Growing up in the Chicago area, my Cubs fandom has never been questioned. When a fan leaves the friendly confines of North-Eastern Illinois however, he or she is faced the harsh reality of living with people who like baseball teams that actually win once and a while. Truly witty, intellectual and historically relevant comments such as “It’s been, like, a hundred years since the Cubs won,” and “You know the Ottoman Empire still existed when the Cubs won,” or even the simple yet elegant “You guys suck” are quite common.
Yup, we get it. There’s a certain comradery to being a Cubs fan. We all happily gather in the best ballpark in the world, watch our team lose, then go drown our sorrows at the bars that exist outside of Wrigley for that very reason.
So why, after finishing the season below .500 every year since 2010, are these Cubs suddenly so good? It all came from the top. Instead of focusing on shiny big-name superstars, President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed have been investing on young, less glamorous minor league prospects.
By developing the farm system, the front office hoped to build a sea of young talent that would one day step up to carry the team to victory. Cub fans, meanwhile, had to bear with atrocious ball teams, just waiting for that time when we would be ready.
Then along came Joe Maddon. This eccentric baseball wizard was brought in to mentor a young, still developing big league team with top prospects expected to debut in the Big Leagues throughout the year.
Based off the expected influx of young players and the inevitable learning curve, fans expected a winning season however were reluctant to predict playoff success. Maddon’s unconventional coaching style, however, took the Cubs to a 97-65 season and third best record in baseball.
Rookies Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler (none of whom are older than 23) exceeded all expectations for this year by catapulting their way into baseball stardom. Pitcher Jake Arrieta’s remarkable year did not hurt either, as his 0.75 ERA since the All-Star break is the best in baseball history.
Unfortunately, the only two teams with a better record than the Cubs are in the same division, the St Louis Cardinals (100-62) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (98-64), making the NL Central one of the best divisions in history.
Based off of the format of the playoffs, the three top teams would face each other in the first two rounds. It began in the wildcard game, a nerve-wracking one game, win-or-go-home scenario between the Cubs and Pirates. Here was the first real test for the young Cubs.
How would this team full of rookies survive in their first playoff game with the stakes so high?
The Pirates were sent home however as the Cubs provided dominant pitching and run-support from veterans and rookies alike for the victory.
The Cubs then moved on to the NLDS, a five game playoff against the number one seed in the National League: the Cardinals who were fresh off of steamrolling their way through the regular season. St. Louis came out hard in Game 1 with superb pitching; however over the next three games the Cubs hit a playoff record 10 homeruns to send the Cardinals packing and to bring us to the National League Championship Series.
At this point, it is safe to say that expectations have been exceeded. Watching these Cubs is like watching kids play backyard baseball. Maddon and Epstein have fostered a team culture that supports each other and fosters inside jokes (head rubs anyone?) but most of all has fun playing baseball.
This is the distinction between this team and others and how they have avoided the immense weight of a 107 year losing streak. Instead of having fun because they are winning, these young Cubs win because they are having fun. So what can we expect from this team? The Cardinals and Pirates are gone. As evidenced by Kyle Schwarber’s monster home run, the sky is truly the limit. They are the Cubs though. So I am not going to jinx anything. Anyway, there is always next year.