Even in the years when they were not very good, I held out the hope that they would find the spark and make that fateful run that would make history. It took a while into the 2004 and 2009 seasons before I admitted that this wasn’t the year. Coming off of the successes of the seasons preceding those years, I had high hopes.
I have high hopes now, too, but in a different way. Like a lot of you, I’ve seen the way this team has been built differently since the ownership change, and especially since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer came on board in the fall of 2011. They have clear understanding and direct experience with what it takes to propel a team past a “curse,” and I firmly believe that they have assembled a team for 2016 that is rather well suited to make history.
So, when someone mentions 1908, 100 years, any past teams that have come up short, a goat, Bartman, a black cat, or whatever other ridiculous thing of that vein, thank them for making clear that they are to be ignored (thank you @ManuclearBomb)in any sort of baseball conversation (and for outing themselves as most likely a White Sox or Cardinals fan), and just smile. Our time is coming, and soon.
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