Yesterday in the discussion I prompted by saying it was time for Lou Piniella to go, BCB'er Not Bruce Froemming made this comment:
I think the pressure of performing for this team might be too much for anybody to bear.
That, I think, is worth examining. Some people might think that being a Yankee is more difficult, because of the expectations in New York to be a World Series winner every single year, but I think this is a legitimate question: does each year added to the 100+ lacking a World Series make it more difficult for every Cub who puts on the uniform, whether player or manager? Some recent evidence of this came in the 2008 postseason. The 2008 Cubs blew through the regular season, winning the most games of any Cubs team since the 1945 pennant winners and by most accounts, having the best Cubs regular season in 73 years.
Where did that team go in October? They got swept out of the playoffs as if they weren't even there; the entire infield made errors in game two, and they played as if they had the weight of all 100 years on them. This isn't a discussion of the "100 years" thing the way White Sox and Cardinals fans do (taunting), or the way the mass media does (reminding us as if we've never heard it before), instead, it's an examination of why this has happened and what might be able to be done about it.
To do that requires a bit of historical perspective.
The World Series between the two leagues began in 1903, so let's start there. Between that year and 1945 -- 43 seasons -- the Cubs won ten pennants and two World Series.
Only the Yankees won more league pennants in that period of time -- 14 of them, and ten World Series titles. The then-New York Giants were the most successful team in the National League, winning 12 pennants and four World Series between 1903-1945; the Cardinals, eight league titles and four World Championships. Two NL teams -- the Dodgers and Phillies -- didn't win a World Series until after 1945.
So the Cubs were the second or third most successful team in the National League up to 1945, and the third-best in all of baseball. Though they had lost most of their World Series, you have to remember that baseball was different in that era -- the leagues were more separate, still rivals rather than the NFL-style league they are today (with the AL and NL more like the AFC and NFC), and winning a league pennant was still considered a championship.
There was no inkling, in 1945, that the Cubs wouldn't keep doing what they had done since at least 1929 -- win a pennant every few years, and maybe squeeze out a World Series, though even in 1945, that had been 37 years distant. The 1935 Cubs were probably a better team than the Tigers and the 1929 team likely would have won the World Series if not for that disastrous seventh inning in game four.
We're all quite familiar with many of the reasons the team went into decline after 1945 -- indifferent ownership, poor management, outrageously bad trades, the lack of night games. But as the years piled up, did it become more difficult to win each year? Why didn't the 1969 team -- the best team in the league -- even win its division? I believe if it had, that bunch could have won two or three pennants before its inevitable breakup. Why didn't the 1984 team -- again, the best team in the league -- win its playoff series after dominating the first two games? Why did the 2003 team -- not the best in the league, but with dominating starting pitching -- not make the World Series after being only five outs away?
It's got nothing to do with goats and black cats and Steve Bartman, no matter what ESPN and other lazy sports "journalists" would have you believe. I do believe that the weight of expectations and hopes and dreams is immense, and gets heavier and stronger with each passing year.
There is no doubt that each and every player and manager who comes to the Cubs in this modern age, where cable and satellite TV and the internet puts each pitch under intense scrutiny, wants to be part of the Cubs team that wins it all. For the players, it would mean being revered for generations -- look how much love Cubs fans of my generation give the 1969 team, a group that never won anything. For a manager, it's likely his ticket to the Hall of Fame -- that is, in my opinion, one of the major reasons that Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella took this job. Both of them were good-but-not-great players with good managerial resumes when they came to Chicago; a Cubs World Series title added to that resume would indeed likely have put their face on a plaque in Cooperstown.
Not too much pressure there, right?
During the 2008 playoffs, Mark DeRosa touched on this idea:
"You can't go out and put undue pressure on yourself," said DeRosa, who played second and batted fifth Thursday night. "There's enough pressure involved in the postseason to begin with, and if you're trying to hit a three-run homer with nobody on base, you're not going to come through too many times."
Still, I believe this is exactly what happened to the 2008 team, who resembled the 1962 Mets during those three games with the Dodgers more than the 97-win team that dominated the regular season. So how do you conquer it? How did teams like the 2004 Red Sox and 2005 White Sox, who had similar championship droughts, finally win?
The Red Sox players credit the "idiot" attitude led by players like Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar for helping them -- the idea that nothing mattered, that they were simply going to go out and play and not think about it. Obviously, they had to have talent, too, but -- and yes, I realize this is pop psychology -- I believe there's something to this. When I suggested the Cubs sign Millar after the 2008 season, that's what I was after. Granted, Millar wasn't a very good player after 2008, but that is, I suppose, one of the reasons the Cubs brought him to spring training this season, to attempt to instill some of that attitude. It's not necessarily Millar himself, it's getting players to think that way.
For the White Sox, they had a "perfect storm" type of season, won one of their ALCS games by subterfuge (and you'd be happy if one of your players got away with what A.J. Pierzynski got away with), and then swept a World Series in which each one of the four games could have gone the other way. It's really hard to replicate that kind of success -- as Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen have found out in the five years since then.
It may very well be that the pressure of trying to win a championship as a Chicago Cub may be too much for anyone to bear. I am a firm believer that Lou Piniella did not prepare the Cubs for the postseason very well after their division clincher at home vs. the Cardinals with a week to go in the season. He played the rest of that season like spring training, against two playoff contenders -- when the Cubs actually had a chance to determine who they'd play in the first round! I believe the Cubs lost their psychological edge, their "Cubbie swagger" (as Lou liked to call it), and the way he played the last game of the 2008 regular season, with seven relief pitchers throwing and half the regulars out of the lineup, was reprehensible. If the Cubs win that game, they force a tiebreaker between the Brewers and Mets for the wild card -- had that happened and the Mets won that game, the Cubs would have played them instead of the Dodgers, and the 2008 Cubs matched up much better vs. the Mets.
Lou Piniella was the right manager for the Cubs when he was hired after the 2006 season. The Cubs needed a kick in the butt and he gave it to them. More than three years later, he's the wrong guy for this bunch. They need shaking up, and you can't fire all the players. It's time for Lou to go, as I said yesterday, and time to make a bold move in replacing him, whether it be Greg Maddux (as I suggested) or Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg's already in the Hall of Fame and Maddux will be -- they don't need that title validation to get them there. Both know very well what it's like to be a Cub, the culture of the team, the ballpark and the fans, and what it would mean to win here.
Is the pressure too much? It may very well be. At least let's get someone in the manager's chair who understands it, who has lived it. This team is better than 14-18 and it is not too late to salvage the 2010 season and get this team to the playoffs, where anything can happen.
As we often say here: get it done, Jim. And go Cubs.