“I hope this is the beginning…if we do our jobs right and we stay humble and hungry, it’s going to be a beginning.” – Theo Epstein
Humility has not traditionally been a concern on the north side. So when the leadership is casually throwing it around in the offseason, the stubbornly buoyant truth can finally sink in: The Chicago Cubs are champions, and it really is a whole new world.
For Joe Maddon, extinguishing that guiding star—the quest to end the longest drought in sports—is a bit of a problem. A good problem, certainly, but one that needs addressing. It raises the question of how to transition mindsets for the season ahead. Performing under 108 years of pressure may be nothing to handling its sudden release:
“What are we going to rally around? You [win the World Series], and you relieve a burden. However, you want to do it again, you want to do it again the next year. You know the path, the road, the alleys are not going to be exactly the same—they can’t be. How do you motivate and get guys to think in a manner that permits you to do what you did last year, which was pretty special? That’s where I’m going to be this winter. That’s where I’m going to spend a lot of my thought process on.”
The short answer is Maddon needs a new mantra. ‘We are good’ and ‘embrace the target’ carried his team to the pinnacle. ‘World champs – now what?’ isn’t going to cut it. But the real solution is obviously more complicated than a catch phrase. He knows the physical tools should hold up next season, but the intangibles, the chemistry, may start to slide.
Last year’s special formula will be hard to replicate. Beyond what occurred on the field, players enjoyed elite mindset training to face the pressure, a positive clubhouse culture maintained by peer leadership, and the ever-present incentive of maybe, just maybe, delivering a miracle.
As the universe shifted that night in Cleveland, winning at long last removed the most motivating feature of the Cubs’ identity. Simultaneously saying goodbye to elder statesman and clubhouse favorite David Ross was another significant blow. It all felt very much like an ending (a movie ending at that), but reigniting the flame into ‘a beginning’ is the distinctly achievable goal. Between the ready leaders waiting in his clubhouse and a vast network of support behind the scenes, Maddon will have plenty of help keeping minds right in 2017.
It begins at the organizational level. Entering its third year of operation, the Cubs’ system-wide mental skills program has no intention of letting up on the gas. Director Joshua Lifrak recently explained how winning it all, while clearly the objective, was never the endgame of their work. Process is the goal; achievement is an outcome. He went on to provide a truly inspirational answer to that looming ‘now what’ question:
“Win and learn… How do we be more present? How do we be more focused during those moments? How do we not get down 3-1? How do we make it a little bit easier on the hearts of the Cubs fans? There’s pride. There’s personal pride and team pride. How we go about our business on a daily basis matters.
“We talk about being C.U.B…being C.U.B. for us means having the Courage to do the right thing, having the Urgency to do it right here and right now, and having the Belief that you’re going to get it done. And so that is who we are. We’re Cubs. That’s how we’re going to go about our business. When we start straying away from that because we’ve accomplished a goal – if the only reason we were doing that was to achieve a goal, then we’re selling ourselves short, and we’re hollow. The reason that we do that is so we can have great lives. And so we can have great people around us all the time.
“And so, for us, we’ve just accomplished something that hasn’t been accomplished in 108 years, and it was mind-blowing. It blew our hair back. We get it now, it’s an incredible thing. While we might be satisfied with winning and accomplishing that goal, we also know that how we go about our business on a daily basis matters. It matters even more now because we have more people watching us.
“And because of that, it’s going to be even more important to be C.U.B. And so that’s what we’re going to do. That’s how we’re going to rally around it, and that’s how we’re going to push forward. Whether the outcomes are the same or not – hey, sometimes the baseball gods decide. But we know we can control us. As long as we can control us, we know that good things are going to happen.”
Backing up Lifrak’s powerful words is a team of mental skills experts educating players at each level and developing the tools that breed success. They focus on staying present, practicing mindfulness, setting process-driven goals, responding appropriately to adversity, and so much more. Apparently, building a world champion mentality went far beyond ‘try not to suck.’ It just didn’t fit on a t-shirt.
Of course, the best teachers can only do so much. Students definitely have a say in the matter. Lifrak succeeds when the players take over, guiding themselves and each other through the process and utilizing the tools as needed. These Cubs, specifically chosen to obliterate the ‘lovable loser’ brand, come ready and willing to absorb, then propagate, the message. It’s that indefinable quality of makeup that characterizes the Epstein-era and should put Maddon’s thoughts at ease.
