Friday, March 31, 2017


Those maniacs did it.  And now, after more than a century of ineptitude, a litany of specific playoff humiliations, an angry, mustard-flecked mob that has driven a nebbishy-looking baseball fan to the underground, an intentional reduction of the team to baseball molecules where fans were invited to pay exorbitant prices to watch Junior Lake strike out hundreds of times, and a mythical World Series run that involved the Rebirth of That Beefy Lad Kyle Schwarber from a sausage chrysalis and an impossible Game Seven where the Cubs, in prime Cub position and ready to implode in front of the only other team that can live in their baseball misery zip code had the heavens themselves open up and refuse to allow the Cubs to do what I had predicted they would do for hours in a number of increasingly frenzied and embarrassing text messages.  They won. They had the parade and everything.  And then baseball had to go and continue to exist.

What happens now?  There are rapacious Baseball Alexanders and Yankees fans for whom a single title is not enough and demand them with their unrelenting bobbling the ball gestures while a large, angry man screams fuck you fuck you fuck you behind them.  Sure, the Cubs should be really good this season.  They've got as good of a shot as anyone.  But after a postseason where every single pitch carried with it the portent of doom, where the echo of death so shrouded the team that Wrigley Field itself was turned into an impromptu chalk memorial for fallen Cubs fans unable to wait out a championship drought literally decades longer than the entire existence of the Soviet Union, it's hard to be upset when John Lackey gets knocked around in the 2017 Division Series.

The Cubs have long made hay from romanticizing their failure.  But there's no nobility in watching a profoundly wretched baseball team.  If there's anything that can be taken from the Cubs' century of failure it's that it was incredibly funny-- a wealthy team, boasting a national fanbase from early cable television, bolstered by a charming historical ballpark teeming with tourists indifferent to the often putrid play on the field manages only to perpetuate a remarkable run of baseball ineptitude where the team's rare appearances in the playoffs more often than not culminate in grandiose, impossible choke jobs and then everyone blames the whole thing on a literal goat. 

One of the dumbest legacies of the contrived billy goat curse is 
the fact that the goat was ever there in the first place. It should 
have been called the "curse of the reasonable stadium barnyard 
animal policy"

The 2017 Cubs face an impossible task of following up last season.  They face another long, grinding schedule, a host of reinforced rivals, and the unhinged lunacy of playoff bullshit that has made it rare for teams to repeat as champions.  And they do so after getting over America's greatest sports hump and in the face of inevitable backlash and overexposure that has already involved an absurd article naming Theo Epstein the world's greatest leader and David Ross dueling Mr. T on some sort of geriatric dancing program.

Mr. T is no stranger to televised competition, as 
shown by his entry in the Toughest Man In The 
World contest in the film The Toughest Man 
in the World where he plays the Toughest 
Man in the World, a bouncer who according to 
IMDB was "conned into taking over a youth 
center" also Mr. T performed the theme song 
called The Toughest Man In The World

The 2017 Cubs will not be able to break the longest championship drought in American sports, inspire a montage of crying grandmothers, or feature World Series games that start with ten minutes of Joe Buck cackling over footage of crypts and graveyards.  They will merely be an excellent baseball team, and watching them will still be the same pleasant waste of time that comes from watching any other baseball.  And from a person who wasted hundreds of hours citing Jake Fox's AAA numbers and watching Tony Campana desperately attempt to reach first base more than once a week, it's a welcome change.


The Cubs, fueled by their young bats, bring back the vast majority of last year's team.  They still have Rizzo and Bryant and Russell in their infield along with World Series MVP Ben Zobrist.  They can, at any time and without warning, deploy Javier Baez, who was scientifically designed to always do the most delightfully reckless thing possible on a baseball field. Baez will take extra bases and try insane, physics-defying slides.  He will always make that ill-advised throw or barehand play and somehow make it work a shocking number of times.  He is incredibly good at tagging, which I had no idea was something someone could be good at.  He will try to hit every ball he sees into the Upper Peninsula enough times that baseball's cold water pouring statistics brigade can toss out their well actually Javy Baez is not really that great of a baseball player articles because he strikes out so much that he might qualify for a federal wind farm tax break to which I say to this straw man have you seen him do the no-look tag.

