Miguel Montero stood at his locker late Thursday night with his hands behind back his back, holding designer sunglasses, not high-tech goggles. The Cubs catcher wore a white Miami Beach Golf Club hat and a pinkish-orange Lululemon polo shirt instead of 2016 National League Central Champions gear.
There was no ear-splitting music blasting from the sound system. The reporters surrounding Montero after a 5-4 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers could actually hear what he was saying inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse and not worry about getting drenched in champagne and beer.
With the magic number still suspended at one, the Cubs didn’t wait around to see if Johnny Cueto and the San Francisco Giants would beat the St. Louis Cardinals at AT&T Park and hand them the division title.
“There’s no reason to be disappointed,” Montero said. “It’s a great feeling, because regardless, we can actually have a chance tomorrow and the next day and the next day. It’s not like we have that much pressure on our back because they’re going to catch us or something like that.”
Exactly. By the time the Cardinals lost on the West Coast, a few minutes before midnight Chicago time, the Wrigley Field video boards had turned to black and the night crews were cleaning up from a raucous crowd of 41,362 that didn’t get to see the party that will now wait until Friday.
Up in the Wrigley Field press box, you could hear the car horns and cheering throughout the neighborhood once San Francisco’s 6-2 victory over St. Louis went final. Instead of that game, the TV screens inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse had broadcast a message:
Schedule for Friday
DRESS AT 11:30 a.m.
Game at 1:20 p.m. against Brewers
And if the Giants did win Thursday night…
“I’ll probably go to a club,” Montero said. “No, just kidding. I’m going home. I’m going to watch a TV show or something like that, because I don’t really watch baseball that much. The reality is that I don’t care what happens (to the Cardinals). I want to come back tomorrow and win a game and celebrate on our own.
“It tastes a little different.”
Yes, the Cubs are a different team, with their ritualistic celebrations, a Party Room built into their state-of-the-art-clubhouse and a nonchalant attitude toward advancing to consecutive postseasons for only the fourth time (!!!) in franchise history (1885-86, 1906-08 and 2007-08, when they last won the division and captured back-to-back titles).
“Well, I’m sure they’ll have it taped off, plastic everywhere, to make sure nothing’s ruined,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said before the game. “But I don’t know how crazy we’ll get. We’ll enjoy it, for sure. But the next one – as they continue to come – will get bigger.”
After changing the culture around this team, pushing so many of the right motivational buttons and pulling all those in-game levers, manager Joe Maddon didn’t plan to extend his 30-minute rule or change his morning Starbucks routine.
“Sure, go home,” Maddon said. “I am.”
Because ultimately a World Series-or-bust team with multiple MVP and Cy Young Award candidates will be judged in October. And, once again, Maddon delivered a win-or-lose line that would hold up for this news cycle.
“This is just the first step,” Maddon said. “We have much larger baseball fish to fry in our skillet.”
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Now the Cubs can align their rotation for October, deal with any nagging injuries, lock up home-field advantage through the NL Championship Series and prepare for whatever team – St. Louis, San Francisco, New York Mets – emerges from the wild-card battle.
“It’s what we envisioned all along,” Arrieta said. “I’m just proud of all the guys in here for growing and learning at such a quick pace, especially the young players in this locker room. And to all do that together has really put us in this position we’re in right now. It’s given us the ability to have this lead, give guys rest and move forward into the most important part of our season.”
When Maddon came here with the Tampa Bay Rays in August 2014, the Cubs were a fifth-place team playing out an 89-loss season, but he still felt the energy at Wrigley Field, looking up at the lights and the crowd and feeling like he was in the middle of a computer-generated scene from “Gladiator.”
As Maddon kept listening to modified versions of the disappointment question during Thursday’s postgame news conference, he should have snapped and screamed: “Are you not entertained?”
“To some it might be anti-climactic,” Maddon said. “But 93 wins, that’s not a bad season. However we get this accomplished, I’ll take it.”