When the Game Gives

As the season that read like a storybook wound down one well-executed Metropolitan pitch at a time, measures of an emotion I never expected to experience bubbled to the surface: guilt. Guilt borne because the deciding game of the most important series in 12 years had lulled me to sleep as the eighth inning began. As I awoke to take in the final six outs, the realization hit me that it wasn’t out of boredom that I slumbered, but rather peaceful contentment from everything the season had already given. Regardless of the negative outcome of the National League Championship Series, I could not help but reflect with gratitude towards what this dynamic young Cubs’ team had accomplished. As Jeurys Familia delivered Dexter Fowler the final blow, I stood in my living room alone and clapped one last time for the team I had grown to love.

“When this process began, there were many interesting narratives to follow. Would the Cubs reach .500? What was Maddon going to squeeze from this team? How would Lester anchor the pitching staff? Would Arrieta continue to improve? How would Kris Bryant’s service time affect the team? How would new Wrigley look and feel? This was all at the beginning of the season. The narratives changed rapidly in the first few weeks and the Cubs were off and running. In the thick of it all, though, how would my approach change as I watch the Cubs with a more analytical eye in the BP tilt? I realized quickly there was much to learn about the game. My eyes were trained on relatively basic baseball principles. The first month or so of the season was a crash course in baseball from an analytical approach. It carried beyond OPS and DRS. In short, I changed my entire perspective while watching and analyzing the game. The BP lens has forever altered my view and offered a great appreciation for baseball people and the difficulty of putting a team on the field. The team is greater than the 25-man roster. Greater than the sum of its parts if built right. The game is not just physical but mental, quantitative and qualitative. The 2015 Cubs will not only go down as the most fun I’ve ever experienced while watching a team, but also the most educational. Baseball is a great metaphor for life. This 2015 season is a lesson in humility. I will enter this offseason more excited than ever before: the Cubs are an exceptional collection of talent with great expectations, and I will continue to build on my knowledge to better understand the team and the field in which they exist.”

-  James Burns, contributor – BP Wrigleyville

The season began with plenty of anticipation, but limited expectation. Could a team with such an unproven core (and in one ballyhooed case, not yet promoted) overcome the inevitable adjustment period to threaten contention for a National League playoff berth? In so many ways, it seemed too good to be true. There was a measure of comfort in viewing 2015 as the final year of rebuilding, with an eye on 2016 as the first year in the window of legitimate contention. The ever-present illusion of hope was present, but indeed, it felt like just that: hope.

“Baseball season is always sacred to me. It’s a refuge. A safe harbor. From Valentine’s Day to Halloween, it transports me to another place. That’s in a normal year. This year? This year was something different altogether. For those of us who saw this coming, who poured our heart and soul into the rebuild, who lived and breathed hypothetical lineups on napkins and Google docs for years, this was the payoff. Just seeing these names together in a real lineup was all the goosebumps I needed for 2015. Seeing those names in an NLCS lineup? That’s a level of validation for which I was not prepared. From 73 to 97 will never tell the whole story. Playing until October 21st won’t either. The innocence, the images, the storylines, the record breakers, the intangibles, the likability, the Maddon effect—all layered together over time—might tell the story, but probably not. I’ve said this for a couple months now: I believe that the real winning is still to come, but I’m not sure it ever gets more enjoyable than this one.”

  –  Jeremy Beutel, fan

Beyond baseball, 2015 had been challenging on a personal level. The everyday stresses of work and life had been compounded by a massive home renovation my wife and I had recently undertaken. Late nights and long weekends working on the house began to take its toll. The reprieve of baseball on the radio could not come soon enough.

Finally it was upon us, and along with it the unexpected gift of the opportunity to contribute to the new locally-focused Baseball Prospectus site: BP Wrigleyville. Wrigleyville not only gave me a creative outlet to analyze the game, it also abstractly brought the benefit of forcing me to sit down and watch this young team with a more focused lens.

“I haven’t rooted for a baseball team in a long time. The last teams I really rooted in the all-in, I want to see this happen-type fashion were the 2008 White Sox and Cubs teams. My personal beliefs about Chicago and its superiority to other cities was represented in two mostly lackluster and disappointing franchises who’ve managed to deliver one World Series since the 1920s. As much as I love my city, the baseball franchises here have been wholly indefensible for the vast majority of 90 years. A lot has changed since then; I’ve converted over to the working media portion of baseball and my fandom has been in check since I’ve started to write professionally. I didn’t suffer through any rebuilds or disappointing half-assed spending sprees. I didn’t suffer through a lineup featuring Donnie Murphy nor did I suffer through pitching rotations whose lynchpins were an enigmatic, tall right-handed wide receiver and a supposed funny man whose punchlines never hit the mark for me. I was an observer who was mainly offended at the quality of baseball on the field, even though I had an understanding of the overarching plan (to be clear, I get it and I don’t begrudge the Cubs for doing what they did, it was just really bad baseball). I didn’t root this year, I didn’t root against the Cardinals nor did I try to defend a rotation who put up solid statistics despite having a lack of talent at the back end—something the Cubs front office has admitted and will address this offseason. I didn’t cheer in the press box as it were, but something strange did happen when watching this team.

