Craig Calcaterra

The Chicago Cubs — No Expectations


MESA, AZ — “If there aren’t any expectations placed on you, you’re probably not very good, right?” 

That’s Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, mildly puzzled at my question about whether there’s a lot of pressure on the Cubs entering the 2016 season. “I think of it as a compliment. We like it. It’s nice to hear.”

He has a point. It’s better to have the weight of expectations placed on your shoulders than it is to be ignored. Or, as the Cubs have been for so much of their history, regarded as a non-factor, competitively speaking.

In recent years, with the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer-led rebuild, those expectations have shifted from “zero” to “mild,” even as late as this time a year ago when the Cubs were thought to be a couple of years away from contention. But one 97-win season, an NLDS victory and a few high-profile free agent signings later, the Cubs are now considered a favorite in their division, their league and, really, all of baseball. For the first time in years, failure is not an option.

Fear of failure, however, is not a factor for the Cubs. There have been a lot of quotes from Joe Maddon and his players since the end of last season about how they “embrace” the expectations. But it’s sort of like that obligatory embrace you give your aunt or your cousin at Christmas. Now that they’ve had a couple of weeks of spring training under their belts, the Cubs players I spoke to aren’t really thinking too hard about expectations. When asked how he responds to a reporter who suggests that the Cubs are favorites, Jason Hammel laughed. “Thanks, I guess? It’s like, we don’t really care. It’s not our job to worry about it,” he said.

Jon Lester agreed. The former member of the worst-to-first-to-worst Boston Red Sox knows a thing or two about high expectations. “There’ve been plenty of teams a lot of people picked to win it and they’ve finished last,” he said, not mentioning his Red Sox but probably thinking about them. “Expectations don’t matter. It is what it is,” he said. And then, echoing Hammel, he said “It’s not our job.” 

Their job, Lester says, is simple and it has nothing to do with offseason moves or the opinions of prognosticators.

“We have to be healthy. We have to play as a team. We have to execute. ‘Expectations’ [the air quotes were strongly implied in Lester’s tone] don’t really talk about those things much. They’re about what’s on paper. It’s nice I guess but we can’t buy into that.” 

The familiar “it is what it is” and “execute” verbiage aside, neither Lester, Hammel nor Hendricks were speaking in cliches when they talked about expectations. Joe Maddon’s talk at press gatherings about “embracing” them may serve as the official party line — and each player, in turn, used that word in the obligatory way a customer service representative thanks you for your business; because they were trained to — but on a sleepy Friday morning in March, the players aren’t so studied. Their answers make it clear that there is not much of a relationship between how fans and the media talk about a baseball season and how players live it. How the “pressure” seemingly inherent in coming off a 97-win season and having to compete in a loaded division is not really all that inherent. It’s something that everyone talks about but which has no real connection to what they do each day. It is a cliche to observe that you take games one at a time and you just try to do your best to help the ball club, but that really is the nature of the job. The politics of expectations from season to season is for people who don’t play the game.

The media doesn’t play the game, but they certainly have expectations. When talking about the Cubs, some have even referred to them as a “perfect team.” As season previews come out, expect most of them to favor the Cubs in he NL central.

Fans don’t play the game either, but they have expectations too. Dave Keir, 55, of Fulton, Illinois has been a Cubs fan since the infamous summer of 1969. For all of the downs he’s seen in that time, he struck me as an optimist. Certainly his expectations remain super high. Today he said, given that they won 97 last year, “97 would be a good number” in 2016.  “The playoffs are a must,” he said. In contrast, Alex Futter, originally from Fort Wayne, Indiana, is more pessimistic.

“What keeps me up at night is that we get into October and somebody drops a ball or something,” Futter said. “It looks like a good team, but I go back to my old Cubs fan DNA. In October Rizzo and Bryant get cold the way Aramis Ramirez or Sammy Sosa used to and then we’re just screwed. I don’t know, man. I don’t like talking about it. We’re like Boston fans before ’04. We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

In their own ways, I feel like Keir and Futter are both unrealistic, as is that story about the Cubs being a “perfect team.” They’re going to be good. Should be anyway. But like Lester said, that’s all on paper and it’s all pending health and execution and a very long grind between now and October. Assuming doom in in the offing is just as unrealistic as saying “the playoffs are a must.” Both are divorced from the realities of a baseball season in which expectations, optimistic or otherwise, mean nothing after the games get going.

If the players ever do think of that, they obviously work hard to put it out of their mind and to simply go to work day-to-day. Rendering any talk about the expectations weighing heavy on them — or them embracing them for that matter — rather superfluous. Joe Maddon may talk about that stuff a lot because he’s asked about it, but it strikes me that, all things being equal, the players would prefer to have no expectations at all.

