The Machine: Using Greatness as a Barometer

When I first started considering putting a piece together comparing this Cubs troupe to The Big Red Machine, I expected it to be an exercise in reflecting on similarities. This star compares to that star. That role player is similar to this turd. I was hoping to find and delicately express how one silver haired genius transcended generations and perhaps subtly influenced another. It also troubled me that comparing this young Cubs team to a dynasty was presumptuous. My assumptions were wrong.

What I found instead is a few similarities—as is probably true when comparing any great teams—and a shocking amount of radically opposed qualities.

“Losers. Pete Rose stomped the dirt off his cleats and marched through the dugout, a crazed look on his face. He stopped in front of each man, glared, his face a mask of rage, an angry drill sergeant, a harsh father, an unforgiving judge. In the moment, Rose hated every last one of these sons of bitches. He knew that, in the moment, they hated him too. But they did not hate him enough. They could not hate him enough. They could not hate him with the white-hot disgust that burned inside him right now. The Cincinnati Reds were going to lose. He could not believe it. Impossible. The Machine was going to lose. He already could feel the acid of defeat seething in his guts. He wanted to take a baseball bat to their heads. Yes, it was a problem. Nobody could hate quite as hard as Pete Rose. “Bunch of losers,” Rose shouted. “We can’t lose this game! We will not lose this game!” His words echoed through the dugout, bounced out into Fenway Park, drowned in the roar. In the stands of Fenway Park, the fans shrieked and begged and hollered. In the Boston chill, their breath came out like smoke. But it wasn’t only these fans here cheering, no, it was all of Boston, all of Massachusetts, hell, it was the whole eastern seaboard—and it was more piercing than shrieking, louder than hollering, something closer to wailing. The Red Sox were about to win the World Series. This was Game 7, the sixth inning. The Red Sox led the Cincinnati Reds by three runs.”

  – The Machine, Joe Posnanski

Of course he did. This was the fate bestowed upon me by my great-grandfather nearly a century ago. I lay prostrate on the floor of my parents living room, Rajai freaking Davis circling the bases with the triumph only a Game Seven can provide. My mind alternating between blacking out and flashing days, weeks, months, years and decades across it like a stop motion cartoon. I hated Aroldis Chapman. I hated Joe Maddon. I hated Theo Epstein. I hated the Cleveland Indians. I hated baseball. Four innings earlier, with the Cubs holding a sound 5-1 lead, I murmured to my brother “I don’t like Rajai Davis, he scares me in the box.” My mother always told me not to speak bad things into existence. I should listen to her more often. Be it Providence, or merely a raincloud that could no longer contain its contents, a gentle rain began to fall.

People tend to forget the hurdles overcome as a team grapples its way towards greatness. There may be a moment in every dynasty when everything that will be is on the verge of failing to gain existence, be it baseball or otherwise. An idea that didn’t get written down. A rainy morning when the snooze button was just too tempting. Need taking precedence over talent in the draft room. Wet grass causing just enough of a slip for a throw to sail into the right field corner. It’s as simple as understanding that a worn path is more likely to be traversed than an unknown one. It’s Rajai freaking Davis.

The Reds were on the verge of collapse. One night before, Carlton Fisk hit what would become one of the most iconic home runs in major-league history. The Red Sox were about to break the curse. It was their destiny. The Big Red Machine was breaking down, short of the promise yet again. It’s easy to forget that The Machine was on the verge of being old, still void of the championship they long believed they deserved. They were no longer the group of phenoms that the 2016 Cubs were. Rose was 33 years old. Joe Morgan 31. 32-year-old ‘Big Dog’ Tony Perez had almost been traded earlier in the season, as the Reds’ General Manager Bob Howsam believed acquiring a third baseman who could hit was more important than retaining the aging slugger. Johnny Bench was the youngest of the group of superstars at 27, but his shoulder was badly injured and he wasn’t sure he enjoyed playing baseball anymore. The team that had lost two World Series in the previous five years—as well as a deciding National League Championship game—was on the verge of losing yet another Game Seven. Fissures were forming in a team that was supposed to be a dynasty, barely held together by the hatred in Pete Rose’s eyes.

The sprinkle had turned into a steady midwestern rain. I dragged myself off of the carpet and staggered into the kitchen to make coffee during the delay. My uncle had stormed out of the house; the decades of pain were too much to bear, considering they would all be concentrated into the next few moments. We had no idea what was transpiring in the Cubs’ locker room; Jason Heyward was delivering an inspirational speech to teammates who were literally in tears. This itself is a striking juxtaposition to The Machine. Here was Heyward—quiet, intelligent, thoughtful Jason Heyward—delivering strength and inspiration when it was needed most. He told his teammates he loved them. There was nothing thoughtful about Rose’s hateful snarl in the sixth inning of a Game Seven played 41 years earlier.

My fledgling career as a professional writer and analyst had dovetailed with perfect synchronicity into a single week. Four days earlier I sat in the WGN studios for my first television appearance, telling people the pitching matchups lined up in such a way that a 3-1 deficit could be overcome. As I walked to a bar to watch Game Five immediately after, I lied to myself and began to believe this was rational thought as opposed to the pleadings of a desperate optimist. Two days later, minutes before Game Six, Dan Bernstein asked me with his famous on-air sharpness: “you’re feeling rather sanguine about the Cubs’ chances the next two days, aren’t you?” I could only answer that I was. It wasn’t a lie this time.

