The Cubs biggest challenge that they have had to overcome the past few seasons is the same problem that they will face in the coming years as they try and turn the franchise into a playoff contender. That problem is the culture of losing. When a team has a culture of losing they still go about their business the same as any other club; they still show up to the ballpark five hours before game time, they still work hard in the weight room, they still want to win. The difference lies in the team’s mindset. A losing team is almost afraid to win. When it’s the bottom of the ninth and they’re down one run with the bases loaded and no one out, teams with a culture of losing pop up to the third baseman, strike out looking and come away with nothing. When a team is faced with this scenario night after night, and each time they fail to come through, they stop actively trying to succeed. Often times it becomes an effort of chance. Meaning, instead of having the mindset, “I will succeed”, their mentality changes to: “I’m due for a big hit”. Teams start hoping to get lucky because they have decided that their efforts (maybe even their talents) are not enough to win the game, and after a few losses in a row, teams start expecting to lose.
Lets juxtapose this attitude with the way the New York Yankees of the late 90’s played. That team was never out of a game. Some days when they were down going into the ninth inning it felt like the game was tied, and as soon as they got a runner on first it felt like he had already scored. Even today they still do this. I dare you to watch the ninth inning of any Yankee game and tell me that the 25 players in that dugout don’t think that they are going to win the game.
George Steinbrenner was the epitome of this attitude. Some characterize Steinbrenner as ruthless, mean and heartless, but the fact of the matter is that he was best. Hands down. Steinbrenner simply did what he had to do to win, period. And that mindset permeated his organization. People often say that the Yankees win games before they even get to the ballpark. It isn’t because they had the best players in baseball in their lineup, it isn’t because they play at Yankee stadium, it is because their team mentality, their culture, is that they WILL WIN every game, no matter what. Bad teams have a tendency to get down a run or two and think, “here we go again,” where as good teams take it as a challenge. They see it as an offence to them that the other team has the audacity to think they can beat them.
For longer than most of us can remember, the Cubs have been deeply entrenched in a culture of losing; even when it looks like they are winning. Take a look at the infamous “Steve Bartman Play” in the 2003 NLCS against the Marlins. Looking back, everyone gets so caught up in the fact that Bartman prevented Moises Alou from making the catch, when a few batters later Mark Prior got Miguel Cabrera to hit a tailor-made double-play ball hit to Alex Gonzalez at short. No one wants to remember the error, the lack of execution. They would rather blame it on a curse. Look at the Cubs history for the last 100 years; Bartman, the billy goat, the black cat. The excuses are everywhere because that’s what losers do, they make excuses.
The Cubs began their latest culture change movement when the Rickets family bought the Cubs back in 2009. The next step was the hiring of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, who were brought to Chicago specifically with the intention of establishing a new culture. To their credit, the Cubs appear to be doing all the right things that will eventually lead to sustained success at the major league level, but they still have a long way to go.
One of the biggest obstacles in completing the Cubs’ transformation could be the guys who are currently on the roster who figure to be in it for the long haul; Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Welington Castillo. All three are very talented ball players but losing nearly 100 games three years in a row takes a heck of toll on a player’s psyche. Sometimes all it takes is one or two guys to ruin a culture change, and I not saying that any of these three will be a problem moving forward, but you never really know until push comes to shove and they are forced to prove that they have successfully bought in. That’s why the Cubs have been stuck in this rut for so long, it’s a fragile process that can be easily derailed but only a few.
The Cubs biggest internal challenges are no doubt still ahead of them, but they have put in the legwork thus far and only time will tell if they are able to complete the process. I would wish them good luck, but there will be no luck involved in what lies ahead.
Tags: Anthony Rizzo, Baseball, Chicago, Chicago Cubs, George Steinbrenner, Jed Hoyer, Mark Prior, Miguel Cabrera, MLB, Moises Alou, New York Yankees, Starlin Castro, Steve Bartman, Theo Epstein, Welington Castillo