CHICAGO — Within the walls of the Cubs’ gleaming clubhouse, suspended above the tunnel leading to the field, the sign is the last thing players see before emerging from the dugout. It reads “Embrace the Target.”
The placement is no accident. Since the earliest days of spring training, manager Joe Maddon has impressed upon his talented team that pressure and expectations are allies, not foes.
“Listen, if you hear the word ‘pressure,’ you’ve got to run toward it,” Maddon said Friday on the eve of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers. “That’s a good thing. That means we’re good and something good is attached to it.”
So far, it has been all good for the Cubs, winners of 103 games in the regular season. They enter this best-of-seven test fresh off the heels of a Division Series victory over the Giants, owners of championships in 2010, 2012 and 2014 and perhaps the most battle-tested opponent they will face in these playoffs.
But the bigger target remains ahead. The franchise hasn’t won a pennant since 1945 or a World Series since 1908. Much of the 108 years since have been filled with darkness and silly tales of supernatural lore to explain it away.
The few splotches of sunlight have been blotted out by clubs that could not withstand the pressure of ending the most infamous dry spell in professional sports.
“You can’t control what happened in 1930, or whenever that goat came here,” catcher David Ross said, drawing a reference to the so-called curse of the billy goat. “I don’t even know, you know what I mean? I don’t care. Who cares? I can’t worry about that. I’m worried about the legacy we’re going to leave.”
For Jon Lester, the Cubs’ Game 1 starter against the Dodgers’ Kenta Maeda, the weighty expectations were clear the moment he signed a six-year, $155-million contract before the 2015 season.
“You get thrown into a city with all these . . . expectations on your back,” said Lester, who made his major-league debut with the Red Sox in 2006, two years after they ended a similar curse. “And you want to live up to those, not only as a player but as a teammate and somebody that’s involved in the city and the community.”
But beginning last season, the Cubs have made it a point to become comfortable with expectations. Each step has provided a new lesson, even last year’s four-game sweep at the hands of the Mets in the NLCS. In a way, they had overachieved, coming within one step of the World Series a year faster than had been expected. But they came away from it with a sense of the spotlight they encounter now.
“It’s embracing all this attention,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “That’s a challenge in itself, I believe.”
Of course, the Cubs aren’t sneaking up on anyone anymore. They have acted the part of the bully, squeezing the Mets out of the Ben Zobrist sweepstakes last offseason and obtaining fireballing closer Arol dis Chapman from the Yankees in late July, another sign that steamrolling opponents in the regular season would not be enough for them.
“That started in spring training, the expectations and embracing the expectations,” Ross said. “It’s really nothing new. Our goal to start the season this year was the World Series. It’s not something new for us. There’s no change in what we do.”
Each triumph has only turned up the heat. The Cubs have yet to flinch.
“That was the ‘Embrace the Target’ concept, part of it,” Maddon said. “And so it’s fuel, man. Why would you not? That’s the baseball fossil fuel right there, is expectations and pressure.”