Cubs young and old powering Chicago's historic success
They're traveling down a road toward magic. Toward history. Toward life-changing, metropolis-changing moments. But do those amazing Chicago Cubs even realize that this shouldn't be happening, shouldn't be possible?
And no, not because they're the Cubs. Because they're way too young. Too young to be this good. Too young to be this great. Too young to have a better run differential at this point than the 1927 Yankees. Too young to be one of those teams we might find ourselves talking about for a lifetime.
Here's what we mean. Of the 10 Cubs position players who have gotten 100 plate appearances so far this year, six of them are age 26 or younger. Let's just say history tells us that teams like that don't have seasons like this. And here's the proof.
• The three winningest teams of the past 25 years are the 2001 Seattle Mariners (116 wins), 1998 New York Yankees (114) and 1998 Atlanta Braves (106). Those Mariners had one player under 27 get 300 plate appearances (Carlos Guillen). Those Yankees had two (Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada). Those Braves had three (Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and, of course, Tony Graffanino). So the Cubs have as many "regulars" this young as those three juggernauts combined.
• The last team to play in a World Series with six players 26 and under getting at least 300 plate appearances? That would be the 1988 Oakland A's. Nearly three decades ago.
• The last team to win a World Series with at least six players 26 and under getting that many plate appearances? That would be the 1969 New York Mets. Nearly five decades ago.
• And the last team to win at least 105 games in a season with six "regulars" 26 or younger? That would be the 1943 St. Louis Cardinals. More than seven decades ago.
But Anthony Rizzo never got that memo. Kris Bryant never got it. Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and even Jason Heyward (still only 26 himself) would be shocked to hear it.
It's supposed to take a long time for players this young to learn how to win, right? But you would never know it, watching this team chug along on pace to win 114 games.
"I think, for me, it's the baseball IQ of these guys that stands out," says Jon Lester, who arrived in Chicago a year ago expecting good things -- but not this. "A lot of young guys, it takes them a year or two to kind of understand not necessarily the game, but to understand this whole gig, of being a big leaguer. ... So that, for me, was the biggest surprise and the most pleasant surprise. There was no learning curve."
But this just in: What you're seeing didn't happen by accident. It's not luck. It's not happenstance. It's not some shocking baseball miracle. There's a grand design here. There's a modus behind what you might think is madness (during Zany Suit Week, for example).
The Cubs have a front office that's highly attuned to finding players with that baseball IQ. They have a manager whose M.O. is creating an atmosphere that allows young players to be themselves and find themselves. And they've collected veteran mentors who have won, who get it and who go out of their way to spread baseball lessons and life lessons pretty much 24/7.
We'll get into how all those pieces fit together in a moment. But none of that matters unless the galaxy of kid stars is special. And the Cubs have that covered too.
"This is a group that wants to be great," says catcher/philosopher-king David Ross. "Addison Russell wants to be great. Kris Bryant wants to be great. They're perfectionists. They want to be stars. They are stars. They want to be winning players -- and winning people."
Now all those ingredients just might be locking together to produce one of those teams that comes along once in a generation. So what are the forces that are making that possible? Here they come. ...Because they've mastered mixology
As we mentioned, we always thought that learning how to win was supposed to be a long, often painful journey through ups, downs, wins, losses, over many, many years. So how come, for this group, that journey seemed to last, oh, like 20 minutes?
"To be honest," Rizzo says, "it's because of all the older guys."
Well, he ought to know. You think it's some kind of wacky coincidence that the young studs on this team are surrounded by four veteran players who have won a World Series -- Lester, Ross, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist -- plus a coaching staff full of men who have played and/or coached in October? Uh, not exactly.
"I think there's a nice balance out there," says manager Joe Maddon, nodding in the direction of his clubhouse. "There are young guys who are learning how to win. But they have veteran guys who have won and are definitely keeping them in line."
As Maddon begins to spin his tales of how that works and why that matters, one thing becomes clear: For him, having that balance isn't optional. It's mandatory.
