MESA, Ariz. — On Thursday morning, on a concrete patio out behind the Chicago Cubs’ spring training complex, Joe Maddon did something he seldom does. Asked in a group interview session, of the type the Cubs’ loquacious manager conducts almost daily from mid-February through October, why the Cubs’ camp seems different this spring — “not as loose” as in the past — Maddon shot back, “That’s your perception,” then moments later ended the session and walked away.
“Shortest Joe interview in five years,” one veteran Cubs beat writer marveled as the skipper disappeared around a corner.
If you had formed the impression these past couple of years, as many fans and media members apparently have, that something has been missing for the Cubs since approximately Nov. 2, 2016, the night they won the franchise’s first World Series title in 108 years — some sense of urgency, some semblance of an edge — the Cubs themselves, while not quite acknowledging its absence, are here to tell you — and sometimes show you — that it’s back.
Maddon, now a lame-duck manager of a franchise suddenly seeing its championship window starting to close, certainly has an edge, and if one more person comes along and tries to get him to justify the endings of the past two seasons — a loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2017 National League Championship Series, and the squandering of a five-game September lead followed by a quick postseason exit in October — he might just stick that edge right in their sternum.
“I’ve experienced an average of 97 wins the last four seasons,” Maddon said in a quiet moment a couple of hours after the uncharacteristically quick ending to the group interview. “The year before that, we almost went to the World Series. The year before that, we won 103 and won the World Series. And the year before that, we won 97. I just think there’s a big disconnect between the results and the narrative right now.”
The narrative goes something like this: Somewhere along the path, in the aftermath of the cathartic Game 7 win over the Cleveland Indians, the Cubs lost their way. Once thought to have the makings of a dynasty, thanks to their talent, their youth and their financial might, the Cubs suddenly were hit with the burden of massive expectations — from a fan base that, instead of praying for success, now demanded it — and failed to meet them in both 2017 and 2018.
“You’re supposed to tune it out,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said of the negativity. “But we’re all human beings. We’re not naive to it.”
That narrative, of a franchise coming loose from its moorings, only accelerated over the past five months. First, in October, came the 40-game suspension for shortstop Addison Russell for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. Then, in February, racist and Islamophobic emails surfaced from Joe Ricketts, the patriarch of the Cubs’ ownership family.
In the opening week of spring training — a time typically reserved for long-winded odes to the return of baseball and variations on the theme of “we like our team” — the Cubs staged a grim-faced news conference at which Tom Ricketts, the team’s chairman, denounced his father’s emails and apologized to the organization. In the same news conference, the younger Ricketts unwittingly opened up a totally separate controversy and thrust himself into the sport’s current labor rift by claiming, when asked why the Cubs didn’t spend much money this winter, that it was because “we don’t have any more.”
It’s no wonder president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, at one point over the winter, looked ahead to the 2019 season and called it a moment of “reckoning” for the franchise. It certainly feels that way for Maddon, 65, who is in the final year of a five-year contract and running a staff that features a new pitching coach, new hitting coach and new bench coach.
But if sudden and overwhelming success can make a franchise lose its edge, perhaps a series of body-blows to its collective psyche — some of them on the field, some of them off it — can bring it back.
“That’s the hope,” General Manager Jed Hoyer said. “The opposite of complacency is urgency. I don’t know that we were complacent. But I do think we had a group of guys who came to the big leagues together and who only knew success. … I do think everyone, if they’re honest, would admit it hasn’t felt quite the same since ’16. There were good moments but not the same edge.”
Rizzo agreed, saying both individual players and the organization as a whole have been “humbled a little bit” and adding, “Now you just see more of that killer mentality again than there has been the last couple of years. It’s just a feel.”
But a newfound edge or a killer mentality is not going to win you any more games on its own. While division rivals Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati all got appreciably better through some aggressive offseason moves, the Cubs — one winter after splurging on $215 million worth of pitching — stood more or less pat. Instead, they are banking on returns to health for starter Yu Darvish, closer Brandon Morrow and third baseman Kris Bryant, three critical pieces who were severely compromised by injury in 2018.
“There was a desire by a lot of fans, understandably, to go do something big, shake things up,” Hoyer said. “We felt the opposite. This group had a lot of success. We won 95 games despite [Bryant] being banged up, and some [pitchers] not having the years we expected. In a lot of ways, we overcame a lot to get to 95 wins. … When you start out, you hope to change the culture — to go from ‘lovable losers’ to expecting a deep October run every year and where 95 wins [and an early exit] is really disappointing. That’s the standard we’re going to be held to.”
The Cubs’ 2019 season has the feel of one that could swing wildly in either direction — from a return to glory to an abject disaster — a sense underscored by the computer-modeled season-projections put out by analytics websites Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, the former of which has the Cubs winning 80 games and finishing last in the NL Central and the latter of which has them winning 88 and finishing first.
Neither total, for that matter, is likely to satisfy an increasingly demanding Cubs fan base, unless those 88 wins and division title are accompanied by a deep run through October. Whereas some might see a team with a newfound edge, the Cubs merely see themselves as a team transformed by success, hardened by failure and sharpened by the expectations to bring home another title before their window closes.
“You want expectations to be sky high,” Maddon said. “Nobody liked what happened at the end of last season, so I see a tremendous recommitment. Maybe that’s a refocus. Maybe that’s [because] we don’t like how it ended. We want to get back to the World Series. But that is a result of getting your teeth kicked in at the end of last year. It’s not because they weren’t trying.”