Know hopeby Chris Jaffe
April 04, 2011
What the hell is wrong with me? Why, oh why, am I so looking forward to the 2011 Cubs season?
Oh, don't get me wrong. I know it's an annual rite of passage for all baseball fans to feel a bit happier when the season begins. That's part of being a baseball fan after all. And people like seeing their team, no matter how blighted it might be.
Aye, but there's the rub. This is not just feeling good because spring is here and another season has begun. I, well, how do I put this...every day I've become more positive about their chances. This Cubs team could surprise. They just might be good.
This bizarre virus called optimism
See? What the hell is wrong with me? At age 35, shouldn't a Cubs fan know better than to expect good things from this team? After all, they're a consensus pick for fourth place. Heck, I pegged them to finish fourth in THT's preseason predictions. Intellectually, I stand by that. Intellectually. In Joe Distelheim's five questions for the Cubs piece, he accurately quoted me saying:
It's still an aging offensive core for a club that missed its window a few years ago. They might improve a little this year, but they look like a second-division team.
I sent that to him several weeks ago. The closer the season gets, the more I find the glass half-full.
That ain't normal for me—I'm a pessimist. I'm a believer in the "Cubs fever: catch it and die" philosophy. But I like some of the Cubs' moves. New first baseman Carlos Pena strikes me as a guy with some solid upside, so I assume (hope?) last year's .196 batting average was flukishly low. Fellow former Tampa Bay Ray Matt Garza should help Chicago's rotation.
And they had the sense to dump Carlos Silva. That was very un-Cub-like. He was actually pretty good for them last year—for the first half of the season, though. After early July, he was injured and insanely ineffective, posting an ERA on the wrong side of 14.00 in his remaining starts. He was nearly as bad this spring training. Yet the team kept trotting him out there every few days for another spring training start, officially saying he still had a shot, never mind that his 14.00-plus late-season ERA was added to a spring training ERA hovering around 16.00.
When Silva pitched well in his last March start (dropping his ERA down all the way to under 11.00), the storyline seemed set: the Cubs would say the man who outs forgot was getting into his groove again, so we could ignore all the horrible pitching of the last nine months.
Besides, the only people competing with him for the last slots were unproven kids, and the Cubs (a team not known for understanding the concept of a sunk cost) were paying him a chunk of money. The classic Cub move would be to keep the Brand Name Player, but in a refreshing change of pace, they dumped him.
More than anything else, the change at manager creates positive thoughts. Lou Piniella was a terrific manager in his career, but few managers go out on top. Like players, most are past their prime when they step down. The concentration and pressure can be mentally and emotionally draining for a man when he gets up there in years.
Piniella came to Chicago saying this was his last managerial job. He clearly didn't want to end on a rebuild, but with a winner. What better way to get a plaque in Cooperstown than by being the man who brought the Cubs to the long-denied promised land of the World Series? The team had its shot, but blew it in the playoffs in 2007 and '08. Then the worm turned, and their core stopped producing like they once had. Somewhere during 2009, Piniella began checking out, and by 2010 he was part of the problem.
This can rub off on a club. It's not a coincidence that the Cubs played their worst in the period just before Piniella retired to take care of family medical issues. From Harry Wright to Earl Weaver, many managers have had their teams collapse on them in the final section of their last season in the dugout.
New manager Mike Quade has left a very positive impression in his limited time in the spotlight after taking over when Piniella left. It isn't just that the team picked up when he took over the reins late last year (though they did). Most of that was just regression to the mean. He seemed not only engaged, but competent.
I welcome our new hairless overlord.
Competency isn't the most impressive compliment to give someone, but it matters. nd it isn't one normally associated with Cub skippers, especially with those making their MLB managerial debuts with the Cubs. Back in the day there was Jim Essian with his wishful thinking rah-rah-ism, or more recently Bruce Kimm and his consistent idiocy.
So the Cubs are filling me with optimism as the season begins despite coming off a horrible season. That's not normal for me. The older I get, the more caustic I've become, yet this preseason wore through much of it somehow.
I should know better than to expect much from them. The Cubs have a pattern: They almost never completely punt the season; they do just enough to get fans hyped up with sunny-eyed hope. I still remember many moons ago when a friend of mine exclaimed, "The Cubs are going to the Series this year! They just signed Mel Rojas!" Somewhere along the line, such projects lost their appeal for me. I haven't had so much hope for so little tangible reason in quite some time.
Dr. Strangecub: Or how I learned to stop worrying about and love the team that bombs
My baptism as a Cubs fan came in 1984, when the team came out of nowhere to win the division and made the postseason for the first time in ages. It was a nice way to begin, and didn't become disappointing until the NLCS.
But that was okay; I figured they'd be back next year. And sure enough, they were in first place for a while, until the entire starting rotation went on the DL at the same time. So much for that year. But that was OK, I kept up the hope, though it got harder as the 1980s wore on. The 1989 division title restored waning support, and it even carried me through their dismal 1990 season of disappointment.
