You can’t spell “fundamental” without “fun,” which is why David Ross was brought to Chicago in the first place. While Joe Maddon might prefer to regale the media with philosophical balderdash about how fun is a state of mind he learned how to achieve during a sweat lodge retreat in Albuquerque back in ’83, Ross will just lay it out plainly. That minimalist approach, along with a focus on the little things, might be what has the Cubs looking like a different team this season.
I’m not talking about the 4-1 record or scoring first in each of their five games so far because it’d be silly to base anything on such a small sample. But anyone who’s watched the Cubs since at least 2015 can probably tell you that they didn’t look like the same team in the three seasons following their World Series triumph. Like Rick Vaughn in Major League II, they had a more businesslike approach as they all acted like they’d been there before.
That, at least in the opinion of this intrepid “blogger,” is precisely the reason they couldn’t get back there. Well, that and falling off noticeably in some of the fundamental aspects of the game. It was as though leadership viewed their achievement not as reaching the summit of a mountain, but as ascending to a plateau from which they needn’t climb higher. Hard work behind them, they could set their tools down and enjoy the view.
With full acknowledgement that I’m oversimplifying things, it has seemed pretty obvious for years that the Cubs weren’t having as much fun on the field or in the dugout. That’s not to say they never had fun, only that the vibe was different at the ballpark and even to those following the games at home. They appeared to have taken winning for granted, which isn’t fun, then ended up pressing and falling short, which is even less fun.
This year, however, the vibe is much more reminiscent of those early Maddon squads. And while there have been some fundamental miscues — that botched rundown on Saturday, woof — the Cubs’ overall approach just looks much more fun than mental. Part of that is Ross putting them through more drill work on the basics that otherwise seemed to have been forgotten.
It’s also a matter of being intentional about enjoying themselves, which is a little easier when you’re scoring a lot of runs and flying the W regularly. As Javy Báez explained in the wake of his two-homer explosion in Cincinnati Tuesday night, Anthony Rizzo is leading the charge to make sure the energy remains high even with no fans at the ballpark.
“That’s been a big thing here in that clubhouse,” Javy said. “We’re having more fun than anything, I think. Rizzo has been crazy, trying to make us be together. And it’s working.”
Just look at the way the Cubs’ svelte captain was leading the celebration of David Bote’s tank. And it’s like this all game, every game.
Anthony Rizzo leading the Cubs welcome party back to the dugout for David Bote after his first homer of the season pic.twitter.com/Buia74EOOs
— Cubs Insider (@realcubsinsider) July 29, 2020
But don’t just take my admittedly biased word for it. If you want proof positive that the Cubs look like a different team this season, you need only hear from a man widely believed to be one of their biggest critics.
“Look at this dugout,” Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman said during Tuesday’s broadcast. “I mean, you can hate the Cubs, it makes no difference. But you’ve got to give it up to a team that’s showing this kinds of fire and passion and enthusiasm that they are showing.
“There’s a lot of guys down there making tens of millions of dollars a year and they’re coming to the ballpark like they are playing for a high school team. And I don’t say that in a negative way in any form of fashion. In fact, its’ a compliment. And I’m sure a lot of people will get upset for me saying something nice about the Cubs, but it is what it is.”
Just kidding, please feel free to issue this kind of effusive praise on the Cincy airwaves until Reds fans’ blood boils like a fresh bowl of whatever that stuff is they try to pass off as chili. Given how the Brennamans — father Marty has long been a salty one when it comes to Chicago’s NL team — have pandered to their audience in the past, Thom’s compliment is tantamount to Len Kasper disavowing Cheap Trick or Ron Coomer disagreeing with Pat Hughes.
So I don’t care that the season is only five games old at this point, since who the hell even knows whether they’ll be able to finish with the way things are going in the world. What I care about is that the Cubs are once again a joy to watch, even when they’re not so much of a joy to watch. Because they are having fun and that’s as infectious as…well, that’s a bad turn of phrase, but it’s been really easy to get caught up in the team’s revelry and excitement.
And you know what else? The truncated season means it’s a helluva lot easier to maintain that high level of enthusiasm all the way through September and, ideally, beyond.