The Chicago Cubs were 103-58, with one tie this year, the best record in Major League Baseball, and it wasn’t close.
Every member of the infield — Anthony Rizzo at first base, Ben Zobrist at second, Addison Russell at shortstop and Kris Bryant at third — was named as a starter on this year’s National League All-Star Team. And they all had stellar seasons, both offensively and defensively.
They can plug and play Javier Baez and Zobrist virtually anywhere, except catcher, and not miss a beat.
Speaking of the catcher position, they have Willson Contreras, who also can plug some gaps in the outfield when Miguel Montero or David “Grandpa Rossy” Ross is behind the plate.
The outfield isn’t too shabby, either, with Jorge Soler in left, Dexter Fowler in center and Jason Heyward in right. And don’t forget Matt Szczur and Chris Coghlan, who fill in quite well when needed.
And that leaves out the unforgettable Kyle Schwarber, who suffered a terrible knee injury in the third game of the season. When he returns in 2017, look out.
Their starting rotation is incredible, with Kyle Hendricks, the No. 5 starter at the beginning of the season, now in Cy Young consideration, along with Cubs ace Jon Lester. Both Lester and Hendricks flirted with no-hitters this year.
I haven’t even mentioned reigning Cy Young award winner Jake Arrieta, who actually had a no-hitter early this season.
Plus, there’s gamer and curmudgeon extraordinaire John Lackey and the somewhat-forgettable Jason Hammell, who still was a respectable 15-10 on the season, rounding out the starting five.
They have the best closer in baseball in Aroldis Chapman to solidify a bullpen that has shown its strength when it gets to the seventh when Pedro Stop takes the ball, with former closer Hector Rondon shutting down the eighth.
To complete the puzzle, they have arguably the best manager in the game in Joe Maddon.
They appear to have zero weaknesses.
Most of the experts are even picking the Northsiders to win the World Series this year.
But for me, that all adds up to nervousness.
Not for Arrieta, however. Before the Giants beat the Mets in the one-game wild card playoff, he was asked who he would want to play.
“Who gives a sh–,” he said.
I wish I had his confidence. I do.
I should. But I don’t.
When the once-lovable-losers open up their National League Division Series at 8 p.m. central time today against the San Francisco Giants, I’ll be excited.
After all, this is the best Cubs team I’ve ever seen in my 34 years. If any team had a chance to reverse that 108-year-old curse, it’s this one.
I should feel great about that.
But I don’t. Why?
Honestly, I’ve seen too much.
This will be the eighth time the Cubs have made the playoffs since I’ve been alive.
The first playoff series I remember was in 1989 when the big, bad, evil Giants eliminated my Cubbies in the National League Championship Series. I remember crying, and I’m pretty sure my mom did, too.
It was nine more years until they made the postseason again, in 1998 against the Atlanta Braves, when they got swept in the best-of-five division series.
Then came 2003. Mark Prior. Kerry Wood. Carlos Zambrano. Matt Clement.
That vaunted pitching staff was going to take us to the promised land.
And don’t forget about Moises Alou and Sammy Sosa.
It was Dusty Baker’s first year at the helm. He knew how to win, after all, he guided so many of those Giants teams to the playoffs.
This team had it. It was special.
Then, as if that wasn’t enough, at the trade deadline, General Manager Jim Hendry pillaged the Pittsburgh Pirates for Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez and Randall Simon.
The Cubs finished 88-74 that season, good enough for first in the National League Central and a postseason berth for the first time since 1998.
The NLDS would pit the Cubs against the Atlanta Braves, then a perennial playoff team, but Chicago would dispatch with them after going the distance in a five-game series.
Then, it was on to the fateful NLCS and the Florida Marlins.
Four games into the series, the Cubs were up, 3-1. One game from something the franchise hadn’t experienced since 1945. One game from glory. The World Series.
But Game 5 came and went with the Cubs losing 4-0 in Florida.
No matter. We’ll win this thing at home. It’s more special that way. Eighteen-game winner and phenom Mark Prior will take the hill. We’ll be fine.
That’s how the thinking went, anyway. And it was solid thinking for the first seven innings.
The Northsiders were up 3-0 heading into the eighth. Six outs from winning the series in 6 games. Six outs.
But then, with one out, it all unraveled. There was Steve Bartman. And there was Alex Gonzalez’s bobble of a grounder at short off the bat of future triple-crowner Miguel Cabrera.
And before you know it, the Cubs had given up 8 runs.
They eventually would lose the game, 8-3.
And the Cubs, once up 3-1 in the series, were tied 3-3 and heading into an anything-can-happen Game 7.
But Kerry Wood was on the mound at Wrigley Field. No problem, right?
As every Cub fan knows, it was not to be, as the Marlins went on to win, and the series would forever be tied to Bartman.
The Marlins would eventually win the World Series that season.
It was the young franchise’s second world championship since their first campaign in 1993. There’s something inherently unfair about that.
The Cubs didn’t sniff the playoffs again until 2007 under the ever-fiery Lou Piniella but were swept by the Diamondbacks and Dodgers in the NLDS in consecutive seasons.
Those teams were pretty good in their own right, but they clearly didn’t have what it took. And it’s possible Piniella’s personality wore on them over the course of a 162-game season.
A winner is built
After that, there wasn’t much hope.
That is, until about five years ago, when Theo Epstein, who had broken the dreaded Curse of the Bambino in Boston, came to Chicago, looking to end yet another drought.
And ever since that time, every move he’s made has brought a winning culture to the Cubs.
Sports Illustrated has an interesting video about how the Cubs as we know them were built.
In 2012, the Cubs traded for Rizzo, who since has blossomed in Chicago, becoming a three-time All-Star.
In 2013, the Cubs used their No. 2 overall pick wisely in selecting Bryant, who was Rookie of the Year last year and likely will be named the National League Most Valuable Player this year.
Also that year, in a trade that may go down as one of the biggest fleecings of a franchise in recent history, the Cubs brought in Arrieta and Strop and sent starting pitcher Scott Feldman and backup catcher Steve Clevenger to the Baltimore Orioles.
Then, in the offseason before the 2015 campaign, the Cubs signed Lester, the centerpiece of the Cubs starting rotation.
Just a month before that, however, was the biggest move of Epstein’s tenure, when he wrangled Maddon away from the Tampa Bay Rays.
A winner was born.
Maddon immediately had them in the postseason and took them all the way to the NLCS, where they were swept by the New York Mets and their all-world rotation.
Preparing for another deep run in postseason, at the trade deadline this year, the Cubs managed to add the aforementioned best closer in baseball in Chapman, sending to the New York Yankees some high-end prospects that likely were never going to see the field in a Chicago Cubs uniform.
In five years’ time, Epstein has taken the Cubs from lovable losers with an occasional good season to a powerhouse with staying power. And, Theo and his crew just signed a five-year deal to stay with the Cubs, no matter what happens this season.
And still, I’m nervous.
I’m nervous because I’ve seen too much. I’m nervous because I’ve never seen the Cubs this good. I’m nervous because the Cubs are supposed to win. I’m nervous because anything short of a World Series championship will be a disappointment after a 100-plus win season.
By all accounts, they should win. They should walk away with this thing.
And believe me, nothing in this world would make me happier.
But after 2003, you can’t take anything for granted.
I don’t care if they’re leading the World Series 3-0, and there’s two outs in the bottom of the ninth of Game 4 and they’re up by 5, I’m still not going to allow myself to celebrate. I won’t so much as smile.
I’ll still be nervous until that last out is recorded.
I’ve seen too much.