CHICAGO — Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins. Ron Santo and Ryne Sandberg, too. Hall of Famers for the Chicago Cubs, but no championship rings.
They all tried. Some got closer than others, but the famed drought got the best of them all. And decades of empty Octobers eventually took on a life of their own.
Now, as a new group of Cubs prepares to take aim at a lifetime of free drinks on the North Side, Sandberg, for one, believes this team might be uniquely positioned to succeed where so many others failed.
“I think when it’s talked about in that regard and you don’t have a game plan for that, you know, that that can be talked about on a daily basis,” Sandberg said, addressing the elephant in the room — the 108 years since the Cubs last won the World Series. “It can be brought to the players’ attentions, but I think this team here focuses on other things.
“They focus on their teammates, themselves, winning the game, having fun, somebody come up big and let’s celebrate in the room in there, and I think that’s their mentality. It seems to work.”
While the rest of baseball’s postseason picture is being sorted out, the Cubs are closing in on home-field advantage for the NL playoffs and making sure they are as ready as they can be for what they hope will be the franchise’s first World Series since its seven-game loss to Detroit in 1945. The NL Central champions completed a three-game sweep of Cincinnati with a 9-2 victory Wednesday night and lead Washington by eight games for the best record in the National League.
Playing to electric crowds all summer at a giddy Wrigley Field, the Cubs have spent most of the season looking down at the rest of the majors. And with the playoffs on the horizon, it seems as if they are only embracing the escalating pressure coming their way.
“I think pressure is what you make of it,” said Jon Lester, one of the front-runners for the NL Cy Young Award. “I mean we all know what the deal is around here. You can’t run from it. All you can do is show up and play.”
The Cubs made it to the postseason last year as the second NL wild card and then eliminated Pittsburgh and St. Louis before they were swept by the New York Mets in the NL Championship Series. That feel-good run by a team that appeared to be coming into its own turned into a runaway division title in 2016, boosted by offseason deals for free agents Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey.
Perhaps sensing what was coming, manager Joe Maddon told his pitchers and catchers to “embrace the target” when they arrived at spring training in February. That slogan quickly went on a T-shirt and then Maddon poked fun at himself with “Try Not To Suck,” a carry-over from last year that turned into a popular shirt around Chicago this summer.
Those slogans could serve the Cubs well next month.
“Why would you ever want to work somewhere where there’s no expectations?” Maddon said. “I don’t understand that. There’s that comfortable component of society that maybe they want to live in that moment where there are no expectations or any kind of pressure, and that to me would be absolutely no fun whatsoever.
“I think all of our guys, where you’re trained coming up as an athlete, you want to play in the championship game. You want to be the champion.”
But ahead of them is one unique challenge, beyond the obvious difficulty of winning three series against baseball’s best teams. One misstep in the playoffs, one bad bounce, and the Cubs’ twisted history — everything from the infamous billy goat curse to the black cat that taunted Leo Durocher in 1969 and Steve Bartman’s misplayed foul ball 13 years ago — all comes roaring back to the forefront.
The only comparable situation is Boston’s World Series title in 2004, stopping an 86-year drought. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein was the general manager of the Red Sox at the time, and Lester was a minor leaguer in the Boston system.
“Those guys wanted to be the team that won it,” Lester said.
That same attitude resides in Chicago’s clubhouse at the moment. Lester signed with the Cubs in December 2014, and Heyward, Zobrist and Lackey arrived last winter — each hoping to be on the team that put another banner on top of Wrigley Field. “To do it in this city, it’s a no-brainer that it would be making history,” Heyward said at his introductory news conference last December.
So, Lester said, bring on the pressure that goes along with every Cubs postseason run.
“I mean it’s there,” he said. “You can’t run from it. You can’t worry about it. You just have to worry about what your team can control and really just try to win it. That’s all you can really do.”
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap