Cubs Putting Less Fun, More Mental into Fundamentals This Spring

The bounce house didn’t have to be deflated and hauled away because it was never ordered. No one had to be restrained from punching a mime because none of the monochromatic mutes have been milling around. The only magic wand has been El Mago’s bat. And even though hitting coach Anthony Iapoce appeared tempted by the notion of joining the Club 400 tailgate last weekend, his longing gaze quickly turned back to the Cubs’ facility.

It isn’t that the Cubs aren’t loose or that they’re not enjoying their time in Mesa, far from it. One need look no further than Yu Darvish, whose witty humor comes through even more clearly sans interpreter, to see that the mood is light. But something is clearly different from the first few Joe Maddon-led camps, and it seems to be the intent of players and staff alike.

There’s a point at which all the novelty begins to feel forced and unnecessary, or that it’s just becoming redundant. And I don’t even mean in a less-is-more sense, just that spring training is already fun enough as it is without heaping extra stuff in there. It’s not like the team needs a break from the monotony of the season when the calendar still thinks it’s winter.

There’ll be plenty of time for manufactured fun when the season gets rolling, no need to overdo it now.

“I don’t really like mimes, so I don’t mind those never showing up again,” Jon Lester told The Athletic‘s Patrick Mooney. “And I’m not a big magic person, so I don’t mind skipping out on the magician. But the zoo was pretty cool. It’s such a long season, you need to break stuff up and have fun.”

Last season served as a wake-up call for the Cubs, who had collectively hit the snooze button time and again since winning the world series. All they’d ever known as a team was success, and they surely would have experienced more of the same had injuries not hobbled some of their top players. So maybe it’s a good thing they had their dicks knocked in the dirt, as Lester said last year.

Rather than inviting outsiders to come in and take the pressure off, the Cubs have instituted more internal structure. That could be a more hands-on approach from Maddon or better utilizing the cutting-edge technology in their Pitch Lab ($), among other institutional adjustments. Most of it is the natural maturation of a core group that came up and never really knew what they didn’t know.

What they now know is that they’re neither infallible nor invincible, that just showing up isn’t good enough. That’s why the vibe has gone from simply getting in shape for the season to truly shaping what the season is going to be. There’s still plenty of time to relax, sure, but strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss isn’t hanging out in a banana hammock like before.

Three years ago, Joe Maddon rolled onto the practice field in his 70’s shaggin’ wagon looking like he’d just finished a clam bake in preparation for a Grateful Dead show. Fast forward to this season and director of high performance is an actual role in the organization, with Adam Beard overseeing “a collaborative approach to all aspects of training, conditioning, mental skills, nutrition, sport science and beyond.” Whoa, man, sounds pretty serious.

Rather than harshing anyone’s mellow and eliminating all fun from their camp, what the Cubs have really done is just change the definition a little bit. They’ve swapped Candy Land for Trivial Pursuit. Or maybe it’s Cards Against Humanity, what with all the talk of dirty dicks and “horseshit bullpens.” Next thing you know, Kyle Schwarber will be yelling explicit instructions to David Ross after hitting a single.

No matter how they choose to go about preparing for the upcoming season, the Cubs have realized as an organization that best way to have fun is to win. And the best way to win might be to avoid any focus on trying to make things fun right out of the gate. If everything’s working according the plan, all that satisfaction should be self-fulfilling.

Now watch Maddon construct a mini-golf course on one of the Sloan backfields this weekend.

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