"You have to, to learn how to win," he says. "If you just did a room full of young guys, I promise you that you wouldn't have the same kind of success. You just wouldn't."
Then again, if those veteran players weren't certain types of players and people, that wouldn't work either. But Ross, Lester, Lackey and Zobrist feel like almost perfect fits. They're patient. They're professional. They're personable and welcoming. And they're into every aspect of team-building, from the laughs to the lectures to the all-important attention to detail.
They emphasize the relentless energy and focus that are essential daily ingredients of winning in the big leagues. They think about the game whether they're playing that day or not. They run out every ball, play out every play, bear down on every pitch. And they place an exceptionally high emphasis on the day-to-day equilibrium that can sometimes be the hardest ingredient for young players to learn.
"The main thing that I see, as a whole, is that the older guys here tend to downplay the bad situations and lift up the good," Ross says. "You know, when things go wrong, we're more like, 'OK, relax. Turn the page. It's all right. Yep, you had a bad day. But just come back and get 'em tomorrow.' The message throughout is always, 'Let's trust in today and our process of how to win.' That's been the focus since I've been here. And I think that's the winning focus of teams that I've been on."
But there's also this important element: If the kids in the classroom aren't into the class, it's all a big waste of energy. If you watch this team closely, though, let's just say it doesn't take long to realize that's not a problem.
"They're hungry for knowledge, and they're really mature for their age too, as a group," Ross says. "I don't know what that is attributed to, but they really listen well. They take criticism well. And I think a lot of that has to do with their character, their willingness to want to get better and to be great."
And that willingness, that openness, allows another important part of the process to unfold, seemingly every waking minute of every day. ...Because they talk the talk
This is a team that isn't just aspiring to lead the league in ERA and OBP. The Cubs also take pride in leading the league in GBT.
"They're the great baseball conversations that we have a lot," Ross says. "There's a real hunger here for what we call GBT: great ball talk. So whenever we actually get done having a good conversation about the game, or how things are done, or what winning looks like, that's what we call that: GBT."
Those talks are part of daily life on other teams, of course. There are just "more on this team, at a young age," says Heyward, whose path to Chicago passed through more veteran-oriented teams in Atlanta and St. Louis.
Those GBTs seem to break out everywhere, Rizzo says. At dinner. At lunch. In hotel lobbies. And, of course, at the ballpark. Before games. After games. Sometimes even during games. In unlikely places -- such as, say, the pitcher's mound.
"The other day, we had one on a mound visit," Rizzo says. "Rossy comes out, and he basically just took over the whole meeting. He said, 'We're not going to let this guy beat us. If they pinch hit for the next guy, then they're out of bench players and they've got to [extend] their pitcher.' He was being, like, eight steps ahead of the rest of us, and I was blown away. I was like, oh my gosh. He was just so focused on the game. I love to go to him on everything. I try to stump him with stuff. But it's just impossible. I know I can't. But I ask a lot of good questions."
It's not only Rizzo though. As he's speaking, 45 minutes after a game last week, about 15 of his teammates are gathered around Ross and Lackey, talking over what had just unfolded on that baseball field down the tunnel. It's the perfect snapshot of who these Cubs are and what they do, day after day, as they trek through the season. But there's another level to this process....Because freedom rings
The secret to this team lies in one of Maddon's favorite words -- balance. But it isn't only a balance between young and old. There's another balancing act in place, an act that's vintage Joe Maddon.
It's a balance between allowing an unusual level of personal freedom to players while, at the same time, preaching the importance of "Team," with a capital T. It's a challenge to pull that off, especially on a club with so many young players. But to the manager, it's vital to the mission to win with so many young players.
"The best way I could describe that," Maddon says, "is with a team that's professional, that's mature, that knows how to handle moments. The more freedom you give them, the more respect and discipline you get in return."