As I gripped the countertop to steady myself in front of the coffee maker late the next night, I had no idea that Albert Almora’s confident proclamation during my first professional interview six months prior was about to come true in the most poignant way fathomable. Instead, it felt like those same fissures of potential dynasty had just exploded in front of my eyes. It’s always darkest before the dawn.

Reds fans had to be feeling similarly as Big Dog Perez walked to the plate in the sixth inning of Game Seven in 1975. This was their series. This was their time, and yet they had watched it all vanquish before their eyes in a scant 24 hours. The Cuban Perez had not had a simple life, though his easy demeanor belied the fact. As he walked to the plate, he told Sparky to calm down, he would hit a home run. The man was simply bigger than the moment. Five innings later, Pete Rose dug into the box in the eleventh inning and told Carlton Fisk “this is some kind of game, isn’t it? We’ll be telling our grandkids about this game.” 41 years later, standing on first base after hitting what would eventually become the game-winning knock, Miguel Montero was captured on camera telling no one in particular “what a game”—with a bit of colorful language added to accentuate his point.

Sparky Anderson will never be confused with a hipster. Joe Maddon is the essence of old man cool. Anderson was a genius at managing the pitchers mound, even as he professed to hate pitchers. It was an injury to his ace Don Gullett that led him to pioneering the evolution of specialist relievers. Maddon seems to lack feel for the nuance of game, particularly managing pitchers, and this was on full display during the World Series. It took Anderson an eternity to realize George Foster was a star. Maddon’s lineup wizardry sets him apart from other skippers. The players had no idea why they followed the gruff Anderson. He openly called 21 players ‘turds’—something that would never fly in today’s game. Maddon is well known as an exceptional communicator, transcending ego and generational divide with the ease of a man comfortable in his own sovereignty. These two men were as asymmetrical as can be; each perfect for the tasks required of them.

The teams themselves bear striking differences as well. Bench, Rose and Morgan were outspoken veterans. The Cubs superstars—Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo—are better known for their “aw shucks” personalities and charity work. The Reds’ offense was largely a veteran group, while their pitching was youthful and exciting. The Cubs were built in exactly the opposite manner, with young bats and veteran pitching. The Reds were staring ultimate failure directly in the face, while the Cubs were only just entering their perceived window of contention.

The Machine produced four Hall of Famers on the field, counting Rose, and Sparky would eventually be inducted for his managerial achievements as well. It’s too early to tell how many players from this Cubs team could be enshrined someday, but it’s fairly easy to see it starting with Jon Lester. Bryant and Rizzo both have an excellent chance as well, though many years of production and health have to follow the sparkling beginning of their careers. For as often as I scream about Maddon’s lack of feel for pitching, I’ll be the first one ringing the bell for him when his opportunity to reside in Cooperstown comes calling.

It may be what lies beyond the middle of the order that begins to provide clues of separation. Dan Driessen and Dave Concepcion were nice players, but neither had the phenomenal upside that a hoard of Cubs youngsters currently have. Driessen would become a solid hitter, but his best years were beyond the productive years of their core of stars. Concepcion won five Gold Gloves and made nine All-Star games, but at the end of the day his .679 career OPS suggests he was mostly a phenomenal glove talent, rather than an all-around star. He’s just 23, meaning it’s almost impossible to project, but Addison Russell is almost certainly more than just a phenomenal defensive shortstop. Ken Griffey was under appreciated on those Reds teams, overshadowed by a group of outspoken, spotlight hungry stars. He peaked early at age 26 in 1976, never becoming the full-fledged star that many thought he would become.

Upon closer comparison, it becomes obvious that the Cubs have better synchronicity of career arcs for their stars and important complementary players. They also have a uniquely brilliant defensive collection, something we may look back on in a few decades and acknowledge was singularly unique to any team ever. The Machine had some dizzying defensive talent in Bench and Concepcion, but it was more about individual brilliance rather than team dominance. As a unit, there is simply no comparing their defense to what we’re seeing in Chicago right now.

In many ways, what began as a hesitation to compare this team to a dynasty out of fear of prematurity, has turned into confidence that we still don’t fully appreciate this collection of talent. It’s easy to look back on a team and observe the breadth of their accomplishment. It is much more difficult to project greatness on a baseball team that has only just cracked their window open. The Machine first went to the World Series in 1970, losing in five games. This most closely parallels to the Cubs getting swept out of the National League Championship Series by the Mets in 2015. This is the major difference between these two teams—it took the Reds five years after their first taste of success to break through and win it all, meaning their superstar core had already aged by the time they reached the pinnacle. The Cubs rebounded the very next year to finish what they started, meaning their core has at least another five years of prime togetherness.

There are two primary catalysts that could propel the Cubs beyond any heights The Big Red Machine ever achieved, in theory placing them in the lore of a dynasty such as the Yankees of the 1990s. The first is to continue to put together great pitching staffs, despite not devoting premium draft picks to the effort. This has been a hallmark of Epstein’s tenure with the Cubs, as even the terrible teams during the beginning of the rebuild had relatively successful pitching staffs. The second is the emergence of any two of Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras and Javier Baez to become stars alongside Bryant and Rizzo, aptly filling the role of Bench and Foster alongside Morgan and Perez. Should these two things coincide with reasonable luck in the health department, perhaps The Big Red Machine should be viewed as the floor of achievement for this group, rather than the ceiling.

Lead photo courtesy Allan Henry—USA Today Sports

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