Cubs

The wait - and the weight - is over: Cubs fans celebrate World Series title

The wait - and the weight - is over: Cubs fans celebrate World Series title

There is a scene in the 2009 movie “Up In The Air” where George Clooney’s character (Ryan Bingham, a “job termination facilitator” for a human resources company) gives an inspirational speech at a corporate seminar. He stands at a podium in one of those big, sterile hotel conference rooms.

His talk revolves around how the things we love can be burdensome. He compares all of our interpersonal relationships to wearing a heavy backpack—and how all the conversations, negotiations and conflicts of those partnerships can drag a person down, with the straps creating divots in the shoulders.

Now take the Cubs fan’s relationship with the team. Imagine how heavy that backpack was until Wednesday’s Game 7 victory.

It was 108 years of misery. A century-plus of broken promises and unrealized potential. Bad drafts. Weak pitching. Questionable management. Failures in the postseason. And it carried over to derisive mocking at the hands of friends, family members, strangers on the bus, late-night talk show hosts and so on.

And much like the movie, Dexter Fowler hit one ‘up in the air’ and out of Progressive Field. 406 feet to be exact. The backpack felt even lighter after a 5-1 lead. It went back to having the weight of a hundred cinder blocks after nine innings. But Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Miguel Montero and C.J. Edwards helped to ensure the Cubs’ eventual cutting of the backpack straps, much like a college basketball team does to the nets after a championship. The Cubs cut down 39,467 consecutive, burdensome days. Their job was complete. The backpack lay in a shambles.

And just like that, the wait - and weight - was history.

Gone was the tired shot of the 1908 Cubs team photo, with the bizarre mascot front and center.

Gone, also, were the losses in the 1910 and 1918 World Series, the latter to Babe Ruth and the Boston Red Sox.

Out of the backpack was the inexplicable loss to the Philadelphia Athletics in Game 4 of the 1929 World Series, where the Cubs led 8-0 in the seventh and ended up losing 10-8. Also vacated: Babe Ruth calling his shot in the 1932 series. And the Cubs failure to capitalize on a 100-win season in 1935. Same goes for Gabby Hartnett’s 1938 “Homer In The Gloamin,” which was a mere regular season footnote after another stinging October loss to the Yankees.

Another backpack casualty was the 1945 World Series. No more carrying around that loss to the Tigers—the last such championship series appearance for the next 71 years. In fact, Sam Sianis’ billy goat may have started to eat away at the backpack a little. Don’t goats eat everything anyway?

The mundane Cubs of the 1950s? Gone. The blotchy College of Coaches era of the early 60s? See you later. No black cats of 1969 tugging on the shoulders anymore, either.

Gone are all the “Completely Useless By September” acronyms, fitting of the 1977 club that had an 8.5 game lead in late June and, somehow, finished 81-81 and 20 games back.

The audio of the Lee Elia tirade of 1983 is silenced. The vision of the ball going through Leon Durham’s legs in 1984 is now opaque. Cubs fans will no longer get chided about Andre Dawson’s MVP effort being wasted on a last place team in 1987. Or how Will Clark’s dominance in the 1989 NLCS led to the Cubs demise.

Does the 0-14 start in 1997 give you chills? Maybe not as much now. Ditto with how the Cubs fell flat against the vaunted Braves pitching staff in the 1998 NLDS.

Steve Bartman and the 2003 Cubs might have set the backpack on fire.

The players who smashed Sammy Sosa’s boom box after the 2004 season –perhaps the same ones who critiqued the team broadcasters after a late-season collapse-- probably took a few whacks at the backpack, too.

Still carrying around that burden of Ted Lilly slamming his glove to the mound in the 2007 NLDS? Don’t worry. It’s been released. Same goes for that James Loney grand slam in 2008 that sent Wrigley Field into a catatonic state.

The 100-loss team in 2012? Theo Epstein helped kick that to the curb as part of the new Cubs Way.

Turn the backpack upside down and shake out the one remaining artifact—the meager NLCS exit in 2015 against the Mets.

The wait is over. The ‘weight’ is a thing of the past, too. No longer are the talks of curses, billy goats, black cats and bad omens. The towels that were used by the Cubs pitching staff a decade ago are now backpack-free, currently used to wipe champagne out of the eyes. No more jabs about priests spraying Holy water on dugouts or freak injuries to prized starting pitchers. Forget about trying to explain the “Eamus Catuli” sign, a yearly numeric chronicle of Cubs failure, to confused onlookers. No more chants of “19-08, clap-clap, clap-clap-clap” in road venues across the country.

The Chicago Cubs are World Series champions, and their fans can finally raise their hands in victory above their sore, tired shoulders.

