Of the many predictions I have gotten wrong in my life, one of the bigger ones was thinking that, if their team ever won the World Series, Cubs fans would turn into Red Sox fans. It's probably my own bias as a lifelong Cardinals fan that led me to that conclusion, but the comparison made a certain sort of sense.
Red Sox fans, in a beautiful, great American city, went through nearly a century of high-profile despair before finally breaking through in the most dramatic possible way and winning their long-awaited championship. They responded by demanding title after title after title or the necks of those who were unable to provide them. (Oh, and they took over the comment section of every website on the planet.) It wasn't unreasonable to think that Cubs fans, once they finally got their title, would be the same way. I tried to warn everyone: You think Red Sox fans are bad, but Cubs fans will be that, plus they will have Jim Belushi and Vince Vaughn.
But I was wrong. Cubs fans, on the whole, have handled the aftermath of their 2016 World Series championship with a little more chill aplomb than I might have anticipated. That 2017 season, which was a step backward in every possible way but still ended in the National League Championship Series, felt like bonus time, a giddy postscript in which the results of the games would have mattered more if fans' feet hadn't still been about two or three feet off the ground. Cubs fans have been a little grouchier this year, particularly if your name is Yu Darvish, but on the whole, they're a lot less terrifying to run across in an online forum than Red Sox fans are, and that's not nothing.
There is still a sense, though, that the Cubs are underachieving in the wake of that title. Remember, before the Cubs won in 2016, Theo Epstein and company were quite open about how they were trying to build a perpetual competition machine, that in fact 2016 was maybe a year or two ahead of their timeline. This wasn't just going to be a title contender; they were going to be a dynasty. Thus, because the Cubs didn't win a World Series in 2017 -- though, again, still made it to Game 5 of the NLCS -- and because teams like the Dodgers and the Astros (not to mention the Red Sox and the Yankees) seemed to pass them in the brain game, there has been a sense that somehow the Cubs have disappointed, that they've underperformed … that the moment, even, has already passed.
Part of this, I suspect, is because the Cubs made so many win-now trades in the last couple of years, sending future stars Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez to the Yankees and White Sox, respectively, and thus leading to a sense that the team should be dominating right now to make up for missing out on those guys in the future. But mostly, it's likely because the rush of 2016 provided a high that simply can't be repeated: No matter how great it might get after that, it'll never top, or even match, that 2016 feeling. Even the great stuff can't help but feel a little … lesser.
I bring all this up because this sense that the Cubs somehow aren't quite the Cubs continues to linger, despite the fact that, well, the Cubs are still awesome. The Cubs won their 83rd game on Thursday, lengthening their lead over the Brewers to 4 1/2 games. Another thing about that 4 1/2-game lead is that it's also the lead the Cubs have on the rest of the NL. The Brewers have the second-best record in the NL and, like 2015, the three teams with the best records in the NL are all in the Central. The Cubs are about to get themselves into the exact same position heading into October they were in two years ago. This is the peak, again. This is the Cubs at their best.
This is particularly remarkable because so many things have gone wrong for the Cubs this year. Addison Russell, Ian Happ and Willson Contreras haven't developed into the stars many had hoped they'd become. Kristopher Bryant has missed nearly half the season due to injury. The rotation hasn't really worked out at all, with Jose Quintana fine but not nearly worth what the Cubs paid for him and Tyler Chatwood posting a truly shocking walk rate en route to the worst year of his career. And the Darvish signing has been an unmitigated disaster that still has five years to go. And yet here they are, cruising along to the best record in the NL and comfortably holding challengers at bay.
Part of this has been smart late-season additions, particularly Daniel Murphy and Cole Hamels, both of whom have played like superstars since heading to Wrigley. And part of it has been an MVP-level season from Javier Baez, who still never walks but has transferred his "most fun player in baseball to watch" reputation into legitimate, sustained production. And part of it has been the late-game heroics of guys like David Bote, whose homer against the Nationals on Sunday Night Baseball earlier this year remains one of the season's most memorable moments.
But mostly: The Cubs have just, top-to-bottom, been better than everyone else without breaking much of a sweat. Their defense and lineup have more than made up for the rotation woes, and the bullpen has overcome injuries of its own to avoid some of the bullpen nightmares that have befallen other contenders. The Cubs have gone from being those upstart kids to one of the more veteran teams in the NL, a team that has figured out a way to win games even when not everything is firing on all cylinders. It has never really felt like the Cubs have clicked this year, and yet still they have a comfortable lead.
That's the word for the Cubs the last couple of years, isn't it? Comfortable. Imagine if they had lost that Game 7 in Cleveland, imagine how stressed and manic the last couple of years would have been. Winning that game allowed them to simply be excellent, without being overwhelming, and have that be enough, if not quite otherworldly. With their 82nd win on Wednesday, the Cubs clinched their fourth consecutive winning season, something they haven't done since 1967-1972. If they finish with 90 wins, as they surely will, it'll be the first time they've had four straight seasons with 90 wins since 1904-12. This is the absolute best it has been to be a Cubs fans in any of our lifetimes, and it still feels like they're just now starting to shift into gear.
Cubs fans might change if they win two titles in three years. We'll have to see. But right now, this sleepy year where the team has never quite jelled and we all spent half the time trying to figure out Darvish is, quietly, leading them to the exact same spot they were in two years ago. How much has life changed for Cubs fans? They're pulling away from the rest of the NL, and not only have we all barely noticed, it doesn't even feel like they're playing that well. That sounds like a dynasty to me.