Houston Astros general manager James Click said this week that “whichever team has the fewest cases of coronavirus is going to win.”
Not that his thinking is new. Baseball people have been beating that trash can for weeks when it comes to what it’s going to take to successfully navigate a 60-game season and playoffs during a pandemic.
What’s more, his point doesn’t quite hit the mark. Because winning the attrition battle doesn’t matter if enough attrition in other places derails the league.
But assuming Major League Baseball can actually pull off a nine-week season starting next week and that the Astros’ pandemic algorithm applies at all by mid-October, the Cubs might be far better positioned to still be playing than they seemed to be in before COVID-19 wiped out most of the season.
“There are certain advantages to us being a veteran team,” right-fielder Jason Heyward said. “There are certain advantages to us playing together for a number of years.”
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And that could be a key for any team during this MLB experiment — not only in terms of collective maturity and willingness to buy-in to health and safety protocols, on and off the field, but also to stay focused enough to perform during the daily strangeness.
“The understanding of what championship baseball looks like for a lot of these guys and having a veteran group in the type of environment that we’re having to deal with on a daily basis is a huge, huge bonus,” manager David Ross said. “I don’t need to hold their hand for anything.”
Ten current members of this team, including the first-year manager, were among the players in the room the night in Cleveland that Heyward called that famous 10th-inning, rain-delay meeting before the Cubs finished off their historic Game 7 victory four years ago.
They’ve had three winning seasons together since then, including two more playoff runs. And even before the pandemic shut down sports across the country in March, the urgency of a win-or-blow-up-the-core scenario was an open discussion.
Fast-forward four months.
“This is not a normal setup, and we know we can’t take any moment for granted,” Heyward said. “This group has done a great job of that over the years, and I’m looking forward to seeing how we carry that into a situation like this. Because I’ve seen us do a lot of great things in a short amount of time, when our backs are against the wall.”
It might not be a coincidence that the Cubs have been the only team in the league without a player or coach testing positive since intake testing began two weeks ago.
“That veteran kind of leadership has helped as well because it’s not normal,” said outfielder Steven Souza Jr., a veteran grizzled by a severe knee injury that wiped out his 2019 season and the long rehab battle that has brought him to full physical capacity on the brink of this truncated season.
MORE: How the MLB shutdown helped Steven Souza Jr. get ready for the season
“I’m away from my family, and then for the most part we’re just trying to stay to ourselves because nobody wants to accidentally or asymptomatically contract this virus because that means 14 games regardless,” Souza said. “So I think you’re watching guys handle their business like complete pros.”
Ross, Heyward, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javy Báez, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks — they all won together in 2016 and remain invested in each other.
But even the newcomers such as Souza, reliever Jeremy Jeffress, second baseman Jason Kipnis and relievers such as Casey Sadler, Dan Winkler and Ryan Tepera bring a combination of veteran maturity, adversity-tested perspective and something to prove.
“You look at the amount of years that guys have played that have been added here,” Souza said, “and I think in times of distraction as a veteran, you’re able to refocus and reshape what you’re able to do to be successful.”
Listening to the holdover Cubs talk since arriving for summer training camp, the messages have sounded almost identical, whether about the buy-in with safety precautions or the trust in teammates to help keep each other safe — and even accountable away from the ballpark.
“You’re not worried about relationship-building in the middle of all this,” Ross said. “These guys have a background with each other. They’ve done special things with each other. That’s a big bonus for us.”
He said he considered the backgrounds of all the newcomers with something to prove another bonus.
“I’m just speaking for myself,” Souza said. “But when I was young, it’s easy to see the distractions and kind of focus on those things, and it’s just a lot harder to stay in the moment. With this group, those 10 set the tone really well. And it just feels like business as usually with this group.
“And I think that’s going to pay dividends.”
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