So hell froze over and here we are, on the fields of the Cubs’ spring training complex in Mesa, Arizona, as members of the world champions stretch and play catch and prepare for life at the top. Let that sink in for a second: The World Series champion Cubs …
How did we get to this moment? Remember Mike Montgomery pitching to Michael Martinez with the greatest game in World Series history and a combined 176 years of losing on the line? That’s a long story. But you know what happened. Montgomery threw a 76 mph curveball, Martinez tapped a soft dribbler toward third base, Kris Bryant charged in with a smile that went from Lake Erie to Lake Michigan and made the throw to Anthony Rizzo and, yes, the Chicago Cubs actually won the World Series.
One writer called it the last great American sports story. No doubt, the narrative we saw last fall was a tale for the history books. Television ratings for the World Series skyrocketed to their highest numbers in 25 years. Strangers hugged. Cleveland wept. Chicago held a parade that had the city bursting like a Macy’s store two days before Christmas.
This isn’t where the story ends, however; this is where a new chapter begins.
What is there left to play for now that 1908 might simply be remembered as the year Henry Ford produced his first Model T? Now that the curse of the billy goat has been broken?
Let’s start here, where we left off. Four World Series Game 7s have gone extra innings — 1912, 1924, 1997 and 2016. The Indians have lost the past two of those, excruciating defeats that tear apart fibers and blood vessels and lead to nightmares of Tony Fernandez’s error or Ben Zobrist’s hit down the third-base line, the Cleveland version of Leon Durham or Steve Bartman. You come so close, you go through spring training and the regular season, and you get to Game 7 of the World Series despite an injury-riddled rotation and you hit an unlikely game-tying home run in the eighth inning — and you still fall one run short.
Maybe this is finally the year for the Indians. The list of teams to lose the World Series only to win the next season is short. It’s happened just once in the wild-card era, when the Royals did it in 2015. The Indians return nearly everybody from last year’s 94-win team. They’ve lost slugger and spiritual leader Mike Napoli. But they replaced him with a much more imposing hitter in Edwin Encarnacion. They’ll have Andrew Miller all season and hopefully a healthy Michael Brantley, who missed almost all of 2016, to anchor the outfield.
Cy Young contender Corey Kluber still is there, coming off that dominant October run — at least until Game 7 — and as good as he is, the star of this team now is the brilliant young shortstop Francisco Lindor. You know former Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel will land on the Hall of Fame ballot next winter, and he’s a strong candidate to eventually get elected. No offense to a great player, but Lindor is better — already a Gold Glove winner at 22, a .300 hitter in each of his first two seasons in the majors and a standout performer in his first postseason. It’s a team with talent and depth. How about a Game 7 victory in the World Series … in extra innings, of course.
Or start here: Eight franchises have never won a World Series. The Houston Astros were born in 1962, originally named after a gun, and soon moved into a stadium in which they tried to grow grass indoors. They dumped the nickname, the grass and eventually the stadium. Longtime Astros fans suffered through the torturous loss in the 1980 National League Championship Series, the crushing defeat to the Mets in 1986, the playoff disappointments of the Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio teams, the World Series sweep in 2005 and the three straight seasons of 106-plus defeats.
I think of my friend Anna, the biggest Astros fan I know. I see her two boys on Facebook in Astros gear — one of them dressed up as Jose Altuve for Halloween, because of course you do, when you’re 8 years old and a baseball fan. She cheers as fervently for her team as any Cubs fan. The Cubs don’t own a monopoly on fans passing down their love of baseball from generation to generation.
Heck, the state of Texas has seen more than 110 seasons of major league baseball without a World Series championship. The Rangers were one strike away in 2011, one fly ball that was inches from being caught. The Padres, Brewers, Mariners, Rockies, Nationals and Rays also are all title-less and all share this pain, but maybe — just maybe — this is the year the Lone Star State sees its first World Series parade.
The Astros have a brilliant young core in Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Alex Bregman, a foursome similar in ability to Bryant, Rizzo, Addison Russell and Javier Baez. I love Correa as a potential MVP candidate and Bregman as a breakout star. They’ve added Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann to provide that much-needed veteran knowledge and presence.
The Rangers lost that World Series in 2011, and the one the year before. They’ve lost in the first round the past two postseasons. Since 2010, only the Cardinals and Yankees have won more games. The Rangers’ window might be closing. Adrian Beltre can’t play forever, at least at the level he’s still at. Yu Darvish is a free agent after the season. Cole Hamels has more than 2,000 innings of mileage on his arm. They’ve filled out the roster with several one-year gambles, including Napoli.
They have two potential young stars in Rougned Odor and Nomar Mazara who need to improve. They have a strong bullpen and a full season from Jonathan Lucroy behind the plate. They’ve spent seven seasons on the cusp of glory. Maybe it’s their time.
The Nationals are a franchise with a complicated history, starting life as the Montreal Expos and moving to Washington in 2005. The city was home to two versions of the Washington Senators from 1901 to 1971 — the first one became the Twins, the second one became the Rangers — but the lone championship came way back in 1924.
