SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — Imagine, if you will, that you have time-traveled back to Wednesday, April 14, 1909. That’s the last time, before this month, that those who loved the Cubs opened the season as fans of the defending World Series champions.
If on that date you had told a Cubs fan that neither he, nor most of his children, nor some of his grandchildren or even great-grandchildren would have ever seen the Cubs win a World Series again, he (and I say “he” because the overwhelming majority of baseball fans in 1909 were men) would have laughed at you.
In 1909, the Cubs were the most dominant team in all of baseball. They’d won three straight pennants and two straight World Series. There didn’t seem to be any reason they wouldn’t do it again.
They didn’t, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The 1909 Cubs won 104 games, which is still the record for a second-place team (the pennant-winning Pirates won 110; the record’s been tied once, by the 1942 Dodgers). One reason the Cubs didn’t win was the absence of catcher Johnny Kling. Back then, baseball often didn’t pay as much as other professions and Kling didn’t get the cash he wanted from the Cubs, so he spent 1909 running a pool hall in his native Kansas City. His replacements, in a word, were awful. Six games worth of awful? Hard to say, though baseball-reference says the two Cubs catchers in 1909 were worth 1.2 WAR, and in 1908 Kling was worth 3.8, a career high.
Anyway, the Cubs came back and won the pennant in 1910, but failed to win the World Series. You know the story: six more pennants between 1918 and 1945, no World Series titles.
You’ve been wandering through this brief history lesson wondering when I’d get to the 2017 Cubs, and that time is now.
Just as they were in 1909, the Chicago Cubs are at this moment the best team in baseball (notwithstanding some writers who have anointed the Dodgers or Indians). Theo Epstein and his staff have built a fine, deep organization and sprinkled in key free agents and trade acquisitions. For this, they should be congratulated again. They did everything they said they’d do.
And one of the best reasons this group of Cubs should win another World Series or two or three while the core is still at its peak is that last year’s championship team was so young. As noted in this FanPost last month, the Cubs’ Game 7 lineup was the third-youngest of any WS-clinching lineup in history. That led, among other things, to this:
23-year-old @javy23baez is the 2nd-youngest player ever to homer in Game 7 of a #WorldSeries. Mickey Mantle was 20 years old in 1952. pic.twitter.com/Ou8Pg3Sqlr— Baseball Hall ⚾ (@baseballhall) November 3, 2016
Now, no one’s comparing Javier Baez to Mickey Mantle except for that one feat. But Baez, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras are all 25 or younger. Even the longtime veterans Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward will play 2017 as their age-27 seasons.
So at least offensively, this group is set to play together, and likely win together, for several seasons. The Cubs will have to re-tool the pitching rotation after 2017, most likely, as well as find a new closer, as Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, Brett Anderson and Wade Davis are all free agents after this season.
But for this season? With Joe Maddon still in charge of this group, they won’t get complacent. Notwithstanding sometimes questionable bullpen moves, Joe does know how to motivate his players to do their best.
It’s been over 100 years since it’s been such a great time to be a Cubs fan. Savor this, don’t ever forget the memories of 2016 and everything that brought the World Series title to the North Side of Chicago (for the first time; the other two were won when the Cubs were a West Side team). But we can also look forward to a new “golden age” of Cubs baseball, I think. The current group looks primed to, at the very least, do what the Chicago Blackhawks did (three Stanley Cups in six seasons) or what the Giants did in baseball (three World Series titles in five seasons). Do that and we’ll be seeing statues built to honor some of the current players a few decades from now.
Baseball, for real, tomorrow, and against the Cubs’ biggest rival, too. Starting a season as the defending champions in the Cardinals’ ballpark? Doesn’t get much better than that for Opening Day.
Go Cubs. Bring us some more memories that will last a lifetime.