All we really have as an organization is each other.
There were moments during Tuesday’s NLDS clincher when things could’ve easily slipped away. The Cubs were down 2-0 before they’d even stepped to the plate and they were opposing a pitcher who’d held them hitless for five innings just a few days before. But there was no let down from these Cubs, there was no moment of despair from a fan base that has displayed a certain type of tension around this time of year not seen in baseball outside Boston circa 2003. A Jason Hammel RBI-single was immediately followed by a Javier Baez three-run homer and the Cubs were quickly on top.
A few innings later the Cubs would find themselves tied with the resilient Cardinals—but not down, thanks to a perfect throw home from Jorge Soler in right field—after a bullpen that’s been strong in the postseason hit a little bump in the road. No matter. The fans stayed resilient and, as they tend to do, so did the Cubs. Anthony Rizzo almost immediately put his club back on top, launching an 0-2 pitch into the right-field stands. Kyle Schwarber added a little cushion when he violently placed a ball on top of the scoreboard. And soon enough the Cubs were celebrating a playoff series victory on the field at Wrigley for the first time since, well, ever.
The names I’ve mentioned and so many others: Baez, Rizzo, Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler—the list is seemingly endless—at one time they were watched by amateur scouts, pro scouts, or international scouts. Each unit doing its job to help put together the group we’re now watching slug its way to the NLCS. Each player was acquired in various fashions, but the reason this all works is because they embraced a simple mantra, a mantra that’s permeated its way through the entire organization: That’s Cub.
It was once thought that ‘Cub’ was a negative term; that’s no longer the case. But it didn’t just happen because these Cubs won 97 games in the regular season and now find themselves a day away from taking on the New York Mets for the NL crown. No, this started years ago, on the backfields in Arizona. An idea sprung up by a pair of field instructors inspired to transform the culture of an entire organization. They somehow did what some believed was the impossible: they changed what it meant to be a Cub.
“It used to be an insult to say, oh, that’s Cub or that was a Cub play,” Epstein said. “Three years ago in instructs when people started to see how talented we were, if you said to somebody, ‘That’s Cub,’ that became a compliment. Backing up a base, getting a clutch hit, supporting a teammate—that’s Cubs started to become a compliment. And that morale, that vibe started in the minor leagues, percolated up to the big-league team, and Joe and his staff and these 25 guys took it to another level.”
When current Cubs first base coach Brandon Hyde was promoted to Director of Player Development towards the end of the 2012 season, the front office plucked the highly respected Tim Cossins from the Miami Marlins to fill the position Hyde left open as the team’s Minor-League Field Coordinator. In the duos first instructional league, Cossins came up with the saying, That’s Cub.
“We talked about it and I thought it was fantastic and that we should run with it,” Hyde said. “We just wanted to create this awesome, winning environment in the minor leagues. We wanted everybody to get on board, have guys with the passion to teach and then for it to flow into our players. We started to hear players talking about it, hearing players talking about the Cubs Way, saying ‘That’s Cub.’ And it was just wildfire. It became a way of how we did things. The coordinators are really the ones who spoke that language and it’s carried throughout the system.”
It filtered from the coordinators, to the players, to the development staff, to the scouts, and all through the organization. When Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer mention these things to the media, it’s not just lip service or turning a phrase for a good soundbite, for the Cubs, it’s a reality. Jason Parks has worked in the Cubs scouting department for a little over 14 months now, but the positivity that’s been built in the organization and being ‘Cub’ was quickly ingrained in him as well.
“That’s so Cub is not a pejorative term,” Parks pointed out. “That so Cub means I’m gonna outwork you. I’m gonna polish my skills to beat your skills, and if our skills are the same, my heart will win out. When I go out to scout a guy, I’m going out to beat the other team, because that’s Cub. When I write my report, I’m going to write a more articulate report, because that’s Cub. When we get guys into the org, we look for guys who have Cub in them. And then the player dev takes that and they turn those guys into Cubs. That’s the way it is from top down in this organization. That’s Cub means something to us.”
