Paul Sullivan: Humble? The Cubs? This should be interesting to see.Chicago Tribune — By Paul Sullivan Chicago Tribune
Feb. 13-- MESA, Ariz.-As the Cubs begin their quest to erase the bad vibes from last year's collapse, Anthony Rizzo informed the media there's a different feeling in the clubhouse.
"It's a new opportunity," Rizzo said. "It's going to be something that grows more and more, confidence-wise. We're a confident group, but we're also a humble group right now."
Humble? The Chicago Cubs? Theo Epstein's Cubs?
Humble is a word I wouldn't normally attach to the Cubs, one of the cockiest, most self-assured groups I've been around in more than three decades of covering baseball. The once-lovable losers changed their stripes for good several years ago, and it wasn't just the players.
It all starts at the top, and whether it was the Rickettses' dealings with the city of Chicago during the Wrigley Field renovation plan, or business President Crane Kenney's attempt to impose a "Cubs tax" on all Cactus League ballparks to fund the team's spring training complex, or the constant calls from public relations employees to newspaper editors complaining about the coverage, this was one of the least humble organizations in professional sports.
Of course that attitude often worked to the Cubs' advantage. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel bent over backward to allow the Cubs to add a video scoreboard and other revenue-enhancing amenities to Wrigley. The Cubs got the city of Mesa to build Sloan Park and what's now called the Nike Performance Center, both huge successes.
And the players' overwhelming confidence in themselves was on full display during their championship run in 2016.
Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Javier Baez, among others, talked the talk and walked the walk, while manager Joe Maddon proved to be the perfect ring leader.
The Cubs retained that same brash attitude through 2018-even after losing to the Dodgers in the 2017 National League Championship Series-only to blow a division lead in September, lose Game 163 to the Brewers and then succumb to the Rockies in the wild-card game.
"Sometimes you need to get your (bleep) knocked in the dirt to appreciate it," Lester said after the wild-card loss. "Maybe we needed that."
Maybe, but it didn't seem to change things in 2019, when they blew another golden opportunity down the stretch.
So did this Cubs core need a humbling after missing out on the playoffs?
"I already feel humble," catcher Willson Contreras said. "I'm not going to disagree with Rizzo. If he feels like that, that's good. But for me, I'm more realistic. I know we haven't made the playoffs in the last two years, but that doesn't mean we cannot make the playoffs this year.
"I'm already looking forward to winning as many games as we can this season, and hopefully we make it to the playoffs."
Contreras can be forgiven for forgetting that cameo playoff appearance in 2018, which ended with the same empty feeling as not making it at all.
Certainly Maddon's brash personality bled over into the clubhouse the last five years, so a change in attitude was inevitable. New manager David Ross is a bit more self-effacing, perhaps because of spending his career as a backup catcher, and knows the more success you have, the easier it is to lose sight of what's most important.
"Sometimes success can bring a lack of things; the focus can get awry at times," Ross said. "We tend to focus on some other details as our careers evolve. A lot of these guys have gone through a path of success. Still a lot of good talent and good numbers getting put up there, but the attention to detail and the winning ways I find important are what I'm going to hammer home."
Nothing humbles a player like being demoted to the minors after a prolonged period in the majors. Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ and David Bote were sent down to Triple-A Iowa last year, and all will be fighting to regain their status as major contributors in 2020.
Asked what he took out of his 2019 season, Almora said: "I don't think it was a positive one. Obviously as a team we didn't win. We didn't get to the playoffs. That's a big no-no. And for myself, it wasn't up to my standards. I hold myself to a high standard and I definitely put in the work to try and correct things. I'm in a good mental spot right now, and that's all I can really ask for."
Admitting you need to improve is the first step. There's no shortage of Cubs players, like Almora, who have started off spring training with blunt assessments of their 2019 performances.
"Terrible is kind of an understatement for what I felt like I did last year," said closer Craig Kimbrel, who imploded in living color during the collapse.
"I feel like I let a lot of our guys down," added Lester, who posted a 6.70 ERA in eight starts from August through mid-September. "I felt like I let our rotation down those middle months, not taking the ball and giving the innings I'm normally expected to give."
The bottom line is the computers and oddsmakers now deem the Cubs a non-playoff team.
Last year a Cubs employee wrote the PECOTA projection of an 80-82 record and fifth-place finish on the daily bulletin board in case players missed it. But Ross has no interest in PECOTA. He said he doesn't have the time to go on the internet and doesn't want to deal with any kind of outside negativity.
Still, for the first time in a while, the Cubs will enter a season as underdogs, a feeling many of the younger players have yet to experience.
"I don't know how that room feels," Ross said. "I don't want to speak for the players, but from my perspective from how camp is going so far, there's a lot of energy, a renewed focus I see."
Maybe a little humbling was all the Cubs needed.
We're about to find out.
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