More on the World Series victory

--Joy to the World: Cubs finally end 108-year Series drought

--Finally: The Cubs are World Series champs

--The wait –and the weight- is over: Cubs fans celebrate World Series title

--Barack Obama congratulates Cubs World Series championship

--Famous Cubs fans celebrate World Series title on Twitter

--Ben Zobrist becomes first Cub ever to win World Series MVP

--Numbers game: statistical oddities of the Cubs World Series title

--Jed Hoyer: Rain delay was ‘divine intervention’ for Cubs

​--Fans give Cubs a taste of home in Cleveland

--Ben Zobrist delivers exactly what the Cubs expected with massive World Series

--‘Dreams come true’: Bill Murray reacts to Cubs winning the World Series

--Big surprise: Kyle Schwarber plays hero again for Cubs in World Series Game 7

- Ryne Sandberg: World Series ‘made it able for me to live in the present’

Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

MESA, Ariz. — For years, Chris Bosio was credited as part of the reason for the Cubs’ recent string of pitching success. He helped turn Jake Arrieta into a Cy Young winner and oversaw pitching staffs that led the Cubs to three consecutive NLCS appearances and that curse-smashing World Series win in 2016.

But now it’s 2018, and Bosio is out. Jim Hickey is in.

The Cubs’ new pitching coach arrives with high expectations and has been tasked with shepherding a group of arms that saw a few too many bumps in the road last season. Jon Lester had his worst season in a long time, Jose Quintana’s numbers weren’t as good as they had been during his time with the White Sox, Tyler Chatwood led the National League in losses last season, and Yu Darvish got roughed up in a pair of World Series starts. And that’s before even mentioning the bullpen.

Still, even with all that said, the Cubs look to have, on paper, one of the best starting rotations in the game. And the upgrades in the bullpen have tempered some of the rage over the relief corps’ repeated postseason implosions. Theo Epstein’s front office had a mission this offseason to improve the pitching staff, and Hickey is a very large part of trying to accomplish that mission.

“What really was the slam dunk in my decision to come to Chicago or at least the finishing touches on it was getting to meet Theo, getting to meet Jed (Hoyer), going physically to Chicago, go to the offices there, seeing the physical building, meeting the people inside, just getting that vibe. Everybody was on the same page, and that page was winning,” Hickey said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. “And also built not just to win here for two or three years but for a sustained period of time, and that was what was very, very attractive.”

Hickey’s ties to the Cubs are obvious. He worked as Joe Maddon’s pitching coach in Tampa Bay for eight seasons before Maddon left to take over managing duties on the North Side. The two coached some phenomenal pitchers with the Rays, guys like James Shields, David Price, Scott Kazmir and Chris Archer and won an American League pennant in 2008. Prior to that, Hickey coached for the Houston Astros and oversaw a staff that included Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt en route to the 2005 World Series.

How does the Cubs’ rotation of Lester, Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Quintana and Chatwood compare to those great rotations from Hickey’s past?

“That’s a really tough question. But I think one through five, it may be as deep as any staff that I’ve had,” he said. “Really tough to say. I’ll give you a better idea after the season’s over, but one through five, it’s really, really good. Had some very, very good staffs, obviously, in years past. But these five guys, we talk about it all the time, the starters pitching innings and not falling into this pattern of starters being used less and less and the bullpen being used more and more.

“If you were to give me a staff of five guys, or give anybody a staff of five guys, that threw between 185 and 200 innings, you would probably have a championship-caliber club. And that’s what my expectations are out of this staff, and I think they will be a championship-caliber club.”

Hickey’s toughest task, though, likely won’t be working with all those veteran starters but instead working with a  bullpen that struggled under the bright lights of the postseason last October. While Cubs relievers had the sixth-lowest ERA in baseball during the regular season (3.80), the playoffs were a different story, with the bullpen rocked to the tune of a 6.21 ERA. Cubs relievers walked a postseason-high 27 batters while striking out only 35 in 37.2 innings.

The front office tried to fix that strike-throwing problem by bringing in new closer Brandon Morrow, who shone with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, and Steve Cishek, who has closing experience from his time with the Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners, plus he worked with Hickey last season in Tampa Bay.

But Hickey is the bigger key to fixing that problem, and it’s one of his biggest objectives to not just bring the walks down but make the Cubs one of the best staffs in baseball when it comes to issuing free passes.

“I really think that walks, especially out of the bullpen, are a little bit more of a mindset than they are anything physically or mechanically wrong,” he said. “You come into a situation where maybe you give up a base hit and maybe it changes the game, so you’re a little bit reluctant to throw the ball over the plate.

“So I think it’s more of a mindset, and once the group gets the mindset of ‘attack, attack, attack,’ it’ll be contagious. And I think it is contagious. I think last year it was probably contagious in that there was more walks than you would like, and I think as you turn the corner and head the other direction, that would be contagious, as well.

“I have very few outcome goals in a season. I don’t sit there and say, ‘I want to lead the league in earned-run average’ or ‘I want to lead the league in strikeouts.’ … But that one thing, that one outcome goal that I always have for a staff is to have the least amount of walks in the league. And I think at the end of the day, especially with the talent that’s out there, if that is the case, it’s going to be an extremely successful season.”

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”