Cubs

The psychology of October: Cubs plan to keep it simple

The psychology of October: Cubs plan to keep it simple

The day before Game 1 of the NLDS, a reporter asked Anthony Rizzo if he was annoyed by all the media attention and pressure heaped on the Cubs.

The face of the franchise just shrugged his shoulders and said it comes with the territory and reminded reporters the Cubs have been dealing with lofty expectations and crazy media attention since February, so this isn't much different.

As the 2016 Cubs officially begin their bid at ending a 108-year championship drought Friday night at Wrigley Field, the weight of a long-suffering fanbase will be on their shoulders.

Every team enters postseason play feeling the pressure, but the Cubs are tabbed as the clear favorites for the World Series and have created an environment where anything short of a championship will be seen as a massive disappointment.

So how can players block out all the noise and keep the moment from getting too big?

"I don't know that you do," veteran catcher David Ross said. "Everybody's different. It'd be hard to say for each individual guy. For me personally, it's about just having your at-bat. 

"We've been talking about it all year: pitch-to-pitch, trying to work your at-bat, game-calling. You're trying to pay attention to the things you've watched all year: Make sure you know the scouting report and you've got the information and then it's about going out there and doing it.

"There's no secret formula."

Rizzo got his first taste of October baseball last year when an upstart Cubs team knocked out the Pittsburgh Pirates in the winner-take-all wild-card game and then bumped the St. Louis Cardinals from the NLDS before running into Daniel Murphy and the New York Mets.

Rizzo believes that experience will help the Cubs' young players slow the game down.

After all, that's what each player is trying to do during the postseason - keep things from speeding up on them.

"Slowing it down is just about simplifying it, really," said Ben Zobrist, who anchored the World Series-winning Royals lineup last fall. "If you start thinking about everything that's going to happen around the game, then that's when it speeds up - when you have multiple thoughts in your head and you're thinking about too much.

"That's when it's gonna speed up. I think when you simplify, you think about the one thing you need to think about at that moment and you stay in the present. That's when things slow down."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Since the Cubs reported to Mesa, Ariz., in mid-February for spring training, Joe Maddon has implored his team to embrace the pressure and expectations.

He also had a message for the players during one of his rare team meetings Tuesday afternoon.

"The one thing I really wanted to get across, you have to understand this - something's gonna go bad," Maddon said. "Something's gonna go wrong. And it happens to everybody. It's how you react to that moment that sets you apart."

When Theo Epstein met with the media Tuesday afternoon a couple hours after Maddon's session, a reporter asked the Cubs president if he thought fans were thinking positively about the team's chances of winning it all.

"Check back if the other team scores the first run or gets the first baserunner," he deadpanned. "Look, I think there's a real connection between the fans and this particular team and there's a lot of trust.

"Therefore, a lot of excitement, but no matter what happens, there's gonna be some rough moments, no matter how successful the postseason. So we just gotta keep this place nice and loud.

"If we do get behind in a game, we know the support will still be there, but we just have to make sure that it comes out, that it's audible and loud and our players can hear it. I know our fans will come through for that."

Cubs players can relate to those fans anxious to get it going. 

Both Ross and Kris Bryant spoke Thursday afternoon about how they're chomping at the bit after four days off.

Veteran catcher Miguel Montero is about to take part in his fourth postseason and he's had no trouble embracing the expectations.

"I don't believe in the pressure," Montero said. "You actually live for these type of moments. As a player growing up, you want to be in this situation. I always said, like, 'I want to be up in the ninth inning with the winning run on third and I want to be up hitting because I live for that.'

"I think that's what we're living for right now - this time of year. We've prepared ourselves to be where we're at right now and go farther."

Report: People around baseball believe Joe Girardi is waiting for managerial job with Cubs or White Sox

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USA TODAY

Report: People around baseball believe Joe Girardi is waiting for managerial job with Cubs or White Sox

Joe Girardi won't be the manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 2019, perhaps because he has hopes of landing a gig in Chicago.

According to Fancred's Jon Heyman, Girardi was in the running for the Reds' managerial job (which went to former Cubs third-base coach David Bell this weekend) but pulled himself out, this after interviewing for but not getting the same position with the Texas Rangers. Heyman cites "industry speculation" that Girardi might want to remain a free agent so he can land the job of skipper in Chicago.

Heyman is of course not specific, listing a city with two major league teams, leaving this open for interpretation as either the Cubs or the White Sox.

Obviously Girardi has a history on the North Side. He had two stints there as a player, from 1989 to 1992 and again from 2000 to 2002. Joe Maddon has one year remaining on his contract, and Cubs president Theo Epstein said during his end-of-season press conference that the team has not had discussions with Maddon about an extension. After managing the New York Yankees to their most recent World Series championship in 2009, Girardi might again want a crack at managing a big-market contender.

But if Girardi is simply itching to get back to his home state — he was born in Peoria and graduated from Northwestern — perhaps he has the White Sox on his wish list, too. Rick Renteria has one year remaining on his current contract, as well, and should the rebuilding White Sox see all their young talent turn into the contender they've planned, the manager of such a team would be an attractive position to hold.

But just because folks believe Girardi wants to manage in Chicago doesn't mean there'd be mutual interest. Despite Epstein's comments that there have been no extension talks with Maddon, the president of baseball operations also backed his manager in that same press conference, refusing to blame Maddon for the team's "broken" offense down the stretch last month. And Rick Hahn and the rest of White Sox brass heap frequent praise on the job Renteria has done in his two years, describing him as an important part of player development and of establishing a culture hoped to spread throughout the organization.

Plus, it's worth mentioning that Girardi's decade-long tenure in the Bronx came to an end amid suggestion that he was unable to connect with his young players. It's unknown how much of a realistic concern that would be for any team thinking about hiring him. But the recently fired Chili Davis believed that very issue was part of the reason his time as the Cubs' hitting coach came to an end. And there are few teams out there younger than the White Sox.

Again, it's just speculation for now. But if for some reason one or both Chicago teams don't hand out new contracts to their current managers, perhaps Girardi would be interested in an opening on either side of town.

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.