Watching the NFL Playoffs Made Me All the More Appreciative of the Cubs’ Focus on Strong Mental Makeup

Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.

Winston Wolfe, Pulp Fiction


I know it’s become de rigueur to bash the NFL for its general tone deafness and inability to get out of its own way at times, but I’ve remained largely silent on that topic. And as this is a baseball blog, I’m going to remain so but to provide a contrast to what the Cubs are doing. Call me a mouth-breathing troglodyte or just an unrepentant misogynist with no regard for anything beyond my team’s record and why it’s taking my wife so long to get me that beer, but I’ve generally been able to isolate all the perniciously derogatory noise and enjoy professional football on Sundays. And Mondays. And Thursdays. And Saturdays. All the days, really.

So it was that I found myself watching the Pittsburgh Steelers battling the Cincinnati Bungles for the right to advance in the NFL playoffs. I’ll spare you all the gory details, most of which you’re probably already aware of, but suffice to say the home team imploded as the result of the boneheaded actions of Vontaze Burfict and Adam “Pacman” Jones. And the thing is, if you had asked me — or probably anyone — to name the two Bungles players most likely to do something untoward, those are the two names I’d have come up with. As such, the events that led to the game’s conclusion were both spectacularly unexpected and predictably imminent.

In the end, it was proof that there’s more to athletic success that just talent. Sure, superior ability is generally going to win out, but it was painfully obvious on Saturday night that Cincinnati’s choice to populate its roster with players possessed of obvious character flaws had cost it dearly. I mean, you can put all the concealer you want on those two festering zits on your face, but you’re not fooling anyone. We’ve seen our share of poorly-masked problems on the North Side of Chicago as well, which is exactly why I’m so impressed with what the Cubs front office has done as they’ve set about constructing the current iteration of the team.

Admittedly, I don’t really know any of the Cubs players beyond what I see through the lens of whichever broadcast partner happens to be responsible for the game on a given day. Social media helps, but even that can carry the stank of publicists and corporate sponsors. Unless you’re Adam Jones, that is. So while it’d be disingenuous for me to say I’m personally familiar with off-field personalities of the athletes I write about here, I can’t say that I’ve heard anything negative through the grapevine. Maybe they’re all just hiding it really well. The on-field demeanor though? That I can speak to.

In terms of drafts and free-agent acquisitions, the Cubs have placed a great deal of value on personality, on players whose it tool is solid as their hit tool. It’s not like they’re eschewing talent for temperament, as having a team full of well-mannered TOOTBLAN-ing Punches and Judys won’t get you very far. Makeup can’t make up for missing might. But in a game like baseball that requires a great deal of patience and hard work, it figures that players who are able to gird aptitude with attitude are perhaps more likely to find success. It also figures that those same players are perhaps more likely to maintain that success. Or, at the very least, they’re less likely to piss it away.

As a sports fan, I can safely say that I’ve cheered for some good teams that featured some pretty unsavory characters. I’ve also pulled for squads filled with great dudes who couldn’t play a lick. Notre Dame alum and broadcaster Allen Pinkett once said you’ve got to have a few bad citizens to have a successful team, but he was talking about football. He was also talking out his ass. As I watched the Cubs succeed last season with a team filled with guys who appeared to genuinely enjoy being around one another and who acquitted themselves — without the need of defense attorneys, mind you — both on and off the field, I found myself casting off some of my well-practiced jadedness. Winning is always fun, but the who in this case made the how that much better.

Oh, but now I’m getting all BFIB-y. I guess that’s fitting though, since the Cubs went out and picked up a couple of former Cardinals, one of whom is a guy most Cubs fans probably wouldn’t name on their list of top 500 favorite active baseball players. I’ve got a bit of a different take on John Lackey though, and I think the Cubs do as well, so that’s cool. If you don’t feel like clicking the link, the nutshell version is that I think the oft-lampooned starter actually does fit the front office’s vision for what they want in their team.

And that’s what I really dig about this team, the fact that I can cheer for them one way or the other and that I don’t feel the need to insulate my conscience in order to do so. It’s kinda nice to have glee without guilt. Now if we can just have a little glee that’s not gilt.

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