The Nationals have lost in the first round of the playoffs three times in the past five seasons, and their manager is Dusty Baker, at 67 the oldest manager in the game and a star-crossed skipper who always seems to make a crucial blunder in October. He has made the playoffs eight times; no other manager has been to the postseason that often and not won a World Series.
Think about Baker’s baseball life. When he made his major league debut, the opposing manager was Harry Walker, a member of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1947 when the team reportedly threatened to strike rather than play against Jackie Robinson. A teammate in his first game was Terry Francona’s father. He was on deck when Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run and played with Fernando Valenzuela during that magical year of 1981 for the Dodgers, and he managed Barry Bonds. If he wins the World Series, it just might get him elected to the Hall of Fame.
The Nationals are as star-laden as any team in baseball, with Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, 2015 MVP Bryce Harper, 2016 MVP runner-up Daniel Murphy, potential ace Stephen Strasburg and budding superstar Trea Turner. They acquired Adam Eaton from the White Sox, and the advanced metrics suggest he’s one of the best all-around players in the game.
A key player is first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. He has been with the Nationals since 2005 but has gone from star to fading franchise player with the back of a 70-year-old. He has something to prove. Dusty has something to prove. Even Harper, coming off a bad season, at least in comparison to his monster 2015 campaign, has something to prove.
Most of all, they have to prove it in October. Maybe baseball can unite our nation’s capital. (OK, maybe not, but it’s worth a try.)
Maybe it starts with the best player in the game. Mike Trout isn’t just the Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle of his generation; he’s Mays or Mantle and doing it against much tougher competition. The caliber of athlete in today’s game, both on the mound and in the field, is better than ever, and Trout is the pre-eminent player, with two MVP awards and three MVP runner-up finishes in his first five seasons. No position player has had more wins above replacement through age 24; he’s at 48.5, and the only others above 40 were Ty Cobb and Mantle. Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. rank fourth and fifth on the list.
Those stats obviously are impressive, and it’s exciting to contemplate what he will do next on an individual level. We know what’s missing from his résumé, and while everyone is discounting the Angels, don’t discount them so quickly with the best player in the game. They’ve gone all-in on defense, and if the rotation can stay healthy, the Angels are going to surprise. Then maybe Trout will have his moment in the World Series, when his back is turned away from home plate, running full speed into an endless field of green to make a catch that lives on forever in YouTube lore.
Think of the pitcher across town, Clayton Kershaw, a man who clearly has reached a pinnacle of excellence few pitchers have achieved. Yet we wonder as he has missed a little time with injuries two of the past three seasons: How much longer can he be so much better than everyone else? And why doesn’t he dominate in the postseason like he does in the regular season? His accomplishments are so prodigious that we recoil in anguish when he proves mortal in October — 4.55 career ERA in the playoffs — but maybe that only means his story has yet to write the final chapter, with World Series glory to be told, when history turns into mythology.
The Dodgers have won four straight division titles. They also haven’t advanced past the NLCS, and with the sport’s highest payroll, anything but a World Series title is almost a disappointment. This Dodgers team, however, appears stronger than the previous four. Corey Seager is young and strong and awesome and might go from third in the MVP voting as a rookie to first as a sophomore. This young kid Julio Urias already pitches with the poise and confidence of a veteran All-Star, and he is ready for his own breakout campaign. They have an elite closer in Kenley Jansen, the deepest roster in the majors, a good manager in Dave Roberts and a front office and ownership ready to acquire that final piece at the trade deadline.
Most of all, however, they have Kershaw. Maybe this will be the year he records the final out of the season.
Then again, maybe none of those can stop the team that’s on top right now. Maybe the next chapter simply picks up from Nov. 2, 2016: a Cubs dynasty.
Theo Epstein didn’t set out to build one 100-win club. He wants to win 100 every season. Everything you have seen and read this offseason from the players seems to suggest that they want this burden of greatness, that one championship won’t be enough.
All the significant players are back, except for center fielder Dexter Fowler and closer Aroldis Chapman. Bryant and Rizzo are two of the best players in the game; Russell is just turning 23, and Baez is turning 24. They’ll have Kyle Schwarber for the whole season, and his World Series performance might simply be a prelude to him becoming one of the faces of baseball. This is a lineup young enough to remain together for several more years, an almost impossible feat to keep going in the free-agency era. That’s how you build a dynasty.
Maybe the rotation maxed out in 2016. It was healthy and dominant, but that terrific defense behind it isn’t going anywhere; and Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks should once again line up as a terrific trio of starters. Oh, and they have the best manager in the game in Joe Maddon.
The last team to win back-to-back titles was the 1998-2000 Yankees. The last team to win more championships than that in a row was the 1949-1953 Yankees, winners of five straight World Series. Maybe that’s what happens next — the Lovable Losers become the Evil Empire.
I’d love to see another dynasty in baseball. It creates an extra level of passion, like rooting against the Patriots. It gives energy to the sport and forces the other teams to aim higher. It creates rivalries, and rivalries create fans, and fans create memories.
We subsist on those memories. Years from now, a story will be told: “Let me tell you about what happened in that 2017 season …”