Baseball's greatest feat of derring-do

At some point, it is possible the Baez magic will wear off.  Baez gained a cult following because of his playoff hot streak, most notably his solo, game-winning home run against a seemingly-unhittable Johnny Cueto at Wrigley, but that's not his typical hitting profile. He will likely remain frustrated by his greatest nemesis, the breaking ball so far outside that it's practically in the on-deck circle that nevertheless compels him to swing.  I'm willing to live with that.  Baez dwells in baseball chaos, and if his irrepressible desire to do the coolest thing possible turns him into an Infield Kingman, that's all well and good.

The Cubs will not have my other favorite player from the Cubs farm system, Jorge Soler. They traded Soler to the Royals for closer Wade Davis.  Soler, along with Baez, embodied the era of Shadow Cubs, where tales of their feats against hapless future insurance adjustors served as the happy counterpoint to whatever sad spectacle was happening to the actual Cubs on a daily basis.   Baez had footage of moon tower home runs; Soler came with reports of attempting to singlehandedly charge an entire opposing dugout.  Soler arrived on a tear in 2014 with a homer in his first at-bat, and the rhapsodies continued from there.  Joe Maddon referred to him as "like Vladimir [Guerrero] with plate discipline;" this came coupled with some delightful Maddon nonsense. "The fact that he doesn't really understand or speak English very well could work in his favor right now," Maddon said, Maddonically. "He's a beautiful man. I really, really enjoy the way he is."

Soler instead had trouble with plate discipline and spent a large amount of time lingering on the disabled list.  His greatest asset, to me, was his greatest drawback-- the fact that he is built like the Colossus of Rhodes and it seems stunning when he doesn't launch every single pitch back to the nearest Spaulding manufacturing plant as a warning to future baseballs. To watch Soler hulk in the batter's box, his ominous shadow lurking towards the dugout in the afternoon sun and then whiff feebly on the low and outside slider that we all knew was coming or stab ineffectively at balls in the outfield, or spend all of his free time nursing soft-tissue injuries made his struggles as a kind of OK baseball player harder to take.  Soler is still only 25 and escaped from an impossible logjam of prospect prodigies that have passed him by.  I hope he can put it together and mash some enormous moonshots out of Kaufman Field when he gets healthy.  He'll begin the season on the disabled list.

Farewell to Jorge Soler, whose throw to third after a league-wide shame campaign peer-pressured
Jon Lester into throwing to first is one of my favorite recent Cubs plays

The Cubs' most damaging departure is Dexter Fowler.  Fowler came in and did what almost no Cub did during Theo Epstein's years-long purge of competent baseball players for rebuilding purposes by getting on base a ton.  He became so integral to the Cubs' offense that he got his own catchphrase ("you go, we go"), and became one of the most likable Cubs of my lifetime.  Last year, Fowler had apparently signed with the Orioles and then dramatically popped up in Cubs' spring training to save the day. Now he is gone-- not safely ensconced in the American League, but on the hated Cardinals to torture the Cubs 19 times a season.  It's a testament to Fowler's popularity and the general, hazy euphoria that now accompanies all things Cub, that few Cubs fans harbor any hostility toward him (most of the Fowler TRADER references I could find on twitter were either sarcastic or referencing what appears to be a British soap opera), but we'll see how that progresses when he starts slapping hits all over Wrigley Field the Right Way in a pennant race.

The 2016 Cubs hit and pitched well, but they also owed their success to a historically great defense. They will certainly not be that good again partly because that sort of blip is unsustainable, but also because they will start a lumbering moose in left field.  Kyle Schwarber may be the most popular Cub because of his world series heroics, his propensity for mashing enormous home runs, and because he is a beefy, genial man in a city of genial, beefy people.  The question is not whether Schwarber can acquit himself well in left, but it's how much his prodigious bat can offset his oafish outfield stumbling and occasional inevitably-disastrous catching cameos.  As long as he is a Cub, loud, nasal calls will echo across sports radio for him to be traded to the American League, where he can whack moonshots in peace without having to ineffectually flail at baseballs in front of the entire country on a nightly basis.  That is unfathomable to me. 

