No superstitions for new, improved Cubs
MILWAUKEE -- Welcome to the new and improved Cubs culture.
Manager Joe Maddon was the primary architect of this development. Maddon will readily admit that "the heavy lifting" of building a base of young talent and solid organizational structure was done before he arrived. But he was the one who instituted a new attitude and a more useful approach.
You've seen the results. The Cubs are a Wild Card team. Saturday night, they kept alive their hopes of winning home-field advantage for the Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser. They defeated the Milwaukee Brewers, 1-0, behind a superb performance by Kyle Hendricks, who retired the first 16 Brewers he faced, and gave up only one hit over six innings.
They were aided when Pittsburgh lost to Cincinnati, 3-1. One more Cubs win and another Pirates loss on Sunday would get the Cubs the home-field advantage in the Wild Card Game, as the Cubs won the season series against Pittsburgh, 11-8. The Cubs say this would be terrific for their fans. But with the overwhelming way Jake Arrieta is pitching, the location of the Wild Card Game may be a secondary issue.
So this season, what is fundamentally different about these Cubs, beyond the arrival of considerable, impressive young talent? What has turned them into a 96-65 team?
The history of humankind can be seen as a struggle between knowledge and superstition. Maddon would be solidly in the knowledge camp. Therefore, "the curse of the billy goat" is no longer a suitable topic for discussion, much less for concern around this baseball team.
"Superstition for me has no place in Cubs history or tradition," Maddon said this weekend. "If you choose to vibrate on that, that's your concern.
"Our guys, for me, it's about playing winning baseball every night and that's it. We're not going to get caught up in stuff that really should not matter. And if you're really caught up in what's happening today, that other stuff won't matter."
Congratulations to the manager. Seventy years of bowing in the direction of evil spirits might have been more than enough.
Instead of seeing nightmare visions of hexes from an earlier century the Cubs are now concentrating on the little, necessary things that need to be done now.
Saturday, before what would usually be batting practice, the Cubs met around the batting cage to listen to Maddon discuss bunt plays. They would subsequently work on these plays. The manager appeared to have everybody's complete attention.
"The thing I love is these are Major League players, and they're going to the playoffs and they're out there paying attention, and they're very enthusiastic about it," Maddon said. "Wow. That's pretty solid."
The focus on "the little things" and an intense attention to detail have been part and parcel of the new Cubs approach since the beginning of Spring Training. It is no accident that the Cubs, once known as a team that would regularly beat themselves, now have the third best record in the National League.
"You talk about it from day one in Spring Training, the fact that the little things are very important, whether it's a relay catch, bunting properly on a safety squeeze, throwing to the right base, or backing up a base," Maddon said. "You've got to have the guys believe that it is important. That's the first step.
"Once you get that out there, to win in the short-term and have it validated when you have... victories based on execution, when that occurs then the long-term buy-in is a lot easier. So you get to this time of the year, you've won a lot of games, you're playing really well, it's easier to sell your point at that particular moment because the players have all bought in.
"The goal is, on an annual basis, to have them all understand that. Every time you report to Spring Training, you've developed this method of operation and they believe that if we do this, we're going to win a lot of games again this year. So it's the original buy-in that is most important and you need some short-term victories in order to convince the players that you know what you're talking about, that it's good and it's pertinent and it matters and it works. We've been able to accomplish all of those things in a pretty short period of time."
So these are the new Cubs; out from under some useless historical baggage and concentrating on what needs to happen now, today, in this moment, to chalk up another victory. No matter what happens next this October, this is a Chicago Cubs team with a future that offers genuine promise.