The Unwritten Rules Wars Will Continue But One Side Has Already Lost


Depending on how interested you are in off-the-field stuff, yesterday’s outbreak of Unwritten Rules controversies (here, here, and here) were either entertaining or annoying to you in the extreme. However you feel about it, though, it’s worth remembering that these are not isolated incidents that will go away today because it’s a new day. These are just skirmishes in a larger war which has been raging for some time. A topic far larger than Bryce Harper, Jose Bautista, Rich Gossage or Sergio Romo. The fight over bat flips and exuberance on the one hand and Playing The Game The Right Way on the other is a cultural and generational conflict, not one over any one player.

Culturally speaking it’s about norms of behavior which developed in a game when it was dominated by white American guys but which now features Latin American players at every level and in every role from player to coach to organizational depth guy to superstar. Norms of deportment from the 1950s or before held steadily when Latin players were fewer in number and when they could be subtly (or sometimes not-so-subtly) coerced into assimilation. Eventually, however, as is the case in any setting where a once dominant culture begins to lose its numbers or its desire to coerce such assimilation, there is an assertion of identity by the minority culture. That is often followed by a reactionary backlash. An occasional bat flip or celebration may have seemed amusing in 1975 because it posed no perceived threat to baseball’s cultural order. Now those who are uncomfortable with the changing of baseball culture see it as a threat and lash out.

This pattern can be seen in generational disputes too. There was a time when young players knew their place. And it was easy for them to know their place because they weren’t super important for the most part. A bonus baby was a rare thing and, later, giving key roles to guys in their teens or early 20s was extraordinarily rare as well. If a kid did standard kid stuff, acted in a way that upset older people or engaged in what was perceived to be immaturity, he was laughed off or quickly and effectively corrected. In recent years, however, older veterans have become less important to an organization and “kids” are more prominent. Now if an alleged punk like Bryce Harper offers his views in a national magazine he’s not an amusing anomaly nor is there any one veteran prominent enough on his club to correct him. He’s a threat to the longstanding baseball order in which seniority means everything, older players set the terms of deportment and young players don’t offer their opinion. Like a Latin player flipping a bat, he has to be shouted down — literally told to “shut up” by a veteran from a veteran-ruled club like the Giants’ Sergio Romo — lest the old veteran orthodoxy be threatened. And make no mistake, with Bryce Harper it’s ALL about him being seen as a punk kid. He’s been loathed and underrated by veterans for years because of his arguably over-sold status as a teenage phenom. If a 30-year-old who came up after a long stint in the minors said what Harper said yesterday, Romo would not have told him to shut up.

These battles over “playing the game the right way” or over young players speaking their minds are no different than the reactions to the empowerment and increased visibility of youth and minority cultures in society at large. The lashing out of guys like Gossage and Romo are an attempt to reestablish a dominance men of their age or their mindset used to wield by default but is now under threat. That we see more comments like these now is evidence that the game is undergoing an evolution. We always witness more virulent dissent against youth culture and minority culture asserting itself when the old culture is nearing its demise than we do when it is dominant. This dynamic explains social unrest and “silent majority” backlash in the 1960s and 70s and it explains these kinds of battles in baseball today. You can likewise see the battles playing out in any industry undergoing change due to technology or change of focus or altered demographics. Old newspaper columnists aren’t yelling at bloggers simply because they have an objective issue with the product the create. They yell because they feel threatened.

These observations make me less likely to have any sort of specific ire for an old ballplayer who hates new ways or an active veteran who tries to put a younger player in their place. They are merely exhibiting the natural responses any number of people in any number of walks of life exhibit when they realize that their way of understanding their world is not universal. If it was universal or even the majority view — if more people felt that the Jose Bautistas and Bryce Harpers of the world were out of line — they wouldn’t have to lash out. Sheer numbers of like-minded people and the power of cultural and generational hegemony would win the day.

Now it doesn’t win the day. Their assumptions and dispositions no longer set the tone. And rather than accept that times change, they rage, rage against the dying of the light. Or what they perceive to be the light anyway.

Those wacky Chicago Cubs continue to be wacky


The Cubs have had a different fun distraction seemingly every day of spring training. That wacky 70s van, funny t-shirts, dress-up days, you name it. That’s just sort of how things go with a Joe Maddon-managed team. He likes to keep them loose.

In the past couple of days they’ve done a couple more fun things. Yesterday, it was a hiring a guitarist to jam on the field during workouts. His choice of jam? AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”:

Nothing 20-something baseball players like more than 37-year-old rock riffs!

Today they tied up their strength and conditioning coach:

I’m heading to Arizona tomorrow and will be at Cubs camp over the weekend. Here’s hoping more wild and wacky shenanigans go down!