Heading into Pirates Series, Cubs Need to Re-Embrace Targeted Fun

For the first time during the 2017 Major League Baseball season, I turned off a Cubs game in favor of the consumption of alternate programming. In fact I’ve done so three times within the last seven days. I don’t feel good about this, self-congratulatory for my choice of better quality television (and if you watched FX’s Feud, which concluded its run at the end of April, you know what I mean). I am sad and disappointed. I wish there were more energetic motivation to watch the Chicago Cubs play baseball.

It’s not just the losing, although that is an obvious bummer. The first game from which I walked away was played last week Saturday, the Cubbies 1-9 road loss against the Colorado Rockies. What more can be said about this atrocity that hasn’t already been written? It was the fourth consecutive loss for the Cubs, a morosely streaky occurrence that’s been all too common season to date. Associated Press writer Matt Carlson observed after the game, “these Chicago Cubs look a long way from their World Series-winning form.”

As we inch closer to the All-Star break, remarking upon the differences between the 2016 and 2017 teams risks becoming understatement. But as I and other writers have noted, it’s basically the same player roster. What’s going on? Although one man does not a club make, I am definitely aligned with the thinking of our own Randy Richardson, who wrote about the Dexter Fowler Factor earlier this month. To wit:

“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.”

The clubhouse, and the play on the field, is certainly not the same without the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder with the winning smile, fancy name and belt-busting defensive moves. But he’s not coming back and whatever the shift in team dynamic, the rest of the guys have had plenty of time to adjust.

On Monday and Wednesday of this week, I switched channels away from the Cubs feeble losses to rivals the New York Mets. Outpitched (another understatement), outhit and generally outplayed by the second place team in the NL East. Yes it was great fun to watch Tuesday night’s 14-run Cubs slugfest, but haven’t we been here before? What have most of the last 30 years been to the team and its fans if not the consolation of the long ball?

To that point: Kyle Schwarber. I love the kid. The magic he performed in front of Wrigleyville Nation’s eyes in 2016 shall never be forgotten. It was nothing short of superhuman and inspiring to watch his rehab from a season-ending injury become World Series glory. Schwarber is legend. And he has 12 home runs this year, including a Wednesday evening, 467-foot bomb at Citi Field. A visual like that never gets old, but Schwarber is still hitting an average of .178 and was recently yanked from the leadoff spot in the batting order.

Are the Cubs in danger of returning to the inglorious old power hitting show pony days? With more than half of the season left to play, it’s too soon to draw hard conclusions. It’s clear however that a shakeup is needed. How about that Anthony Rizzo with the leadoff production? A step in the right direction, and I don’t mean just the first baseman’s ability to generate early momentum for the Cubs. It’s also the fun and the confidence – two spiritual elements sorely lacking as the team struggles. Check out what he told MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat after Wednesday’s game:

“I’m statistically the greatest leadoff hitter of all time…I’d like to retire there and talk smack to everyone who tries to do it. You just go with it, it’s fun. To go back to back there [in the first], the dugout is really loose. Statistically, by the books, to lead off the game, I’m the best ever is, right now.”

Right on Tony. We are the World Series Champs! We have earned the swagger and deserve to have fun with it. To hell with over caution. We need to re-embrace the target and let other teams fire, rather than shooting ourselves in the foot.