The clouds really began to form on my young Cub fan optimism in 1991. I can probably put an exact date on it: April 21, 1991. Before the season, the Cubs went for a big splash, signing big name outfielder George Bell, starting pitcher Danny Jackson, and closer Dave Smith. There was a lot of talk of them winning the division.
Even though I was just a teen, I knew this talk was overblown. All were Big Names, but all were past their prime. Besides, I'd read enough of Tom Boswell's old articles on Total Average to know Bell never was all that, even in his 1987 MVP season.
But I buried all those dark forebodings in the background and got caught in the hype. That brings us to April 21. The Cubs held a 7-2 lead against the Pirates in the middle of the eighth. Pittsburgh tied it 7-7, sending it to extra frames. Largely thanks to an Andre Dawson grand slam, the Cubs took a seemingly insurmountable 12-7 lead in the 11th. You know what happened, right? Yup, there's a reason I had to say "seemingly insurmountable" instead of insurmountable. Pirates 13, Cubs 12.
I just knew that club wasn't going to live up to the hype. And for the rest of the 1990s, it was hard to get caught up. The Cubs, being the Cubs, always had some shiny new name they could throw at the fans to drum up some level of interest from the fans drinking the beer at Wrigley.
The club took turns trotting out Mel Rojas, Steve Buechele, Willie Wilson, Mike Morgan, Brian McRae, the wrong Guzman, Luis Gonzalez, Jaime Navarro—and hey, who could forget Candy Maldanado? (I can't, and Lord knows I've tried.) Some did better than others, but it merely ensured a lousy team did little more than spin its wheels.
By the end of the decade, I got fed up. In one year, the Cubs reenacted a low-wattage version of their 1991 overhyped signings, inking a trio of free agents headed for decline. They signed a pair of 32-yearl-old middle infielders, neither of whom was great in their prime, but both decent. The club also signed a one-dimensional 30-year-old slugging outfielder. At least the 1991 singings had some stature.
That was it: I was going to write them off and not support them. They were playing me for a sap, and I had no interest in actively supporting a team so clearly headed nowhere. The year was 1998, and the Cubs won the division that year. Yeah, it was exciting and fun, but there was a strange and unexpected aftermath for me.
Have you ever had a moment where you've totally declared a sabbatical on your favorite team? When you're that annoyed with a team, you're sure you have a good reason. And when they end up—defying all logic and powers of prediction—having a pretty good season anyway, it's hard to get that down on them again. That's how it worked for me, anyway.
But here's the weird part: If I couldn't get that down on them, I also couldn't get that high on them. Sure, I supported them in 1998, and during the ensuing highs and lows, but it's all come with a sense of reserve that wasn't there before 1998. Sure, I felt excited in 2003's near-pennant season and their 2007-08 postseason runs, but it always felt like I was excited because I was supposed to feel excited. I don't know how to describe it better than that. There was real enthusiasm, but it always felt a bit guarded.
The last few weeks have been different. I really shouldn't feel excited. The Cubs were bad in 2009, sucked in most of 2010, and need everything to break their way to do more than finish in the middle of the pack or lower. Please note: I felt more excitement in the heyday of 2003 or 2008 than I do now— and it ain't even close. But the excitement of late March felt different, more spontaneous and personal. Something I haven't felt for the Cubs since, well, sometime before 1998.
Secret weapon: the NL Central
One other big reason to feel good: They play in the NL Central. No way anyone would feel they'd have a shot in any other division, but this is where they are. Two teams had winning records in it last year, the Reds and Cards. Cincinnati lost a workhorse pitcher for the first part of the season to mono, and the ace of St. Louis, Adam Wainwright, is out for the entire season. The up-and-coming team is Milwaukee, and their biggest addition, former Royal ace Zach Greinke, begins the season on the DL. No one expects anything from Houston or Pittsburgh. Suddenly, some things are breaking Chicago's way.
Here's what'll happen. Dave Duncan will get some silly putty, Play-Doh and various spare parts from Home Depot, assemble them into some sort of humanoid-type-structure, and zap it with enough electric shocks so that it can move it's upper-left appendage in a regular course of action.
It'll be the shocking southpaw success of the year, and claim 15 wins, 'cuz that's the kind of pitching coach Duncan is. (Do you realize Kent Bottenfield once won 18 games in a season for the Cards?)
Ultimately, I still think this is Milwaukee's division to lose. The Brewers were better than the Cubs last year, had a bigger addition in Greinke, and while he's on the DL, it's only for a little bit and for a non-pitching arm reason.
But, if things shake up, it could be fun. And by "fun" I mean a chance to get swept in the NLDS for the third time in five years. I may have my grounds for optimism, but even my silver lining has its cloud.
Will this look like stupid wishful thinking by the end of the year? Sure. Carlos Pena could suck, Quade could prove why no one hired him as a big league manager beforehand, and the back of the rotation could be as bad as a typical Carlos Silva performance.
But who the hell wants to be a hard-headed realist the first weekend of the season? Anyone want me to pass them the Kool-Aid?
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.