The Chicago Cubs — No Expectations

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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.