The 2018 Cubs: I still liked them better than Steinbrenner

The 2018 Chicago Cubs did not end well. Given how things turned out on the field, it would have been as satisfying to conclude the 2018 Wild Card Game with Gary Pressy playing “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Scott Oberg winding up to deliver an 0-2 pitch to Albert Almora, and the ESPN feed suddenly cutting to a black screen.

Followed by the caption: “Live Feed of A-Rod’s Game Prep.”

In the wake of their Wild Card Game faceplant (not to be confused with their Game 163 faceplant) (or their Saturday afternoon vs. the Cardinals faceplant) (or…you know what? Let’s just move on before these parentheticals get so depressing that they read like Clark the Cub’s goth poetry…), the fanbase ran the gamut of emotions from anger to sadness to grief. 

And you know what? All of those reactions were perfectly understandable and acceptable. A once vaunted offense barely showed up, Kyle Hendricks was beaten by Tony Wolters and his .210 TAv, and a full 29 percent of Terrance Gore’s 2018 at-bats took place in the most important game of the year. If that didn’t make you even slightly depressed, that’s because you probably dealt with your feelings by changing the channel to The Entertainment.

Once it became clear that the season was going to crash and burn so profoundly, a good portion of the fanbase and the writers who covered the Cubs moved on to establish a narrative for the 2018 team. And a good example of that narrative was authored by The Athletic’s Jon Greenberg…

“Aside from Javy Báez’s MVP-worthy season, a month of Cole Hamels mania, a brief David Bote experience, and a week or two here and there, this just hasn’t been a very enjoyable season to watch. A game here, an ending there. It was aggravating for some, predictable for others. If the Cubs scored 10 runs one day, like Sunday, you could pencil them in for one run the next, like Monday.”

You could certainly understand why the 2018 season wouldn’t be enjoyable to watch. All the Cubs did was give us an exciting game here or a dramatic ending there. And when you added all of those good days up, they amounted to only…95. 

It’s times like these where I can’t wait for time travel to be invented. Because I want to take that paragraph back to 1958 just so I could hear Ernie Banks actually tell someone to go to hell.

Don’t get me wrong. I get that this year’s Cubs could be immensely frustrating and a combination of underperformance and injuries made it feel like they missed out on a chance for another World Series. That’s genuinely disappointing.

But to take in a season where they won 95 games and played a number of all-time classics and claim that it hasn’t been very enjoyable at all? Something about that seems… amiss. 

As long as the Cubs didn’t throw out a roster that included Kent Mercker and LaTroy Hawkins, it took a special effort to make yourself miserable while watching a season with that much winning. And a good amount of blame for the fact that so many felt that way could be laid at the feet of one of the all-time inner circle Hall of Famers at making baseball miserable: George M. Steinbrenner III.

Or to be more precise: the retroactive lionization of Steinbrenner’s baseball philosophy and its application to every other team that has reached for greatness.

For the entirety of the 1980s through the mid-90s, the Yankees CEO was viewed as a caricature of everything you didn’t want a baseball owner to be. He was a vain egotistical bully who clearly felt that his massive wealth also granted him an expertise to meddle in every aspect of a sport he had no hope of understanding. The belligerent calzone-obsessed blowhard from Seinfeld was a pretty accurate portrayal of how most thought of him and New York fans celebrated when Steinbrenner was temporarily banished from MLB in 1990.

But while he was gone, the Yankees built up their farm system to the point that Steinbrenner’s return coincided with the launching of their dynasty of the late 90s. His players’ dominance was profound enough to transform Steinbrenner’s image from a vitriolic Gordon Gecko-esque rageaholic to “The Boss”–a wise and beloved leader whose unquestioned authority made him the true face of the franchise. 

Steinbrenner suddenly became so indelibly associated with Yankee victories that no one thought to question it when the team unveiled a monument to him that was more than five times the size of Babe Ruth’s. And it turned out to be the most appropriate memorial imaginable: a 35 square foot tribute to himself that ended with the phrase: “he followed a personal motto of the greatest form of charity is anonymity.”

Proving that the greatest victories of the Steinbrenner era came against the Red Sox, the Mets, and the definition of irony.

Because Steinbrenner was now the patron saint of ownership, his baseball outlook was suddenly repackaged and sold as an essential mindset for any team’s success. And it’s a measure of how drastically that era affected the rest of baseball that you still hear his credo referenced every time a team embarks on a run of sustained excellence like the Cubs have experienced over the past four years. To the point where you can probably mouth along as I type these words out: 

Anything short of a world championship is a failure.

As the Yankees continued to win, players began repeating it like the collection of robotic Stepford ballers that Steinbrenner wanted all along. Soon it spread as gospel throughout the game. In Chicago, it became impossible to avoid once the Cubs jumped out to that 25-6 start in 2016 and it hasn’t gone away since.

Sports talk radio harped on it. Fans screamed it anytime the team endured a two-game losing streak. Kris Bryant got asked about it in the wake of the Wild Card Game debacle. In the wake of the franchise-defining world championship, we have begun to view every subsequent season through this prism: if the Cubs aren’t holding a trophy at the end, all of their Players Weekend jerseys might as well read “Ol’ Gil.”

I understand why players would use that to motivate themselves. But for a fanbase, it’s an incredibly dispiriting way to live through a baseball season. Because when every game is viewed as “championship or bust,” we’re less likely to stop and notice a genuinely enjoyable moment because it happened in April, June, or July. And it turned out that there were many of those over this past year.

Just off the top of my head, the 2018 “hasn’t been very enjoyable to watch” season featured at least four genuinely classic “put that one in the vault and watch the highlights on a dead of winter January day” games. The eight-run comeback against the Braves. Jason Heyward’s two-strike walk-off grand slam. The David Bote/Anthony Rizzo back-to-back ninth-inning homers. And, of course, The Bote Game.

For God’s sake, 2018 featured multiple all timers starring a player who spent most of the first three months in Iowa. So perhaps most people feel 2018 wasn’t very enjoyable to watch because it had too many games that reminded them of a Kevin Costner movie. I’d actually find that a more acceptable premise: no one would be very happy if Brandon Morrow developed gills behind his ears and then immediately sprained them in another pants-related catastrophe.

And 2018 was way more than just those four enjoyable days. The season also featured winning streaks of seven and six in a row and two five gamers. From June 26 through September 2, the Cubs went 37-20–a .649 pace. Again, this is not to argue that this season was in any way an ultimate success. I’m merely trying to establish that there were more on-field good times along the way than you probably remember. And part of the reason why we endured so many decades in the baseball wilderness was to cherish those moments when they arrived.

After all, any season that featured innumerable El Mago slides that appeared to simultaneously violate the laws of physics and human anatomy, multiple Anthony Rizzo at-bats that lasted longer than the William Henry Harrison presidency, and Pedro Strop’s heartstopping ability to escape from both ninth-inning baserunner hell and his first baseman’s sudden transformation into Carrie couldn’t have been all bad.

While Steinbrenner’s doctrine might feel like the natural by-product of cheering for a perennial contender, it’s also the antithesis of “Don’t ever permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure.” In fact, it’s the kind of thing you say when the pressure overwhelms the pleasure and sucks all the joy out of the season. And in the end, that was what Steinbrenner was all about.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why the mission statement for Cubs baseball remains “Try not to suck.”

Lead photo courtesy @Cubs on Twitter

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