Assistant GM Shiraz Rehman recently discussed the year ahead in terms of the players’ collective makeup, leadership, and ability to stay hungry. Combined with outstanding mental skills support, a post-championship slump just doesn’t seem likely:
“Every team that wins a championship has to worry about it. When you’re able to break a 108-year-old curse, that next-year question is probably even more prescient…I think one of the things that was most impressive with them this year was how they managed the expectations we talked about all year and then kind of rising to the occasion multiple times in some pretty epic scenarios in the playoffs. I just think the makeup of our team—we’ve been so fortunate—is so good that I don’t see our group being one that struggles with that too much.”
Rehman lauded Maddon’s management style and trust in peer motivation. Striking the right attitude and staying grounded once the rings arrive will require the same brand of clubhouse leadership exhibited last season. They lost Grandpa Rossy but have multiple candidates ready to step up. Several World Series heroes were mentioned along with one new name:
“We also have actively looked for that type of makeup impact, and that’s one of the reasons why we were so happy to get Jon Jay. He’s a guy who across the industry is hailed as being a really, really solid makeup guy, just a great teammate. And we spoke to a number of people in the game before we made the move, and have gotten a lot of unsolicited phone calls since actually, to Theo, to other of our players, to Joe, hailing him as such a great teammate. So hopefully he’s able to fill in a little bit of that – I don’t want to put the ‘Grandpa Rossy’ expectations on anybody – but I think it may be a little bit of everyone stepping up to fill that void.”
Jay joins the team highly motivated with something to prove. Coming off two injury-shortened seasons, the thirty-one-year-old is seeking a return to his late-twenties form. He hasn’t tasted a championship since 2011 and brings loads of experience from five consecutive postseason runs. Eager to embrace a veteran role, Jay reportedly based his decision on the chance to lead these still very young Cubs:
“The big thing that appealed to me was that Albert Almora is there, a young stud that’s a great center fielder. [I want to] help him out any way I can. I was lucky enough to have Carlos Beltran kind of mentor me in my years in St. Louis, and I’m looking forward to doing that with Albert.” With an attitude like that, Jay’s influence in the clubhouse could rival his contribution on the field.
Two returning players are uniquely situated to join him as mindset motivators this season. Jason Heyward, standout locker-room presence turned Game Seven rain-delay legend, is currently doing everything possible to raise his game to the level of his leadership. After a dismal 2016 at the plate, Heyward is setting quite an example this offseason. Taking the shortest break of anyone, he bought a house in Arizona and got right to work with Cubs hitting coaches on the mechanics of his swing.
Only Kyle Schwarber can surpass this level of dedication in teammates’ eyes. He’s one of the youngest Cubs, but could potentially provide the biggest peer impact. Last year, Schwarber devoured a season-long rehab stint, defying all odds to assume a now immortal DH role in the World Series. Given his relentless approach on and off the field, Lifrak was not at all surprised by Schwarber’s early reappearance:
“Kyle is everything that we stand for as the Cubs. He is just a blue collar, find a way, true belief…just super positive, incredible teammate, incredible leader—just lifts others up. That’s what great leadership is about. It’s that you lift others up, you empower others. So that’s Kyle to a tee.” A fully restored Schwarber attacking it on both sides of the ball next year certainly stands to inspire.
This trio of outfielders—Jay, Heyward, Schwarber—were each excluded in some way from fully experiencing the Cubs’ dream 2016. They can’t possibly look back and feel satisfied, and that’s exactly the attitude with which to proceed. By all accounts, they have the personal skills to spread the fire and the mental tools to lead the way in process over outcome.
Whichever mantra Maddon adopts (the ideas are already flowing), it will really just be a tagline for the huge organizational undertaking that has become the Cubs’ way. Hardware cannot change that. Lifrak boiled it down to a simple overriding philosophy that guides them in this new, drought-free world: “better humans make better players.” I actually think that works on a shirt.
Of course there are no guarantees, but the essential ingredients remain. If, somehow, more C.U.B. and more leadership are not enough, a simple fact may rekindle the spark: It’s been 109 years since the Chicago Cubs went back-to-back.
Piece of cake.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports