How do you find the heart of a champion? The Cubs had it last year. This year? Not so much.
What’s the difference? It’s hard to tell. Most of the players that won it for them last season are back. The All-Star infield remains intact. The outfield and starting rotation are mostly the same. They haven’t suffered major injuries to key players.
Yet here they flail. A team that last year won 103 regular-season games on the way to its first title in over a century has scuffled all season long. They can’t seem to find a good groove. They go 7-2 at home to climb to four games above .500 only to drop six straight on a painful Southern California road trip and fall two below .500.
They just don’t seem like a sub-.500 ball club. Yet that’s what the standings show them to be, and, unfortunately, we can’t blame it on “fake standings.”
Manager Joe Maddon’s stunts play well when the team wins. But when they lose? Well, admit it, they come off a bit stale if not just plain embarrassing. Call it the Curse of Ron Burgundy.
What I think most Cubs fans find most Maddon-ing is that the manager’s sixties-era peace-and-love, everything-will-be-alright vibe just doesn’t feel so groovy when the team is playing baseball more like the pre-Maddon era Cubs.
The Cubs seem, well, very Cub-like. Not the Cubs that we got to know these last two years. But the ones that we saw all those years before.
They seem flat. Like they barely register a pulse. When you see all those players left on base you think of the Cubs of old. We’ve seem this team before. We just hadn’t seem them much in the last two years. We thought we’d moved on from them. But here they are, an uninvited guest to the party.
We all knew, deep in our hearts, that there’d be a hangover effect. We just didn’t think it would last this long and painful. The Advil should have kicked in by now.
Here’s the reality. Winning a World Series is really hard. What’s even harder is repeating.
Look at the Kansas City Royals. After winning the World Series in 2015, they went 81-81 in 2016, finishing in third place in the American League Central, 13.5 games behind the Cleveland Indians.
They’re hardly alone. Of the last four championship teams, not one made it back to the postseason the following year. Only one of them – the 2015 San Francisco Giants – finished over .500.
It’s just much harder to defend a title than it was the last time the Cubs did it in 1907-1908. Back then there were a total of 16 teams competing for the title. Today there are 30. Back then only two made it to the postseason. Today there are 10 teams that battle each postseason.
The Philadelphia Phillies are the last championship team to play in back-to-back World Series. After winning the title in 2008, they made it back in 2009 only to lose to the Yankees.
No team has repeated as champions since the Yankees’ 1998-2000 three-peat.
In other words, the odds aren’t in the Cubs’ favor.
But let’s face it, we expect better than this. We expect better because we’ve seen better. We expect better because we know that they’re better than this.
The Cubs of 2017 haven’t found their identity yet. Last year they embraced the target and tried not to suck. They never quit. This year they do. Maddon asked them to embrace the suck and it seems like they’ve taken that a little too literally.
What the Cubs need is to find their heart. They need to find that team that found itself during a rain delay last November. With the archrival St. Louis Cardinals in town this weekend after a cringe-inducing road trip, this is the time for the Cubs to show who they really are.
Maybe seeing Dexter Fowler back in center field at Wrigley, even if he’s playing for the wrong team, will give them a much-needed lift and remind them of what he brought to them.
Remember: “You go, we go”? Fowler was the guy that could be counted on to jump-start the offense whenever it sputtered. Remember what happened this time last year when he went on the DL? The Cubs went into a deep funk. Cubs Nation went into panic. But he came back a month later and the Cubs found their groove again with him in the driver’s seat. The rest, of course, is history.
Fowler was, in many ways, the main artery that fueled the Cubs’ championship heart. Now that he’s gone, they’re sputtering again. Hopefully seeing him again will remind them what they had and what they need to get back: the heart of a champion.
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation