The topic, in that moment, was actually Miguel Montero, the veteran catcher who lost his job last year to a rookie, Willson Contreras. But it’s an apt metaphor for the one-word message Maddon wants to sear into the minds of his returning champions: uncomfortable.
“What I like about that motto is you have to find a way to be comfortable within an uncomfortable position,” starter Jake Arrieta said. “We had a lot of uncomfortable situations last year, and we were able to persevere and get through and come out ahead.”
Last season, to be sure, was a wonderful process for the Cubs, who hoisted more than a couple of beers after their thrilling victory over the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 of the World Series. For the first time in 108 years, everybody is happy in Wrigleyville and beyond.
“I felt it in the off-season in Las Vegas,” said Kris Bryant, the National League’s most valuable player. “I didn’t really realize how many fans we had around the country. It was kind of hard to even go places in my hometown.”
Just wait till the games start. At their worst, the Cubs are an attraction, and no one alive has seen them this good. Their goal now is to do what the 1908 team did: Repeat as champions. The Cubs, who also won in 1907, were the first team to win consecutive World Series. The Yankees did it most recently, from 1998 through 2000.
With three tiers of playoff series and a system that encourages parity, the current gap without a repeat champion is the longest in major league history.
“There’s so much talent, so many games and so many things that can go wrong — it’s just tough to do,” Mike Stanton, a reliever on those Yankees teams, said by phone on Wednesday. “A lot of people talk about the bull’s-eye on your back, and how you go from being the hunter to the hunted, but everybody knew the Cubs were good last year, too.”
Indeed, while the title was hardly a sure thing — they are the Cubs, after all — it was not a surprise, either. The Cubs had reached the N.L. Championship Series the year before, had a deep and nearly flawless roster, and their 103-58 record was easily the best in the majors. They embraced the target, as Maddon had said, and dutifully knocked it down.
Now, Bryant said, the season will be a failure unless the Cubs return to the World Series. That roughly echoes George Steinbrenner’s edict during the Yankees’ dynasty, as voiced in the clubhouse by Derek Jeter. The looming presence of a domineering boss kept the Yankees on edge, but Maddon hopes a softer touch can create a similar feeling here.
“While we’re balancing this thing out — talking about it, feeling uncomfortable in a sense that we want to keep growing and pushing — I want us to have the same kind of blast that we’ve had the last two years,” Maddon said. “I think that’s important also. When you start taking yourself too seriously, then the tendency would be to get off track.”
Maddon’s mind games get a lot of attention, but makeup of the roster naturally matters most. Before the Yankees repeated in 1999, they traded for a hungry superstar, Roger Clemens, who helped maintain their intensity. No such presence has joined the Cubs since their victory parade, but there are a few changes.
They traded for a seasoned closer, Wade Davis, to replace Aroldis Chapman. They will give Jason Hammel’s old rotation spot to Mike Montgomery or another left-hander, the veteran Brett Anderson. After letting Dexter Fowler leave for St. Louis, they will turn over center field to the 22-year-old Albert Almora and Jon Jay, a veteran newcomer.
That alignment leaves a bit of a logjam, but if that is the Cubs’ biggest problem, they should be fine. Ben Zobrist can play left, right or second, where Javier Baez plays; Kyle Schwarber will probably stay in left, but he may also catch; Jason Heyward plays center or right; and Bryant shifts among third, left and right.
“On paper we have one ‘extra guy,’ but it doesn’t always play out that way,” said Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations. “Baseball has a way of taking care of it, and if it doesn’t, we have the benefit of having a surplus of everyday-caliber players, and that’s just going to give us the ability to do two things: keep everyone really rested — which is such an underrated part of winning these days in the current environment — and then also tailor the lineup not only for the opposing starting pitcher, but for our starting pitcher. We can build a defense to our starter’s tendencies and build a lineup to the other starter’s tendencies. That’s a nice luxury.”
Epstein will soon have a third ring, to go with the two he won as the architect of the Boston Red Sox teams that captured the World Series in 2004 and 2007. Those stamped a once-cursed franchise as a force in the new century, just as the Cubs have become. Maddon’s slogan aside, it is a lot more comfortable to work for the Cubs without the burden of their ancestors’ failure.
“Winning it was really rewarding, a sense of relief, and almost liberating for a lot of us,” Epstein said. “We can just enjoy all the great things we have here — a young nucleus, having players with such great character, having the support of ownership, having amazing facilities, being in such a positive culture. We can really breathe that in. We all love coming to work each day without this weight hanging over us.”