I fell in love with their players.

It’s impossible to look upon Addison Russell’s defensive prowess and feel for the game and not become smitten. It’s difficult to see the in-game power manifest for Kris Bryant and not feel joy. You can’t watch Jake Arrieta and not marvel at the stuff and composure he’s shown since coming over from Baltimore. I’m objective, and I will remain as such as long as I’m in the public realm, but it’s really hard not to like this group of guys.”

 –  Mauricio Rubio, contributor – BP Wrigleyville

Part of the unbending reality of growing up is that it becomes harder to feel as we once did. As a child, you understand very little, but feel most everything. Something as mundane as being told it’s time for bed has the ability to elicit tears. As you grow into your teen years, feeling morphs from the trivial to the relational. The very thought of your first love causes irrational contemplations. The highs and lows seem unstoppable and inescapable at the same time. It doesn’t enter your consciousness that even the less fulfilling emotions are something you’ll long for as you grow into adulthood.

And then something happens. Responsibility takes hold and less priority is placed on what you’re feeling. Soon enough, you find yourself forgetting altogether what being driven to a visceral place even resembles. Moments that move you become more and more sparse. It’s something we all have to overcome.

Baseball in April is not exactly something I expect to move me, even as I view it as the reward for enduring another laborious Midwestern winter. The season started innocuously enough, with Jon Lester losing to Adam Wainwright in the opener on Sunday Night Baseball. A 2-2 start did little to change the “let’s get to .500″ narrative so many of us had espoused.

On an unseasonably cold April 12th afternoon, this team made me feel for the first time. As I stood wearily sanding down baseboards and listening to the game late into the afternoon, characters who now seem unlikely unfolded the narrative. Trailing Colorado 5-3 into the ninth, Arismendy Alcantara drew a one-out walk and stole second base. Mike Olt struck out swinging for the second out. Welington Castillo singled to score Alcantara, setting the stage for new Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler.

“I am at the ballpark 81 games of the season. Not because I am a season ticket holder, or a die-hard Cubs fan, but because I am employed by Wrigley Field. Wrigleyville in 2015 from my perspective, has been unlike anything I’ve ever known. There was a vibe. A vibe that began in the offseason and was brought to fruition early on. Nothing seemed impossible and fans, players, and workers expressed that every day. Even until the bitter end. There was never really a feeling of detriment in Wrigleyville during the regular season. When the 2015 Cubs describe their clubhouse chemistry, and how they feel like a family, I can tell you they absolutely meant it. There is a sense of kinship throughout this club, their families and friends and even us workers. This truly was a team in every sense of the word in 2015, and that accented the success that this Cubs club showed us every night. Maddon brought an element of fun to the game that was contagious to Wrigleyville. These guys worked hard, but lightheartedly. They were proud and confident, but stayed humble. If you don’t believe in clubhouse chemistry, just spend 15 minutes with Joe Maddon and this club. You’ll see for yourself—it’s real.”

 –  Catherine Garcia, contributor, BP Wrigleyville

The ex-Rockie Fowler had come to the Cubs via an offseason trade with the Astros for Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily. His season started slowly, to the tune of just one hit in his first 13 at-bats. The previous night he had whet Cubs’ fans appetites with two triples, showing the speed and prowess with the bat that had warranted the trade in the first place. But with two outs in the ninth and trailing by a run, Fowler’s first defining moment as a Cub would also serve as the first of many season-defining moments for the team.

As the Cubs’ win-expectancy dipped below four percent, ex-Cub (and most every other team) Latroy Hawkins quickly got ahead 0-2, bringing the Cubs to the brink of defeat. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Hawkins floated a hanging slider out over the plate:

As Pat Hughes’ exuberant call rang out, I dropped my sander in the vein of surprise only baseball can bestow. I slowly gripped the edge of my workbench; it felt like more than just one game, in that moment. Years of painful rebuilding had seemingly dissipated with one flick of Fowler’s wrists. Yes, it was just a single win, but you couldn’t help but feel that it foreshadowed a season full of memorable moments.

