On Saturday night, something happened that changed my life and those of millions of Chicago Cubs fans around the world. They finally won the game that catapulted them into the World Series, and I can’t even believe I am writing those words. As a Cubs fan, you didn’t dare say it for fear that the rug would be pulled out from under you one more time. Now, we can all breathe a sigh of relief as we realize just how lucky the Cubs are. Yes, I said ita��lucky!
In all the exhilaration of the Cubs vanquishing the Los Angeles Dodgers, nobody thought of this Cubs team as being lucky. But without several fortunate occurrences going their way, we would not be talking about them being on the verge of their first championship since 1908.
In the deciding game, Dodgers outfielder Andrew Toles dropped a routine Anthony Rizzo fly ball to set up their second run of the first inning on the way to a 5-0 shutout. In a quick-paced game that flew by much too fast, there was nary a worry for Cubs fans as Kyle Hendricks looked a lot more like Clayton Kershaw than Kershaw did.
He was untouchable, until Cubs manager Joe Maddon did the unthinkable. After Josh Reddick got just the second hit of the game against him and the first since the first batter of the game, Toles, singled, Maddon motioned to the bullpen for closer Aroldis Chapman. Here’s where the luck kicked in again. Howie Kendrick sliced a hard line drive that quick-hopped second baseman Javy Baez as he turned it into an inning ending double play. Just a few inches to the left or right and it’s first and third with one out in the eighth, with only five outs to go.
That is significant because it was the same scenario in 2003 when Mark Prior was pitching a shutout and the Bartman play happened at Wrigley Field with just five outs to go before the Cubs first appearance in the World Series since 1945. This time the Gods or goats were smiling on the Cubs, as they have been for the past several years.
It started in 2009 when the Cubs were up for sale and Tom Ricketts and his family bought the team. At the time, I thought Ricketts was a disease. I had never heard of him, and wasn’t sure he was the guy I wanted owning the team. When he kept Jim Hendry as GM, I knew the Cubs got another owner in the mold of Phillip Wrigley and his son, and the Tribune Company, who cared more about the bottom line than winning baseball games. In my mind, it was here we go againa��another incompetent owner. In other words, the Cubs bad luck continues for another generation or more.
But something happened along the way. Theo Epstein, who helped the Boston Red Sox overcome years of futility to win the World Series for the first time since 1918 in 2004, suddenly became available after a dust-up with ownership. Ricketts jumped on Epstein as the successor to Hendry to oversee the Cubs fortunes.
Epstein brought along some of his staff from Boston, and rather than spending on free-agents as Hendry had done, decided to do a total rebuild of the organization from top to bottom. It needed to be done, but past regimes never took the long, hard road of rebuilding the farm system and stocking the empty cupboard.
In one of his first trades, he acquired Anthony Rizzo from San Diego. He has become an All-Star and a leader on the team. The Cubs acquired Jake Arrieta along with Pedro Strop in a seemingly meaningless deal with Baltimore that was anything but.
Another lynch-pin of the Cubs staff has been Hendricks, who came in a trade with Texas after Cubs starter Ryan Dempster used his veto power to put the kibosh on a trade the team worked out with Atlanta for a so-called better prospect in Randall Delgado. Instead, the Cubs settled for soft throwing minor leaguer Hendricks. The Cubs got lucky due to Dempster’s reluctance to accept the trade, giving them the Major League ERA leader this year, while Delgado is still a middling pitcher.
Addison Russell was acquired for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Hammel’s contract was up after the season and went back to the Cubs, while Samardzija was under club control for one more year before he was traded. The lucky part for the Cubs was that Samardzija turned down a multi-year contract to keep him with the team so he could explore free-agency when his deal was up. His decision led to the Cubs gaining an All-Star shortstop.
In another bit of fortune, the Houston Astros opted to select Mark Appel with the first pick of the draft in 2013 instead of Kris Bryant. Bryant is the favorite to win the Most Valuable Player award this year after being Rookie of the Year in his first season with the Cubs. The Cubs jumped on Bryant with the next pick when Houston passed, but word was out that Appel was the top player on the Cubs board and they would have taken him if they had the first pick.
In 2014, the Cubs selected a thick catcher/outfielder in Kyle Schwarber with the fourth pick in the draft, though pitching was thought to be more of a need. He was expected to fall towards the middle of the first round and was considered a reach by the Cubs, but quickly made his presence felt in their lineup when they brought him up mid-season in 2015. He missed almost this entire year after an injury in the third game of the season, but there is speculation he might be activated to be a DH in the World Series.
When the opponent the Cubs just vanquished made a change in the front office, signing Andrew Friedman away from Tampa Bay, a little known clause in Rays’ manager Joe Maddon’s contract tied to Friedman allowed him to opt out and explore other possibilities. Epstein jettisoned first year manager Rick Renteria, and jumped at the chance to hire Maddon.
With his ‘Joe Cool’ attitude, he completely changed the mindset of the players on the team, and got them to buy into his ‘out of the box’ way of doing things. Despite some questionable managerial decisions in the playoffs this year, there is no question the Cubs would not be where they are right now if he didn’t suddenly become available.
And Javy Baez, the new star of the team, and co-MVP of the NLCS was thought of as not the right fit for the organization and a trade piece to get more pitching. Jason McLeod, Cubs Senior VP and Director of Scouting and Development said as much on Sunday on The Score radio station in Chicago, mentioning that when he was working for San Diego, he didn’t think Baez had the intangibles he was looking for with the Padres first pick at No. 10. Fortunately for the Cubs, they never moved him when his value was down, and Maddon fell in love with his own personal Swiss Army knife.
For a team with a history of bad luck, the Cubs have had a lot of good fortune in the past several years. Having smart people running the team helps, but you can’t overlook how luck plays a part in any championship organization. They say it’s better to be lucky than good. This Cubs team is both.
Is this the year? Here’s something a Cubs fan in your life may appreciate.