MESA, Ariz. — It's hard to believe Cole Hamels has actually only spent two months of game action in a Cubs uniform.
It feels like he's been around a lot longer than that, largely due to how seamless his transition was into the Cubs clubhouse and how quickly the fanbase embraced him late last summer. (It certainly helps when you put up a 1.00 ERA in your first 7 starts with a new team in the midst of a heated pennant race.)
The 13-year pro believes he fit in so well with this Cubs team because they've had similar experiences of "winning young." Hamels got his first taste of the playoffs during his first full MLB season (2007) with the Philadelphia Phillies, then won a World Series in 2008 and made it back to the Fall Classic in 2009, where the Phillies lost to the Yankees. Two months before his 25th birthday, he was hoisting a championship trophy and accepting World Series MVP honors.
This Cubs core had a very similar experience. Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras have not spent a single day in the big leagues where the Cubs were not in contention for the playoffs.
Bryant and Contreras were 24 when they won it all, while Schwarber and Javy Baez were 23 and Almora was only 22 years old. Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward had just turned 27 a couple months prior.
Call it an excuse if you want, but the reality is last fall's early exit was a true eye-opener for the young core of position players. It might not be popular, but it's understandable why the Cubs felt like they'd be OK in the end and everything would work itself out and the Cubs would wind up in the NLDS because that's the only reality they've ever known at the major-league level.
"The craziest part about when you win young is I don't think you understand what you just accomplished," Hamels said. "Yeah, it's all great and yeah you've won probably ever since you were in Little League or high school or college and then you win in the big leagues, it's just kind of a normal thing.
"When you don't win for a while, then I think you try to grasp the importance of what it really meant and how to actually go about trying to do it again. I think that's what was probably a good thing about the way the season ended — it really was a gut punch and a check to a lot of guys in really realizing how difficult this game can be and not taking things for granted."
It may have been a very quiet offseason for the Cubs in terms of transactions, but one thing is for sure: All the younger guys have a new perspective.
"Obviously it hurt [losing last year]," Schwarber said. "I don't think that's how anyone envisioned us going out after 163 and then that [Wild-Card] game. It wasn't ideal, but it is what it is. Obviously it stung, but for us coming into this year knowing what we have in [the clubhouse] and not take that for granted and go out there and play every day like we know that we can."
There's also added weight here with this core because of how they took home their title. When Hamels won with the Phillies, it was just another World Series. When Bryant, Rizzo and Co. won it all, it was the end of the greatest quest in American sports history — the final chapter of a story we will never see again.
Because of that, this group has a connection to the Cubs fanbase unlike any team in any sport has ever had with their fans.
"At the end of the day, doing everything you possibly can to get everything out of yourself and out of your teammates to go out and win," Hamels said. "Because that's really what it's about. We love to win for each other, but there's a really good focus on knowing we can win for an amazing organization, an incredible city. They're the ones that show up, they're the ones that watch us, they travel.
"There's an appreciation that we're fortunate enough to play the game of baseball, but it's because they want to watch us play baseball. I think that's something we can enjoy, because it doesn't last forever."
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