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Reflections on the 2017 Cubs at the All-Star break

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A few thoughts about clubhouse chemistry.

Al Yellon

This article is going to be a bit “touchy-feely,” so if you’re more a numbers-oriented person, perhaps you’ll want to skip it.

I don’t think a single one of us thought the Cubs would be where they are as of today: two games under .500 and looking up at, of all teams, the Brewers in first place in the N.L. Central. The reasons for the Cubs’ poor play are pretty obvious and I am not here to belabor them.

What I do want to talk about is clubhouse chemistry. You might not think clubhouse chemistry matters. I do. That’s a reasonable disagreement and we can discuss that. But since I do think it matters, here’s the question:

Does clubhouse chemistry breed winning, or does winning breed clubhouse chemistry?

The answer, I think, is a little bit of both. It’s pretty obvious that if you go out on the field and win as often as, say, the 2016 Cubs, then your clubhouse is going to be a happy place. But I also believe it’s true that there are certain players that are clubhouse leaders and who can help create an atmosphere that is conducive to players going out on the field and putting together a winning effort.

The Cubs are missing two of that type of player this year, Dexter Fowler and David Ross.

I am not here to tell you that the Cubs should have re-signed Dex, not at the money he got from the Cardinals. Nor am I here to say that the Cubs should contact Ross and have him give a talk to this year’s players. It wouldn’t work, for one thing. Ross is management now, a special assistant in the front office. He’s not “one of the guys” anymore, regardless of friendships or close relationships he’s forged with many of the players from the World Series-winning team. Last year he could get in someone’s face in the clubhouse and hold him accountable. He can’t do that now.

What the Cubs are missing, I think, is someone to do just that. Leadership can’t just be bestowed. It seemed, last year, that Ross spent a lot of time with Anthony Rizzo and that Rizzo might be the one to take over that leadership role. But despite the fact that Rizzo is the senior Cub in terms of length of service — this is his fifth full year with the team and sixth overall — it doesn’t seem as if he has been able to serve the same kind of role that Ross did.

Reading Ross’ book gave me insights on exactly how he arrived as a team leader. Here’s a summary of how that began, from my review of his book:

What I didn’t know and was fascinated to read was that none of this would have been possible without Dusty Baker.

Yes, that’s right, Dusty. The former Cubs manager was in his first year of managing the Cincinnati Reds (2008). Ross was unhappy about reduced playing time and let Dusty know. Eventually this led to Ross being unconditionally released, and just a few days later signed by Theo Epstein’s Red Sox.

This chain of events made Ross think quite a bit about what it meant to be a good teammate, and he resolved at that time to work hard to do everything he could to achieve that goal.

Obviously, he did so. It’s not just something you get due to seniority; it has a lot to do with interpersonal dynamics and every player’s individual personality. This is no different than you might find in any workplace, only the stakes seem higher with a sports team, and of course there is a winner and loser every single day.

Joe Maddon hinted at the lack of “team identity” even as early as May:

"Every year has its own separate identity," Maddon said before Monday night's game with the Phillies.

Theo Epstein made these comments about the Cubs’ clubhouse last week:

"Our biggest fixes are inside the clubhouse," Epstein said before Thursday's 11-2 loss to Milwaukee that left the Cubs 4 1/2 games back in the division. "This is largely the same club that won 200 games, averaged 100 wins over the last two years. There's not a player that we can realistically bring in from the outside that can spur us to play at that level.

"We're going to get to that point of playing to that level because of the guys that are here."

Maybe I’m reading something into that statement that isn’t there, but there does seem to be something missing from this year’s clubhouse that hasn’t been replicated. Again, which comes first — the chemistry or the winning? Was Theo referring to performance, or issues in the clubhouse? That statement could be read either way, or both.

There are things that are known publicly that might have affected the Cubs’ clubhouse in a negative way — the situation with Addison Russell, or the public comments made by Miguel Montero that resulted in his swift removal from the team. Obviously there are things about both those situations that we don’t know, but even from what we do know those things can’t be positive.

Maddon’s always a positive-thinking guy and that’s a good thing. He can help create a positive atmosphere, but as has been noted, he doesn’t much interfere with what goes on in the clubhouse, preferring to let the players run things.

It just seems as if “things” aren’t being run as well as they were last year, and despite this team being talented, they are — for whatever reason — not getting the most out of that talent.

I don’t really have an answer here and I realize this has been somewhat of a ramble. All we can really hope for is that having all the players except Wade Davis take four days off will help them recharge and play the way they are capable of playing in the second half and make a run at the division title.

The 2016 World Series championship — at least for me as a fan — makes that somewhat less urgent. Of course we’d all like to see the Cubs repeat, but repeating is hard. The talented Giants teams of 2010-15 missed the playoffs in the two years they didn’t win the World Series in that span. The 2015 Royals finished at .500. The 2014 Red Sox, one year off a 97-win year in which they dispatched the Cardinals in the World Series in six games, lost 91 games and finished in last place. It happens, and it happens a lot. Here’s where all the World Series champions finished the year after their title (since the 2000 Yankees, the last time anyone repeated as champion). Year listed is the year after the team won:

2002 Diamondbacks: 98-64, won NL West, lost division series
2003 Angels: 77-85, missed playoffs
2004 Marlins: 83-79, missed playoffs
2005 Red Sox: 95-67, won wild card, lost division series
2006 White Sox: 90-72, missed playoffs
2007 Cardinals: 78-84, missed playoffs
2008 Red Sox: 95-67, won wild card, lost ALCS
2009 Phillies: 93-69, won NL East, lost World Series
2010 Yankees: 95-67, won wild card, lost ALCS
2011 Giants: 86-76, missed playoffs
2012 Cardinals: 88-74, won wild card game, lost NLCS
2013 Giants: 76-86, missed playoffs
2014 Red Sox: 71-91, missed playoffs
2015 Giants: 84-78, missed playoffs
2016 Royals: 81-81, missed playoffs

So, that’s exactly one World Series winner over the last 15 seasons who’s even gotten back there. Nine of them missed the playoffs, including the last four, and three of those teams had losing records. Only two other teams have even been in consecutive WS in this span: the Rangers, in 2010-11, losing both, and the Royals, losing in 2014, winning in 2015.

It’s hard to repeat. It’s hard to even get to the World Series two years in a row. If the Cubs could replicate the Giants’ success, three Series wins in five years, we’d take that, I’m certain.

We were told when the current management team took over that they intended to build a top-notch organization from the bottom up, have “waves and waves” of talent, and have enough good players to sustain contention for several years at a time. I believe that is true, and that this first half is an aberration for any number of reasons, whether it’s clubhouse chemistry, injuries, subpar performance or a combination of those.

Let’s all enjoy the second half, hope the Cubs play better baseball, find that leadership they need, and maybe they’ll become one of those great “comeback” teams in baseball history that I’ve written about.