Lukas McKnight was drafted by the Cubs in the 21st round of the 2000 draft; after the 2004 season his playing days were over and he was offered a job as an area scout. McKnight has climbed his way to Assistant Amateur Scouting Director and has espoused what being a Cub is for a decade and half now. And while he has the utmost respect for those who came before Epstein, Hoyer, and company, he knows this is a new era for Cubs baseball.
“I think the expectations have been raised,” McKnight said. “Absolutely we’ve had good years before this, absolutely we’ve worked under good people before, but the expectations have been raised. We’re shooting to be the best in baseball, and there’s no way we’re going to settle for anything less than that. The term, ‘That’s Cub,’ it’s kind of been ingrained in our minor leaguers and we’ve kind of embraced it as our own. We have an expectation to be the best and that mindset trickles down from the top of the organization from Theo, Jed, and Jason (McLeod) down. Our expectation is that we’re going to win the World Series and every day is going to be geared around what I can do to do my part to win the World Series. And to me that’s Cub. Cub is a really positive thing, and there’s no other way that we’ll look at that.”
Hyde pointed out that when you have an organization filled with guys like McKnight, Amateur Scouting Assistant Shane Farrell (the son of Red Sox manager John Farrell), National Crosschecker Sam Hughes (the son of long-time scout Gary Hughes), you’re not surprised that such a positive mentality permeates throughout the organization.
“It’s just a ton of baseball guys with the same goal, the same mindset,” Hyde said. “We just want to be good, whatever it is, we just want to be good. We’re all in it for the same reason, and when you get a bunch of guys in it for the same reason, then the players feed off that for sure.”
It’s rare that these behind-the-scenes names I’ve mentioned—and countless others—get the praise they so sorely deserve, at least publicly. But prior to Game Three of the NLDS, the Cubs first home playoff game in seven years, the front office honored their player development and scouting staff.
“We quite literally would not be playing if it weren’t for the contributions of our scouting and development staff,” Epstein told me prior to Game Three. “I give these guys kudos because morale in the organization is always high when you’re winning and playing in October, but these guys helped create the good morale, the good culture over the last three years even when we were losing at the big-league level. We’ve known the talent’s coming. There’s been a real feeling of selflessness, cooperation, and Cubs-first attitude in the organization for a long time. And those guys helped create it. I think Joe has picked up on it and riffed on it in his own way, but it really started in the minor leagues, in scouting, and in instructs in the back fields. It’s great to have it be organic and have it manifest in a really neat way at the big-league level.”
And while Epstein and many others in the front office knew what was coming, the public recognition came as a bit of surprise to many in the group. Around 4 p.m., just before Game Three of the NLDS, the scouts and coordinators gathered underneath the bleachers in the right field corner. For many, it wasn’t clear exactly what was about to happen, but as Farrell and Pro Scouting Coordinator Andrew Bassett passed out blue pullovers to the group, Assistant Director of Player Development and International Scouting, Alex Suarez, let the group know that they were about to go out onto the field in front of the Wrigley Faithful.
“I’m standing there with a group of people who I have the ultimate respect for,” Parks said. “I almost don’t feel worthy at all because I’ve only been with the Cubs for 14 months. I’m standing there with hundreds and hundreds of combined years of experience in the game. Guys who have signed our top talent. Guys who have developed our top talent. And I’m just kind of in awe about it. And right before we go out on the field, I got this feeling of, man, I want to work harder now. I’ve been working my ass off since the end of January without much of a break, and right before they opened those doors, all I could think was I want to work harder. And I wasn’t the only one.”
Many touched the ivy and dirt on the track or just looked around in awe as they soaked in a situation where a Wrigley Field that was quickly filling up was on its feet cheering for all of those who had a hand in putting this team together.
