Column: Still loveable, Cubs won't be losers for much longer
CHICAGO (AP) Most years, a night this warm this late in October would feel like a gift. This year, because of a young Cubs team that fought off hibernation until the next-to-last possible moment, it turned out to be more of a mixed blessing.
The closest thing to a hometown celebration Wednesday night lasted all of a half-minute. It came while the Mets were still celebrating themselves, spilling out of the visiting dugout nearly a half-hour after completing a four-game sweep in the NLCS with an 8-3 win.
Across the field, the Cubs emerged from their dugout a few players at a time, tentative at first, and then turned to face the half-empty grandstands. Some of the players embraced and several doffed their caps in the direction of the remaining fans. More came running up from the concourse as word spread the team was taking a bow. Quickly, rhythmically, ''Let's Go Cubbies'' began echoing back in their direction.
In the locker room moments later, someone asked rookie Kyle Schwarber whether losing the series made it easier to understand the century-and-counting gloom that Cubs fans insist hangs over the north side of town like a permanent storm cloud. He seemed genuinely perplexed.
''It's hard to feel like losers,'' said Schwarber, who hit five home runs in the postseason, ''because we did plenty of winning. I feel like the fans - and just about everyone else in baseball - should be proud of what we did.
''We're trying to instill a new culture in Chicago, and that's winning baseball. Now we know what it takes to get here,'' he added. ''A lot of us are going to remember what it feels like.''
The culture shift began with the hiring of manager Joe Maddon and took hold faster than anyone could have imagined. A team that lost an average of 93 games each of the last five seasons won 97 in what turned out to be the toughest division in baseball. They watched Kris Bryant evolve into an almost-certain Rookie of Year and starter Jake Arrieta into a Cy Young award contender.
''I want them to understand and embrace all that they have done well this year,'' Maddon began. ''Just don't look at these last couple games and focus on that at all. See how far we've come within a very short period of time, understand the personal growth and the team growth that occurred.
''The thing about our group that I really appreciate, there's two things: They're very accountable and there is not a sense of entitlement among them,'' he added. ''So for me to lament the situation like that, I'd be absolutely going against what we're attempting to create within this organization.''
If the Cubs need a visual aid to remind them what progress looks like, it's sitting atop the right field scoreboard still, now encased in a Plexiglas case. It's the towering home-run ball that Schwarber hit in the Cubs' NLDS-clinching win over the Cardinals, a shot that traveled an estimated 419 feet and landed atop the board, then nestled against the railing in front.
''It's tough to be proud, but right now I'm proud of every guy in this room,'' said Jon Lester, who landed in Chicago after being one of the offseason's most sought-after free-agent prizes. ''I feel like a little bit of a dad in here, because we've got so many kids, even if they don't play that way. ...
''Guys showed they were willing to sacrifice for each other, willing to grind out at-bats, whether we were up four (runs) or down four. ... We didn't get as far as we wanted to, but we learned how to really win. Guys will come in here next season,'' Lester said finally, ''and expect to be in this position.''
Maddon did, too, right about the time the Cubs came flying out of the All-Star break on their way to the best second-half record in the major leagues. Instead, not long after it ended, he sought out Terry Collins, his Mets counterpart and a friend going back to their days in Anaheim, where Collins hired Maddon.
''He just met me in the hallway, which if you know Joe Maddon, you expect nothing less. I knew he was going to be somewhere,'' Collins said. ''I knew one thing, he would not leave tonight without shaking my hand because he's a pro. He is - deserves any accolade anybody talks about him. ... He's certainly gone on to be the best manager in the game.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke