How the Chicago Cubs ended 108 years of fu­til­ity

THE CUBS WAY: THE ZEN OF BUILD­ING THE BEST TEAM IN BASE­BALL AND BREAK­ING THE CURSE

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - Michael Taube Michael Taube is a con­trib­u­tor to The Wash­ing­ton Times.

By Tom Ver­ducci Crown Archetype (Pen­guin Ran­dom House), $28, 376 pages

Base­ball’s modern World Se­ries be­gan in 1903. One of its ear­li­est, and most suc­cess­ful, cham­pi­ons was the Chicago Cubs, win­ning in 1907 and 1908 against the De­troit Tigers.

Then, the un­think­able hap­pened: The Cubs didn’t win an­other World Se­ries for 108 years. They came close on sev­eral oc­ca­sions, and en­dured many heart­break­ing sea­sons. Gen­er­a­tions of Cubs fans, there­fore, lived and died with­out cel­e­brat­ing a sin­gle cham­pi­onship sea­son.

Pro sports’s long­est ti­tle drought mer­ci­fully ended when the Cubs won last year’s World Se­ries. Tom Ver­ducci, an au­thor and se­nior base­ball writer for Sports Il­lus­trated, ex­plains how the once-hap­less team fi­nally solved the rid­dle of more than a cen­tury of fu­til­ity in “The Cubs Way: The Zen of Build­ing the Best Team in Base­ball and Break­ing the Curse.”

The pieces started to come to­gether in 2011, af­ter Cubs owner Tom Rick­etts had a “se­cret meet­ing” with Theo Ep­stein. The 38-year-old base­ball wun­derkind had at­tracted at­ten­tion as the Bos­ton Red Sox’s gen­eral man­ager, help­ing them end “a sup­posed curse 86 years in the mak­ing” with a vic­tory in the 2004 World Se­ries. Mr. Rick­etts felt Mr. Ep­stein was the “ex­act def­i­ni­tion” of the three cri­te­ria he re­quired in a gen­eral man­ager: “a com­mit­ment to player devel­op­ment, an an­a­lyt­i­cal back­ground, and a track record of suc­cess.”

It would be a dif­fi­cult task to “re­build the Cubs from the ground up to cre­ate a sus­tain­able cham­pion.” Be­sides a cen­tury of fail­ure, the team also suf­fered from the pre­pos­ter­ous Curse of the Billy Goat. Dur­ing Game 4 of the 1945 World Se­ries, Billy Goat Tav­ern owner Wil­liam Sia­nis and his pet goat, Mur­phy, were kicked out of Wrigley Field due to the an­i­mal’s pun­gent odor. This caused him to re­port­edly ut­ter, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.”

For­tu­nately, Mr. Ep­stein had solved the Red Sox’s equally pre­pos­ter­ous Curse of the Bam­bino (af­ter Babe Ruth was traded to the New York Yan­kees in 1919). He was de­ter­mined to tame the billy goat, and started his plan of ac­tion.

Mr. Ep­stein’s first step was to sign “a min­i­mum of four im­pact play­ers ... be­fore en­ter­ing 2016, the fifth and fi­nal year of his con­tract.” This quar­tet turned out to be An­thony Rizzo (an in­cred­i­ble tal­ent who was, sur­pris­ingly, “a .141 hit­ter with the San Diego Padres who had just lost his job there not just once, but twice,” and needed to ad­just his swing.), Kris Bryant (“a ma­chine” who “cares about base­ball”), Kyle Sch­war­ber (“freak­ish hit­ting skills ... who looked and hit like a line­backer”) and Ad­di­son Rus­sell (for­merly “the 14th best prospect in base­ball” who “locked in on ev­ery sin­gle pitch.”)

Mr. Ep­stein then put to­gether a “259-page, spi­ral-bound road map known as The Cubs Way” in 2012. He de­vised in­di­vid­ual player devel­op­ment plans, an ex­ist­ing for­mula which de­fined “how play­ers look at the busi­ness of base­ball” and cre­ated con­nec­tions be­tween teams and play­ers. As well, he es­tab­lished “a cul­ture in which the play­ers could trust the front of­fice,” thereby cre­at­ing an “open and hon­est per­sonal con­nec­tion.”

This had a pro­found ef­fect on the team. “Un­der­neath the flot­sam on the sur­face,” Mr. Ver­ducci writes, “the Cubs were chang­ing the very def­i­ni­tion of what it meant to be a Cub.” Play­ers be­came more con­fi­dent, morale was boosted, and a pos­i­tive at­mos­phere ex­isted in the dress­ing room. In fact, “[w] hen­ever some­body ex­e­cuted a win­ning-type fun­da­men­tal play ... a coach or a co-or­di­na­tor might shout, ‘That’s Cub!’ ”

The change in at­ti­tude en­abled the Cubs to go from 101 losses in 2012 to World Se­ries cham­pi­ons in just five sea­sons. Aided by nu­mer­ous ac­qui­si­tions, in­clud­ing Jon Lester, Jake Ar­ri­eta, Aroldis Chap­man, Javier Baez and Ben Zo­brist, along with man­ager Joe Mad­don, the team got stronger each sea­son.

The cul­mi­na­tion was the 2016 World Se­ries against the sim­i­larly fu­tile Cleve­land In­di­ans. (The lat­ter hasn’t won a cham­pi­onship since 1948.) Each game has its own book chap­ter, pro­vid­ing read­ers with scin­til­lat­ing back­ground ma­te­rial, sta­tis­tics and sto­ries. The fi­nal game, “one of the most fre­netic Game 7s in World Se­ries his­tory,” went 10 in­nings along with a rain de­lay. Some peo­ple be­lieve this is why the Cubs won. Even Mr. Ep­stein ad­mit­ted, “A lit­tle di­vine in­ter­ven­tion never hurt.”

In Mr. Ver­ducci’s en­ter­tain­ing book, he notes that the “con­struc­tion of a cham­pi­onship team is gran­u­lar” and the “fi­nal pic­ture is a Seu­rat paint­ing” with “many tiny dots of color” and “mil­lions of rea­sons and thou­sands of cas­cad­ing events.” He’s right: The artis­tic brush con­tain­ing the power of pos­i­tiv­ity helped make the Chicago Cubs win­ners once more.

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