If there was a common theme woven through Joe Maddon’s first season in Chicago, it was that he handled his young Cubs like a Little League team (apologies for the florid language in that one, I went way overboard). And I don’t mean providing snacks after games or having them watch Tom Emanski videos between practices, but in the way he’d move guys all over the field.
Even Kris Bryant, the anointed wunderkind, saw himself patrolling center field within six games of his debut. I remember that game vividly because it took place in the middle of some legit snow in Pittsburgh. Also because I watched it with Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella, which was a surreal experience.
And though Bryant and other key players maintained set positions for the most part, Maddon had no problem getting a little wacky from time to time. While it’s common at lower levels, that’s not something we’re used to seeing in light of the hyper-specialization so prevalent in professional sports these days. In the time since their managerial change, the Cubs have derived a great deal of value from having players with both the ability and willingness to play in multiple spots.
Even more important than where they were playing was how everyone on the team seemed to be having fun. Not just the kind of fun that comes from winning — which is very real and can’t be dismissed — but from genuinely enjoying their time playing baseball and simply being around one another. Their love of the game seemed more pure and childlike than anything I’d seen from the Cubs in a long time. Or since.
And if I’m being totally honest, I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like the 2015 and ’16 seasons again, if only because the paradigm has shifted permanently. What the Cubs can do, however, is get back to that same approach they had a couple years ago. Think of it like the way Team USA got back to their Ducks roots during the Junior Goodwill Games back in 1994.
“You talk about data, you can talk about this and that, but it’s about thinking in the box or not thinking in the box, if that makes any sense,” Maddon explained recently. “You go out there and have an approach: How am I going to attack this guy? Your thoughts are not on you but, ‘What am I seeing now and how am I going to beat this guy?’ just like you did in Little League.”
Kind of a typical Maddonism, with ideas that switch back on themselves like a Grand Canyon mule path but that makes sense when you distill it all down. Kids are usually out there competing against other kids, not against themselves or their own recent history. However you choose to classify it, the Cubs’ “hangover” was likely a result of doing the latter.
While playing beneath the crushing weight of historical failure had proven too much for past Cubs teams, the removal of that weight may have been just as deleterious last season. Rather than feeling outward pressure, the players internalized it and pushed too hard against their own lofty expectations. Or at least that’s how I saw it, which is the way everyone should see it (unless, of course, you don’t).
Perhaps being another year removed from that historic title will bring them another step closer to the way they played played a couple years ago. Does that make sense? Even if it doesn’t, I bet Maddon gets it.