In the middle of the champagne-soaked celebration at Wrigley Field, Theo Epstein name-dropped Eddie Vedder, comparing this team to the band that bursts onto the scene and blows up with an amazing first album.
The Cubs had just eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals from the playoffs, and the president of baseball operations understood this joyride through October wouldn’t last forever. It would only get more complicated, the way it once did for Pearl Jam, having to deal with new expectations, extra pressure and the backlash.
There would be more money involved and even bigger egos. Tanking had given this front office a kind of artistic freedom during the rebuilding years. And after getting swept by the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series last season, there will be more creative differences.
This is the end of the innocence, the Cubs reporting to spring training this week as a World Series favorite. Anything less than the franchise’s first title since 1908 will be considered a major disappointment.
“Our priorities are clear,” Epstein said. “I don’t have any worry whatsoever that having accomplished so much (last) year that our players – and our young players – will show up complacent (or) take things for granted, thinking they’re going to sort of walk their way through the regular season and then sprint towards the postseason.
“Baseball doesn’t work that way. I think the opposite’s true from looking at their eyes (as) they watched the Mets celebrate and seeing their feelings in the clubhouse after we were done playing. They’re going to come back extremely hungry and extremely focused and in great shape and ready to take this to the next level.”
This is an organization, a media market and a social-media environment that treats prospects like rock stars. And a city that caters to Cubs players and makes it easy to feel like you’ve already made it.
“I just think in general our young players are really mature, really grounded and are in it for the right reasons,” Epstein said. “(They) have experienced a lot already in their young careers, and that will help them avoid the quote-unquote ‘sophomore slump’ and help them adjust to playing with some greater expectations on their shoulders.
“We’re aware of sort of the new expectations this year and how a team might respond. But we’re not concerned about it, because we really trust the makeup of these players.”
At this time last year, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber hadn’t even made their big-league debuts yet. A reasonable prediction would have been the Cubs winning 84 games and calling it a great learning experience with Russell and Schwarber getting September call-ups.
“You can’t really coast on your past,” said Schwarber, who within about four months last year went from playing at Double-A Tennessee to becoming the franchise’s all-time leader in postseason home runs (five). “You get a big head. And that’s not me.
“I’m just a down-to-earth guy. I want to work hard. I want to bust my butt. And I want to help this team win.”
Bryant is now an All-Star third baseman and a Rookie of the Year. But nonstop attention is pretty much the default setting for a player hyped as a franchise savior from the moment the Cubs drafted him No. 2 overall in 2013. This is the pitchman who had his own adidas billboard across from Wrigley Field and shot a Red Bull commercial with a goat – all before his first at-bat in the big leagues.
Russell got only 14 career games on the Triple-A level before the Cubs forced him to learn how to play a new position in the big leagues – and then watched him seamlessly transition from second base to back shortstop in the middle of a pennant race. He turned 22 in January but has a chill personality that makes him come across as much older.
“This guy looks like he’s a vet – nothing bothers him,” pitcher Jon Lester said. “I’ve seen over the years how successful players go about their routines and figure out ways to get ready for a game. And all these guys had it from Day 1.
“That’s something that took me probably two or three years in the big leagues to harness and understand what works, what makes me tick. These guys had it from Day 1.”
But that first impression glosses over how Bryant had to wait until his 21st game before hitting his first home run in The Show – and bounce back from a July (.639 OPS) where he looked physically tired and mentally drained, working through 199 strikeouts to finish with 26 homers and 99 RBI.
Russell paid attention, made some mechanical fixes and boosted his OPS by almost 100 points after the All-Star break. Before Schwarber’s playoff laser show, his last home run came on Sept. 12 against the Philadelphia Phillies, a team that lost 99 games and has this year’s No. 1 overall pick.
“With experience, Kris is going to make better adjustments,” hitting coach John Mallee said. “You saw ‘Schwarbs’ struggle for a little bit there (last year) and then he made the adjustment back.
“The more times they face (good pitching), they know how this guy gets them out. They know what to expect now from that long season, how to train their bodies.”
Can Javier Baez become the next Ben Zobrist and play all over the field as a super-utility guy? Can Jorge Soler finally stay healthy and live up to his enormous potential?
Those talented young hitters will deflect some of the attention and become storylines in spring training. The Cubs also have a manager in Joe Maddon who loves to be the frontman and perform in front of the cameras.
“Joe makes the environment so conducive for them not to have stress,” Mallee said. “That really has helped these young kids, because if you had a dictatorship-type manager in there, they could have folded.
“And the core of the veteran (clubhouse is there) to help these guys through, (Anthony) Rizzo and David Ross saying: ‘Hey, we’ve been through this, bro. It’s going to happen. Just hang with it and you’re going to fight through it.’”
Winter is almost over for the hottest team in baseball. Cubs pitchers and catchers officially report to camp on Friday in Arizona. Believe the hype or not, it’s time to get the band back together again.