MESA, Ariz. — Oh yes, the Chicago Cubs, the most infamous foil in American sports, the pro team that has gone longer than any other, 107 years to be exact, without winning the ultimate championship, in this case the World Series.
The team that carries the curse of a Billy Goat, named Murphy; the team a year ago was swept in the playoffs by the Mets, led by a man named Daniel Murphy.
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The Diamondbacks, formed in 1998, have won a World Series. The Mets, formed in 1962, have won two World Series. The Cubs also have won two World Series — in 1907 and 1908. They’ve only even appeared in one since then 1945, 71 years ago.
But you probably know that. The Cubs’ failings are almost as much myth as reality. What nobody knows is when the Cubs finally again will win the World Series. There is reason to believe it could be this season of 2016.
The Cubs had the third-best record in baseball last season behind St. Louis and Pittsburgh, 97 wins. Then they signed as free agents Ben Zobrist, the infielder the Mets wanted; Jason Heyward, the Gold Glove outfielder the Nationals wanted; and John Lackey, who rejected a qualifying offer from the Cardinals.
Under Joe Maddon, who in his first year with Chicago was voted National League Manager of the Year, the Cubs improved 24 games over 2014. They had the NL Cy Young Award winner, Jack Arrieta. They had the unanimous choice NL Rookie of the Year, third baseman Kris Bryant. And they had the runner-up behind Bryce Harper for the NL Most Valuable Player Award, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a two-time All-Star who hit .278 with 31 home runs, 101 RBIs — and 7 stolen bases.
Maddon is an oldish guy (62) who thinks young. He’ll open a spring training workout with a Bruce Springsteen song blasting over the public address system at the team’s complex. He’ll counter the Cubs history and expectations by emphasizing what he calls a “positive negative,” printing T-shirts for the team which read, “Try Not to Suck.” Laughter to ease decades of pressure.
It’s a baseball axiom that pitching wins, and no one is more aware than Maddon, especially after the Mets shut down the Cubs’ bats to sweep the NL Championship series. Thus did he delight in picking up the 37-year-old Lackey to add to the rotation.
“You walk into a three-game series,” Maddon said when Lackey was signed, “and the other team calls for your pitching, and you say it’s going to be (Jon) Lester, Arrieta and Lackey. They don’t like that. I really believe that the particular kind of edge that John provides is really going to be helpful for us moving forward.”
Maddon and Lackey reunite. They were together in 2002 when Maddon was bench coach on the Angels, who behind Lackey in Game 7, beat the Giants in the World Series. “He actually helped pay for my daughter’s wedding,” Maddon reminded. “I was grateful for that for many years.”
Not quite as grateful as Chicago would be if Maddon can get the Cubs to a championship. “I said to Joe Maddon, if the Cubs win the World Series,” David Axelrod, a onetime Chicago journalist and former advisor to President Obama, told USA Today, “they will build a 50-foot statue of him and put it right in the middle of downtown Chicago.”
Maddon takes the idea in stride, or since he’s big on vintage vehicles, such as his 1976 Dodge van, maybe you could say takes it for a ride.
He says he is concerned with process — the daily grind, the comprehension — rather than results. Concentrate on the how the task is performed.
Indeed he is aware what it would be like to manage the first Cubs World Series champion team in more than a century. Then he returns to the task of making it possible.