"So this is what it's like to be a Yankees fan," I thought at the beginning of baseball season.
The Cubs were working counts, drawing walks, advancing runners by hitting to the right side, delivering in the clutch, and both pitching and fielding impeccably. They expected to win, and win they did, racing out to a 25-6 start.
Yet it would have been slighting these Cubs to compare them to the Yankees. There's always been a forbidding, somewhat chilly mystique to the Yanks. Yes, their players had personality, but it was the personality of efficient professionalism. From Joe DiMaggio through Derek Jeter, the Yankees, when they were good, were good because they were the best at their field. They played professionally, proficiently, and occasionally something more, as in the undeniable genius displayed by Jeter in his relay between the pitcher's mound and home plate to nail Jason Giambi in that 2001 playoff series with the Oakland A's. Yet, with the notable exception of the so-called Bronx Zoo Yankees of the 70s of Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin, the team lacked warm personalities. Even Mickey Mantle had it drilled out of him in the end.
By contrast, this year's Cubs were, well, cubs, much as they were when they adopted that nickname with an influx of young players in the first decade of the 1900s—when, not coincidentally, they attained their peak. The Yankees, being based in well-to-do New York City, have never had to burn the franchise to the ground and start from scratch, not since the arrival of baseball's free-agent era, in the 70s, and not before the adoption of the free-agent draft in the 60s, when the Yanks simply outbid everyone else for the best young talent. Upon the arrival of Theo Epstein in Chicago, however, that's exactly what he did: tank the franchise and build a talent base with the top picks in the draft. When those players arrived en masse over the last few seasons, even they had to admit "We are good," but it was also good with a certain flair.
There was Kris Bryant, with his Lee Godie eyes and the way his follow-through on a well-executed swing brought him forward on the balls of his feet, as if he were already posing for a bronze statue. (Indeed he may be, having won the National League Rookie of the Year Award last season and moved on to being odds-on Most Valuable Player this season.) There was Anthony Rizzo, with his tippy-toe highlight-reel catches along the grandstand wall down the first-base line. There was hunch-shouldered shortstop Addison Russell, racing to the opposite foul line to make catches that could only be called, yes, Jeter-esque. Then there was my personal favorite, Javy Baez, who fielded with all the elan of a matador Hemingway might've written about in Death in the Afternoon—making bare-handed pickups and throws from third base on bunts down the line, slapping no-look tags on would-be base stealers at second, and, in one particularly spectacular play, tagging a runner in the baseline and whirling to throw to first for a double play as if he were some sort of baseball dervish—yet one who batted with all the delicacy of a rodeo bull fresh out of the chute.
Even so, it was Baez's pink-shoed, game-winning homer in the 13th inning on Mother's Day that made the Cubs 25-6, and they never looked back.
Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer built this team on young hitters selected in the draft; as Baseball Prospectus never tires of pointing out, "there is no such thing as a pitching prospect," because of the tendency of young pitchers to break down with arm issues. So to fill out the team with the essential pitching it would need, they settled instead on veterans who came across as mercenaries, and in fact that might have provided the edge this club needs to end 108 years without a championship. Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and this year John Lackey: all came in, chips on their shoulders, determined to deliver (Arrieta, admittedly, salvaged off the scrap heap in Baltimore with the Orioles), and all did just that, augmented this season by "the Professor," Kyle Hendricks, with an unassuming demeanor and a haircut seemingly executed by Mayberry's Floyd the Barber, who complemented them all with a change-up and approach modeled on the Cubs' "Professor" of old, Greg Maddux. It should be noted that Hendricks, too, wasn't a true homegrown talent but a product of the 2012 trade of Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers. Add to that the most mercenary addition of all, Aroldis Chapman, the flamethrower acquired from, yes, the Yankees in July who appeared to fill the Cubs' one deficiency—a lock-down bullpen closer—at the cost of jeopardizing the team's otherwise carefully coiffed reputation for likability (Chapman served a suspension to open the season for an off-season incident of domestic abuse) and you have perhaps the perfect mix—young and old, beautiful and treacherous, mercenary and idealistic.
Perfect because of the man pulling the strings, manager Joe Maddon. I wrote last year about Maddon, about his whimsical way of keeping his young core of players loose with magicians and visits by zoo animals, but I don't think enough has been written about his quite different approach this year. From the start of the season, he dared his team to "embrace the target": that all other teams would acknowledge the Cubs as the team to beat. Most pointedly, when the Cubs went through a June swoon that extended into July, with only a brilliant surge at home against Cincinnati to suggest they were about to recover, Maddon never went to his previous distractions. He let them play and figure it out for themselves, much as Phil Jackson let his championship Bulls teams figure it out at times in order to strengthen their unity and resolve, and the end result was that the Cubs emerged from the All-Star break looking like their previous selves and went on to 103 wins, the most in the majors.
This is the best team in baseball, no doubt about it, and it ought to claim the championship, but there were seven other fine teams in the playoffs, and the one that gets hot at the right time usually prevails. The website FiveThirtyEight, headed by Nate Silver, who cut his statistical teeth here in town for Baseball Prospectus, rated the Cubs as the favorites, sure, but even so at barely better than 1-in-4 to win it all as the playoffs began. Were they to follow the Yankees in that regard, as the only team to lead the majors in victories and win a championship over the last two decades, or their recent Cubs predecessors? Losing at any point would stamp these young players as "Cubs" in a particularly distasteful manner, but then again they'd be back with the same core next year, rejoined by slugger Kyle Schwarber, left to play cheerleader on the sidelines since blowing out a knee in the first week of the season.
Well, in the October 12 clinching game of their first-round series with the Giants, they executed a graceful turnaround worthy of Baez himself. After winning the first two games at Wrigley Field, in San Francisco they weren't taking pitches; in fact, they were swinging at terrible pitches. In a Cub-like switch of personalities, Baez—who homered for the only run scored in the Cubs' opening win—was showing more patience at the plate than Rizzo. There was no clutch hitting. Lackey's pitching was off, just at the time he was expected to thrive under pressure. They looked terrible, down 5-2, and with haunting parallels to 2003, with the Giants' Johnny Cueto set up to start the final fifth game, and with Madison Bumgarner ready on two days' rest to come out of the bullpen, much as Josh Beckett did in the seventh game in 2003.
But suddenly, in the ninth inning, the Cubs were clutch again, scoring four runs against a series of San Francisco relievers. Maddon outmanaged the Giants' Bruce Bochy to get the matchup he wanted, at one point using a left-handed batter off the bench in order to get righty Willson Contreras up against a lefty. Contreras delivered, as did Baez, who again drove in the winning run, this after another of his miracle tags to nab a would-be base stealer at second. The Cubs, the giddy young Cubs, raced onto the field after Chapman struck out the side to seal the game and the series.
And so we come to Saturday and another National League Championship Series. And what's become clear at this point is that the Cubs are so good, so excitable, so large and likable as players and as personalities, that it's come time to share them with all of baseball. They're the Cubs, the charming and, thus far, indomitable Cubs, and I believe in the end even the Yankees will want to emulate them after this season.