Cubs thinking bigger and better after raising World Series banner

Cubs thinking bigger and better after raising World Series banner

The Cubs walked across the grass on Monday night, like some sort of "Field of Dreams" update, and disappeared under the bleachers. Jake Arrieta rubbed his hands together as they approached Wrigley Field's iconic scoreboard. Three Hall of Famers – Ryne Sandberg (1907), Fergie Jenkins (1908) and Billy Williams (2016 National League pennant) raised the first three flags.

Surrounded by teammates, Anthony Rizzo then began pulling the cord that lifted the 2016 World Series banner, the ceremony running live on ESPN for a team that has crossed over into so many different parts of popular culture. A crowd of 41,166 that must have sat through parts of the 108-year drought waited out a rain delay that would last almost two hours before first pitch.

By 8:38 p.m., Rizzo emerged from the doors that break up the brick wall in right-center field, holding the World Series trophy above his head as AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to The Top (If You Wanna Rock 'N' Roll) blasted from the sound system.

"I wasn't expecting to get hit by that many emotions," Rizzo said, looking back after knocking a Kenley Jansen cutter into the left-field corner for a 3-2 walk-off win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. "I was fighting back tears."

To be honest, a franchise that doesn't really do subtle or understated created a championship banner that's kind of hard to see. But, whatever, there's room for more flagpoles at the beginning of this golden age of baseball on the North Side.

"The new generation of Cubs fans is spoiled," Jon Lester said. "Our guys are so young – as long as health stays on our side – I feel like we'll compete. Our goal every year is to win a World Series."

[RELATED: Cubs pull out walk-off win over Dodgers in festive night at Wrigley]

If the Dodgers didn't get enough flashbacks from the rain-delay theater on the giant video board – the Cubs showed highlights from last year's Game 6 of the NL Championship Series – Lester again looked like a co-MVP (one run allowed in six innings) against a lineup that has so many issues with lefties.

These two big-market teams appear to be on another collision course. The defending World Series champs started seven 27-and-under players, including an October legend (Kyle Schwarber), a reigning MVP (Kris Bryant), a Silver Slugger/Gold Glove first baseman (Rizzo), an All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell), a rocket-armed catcher (Willson Contreras) and two of the game's best defensive players (Jason Heyward and Javier Baez).

"We're all still hungry," Schwarber said. "We're not satisfied with what we did last year. Obviously, it was a great accomplishment. To bring it back to the city of Chicago was great. But now we got to do it again.

"We know the talent that we have. We know how good we could be for some years down the road. But no one can predict the future."

This night – which actually ended on Tuesday morning – would be bigger than the 25 guys in the underground clubhouse that opened last year with a hyperbaric chamber, an underwater treadmill, an infrared sauna and a party room for postgame celebrations.

One entrance to the clubhouse – around the corner from Joe Maddon's office and outside the press-conference room – now displays the image of the "WE DID NOT SUCK 2016" brick wall that filled up with spontaneous messages written in chalk after the Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians last November.

Hanging out in the home dugout before the game, you saw a rock star (Eddie Vedder), a Hockey Hall of Famer (Chris Chelios) and Fortune magazine's "World's Greatest Leader" (Theo Epstein). Watching David Ross on "Dancing with the Stars" became another rain-delay diversion on the video board.

"This is the lowest-maintenance group I've ever been around," Epstein said. "They handled the target on their back last year so well, and this year they're handling the fact that they won and avoiding that complacency better than I could've imagined.

"We don't have to do anything. They're just so focused and so hard-working. They understand that they need to approach this with all the intensity they did last year if they want to get back to a point where they can enjoy that special feeling late in the year again.

"It's been a total non-issue. When first pitch is thrown, they're locked in."

By the last pitch, there were rows and rows of empty green seats. The bleachers had cleared out to the point where you could see the garbage. Chairman Tom Ricketts stood in the first row off the on-deck circle as Rizzo beat an $80 million closer, pumped his fist, tossed aside his helmet and got mobbed by teammates between first and second base. After the biggest moment of their lives, the 2017 Cubs are just getting started.

"In a game like tonight versus a tough team, it builds confidence in our group this year that this is what we do," Rizzo said. "This is who we are."

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:


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