Jason Heyward remains a mystery.  Heyward, last year's prized free agent signing, spent last season futilely gesturing with his bat in the general direction of a pitch and hit something like 15,000 soft grounders directly at the second baseman.  Still, he remained a valuable fielder and baserunner, and evidently a master of locker room rain delay oratory as evidenced by his World Series rain delay speech the Cleveland Urinal Address. Heyward's batting woes remain a fascinating look at how, even for an athlete as gifted as Heyward, his mind can be at war with his body.  His every plate appearance featured a series of ticks and timing gestures of a guy who floundered and kept adding mechanisms and hitches to the point that his swing resembled a Rube Goldberg machine of limbs and tendonsThis offseason, he has gone on a baseball vision quest to try to find a new swing, tinkering for months until he came up with something that has been roughly as terrible in spring training than whatever he was doing last year. 
Heyward's swing enters its Mark IV prototype phase using top baseball science  

The Cubs have an old, creaking pitching staff.  They have inexplicable ERA leader Kyle Hendricks, who somehow dominated Major League players with an 88 mile per hour fastball and a mound presence that can best be described as impending visit with the vice principal.  Every one of Hendricks's pitches last season felt like watching an increasingly elaborate con, waiting for someone somewhere to figure out that he was not throwing hard and exposing the ruse with a series of blistering line drives.  Baseball analysts don't know what to do with a guy like him. especially when he looks like a social media intern.  They give them nicknames like "The Professor" or "Dr. Brainzo" or "Chest Concave, Doctor of Baseball Flim-Flammery" while he beguiles people by winning the pennant and the World Series.  I have no idea if Hendricks will continue to contend for a Cy Young this season, but his mere existence in a baseball system that demands nothing but musclebound giants who break radar guns is a minor miracle.

Kyle Hendricks's theme music is "Sweet Emotion" 

There are few things in baseball less fun than rooting for a team with John Lackey.  Lackey, a grizzled, anthropomorphic swear word, has managed to gnaw his leg off from whatever bear trap that's ensnared him for the offseason and crawled into another spring training.  Lackey started off as a fat young guy who bellowed the word FUCK and has evolved his game to become a skinny old guy who yells FUUUCCCCKKK while hitting himself in the head with a baseball.  He's a mean ol' cuss who not only throws at guys who have the temerity to smile after hitting one his ineffective fastballs to Tucumcari, but stalks them in the offseason while doing pullups with the words "BAT FLIP" tattooed on his knuckles. Lackey was a good pitcher last year during the regular season and a not insubstantial part of their success, but he's also the least enjoyable Cub whose starts promise hours of peevish irascibility seethed through clenched, enormous teeth.

Jon Lester was great last season.  He does not throw to first.

Leaked footage of Joe Buck's intro to the Cubs-Cardinals game


I didn't think I'd ever see the Cubs win the World Series or Northwestern play in the NCAA Tournament, and they both happened within months.  I would say that this will change how I view sports, but then again the vast majority of teams don't carry with them impossibly long, mythical droughts that make it impossible to watch them on television without a graphic showing the price of bread and at least one old-timey vehicle.  

Here's an Old-Timey Base Ball Image to remind you of the many years that the Cubs 
afflicted their Fans with Substandard Base Ball-manship

The end of these absurd droughts has taken away single dominant narrative that surrounds everything they do.  It has also liberated them to exist as sports and not, in the case of the Cubs, a vaguely baseball-related doomsday cult.  The Cubs' 2017 season has no end other than baseball itself.  There will be questions about Jason Heyward's revamped swing whether Baez should be starting and whether Willson Contreras can catch Jon Lester.  These are normal baseball concerns, not a haunting Joe Buckmanship or invocation of the occult. 

No one wants to hear about long-suffering Cubs fans anymoreThe television networks and newspapers and, hell, even the Cubs themselves hauled it out to make their dollar and bludgeon every other baseball fan into oblivion with it every time the Cubs so much as threatened to finish over .500 for as long as anyone has been alive.  The baseball world has had enough of them and the inevitable Red Sox-like descent into sports villainy will begin on Opening Day.  That is when the World Champion Cubs will open on Sunday to defend their World Championship that they won in the World Series. 

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