“It was really terrific,” McKnight said. “You never know how one of those things is going to go. To walk into the ballpark and the feelings are kind of filling up in you and you’re with your comrades. To be honest, as scouts, we don’t get together as a group very often. So to be able to do that with everybody and look out and see people cheering for you, recognizing the players you’ve signed and everything, it’s kind of a surreal, magical moment. It’s something you don’t really experience as a scout and just all the more special that the entire organization recognizes the work that’s gone into it and to be able to enjoy it with the people you go to battle with every day was really fun.”
It wasn’t just pageantry; this was something that meant something to everyone involved, the team, the front office, the fans, and those being honored.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Parks said. “It was the ultimate gesture from the front office to people who are usually in the shadows, who get very little recognition and very little money. They don’t get any part of the spotlight. The Cubs have always told us that we’re the lifeblood of this organization and our front office, they’re the surgeons. And they gave us our due. And it was no question that it was the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced in my professional career.”
As the group walked across the dirt towards left field, they were greeted by coaches like Chris Bosio who congratulated them and thanked them for all the hard work they’d put in that was finally paying off at the big-league level.
“It hit me,” Hyde told me. “And I actually didn’t even jog down there because I didn’t want to get emotional, to be honest with you. Watching them walk in—I was field coordinator then farm coordinator, I hired a lot of those rovers and was a part of those decisions. Just knowing the work that was put in, the instructional leagues that we had, the amount of meetings, the amount of emails, just conversations and figuring it out what it was going to take. For our staff and our scouts to buy into what we were doing—to see that the other day, it hit me a little bit.”
Once gathering themselves, the group got to watch the fruits of their labor put together a historic game. The Cubs knocked out six home runs on the night, a major-league playoff record, including one each from Schwarber, Soler, and Bryant. The trio of rookies did their fair share of damage in the regular season, and continues to do so in October. One small phrase—That’s Cubs—has changed the way everyone in the organization feels about the team. The old tropes you’ve heard for years—and will surely continue to hear as this team pushes towards the center stage in October—don’t apply anymore.
“If you create a culture where the guys care more about each other than themselves or the outside world, then I don’t think any of those narratives—no matter how old, stale, historic, meaningful—matter to anyone,” Epstein said. “All they really care about is showing up, having fun, embracing what it means to be a Cub, and playing at their best when it matters most. And you saw that here. They’re picking up on Joe’s energy and they’re out there doing it for each other and the whole organization. So really the narratives—the things that have been written about us, the pressure, how quiet it sometimes gets in the ballpark if something goes wrong—none of that stuff really bothers these guys.”
Being Cub means something different than it used to. It means drafting Schwarber fourth overall when not many others had him in the top 20, let along the top five. It means finding hidden gems via trade like Jake Arrieta. It’s scouring the waiver wire or making smaller moves to fill out a roster with guys like Chris Coghlan and Trevor Cahill. It means outworking, outplaying, out-scouting, and outsmarting every other organization in baseball. It’s not a knock on anyone else, it’s just the realization that to be the best, you have to believe you are the best in every aspect. The Cubs strive to make sure that the competition does nothing better than the way things are done as a Cub.
Being Cub used to be a negative, it was something that was mocked. This group has put in years of work to make sure that’s no longer the case.
“It was an organic thing that started,” Epstein said of ‘That’s Cub.’ “We set a vision, all of us, of what it means to be a Cub, the Cubs way of playing baseball. People laughed at us, but it was on display here in this series.”
Epstein’s right, there were those who derided, those who laughed at the idea of the Cubs being a ‘scouting and player development machine,’ as Epstein had said back in November of 2011 when he was introduced as the President of Baseball Operations. And much of that continued through the down times as the team finished near or at the bottom of their division. But the organization remained positive, they understood what they were building. They were building the new version of the Cubs. Yes, there are certainly people laughing right now, but it sure isn’t at the Cubs.
Lead photo courtesy of Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports