By Bill Pearch
For a fanbase that slogged through a 108-year drought to celebrate a World Series championship, expecting multiple titles in a tight window seemed implausible. With the Ricketts family’s deep pockets and Theo Epstein’s steady hand and calm demeanor driving the franchise’s modernization, that goal seemed attainable. Together they constructed a core of dynamic, fan-friendly players destined to dazzle the Wrigley Field faithful for the next decade. But five years later, Chicago Cubs fans cling to memories of a rainy evening in Cleveland as they watch the stars from 2016 fight for postseason berths donning different uniforms.
As the 2021 season wanes, the Cubs are approaching the franchise’s first losing season since 2014. From 2015 through 2020, the team managed six consecutive winning seasons and reached the postseason five times. With the core of the eventual World Series winners in place – Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, and Kris Bryant – the Cubs started winning, finished third in the National League Central (97-65) in 2015, and reached the National League Championship Series. Bolstered by seasoned veterans – Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Heyward, and Ben Zobrist – the 2016 Cubs stormed the National League Central and won 103 games. After digging a three-games-to-one deficit to the Cleveland Indians in the World Series, the Cubs reversed their fate and won the franchise’s first championship since 1908. Legends were made. Icons were born. The so-called curse had ended.
Enter the so-called World Series hangover. Each subsequent season following the World Series felt like a regression. The Cubs reached the NLCS for a third consecutive season, but the Los Angeles Dodgers claimed the NL flag in 2017. Then the Colorado Rockies defeated the Cubs 1-0 during the 13-inning 2018 NL Wild Card game.
As MLB teams and owners debated how, and if, a season should be played during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tom Ricketts claimed that franchises were slated for financial losses “of biblical proportions.” Once games resumed in front of empty stands, rumors of trades circulated throughout the 60-game 2020 season. After missing the 2019 postseason, the North Siders reclaimed the NL Central title in 2020. The Miami Marlins, a team ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, swept the Cubs during the NL Wild Card series.
Change was certain. Well before the trade deadline, the Cubs started making minor moves, but none that altered the championship core. But then it happened. Quickly, too.
Rizzo and Cubs management failed to negotiate a contract extension before the start of the 2021 season. Then the first baseman shared controversial comments about the COVID-19 vaccine claiming he is "definitely not against getting it" but wants to take "some more time to see the data in all of it." As the traded deadline approached, team captain Rizzo was shipped to The Bronx. After being sidelined with COVID-19, he continues to play a key role in the Yankees’ wild card chase.
Báez, drafted as a parting gift from outgoing general manager Jim Hendry, had emerged as the face of the franchise. Known for stellar defensive play and magical baserunning, he could also generate exciting power. He played with a smile and made baseball fun. But without a crowd at the corner of Clark and Addison, his play waned. One day after Rizzo’s trade, Báez was shipped to the New York Mets. A fan-friendly star in Chicago, he became tangled in the Mets’ “thumbs-down” mess.
Ever since Bryant appeared on the big-league roster in 2015, rumors swirled that he was unhappy that the Cubs delayed his call up to gain an additional year of contract control. He was named the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year, then earned the 2016 NL’s Most Valuable Player award. Bryant willingly played every position he was asked to patrol – from third base to the outfield, and even first base on occasion – he never spoke negatively about the situation, even when asked during this year’s All-Star Game. Then on the same day as Báez’s trade, Bryant was shipped to the San Francisco Giants. Since his arrival, the Giants have secured a ticket to the postseason.
David Ross, another hero from the 2016 World Series, is left managing a Cubs team that more closely resembles an AAA-squad. Despite winning a division title during his first season as a professional manager, Ross seems overmatched in his sophomore season.
With Epstein no longer a part of the Cubs organization, Jed Hoyer, the president of baseball operations, has his hands full. Is there enough talent in the system to transition the Cubs back into a contender? Will the Ricketts family loosen their budget limitations and attract key free agents?
Perhaps it’s cliché in Chicago. Wait until next year … or longer.
Bill Pearch, a lifelong Cubs fan, serves as newsletter editor for SABR’s Emil Rothe Chapter (Chicago). He has contributed to SABR’s publications about old Comiskey Park, the 1995 Atlanta Braves, and is finalizing the biography of forgotten Deadball Era pitcher Eddie Higgins. Follow him on Twitter: @billpearch.
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