It is sobering when the season ends no matter how far you expected to go. The Cubs closed out the season with consecutive losses at home and within 48 hours, a division title slipped away and so did their hopes of finding 2016 World Series magic.
The good news is that as a player gets farther from the end of a tough season, the optimism of getting closer to a new one can be the way to move forward. It helps take the sting out. Since I engaged this Cubs team from outside of the uniform this year, I had a chance to cover this team as an analyst. A lot can be concluded about this season from that vantage point.
All season long, I saw a team that expected to find ways to win and for the most part, they found them There is no better indicator to that spirit when you have new players come on board, whether from the minor leagues or from a trade. These players did not join as opportunists, free agent hopefuls, or checking the box of accomplishment as a call-up; they came to maintain the expectation, and before long, they showed how they wanted to be part of the family and keep the tradition of success.
From David Bote’s first run at major league excellence to Cole Hamels' and Jesse Chavez's passion to want to return to the team next season. From rookies to mainstays, they wanted to be here and certainly, they wanted the end to go differently. Maybe more importantly, the wanted to chance to re-write that ending next season.
As Javier Baez expressed last night, the Cubs “struggled all season,” which is a credit to what they hoped to accomplish when you see 95 wins on the board after the season of struggles ends. They seemed to win in spite of getting in their own way at times, early in the season, the rotation was finding its footing, the offense had starts and stops all year, the unsung heroes in the bullpen became the anchor until injury to Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop made the weight difficult to bear. The questions around a teammate like Addison Russell also presented a personal struggle, not just his, but how his brothers in the locker room try and support him while learning more about the larger societal implications. You must go from playing a kid’s game to growing up quickly in a split second.
When you put it on paper, you read about a team that lost an ace from Day 1 in Yu Darvish. Tyler Chatwood, meant to anchor the fifth starting slot or better, had command issues to an unsustainable level, an MVP went down in Kris Bryant, the backend of the bullpen broke down due to injury just as the team weathered a nearly endless streak of scheduled games toward the end of the season. This happened to be the time when their opponent, the Brewers, got hot.
Despite all of these challenges, challenges known to all teams, it mostly blew up at an inopportune time: September. This was when the offense became consistently inconsistent and the numbers that kept them afloat as a strength, started to become a liability and sink the ship. On base percentage, which was a hallmark most of the year, became a struggle. The discipline at the plate slipped, just as some tough division rivals were pitching well against them, from the Pirates to the Cardinals to the Brewers.
Yet, no one offers an excuse in their close out interviews. Their expectations have evolved far from the years when I wore the uniform in the mid 90s. They have made the playoff for four years in a row and gone fairly deep in the three prior years. It was not enough to just make it. In fact when they did make it, they did not even celebrate much at all. Anthony Rizzo acknowledged the milestone, but spoke about the team's deeper goal of repeating a championship.
With those level of goals comes a farther fall of disappointment when they are not met. The “C” on their uniform is a bullseye now. That is out of respect. Earned from years of being the team to beat and this year both offensively and defensively, great things were expected coming out of spring training.
And when you are a target, it can bring you closer together.
The players spoke about their team like a family, not as co-workers or business associates. They expressed admiration for their manager in Joe Maddon because of this sense that they can be themselves and play baseball through that perspective.
And it has worked, for the most part. This has not been a dynasty, but then again, the game is not in this time anymore. Astros, Royals, Cubs, all won for the first time in a long time (or ever) over the past few seasons. It seems like you have to just catch your moment and run with it as the window closes and circumstances pop up that are out of your control. Then you get old.
In the meantime, the players will head home, face some uncertainty about their future, spend time with friends and family, re-group, step away, and maybe take a moment to enjoy watching the game for a change.
And in due time, the fire will start burning hot again, never extinguished, but just given new oxygen by what could happen in 2019. And this team seems to welcome the idea that next season, 95 wins and making it, is only something to build on.