Just a Bit Outside: The Cubs are favored

by Sam Stockton | 4/3/16 6:10pm

It may seem strange for a kid from D.C. to grow up a fan of the Chicago Cubs. In the summer before I started first grade while visiting my grandparents in Chicago, my grandfather took my brother and me to Wrigley Field.

In the top of the fourth inning, Luis Gonzalez, of 2001 World Series fame, drove a foul ball down the right field line that glanced off my forehead. My frantic grandfather rushed me to a first-aid facility, while my loving brother scampered after the ball that he ultimately failed to recover. After I was evaluated, I returned to my seat and received a standing ovation that began within my section and eventually spread to the entire stadium. The Washington Nationals would not come to the nation’s capital for another two years, and the closest team to me, the Baltimore Orioles, was a perennial cellar-dweller. From that moment on, I was smitten with the lovable losers from the North Side.

That October, my Cubbies would have one of their best seasons in years only to fall in the National League Championship Series best remembered for some guy named Bartman. Now, for the first time in a long time, the Cubs are faced with a new challenge: championship expectations. For most of my life, being a Cubs fan has been about patiently rooting for a team that was never expected to do much and never did. I’d return to the Friendly Confines to catch a game in the Cubs’ beautiful home field when I could, and by the end of the game, the score was seldom important; the Cubs usually lost, and I never minded. No matter what happened, my Cubs could never disappoint me.

Now, the Cubs are the odds-on favorite to take home this year’s Fall Classic. That’s right, the same Cubs who’s last title came when the city of Chicago did not have a single traffic signal and whose last World Series appearance came just a month after the end of the Second World War.

The last Cubs team to go all the way boasted the famed double-play combination of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance, along with Hall-of-Fame pitcher Mordecai Brown, though the North Siders’ opening day starter was none other than the esteemed Orval Overall. For the second year in a row, the season ended with the Cubs knocking off the Detroit Tigers to take home the title.

After 108 long years, the Cubs finally appear poised to reclaim that crown. This team is made up of young stars and veterans with World Series experience. With Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant on the corners and at the heart of the line-up, the Cubs are set for years to come. Their ace, Jake Arrieta, is the closest any pitcher has come to Bob Gibson since, well, Bob Gibson. Arrieta boasts, in the opinion of most observers, the best “stuff” in Major League Baseball — his signature cutter is as devastating as any pitch you can find. Behind him in the rotation are Jon Lester and newcomer John Lackey, who have both cut their teeth as postseason performers before they arrived in the Windy City. Besides Lackey, the Cubs made two huge acquisitions in the offseason: Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, both of whom should help the Cubs’ defensive woes and provide stability wherever they are inserted in the lineup. Between kooky manager Joe Maddon, who recently defined the team’s dress code by saying, “If you think you look hot, you wear it,” and 39-year-old “Grandpa” David Ross, a back-up catcher who announced in the offseason that 2016 would be his last ride, this year’s Cubs are as lovable as ever. But this year, they are not losers — they are World Series favorites, and as a Cubs fan, I’ve never been more concerned.

You don’t have to look far to discern that baseball is a cruel sport to preseason favorites and teams that “won the off-season.” Just ask last year’s Nationals, who missed the playoffs after being a near-consensus pick to win it all.

Unlike last year, a mere postseason berth will not be enough for the Cubs. For this year’s vaunted Cubs, the season has a distinct “World Series or bust” feel to it. And though they are favorites, this is not a Cubs team without flaws. As a whole, the 2015 Cubs struck out far too often, a flaw that the New York Mets were able to expose in its NLCS sweep last season. Beyond the formidable trio of Arrieta, Lester and Lackey, the rotation has question marks.

It seems impossible for Arrieta to replicate his dominant Cy Young season. Last season’s breakout star Kyle Schwarber, a likely candidate to become the biggest proponent of the NL adopting the designated hitter, brings plenty of offensive firepower but has proven to be a liability in the field and lacks a true position.

When I consider these flaws, I can’t help but think that the Cubbies will overcome them. Tonight, with Arrieta on the mound, the Cubs will take on the Angels and their 2016 campaign will begin. At some point in the season, many will question their ability to reverse the Curse of the Billy Goat. Like any team, they will deal with injuries and slumps. Come the trade deadline, they will make acquisitions to prepare the team for a postseason run. A postseason run that I finally think will end in a champagne-spraying celebration, and that expectation of winning is exactly why I am terrified.