“This season was big for the Cubs, but I actually felt someone tied to it in more than just the way a fan bonds with a team. It felt like, as the Cubs organization grew and professed, I also did personally and professionally, as a better human being and a stronger writer. This season ran parallel to events that helped excite me about the future, for the Cubs and for me.

 A few moments truly embodied that for me. The first was the Dexter Fowler home run in the ninth inning in Colorado, all the way back in April. At the time, I had hoped things were starting to turn around. But, unlike many of the big moments this year, I can remember exactly how I felt and the exact place I was when Fowler launched that ball off his bat. I knew that 2015 would be special for the Cubs right at that moment.”

 –  Ryan Davis, contributor – BP Wrigleyville

Every season ebbs and flows at various points, and this year was no exception. Nevertheless, the moments kept coming: Gregory Polanco tangling himself up on Matt Szczur’s popup to allow the winning run to scamper home. A cache of Starlin Castro walk-off hits. Kris Bryant snatching victory from the jaws of defeat with a walk-off two-run home run against Colorado, in turn stopping a disheartening three-game losing streak after being swept by the Phillies. Kyle Schwarber’s electrifying midseason call-up. Jake Arrieta’s historically dominant second half, punctuated by no-hitting the Dodgers in front of a national audience on Sunday Night Baseball. Castro’s benching, position change, and subsequent late-season resurgence. Head-rubbing, rookies, Respect 90, and on and on. There were so many, I probably left out your favorite.

“As a fan, I was probably a little more optimistic than most going into this season. There were so many things to look forward to as a fan if you had followed the minor leagues a little more closely than your casual fan.  Knowing the talent that the front office had been amassing over the last few years and seeing them come up together and perform by all accounts, above expectations, was nothing short of pure joy. I do believe that this was probably the first time in my life where our beloved Cubbies exceeded expectations. I know for me that in ’84, ’89, ’98, ’03, ’07, and ‘08 I fully expected us to be in the NLCS and go on to the World Series, but this year was something special and unexpected! Seeing 97 wins and an NLCS trip with a Cubs team this young has never happened before, and knowing we’ve got several more years of seeing these kids grow and improve is going to be amazing.”

 –  Tommy Wienke, fan

The Wild Card game brought an uneasiness I hadn’t felt since 2003. A win-or-go-home game against a brilliant 98-win Pirates team. Arrieta erased all of those doubts with one last dominant, complete-game performance. At a June meetup for baseball writers in Chicago, I discussed with a few others whether the Cubs could overcome the Cardinals Central Division dominance. Those conversations felt justified as we watched them defeat their arch-rival in four convincing National League Division Series games. The tide has turned. This team is here to stay.

“On a micro level, the 2015 Cubs gave me more sustained daily exuberance than any other Cubs team in my lifetime. They were competitive from Opening Day, they got markedly better as the season progressed, and they carried themselves with a resilience and professionalism that dramatically exceeded their collective youth. Following meaningful games in August was amazing. Following meaningful games in September and October was almost too good to be true. On a macro level, the 2015 season convincingly moved me from faith in the organizational plan to a realization of it. I always had faith in the plan, but faith is by definition a belief in something not yet seen. We got to visibly see the plan work on the major-league level in 2015. We saw it in a way that gives me supreme confidence that there will be meaningful Cubs games to watch for many Septembers and Octobers to come.  At least this Cubs fan will forever view those future Septembers and Octobers through the lens of an extremely grateful recollection of the 2015 team that successfully threw the switch from faith to reality.”

 –  Nathanael Bennett, fan

Expectations will be sky-high heading into next season. The window of contention has been violently thrust open, and never again will this group of players sneak up on anyone. This isn’t to say there won’t be breathtaking moments next year; there most certainly will be, but I don’t believe we’ll ever be able to recapture the gripping ride this season has taken us on.

“This season gave me the belief that that the Cubs are, finally, a legitimate baseball organization. We’ve all seen the anecdotes about how the previous regime didn’t use video and probably all had Compuserve email accounts. But now, we’ve got a smart front office with a legitimate plan for the future—and the smarts to find the money to get there. It’s a fascinating, exciting time.”

 –  Joel Reese, contributor – BP Wrigleyville

For many reasons, this season gave me so much. It laid to rest years of frustrating rebuilding. It helped me overcome the various stresses of day-to-day life. It caused me, and many others, to feel like a child again. It was with this in my subconscious that I stood and cheered as the season came to a close. Win or lose, when the game gives so much, you have no other choice.

Many thanks are due to each of the writers and friends who contributed quotes to this article. Lead photo courtesy of Sahadev Sharma. 

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