How many managers in this sport, or coaches in the other sports, believe that, allow that, take their chances on letting that work, even relying on it to work? Very, very few. But Maddon can't even comprehend the alternative.
"The freedom component really works in our favor," he says, passion oozing out of every syllable. "I don't have any rules. But there's no reason to have any. The boys take care of business on a daily basis. And if anything is going awry, somebody out there will address it."
Finally, there's one more part of this that also may seem counterintuitive to much of the sporting earth: The younger the team, the more important that freedom becomes.
"It is if you want to see them play as good as they can," the manager says. "If you want to put [more] governance on somebody, you might see something nice, but you're not going to see them as good as they can be."
So why does that work? How does that work? How does it translate from the first inning to the ninth every day?
"I've never seen them play scared," Lester says of the young stars in his midst. "And that's another testament to Joe. He always hammers home, 'I'd rather you guys make the aggressive mistake than play timid and do the wrong thing.' So I think that really helps these guys relax. They can say, 'Hey, if I try to do a little bit more than expected, it doesn't matter, because my team has got my back.'"
And if it works on the field, it's having an even bigger impact off the field.
"He lets guys be themselves," Ross says. "And here's why that's a big thing. As I look back [on other teams], the biggest problem you sometimes get is when you want everybody to be in the same mold -- to be this person or that person, or play a certain way because 'this is the way we play.' But not everybody fits that mold. Joe has the ability to let guys be themselves and manage around that."
It's an ability that has served him well and served his teams well, even if not everyone on the outside understands it or believes in it. But there's one more reason this group of young guns is playing like the best team in the sport. ...Because they've lived it
What happened last year, to the 2015 Cubs, wasn't supposed to happen. It wasn't supposed to be The Year. It wasn't supposed to be a team built to win 97 games or make it to the National League Championship Series. It just happened. But now this team is feeding off the moments it lived and shared. Because no matter how much you talk about the game, prepare for the game or think you're ready for whatever comes with it, nothing beats doing it, living it, experiencing it.
"Until we started winning last year, you don't really learn how to win," Rizzo says. "Last year was a great experience for all of us. And that experience will hopefully carry over for the rest of our careers. ... You can prepare for it. And you can rely on that veteran presence. But I think until you go through it, I'm not sure you understand what it takes."
That's not just true of this team, obviously. But we can think of at least one reason it means a little extra for this team. By which we mean ... have you heard the rumor the Cubs haven't won a World Series in a century or so?
"I think last year really taught them a lot about winning," Lester says, "because you've got guys here who are young, who had never won, and you've got other guys who have been here a couple of years and went through a lot of bad times and never won. So I think last year really turned the page from, 'We're used to losing here,' to 'We know we can win if we play good baseball.' ... So to go through last year, where you're really not expected to do anything, has really helped these guys this year."
In some ways, of course, they haven't done anything yet. They won a wild-card game and a division series last year. But they got swept in the NLCS. And eight months later, all they've really done is had a tremendous, potentially historic start to this season. But don't suggest to Maddon that it's too soon to say this group has learned how to win.
"I think here is where people become confused," he says. "Not winning the World Series doesn't mean you haven't learned how to win. A lot of times [in the postseason], that's a crapshoot, man. ... That's the thread in those particular moments. But you look at our record from the second half last year until right now, it's not bad. And that indicates to me that our guys like to win, know how to win and, more than anything, they don't like to lose."That record since last year's All-Star break: How about 103-42 -- another stretch once duplicated by the mighty '27 Yankees. And these first 61 games of this season? They're equally historic, complete with the greatest run differential (plus-162) by any National League team since the 1912 New York Giants.
But you know the real sign of a team that has learned how to win? That it has barely noticed any of that. And that's the 2016 Cubs, where 1908 doesn't matter -- and neither does what lies ahead in the fall of 2016.
"You can't get caught up in the macro moment," Maddon says. "It's about today. And if you're out to do something special and you keep piling up todays, that will take care of itself."