SCOTTSDALE, Arizona -- This feels strange.
As has been my recent tradition before big Cubs events, I thought I'd write about how I feel as the Cubs go into the 2016 season as the favorite of many to win the World Series, called "the best team in baseball" by some of those, and in general having extremely high expectations for the baseball season that begins for them Monday in Anaheim.
The last two times the Cubs were in a position close to this was coming off the division title years in 2003 and 2007. The 2004 team was supposed to win the World Series, or so said Sports Illustrated, anyway. That year ended in an epic collapse in the season's final week.
In 2008, coming off a division title in 2007, the Cubs won more games than they'd won in any regular season since 1945... then flopped in the division series.
They matched that 2008 win total in 2015, a gift, because a year ago today if I'd told you the Cubs were going to win 97 games in 2015, you would have laughed. The Cubs lost the NLCS to the Mets, and while that hurt, it didn't hurt as much as it might have, because we knew the team was on the brink of something special.
So yes, this feels strange... yet good, because this Cubs team might finally be "the one." That brink might just be here.
The Cubs added pitching and hitting talent over the winter. Muddling through spring training with a bad record doesn't mean a thing, because those games aren't played to win and Joe Maddon was messing around with various combinations, trying to learn which will work best for him during the year. Don't expect that tinkering to end just because the season's begun, either. One of the best things about Maddon is his ability to adjust on the fly.
How does it feel, though, to be overwhelming favorites? I could quote you other Cubs history and the litany of failure, but you don't need to be reminded of that. These Cubs aren't those Cubs.
It's a little bit scary to be a fan of what could be the best team in baseball. You always worry about injuries, slumps, other things that could go wrong. Last year came out of nowhere; now, the Cubs are a target, which is why Maddon invented this slogan (and T-shirt to benefit his foundation):
He makes it look good! pic.twitter.com/Cyle6RJCiI— Korked Baseball (@KorkedBaseball) March 26, 2016
Maddon is just the right manager for this group; he understands how to take pressure off his players so that they can perform to the best of their ability. I've said before that Maddon is the best Cubs manager since Joe McCarthy, 85 years ago, and it's unfortunate that William Wrigley fired McCarthy in 1930 (done, so the story went, because McCarthy's Cubs fell short of repeating their 1929 league pennant), as he went on to win eight pennants and seven World Series with the Yankees.
Maddon might not be around long enough to do that. Most of us would settle for one World Series title (though after one, you certainly want to come back for more), and I think we'll get one. Maybe this year, at last, is the one we've been hoping for, wishing for, dreaming of, our entire lives.
Spring training was fun, despite the losses; it always is, played in bright sunshine and warm temperatures in Arizona, hinting at the summer to come in Chicago, the summer that always seems to come later than you'd want it to. But like you, I'm ready for the real thing.
Baseball has been a center for me, a driving force in my life, for more than 50 years. I start counting the days till the next season the moment baseball ends in October. Starting Monday, we'll no longer have to, in the words of Rogers Hornsby, "stare out the window and wait for spring."
And now baseball is nearly here for 2016. For all of us, for all those whose lives came into this world and left without ever seeing it, win it this year, Cubs. It's way, way, way past time.
Go Cubs, and happy baseball season!