Internally, the Cubs ran all the numbers and projected between 84 and 86 wins this year. A critical mass of young talent created a bigger variance than normal in those preseason simulations. But the organization gladly would have signed up for meaningful September games when pitchers and catchers reported. No questions asked.
Near the end of spring training, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein stood in the middle of the team’s Arizona complex, turning his head between fields, watching no-name prospects and listening to a question about how he would have to take ownership of this team — and take heat on the major-league level — in Year 4.
“This isn’t going to be our best team,” Epstein said, explaining the balance between the present and the future.
Fast forward to a beautiful Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field, the Bears game showing on the 3,990-square-foot video board in left while Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber played catch.
Joe Maddon — the free-wheeling manager whose RV “The Cousin Eddie” had been parked at a satellite lot north of the stadium — gleefully called the workout “eyewash.”
The Cubs had already enjoyed “Breakfast on Wrigley,” a multi-table buffet set up on the dirt track behind home plate offering eggs, bacon, waffles, doughnuts, juice and coffee.
A stack of Korbel boxes sat on the concourse that leads out onto Waveland Avenue, in case the Cubs or St. Louis Cardinals end this epic National League division series on Tuesday after four games.
As good as it gets? Not necessarily, but the anticipation leading into this felt like something that could never be duplicated again.
Jake Arrieta having perhaps the greatest second half of anyone who’s ever thrown a baseball. The Cubs hosting their first playoff game in seven years and in position to clinch their first postseason series ever at Clark and Addison.
This is supposed to be the opening of the window to contend, but the Cubs are only guaranteed two more playoff games.
“Honestly, any thoughts beyond 2015 have kind of been pushed out of my mind until we’re done playing,” Epstein said. “This team has earned everyone’s full engagement, full attention, full commitment. I think we’re good enough to play all the way through October and into November.”
That’s why the Cubs invited all their full-time staffers in scouting and player development — the behind-the-scenes guys who did the grunt work tracking and coaching up prospects like Russell, Schwarber, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler — to Chicago for this.
The Cubs expected a group of more than 250 people (including spouses) to gather for a dinner on Sunday and then attend Game 3 on Monday against the hated Cardinals.
“They’ll get to watch the fruits of their labor,” Epstein said.
Team Play Stupid obliterated expectations, winning 97 games and a wild-card showdown against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, which set up the first playoff matchup between two iconic franchises that have been competing against one another since 1892.
“It’s already crazy when Jake pitches,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman who brought so much credibility to the rebuilding project. “I can’t imagine it (with) the rivalry. There’s going to be a lot of Cardinals fans there. There’s going to be a lot of Cubs fans there. It’s going to be a great time. It’s going to be must-watch television.”
Maddon walked into the makeshift media room — basically a storage room underneath the stands that had been cleared out and set up with folding chairs and tables — and took his position on stage in front of the cameras. A reporter asked if the Cubs have become “America’s Team.”
“I never even thought about that,” Maddon said. “We’re on TV a lot. It’s (easy) to see us. I just like the way we’re playing. If people are interested or really getting involved with us…a lot of it has to do with our young players.
“We have a lot of charismatic young players that are attempting to play the game properly. I don’t think you’ve heard one excuse from any of them. They’re very accountable.
“And then, of course, the candle on the cake right now is the season Jake has put together. I think he draws a lot of attention towards us.
“It’s a combination of the youth and maybe one spectacular season out of a pitcher that’s really put the spotlight here. And beyond that, the city itself.”
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Those young players will get older, more expensive and injured. The egos will get bigger. Maddon’s act could eventually become stale. The clubhouse chemistry created through the machine-generated fog of postgame dance parties might not stay the same.
Dexter Fowler — the you-go-we-go leadoff guy — is about to become a free agent. Arrieta, a Scott Boras client, remains under club control for only two more seasons. The Cubs stayed exceptionally healthy this year and got lucky enough to win 34 one-run games and 13 in extra innings.
Cubs fans and the Chicago media can’t stay giddy forever. Pretty soon, Epstein’s front office, Maddon’s coaching staff and Rizzo’s boys will be at a point in the rebuild where 84 wins could feel like total failure.
So Epstein is trying to enjoy the moment and focus everything on how to beat the Cardinals on Monday at Wrigley Field.
“That’s really what’s on our mind,” Epstein said. “It’s a good feeling to know that we’re positioned with a lot of hard work, some good breaks, some good decisions to make sure that we’re a regular participant in October. But we might never be as well-situated as we are right now. Who knows?
“This is where it’s at.”