The Cubs dominated the early returns in the National League All-Star voting, which is about as surprising as Marlon Byrd getting busted for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Those two press releases on Wednesday afternoon — a Twitter update from Major League Baseball’s communications department and the hollow 245-word statement Byrd issued through the union — showed just how far the Cubs have come as an organization.
That night, the recruiting promises Jon Lester listened to during his initial free-agent visit to Wrigley Field again came to life. A crowd of 36,426 on its feet with two outs in the ninth inning, watching the best team in baseball, chanting “Let’s Go, Cubbies!”
Lester — the $155 million lefty who appears to be so much more comfortable in the second season of that megadeal — struck out Howie Kendrick swinging at a 94-mph fastball to end the game. Lester flexed and screamed, and fireworks exploded beyond the iconic center-field scoreboard after a 2-1 complete-game victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“Last year, we showed up and the bleachers weren’t done and it was kind of weird and rainy and cold,” Lester said. “All of a sudden, summer rolls around and we’re pretty good. You look at our young guys, last year I bragged about how mature they were going through that season and dealing with 97 wins and going to the playoffs for the first time.
“This year, they’ve just blown that out of the water. These guys are unbelievable, far beyond their years, and the thing that impresses me the most is they’re baseball smart. They’re not just talented guys going out there and swinging the bat and running around with their heads cut off trying to play defense. They know what they’re doing.”
This seems like ancient history. But remember that Byrd — who famously worked with BALCO kingpin Victor Conte and accepted a one-year suspension after his second violation of the joint-drug agreement — had once represented the Cubs at the 2010 All-Star Game.
This was in the middle of an 87-loss season, approaching Lou Piniella’s final days in the dugout, the first of five straight fifth-place finishes and their window to contend slamming shut. Now the Cubs can think about matching their eight All-Stars selected for the 2008 showcase event at Yankee Stadium.
The entire infield — Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant — showed up as leaders at their respective positions. Dexter Fowler ranked second among outfielders, in between Washington Nationals superstar Bryce Harper and New York Mets slugger Yoenis Cespedes. Plus reigning Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta would be a good choice to start for the NL on July 12 at San Diego’s Petco Park.
The big-market Cubs should be front and center if MLB and its TV partners want to reach the generation that isn’t hooked on the game and has so many other entertainment options. There’s the quest to win the franchise’s first World Series since 1908. There’s the new clubhouse filled with social-media savvy players and young stars lining up endorsement deals. There’s the manager who hates baseball’s unwritten rules and conformist mentality.
“When young people tune into our group, they can identify with them,” Joe Maddon said. “Our guys are likable. They’re approachable. They’re blue-collar, man. There’s not a white-collar guy among them. They get their fingernails dirty, and I think people appreciate that. I think they’re very Chicago.”
Lester (6-3, 2.29 ERA) seems to have relaxed here after spending almost his entire career with the Boston Red Sox inside the Fenway Park pressure cooker. Maddon thought this was Lester at his best in a Cubs uniform, allowing a home run to leadoff guy Kike Hernandez on his second pitch and dominating for the next 111 pitches, finishing with 10 strikeouts against zero walks.
Bryant generated all the offense with one swing in the third inning, driving a Mike Bolsinger curveball out toward the batter’s eye in center field for a two-run homer. The NL’s reigning Rookie of the Year leads the Cubs in homers (12) and RBIs (39) and can play all over the infield and outfield.
Already 21 games over .500, the Cubs selected for the All-Star Game will have something to play for — home-field advantage in the World Series.