Cubs try once more to forget the past
To say the Chicago Cubs have a teensy-weensy postseason problem is like saying Donald Trump has a teensy-weensy comb-over problem. The difference: The Cubs aren't in denial over their baseball bald spot.
It's been 101 years since the franchise last won a World Series, and 64 seasons since they actually played for the Commissioner's Trophy. Lou Piniella was 2 years old back then.
But Piniella is all grown up now, and so are the expectations surrounding his Cubs, who once again begin the season as the no-brainer favorites to win the National League Central, the solid favorites to win the pennant and one of five or six teams capable of starring in a World Series victory parade.
Yes, this is a recording. The Cubs were all those things a season ago, and look what happened: They won the most games in the NL, won the Central and then picked the absolute worst time -- the best-of-three NL Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers -- to cartwheel down the dugout steps.
The winningest pitching staff in the league forgot how to throw strikes. And when it did throw strikes, the Cubs forgot how to use their mitts. Or score runs. Or really do anything other than self-destruct.
Three games. Three Cubs losses. Six months of darkness.
"It's always going to be made a big deal because we've gone so long without winning," said Ryan Dempster, who won 17 games in 2008, but was on the wrong end of a Game 1 NLDS defeat to the Dodgers. "People are going to say, 'How are we going to do?' Hey, I get it. We could start the year 62-3 and people are going to be, 'Yeah, great, the Cubs just clinched the division, but don't worry, we get swept out of the playoffs.' I know it's coming."
See? The Cubs understand. They feel Cubs fans' pain. If anything, they feel it worse. After all, they were the ones doing the actual losing.
"We were all pretty shocked when that happened," said second baseman Mike Fontenot. "We knew the Dodgers had a good team, but we knew we had a good team, too. We never thought it would end with another sweep."
That's right, the Cubs have taken the playoff collar each of the past two years. The oh-fer against the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007, followed by the oh-fer against LA. Both left bruises, but last season's playoff failure tested whatever is left of Cubs followers' patience.
Nobody jumped off the top of the Sears Tower, but there were a few who wanted Piniella to take the leap. There were boos at Wrigley Field. Anger. Questions such as, "After a Cubs collapse, what's the proper way to plunge knitting needles into my eyes?"
Piniella has taken his share of heat, but only because somebody has to be blamed. But under Piniella the Cubs have won 85 and 97 games, two division titles and then -- sigh -- bubkes.
Weirdly enough, there might be less pressure on the Cubs this season. That's because the 100-year anniversary of the most recent Cubs World Series title has come and gone. The media loved that big, fat, round number. And 101 years? Not so much.
"Yeah, it's nice not to [answer those questions]," Piniella said. "Everybody saw us win 97 ballgames, and at the same [time] it was the 100-year [mark], and it looked like the stars and the moon and sun and everything was aligned."
It was if you were the Dodgers.
Last year we had such a great season, but we tried to go into the playoffs trying to do too much. We wanted it so bad that it ended up backfiring on us. I think this time, if we're fortunate enough to make it in, we can use that experience and turn it into a positive." -- Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee
"I think the Cubs last year probably had the best team in our league," said Dodgers manager Joe Torre. "But I didn't think it was a disadvantage [for the Dodgers] that [the Cubs] had home-field advantage, because knowing their history -- having been with the [St. Louis] Cardinals both as a manager and a player -- I knew what the Cubs had to endure. These players were all of sudden going to be asked about all the demons and the ghosts of people they had never met before. I think it brings back the human element of the game, that these guys were trying hard, especially at home. And I think we took advantage of that."
Torre's theory is confirmed by Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee.
"Last year we had such a great season, but we tried to go into the playoffs trying to do too much," he said. "We wanted it so bad that it ended up backfiring on us. I think this time, if we're fortunate enough to make it in, we can use that experience and turn it into a positive."
On a lineup card the Cubs look as good as, if not better than, a season ago. The starting pitching is as thick as a deep-dish pizza. That late-inning relief tag team of Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg is a huge luxury. The offense didn't have a player in the top five of almost all the meaningful individual categories, but the Cubs were No. 1 overall in runs, RBIs and total bases. And now Piniella has the righty-lefty balance in the lineup he craves.
What does it mean? Nothing yet. Sure, the Cubs could crash and burn, but I wouldn't build your day around it. The only thing that will keep them from reaching the playoffs again are injuries, not expectations or ghosts, or the Milwaukee Brewers or Cardinals. After that it's up to the Cubs to do something about their postseason one-and-dones. Torre, who has won four world championships, can offer no advice.
"I've never been where Lou is," Torre said. "Terry Francona was where Lou is now, until they won two World Series."
Francona manages the Boston Red Sox, who had gone 86 years between parades. They were cursed by the Bambino. And suddenly they weren't.
No team has waited longer than the Cubs to climb into the back of a convertible and do their prom queen-waves as they tool through the Loop. But first things first.
Piniella and the Cubs need wins. They need those stars, the moon and the sun to stand in a straight line again.
"It's going to be fun," Fontenot said. "We're looking forward to it."
It beats the alternative. Looking backward.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.