You Know Better….
Two factors will lead to the Cubs winning the division this year, and in the first 5 games we have seen them on display: teamwork and leadership. We all questioned the pitching going into the regular season. We expected that without Wood, Prior, and Miller, the task of getting off to a good start in April would be daunting, and unlikely. We wondered if the grand old master, Greg Maddux, still had any good years left in him, and if Derrek Lee’s season last year was too incredible to duplicate. Our GM and manager have contract issues to work out, we have several new players and young starters….with so many questions, it is no wonder that skepticism abounded! Yet if you look around carefully, you will see that there is a certain trend happening in sports now: the Detroit Pistons have won with it, the New England Patriots won with it, and our neighbors to the south won with it last year as well. What is this trend? What is this certain quality that seems to be permeating the winning teams, in all sports? Quite simply, it is teamwork, and leadership that comes from a players’ actions on the field, and not just from the mouth of a “star”. It is the team concept, where no superstars are needed, and no selfish egos need apply. The Chicago Bulls are trying to win with this same attitude and philosophy under Scott Skiles, and while the results are mixed so far, you always feel like you are getting your money’s worth from the Bulls’ players. I see this same team-first attitude, never-give-up composure, and lead by example mentality in our 2006 Chicago Cubs! So if you still don’t think the Cubs will win the division this year, after sweeping the very beatable St. Louis Cardinals in three straight games (in April, no less!), then I must set you straight, and let you know that you really should know better….
While Derrek Lee has definitely stood out offensively so far this year, it seems that several Cubs have taken turns being one of the “heroes” in each game. We have seen contributions from Pierre on Opening day, from Murton, from Cedeno, and from Ramirez and Lee. We have seen Todd Walker make Dusty look smart in the starting role at 2B, and we have seen Michael Barrett rebound from a bad game and hit in the game-winning runs with a timely Grand Slam. We even finally saw Jacque Jones get into the act, and we probably all felt a bit of relief at seeing him bust out a few hits!
In our short season we have seen the team battle back from deficits, play hard every inning, and while we haven’t completely abandoned the swing-at-the-first-pitch mentality of the last few years, there has definitely been an improvement, it seems, in our hitters being patient, getting the base on balls, and making the opposing pitcher work harder and longer. A bullpen is the ultimate sign of teamwork in baseball, I think, because most pitchers wanted to be starters, but typically were not good enough, and were converted to relievers….but they accept their role, which is to help the starter get a win, and to get the game to the closer for the save. A good bullpen doesn’t go unnoticed by the smart fan, but you won’t see middle relievers and setup men in any of the highlight reels or on the stat sheets. The reward for the guys in the bullpen is the satisfaction of being an integral part of a team victory, even if the glory goes to players besides themselves.
Derrek Lee has certainly done his best to answer his detractors that doubted he would come close to repeating his numbers from last year. Before his breakout year in 2005, Lee was notorious for being a slow starter. However, both last year, and so far this year, he has been hot right out of the gate, and I think that gives him the extra confidence that he needs to go from a .280/30/90 hitter to a .310/45/110 hitter, and it is looking more and more like he is the latter. I put Derrek Lee in the leadership category because he was the club MVP last year, he is a defensive Gold Glove winner, and he never whines or complains about announcers or anything at all….he just plays the game hard, and works on being the best overall player he can be, and not just a one-dimensional slugger, or a weak-hitting defensive specialist. He seems to carry himself with class and dignity, and with the sudden youth movement of the Cubs, Lee is also the elder statesman for the position players now. Lee is becoming a legitimate superstar, but minus the self-serving ego, and he leads by example, and that could make all the difference for the Cubs this year.
While he only has one game under his belt this year, the legendary Greg Maddux put on a dazzling display of pitching mastery in his first start of the year. He has no fastball to speak of, he isn’t intimidating physically on the mound, and yet his win totals just keep climbing, year after year. The talk in Spring Training was that Maddux hired a trainer for the first time, this off-season, as he felt he slipped too much last year, and he has too much pride to look mediocre on the mound. Like Lee, Maddux is a quiet leader, as he never comes out in the media to talk about himself, or to try and pump up his teammates with criticism or praise. Whatever Maddux does say to his teammates, will never be heard by anyone but them, as his team loyalty is unmatched in today’s game. He lets his work ethic, his practice habits, his pride in fielding, and his Hall of Fame statistics do the talking for him. Maddux puts in his work, studying his opponents, and looking for weaknesses to expose in opposing hitters….he never assumes he already has all the answers, despite his vast experience….instead he keeps working to prepare himself better for the next start, both mentally and physically. Also like Lee, Maddux is the total package, as he doesn’t just try to be a strikeout pitcher, or worry about his win totals (he could care less about that) as he focuses more on how many walks he issues, how many balls he fielded correctly, and whether he gives his team enough innings, so that at the end of the day he can look himself in the mirror and know that he contributed to the team, and gave it his best.
The Cubs, and the Cubs Faithful, are so very lucky to have Lee and Maddux on this team, and with all the youth on the field and on the mound, there are no better role models in all of baseball to help our young Cubs players learn, mature, and grow!
Could it be that this is the Cubs’ season, if for no other reason than we have had an unusual amount of bad luck with injuries the past few years? Not to mention the fact that we haven’t won a World Series since before my grandfather was born! All of DustyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s moves so far have worked out well, it seems (except for having Williams follow Rusch) and winning will always make the manager look like a genius and a candidate for manager of the year. The bullpen is looking really solid, and may just be good enough to get the Cubs through April with an above-average record, after all. I have said repeatedly that I felt the Cubs suffered from slow starts the past two years, and from letting St. Louis get off to such an insurmountable lead in the division standings. While the jury is out on Marshall and Rusch/Williams leave much to be desired as starters, I am hopeful that the timely hitting will continue, as will the bullpen’s excellence, and that the Cubs will get their share of wins, and not just when Maddux and Zambrano are pitching. I do not think the Cubs can win the division by hoping for .500 ball until Wood/Prior/Miller get healthy….they have to have some luck, and some good pitching from all of the starters, and be above .500 at the end of April and at the end of May. With that positive momentum, and elevated confidence, the returns of Wood and Prior will send the team into overdrive, and the Cubs will steadily pull away from the pack in the division. There is no team to fear this year, as the Cardinals are no longer a juggernaut, the Astros are thin on talent, and the other teams are all unproven. This division is the Cubs to lose, and I fully expect them to rise to the challenge, hold their ground, and win the division by at least 5 games. Rejoice, Cubs Faithful, for next year has finally arrived, and we are all here to witness the greatest October that Chicago has ever known. Until next time, let’s go Cubs!