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
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.