MESA, Ariz. -- Only one Spring Training camp lists Mona Lisa, Michelangelo's David and the Japanese entertainers Zoomadanke among its non-roster invitees.While it's unclear whether the Cubs possess the best roster in the National League, no team has better muses.Accordingly, here was the scene on a chilly Sunday morning: Tim
MESA, Ariz. -- Only one Spring Training camp lists Mona Lisa, Michelangelo's David and the Japanese entertainers Zoomadanke among its non-roster invitees.
While it's unclear whether the Cubs possess the best roster in the National League, no team has better muses.
Accordingly, here was the scene on a chilly Sunday morning: Tim Buss, the team's fun-loving strength and conditioning coach, gathered dozens of Cubs players, coaches and staff prior to the usual stretching routine. Encircled by the eager audience on a practice field, Buss introduced Zoomadanke's Kendama show -- an acrobatic cup-and-ball juggling act.
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The untrained observer might describe the performance as resembling genius-level yo-yo tricks, with a hacky-sack influence, all done while breakdancing. The players loved it. As their cheers faded and calisthenics began, their manager beamed.
"Bussy!" Joe Maddon hollered toward a smiling Buss, who had arranged the visit. "That fits the theme! That's art, man! That's art! Wonderful!"
Maddon turned toward a small group of reporters. Zoomadanke, he said, reminded him of acts he used to see on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
"What they do is impossible -- seriously," Maddon said. "All the movement ... over ... under ... I'm awed."
So what does this have to do with the Cubs' effort to end their excruciating one-year drought without a World Series title? Plenty, in fact.
No longer are the Cubs defined by the quest to break a curse or defend a championship. When asked if his team must therefore recast its identity, Maddon referenced the work of Italian left-hander Leonardo da Vinci -- whose beard, it should be noted, was more than five centuries ahead of the popular trend among Major League relievers.
"Look at the Mona Lisa," Maddon said. "See it with first-time eyes. Feel it with first-time passion."
Therein lies the essence of Maddon's 2018 slogan: "Putting the art back into the game." That message -- in Maddon's pink and blue handwriting -- appears above a modern rendering of the Mona Lisa by Tampa-based artist Jason Skeldon that hangs in the Cubs' clubhouse.
She's wearing white batting gloves and holding a golden bat.
In the same hallway, a separate Skeldon piece depicts Michelangelo's David -- clad only in a jockstrap -- standing atop the mound at Wrigley Field, stone in hand.
"We won the World Series," Maddon continued. "The hardest part is to recreate that feel that you had when you did that. When I say, 'See it with first-time eyes,' it's the allure. How do you feel in regards to going after that? We all know what that's like, whether it's going after a World Series or this girl in high school when you're a senior. It's the same thing. You have to figure it out. You have to almost trick yourself or really have that positive present-tense mindset.
"I don't think we ever lost our identity. The fact that we almost got back to the World Series last year speaks to that, too. I thought we learned some great lessons last year, so that we know, when you have won, what [the next season] is going to feel like."
The Cubs now acknowledge one word describes that 2017 feeling: tired. They were drained after the franchise-altering Game 7 triumph in the 2016 World Series, entered the '17 All-Star break with a losing record, and somehow willed their way to the National League Championship Series.
"When people talk about last year with any kind of negative tone ... not at all," Maddon said. "We got a couple games away from another World Series. Tell me: For decades, would Cubs fans or Cubs players or the Cubs organization take that? Absolutely. Ab-so-lutely!
"The competition is great right now. If you want to recognize the mettle of our group, [the NL Division Series against the] Nationals was one of the toughest I've ever been involved in, against a real quality opponent. You had [Max] Scherzer and [Stephen] Strasburg, having to beat those two dudes in a five-game series. Think about it. That stuff hasn't been recognized, how difficult that was."
The Dodgers outpitched and outplayed the Cubs in the NLCS, to the tune of a 28-8 aggregate score. The Cubs responded classically, luring away two Los Angeles pitchers -- starter Yu Darvish and reliever Brandon Morrow -- who were dominant in the series.
Since the 2016 World Series, the Cubs have swapped three spots in their starting rotation: Jacob Arrieta, Jason Hammel and John Lackey for Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and '17 trade acquisition Jose Quintana.
"We've done a nice job," Maddon said. "The guys that left are outstanding. The guys we brought in are equally outstanding. It's going to take some time to realize what the difference is. But on paper, we've done a great job of replicating and hopefully even surpassing what we had in the past."
Meanwhile, Maddon's creative savvy continues to evolve -- stylistically and linguistically. T-shirts bearing the 2016 Cubs slogan "Try not to suck" have raised charitable contributions for Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation, which benefits pediatric cancer patients, at-risk kids and other causes. A version of the shirt in Japanese was commissioned shortly after the Cubs signed Darvish -- the literal translation of which is "Don't screw up," according to the eminent Japanese baseball journalist Hideki Okuda of Sports Nippon.
Naturally, Maddon presented two of the new shirts to Zoomadanke, following the latest artistic celebration in the Cubs' expressive, enlivened camp.
"It's ballet," Maddon said. "It's form. It's dexterity. It's flexibility. It's coordination. It's fascinating. I'm happy they came."
Jon Paul Morosi is a reporter for MLB.com and MLB Network.