Saturday, February 25, 2017

Correspondence Between a Cubs Fan and a Royals Fan - Part 5: Champions and The End of a Curse

A World Series trophy is a wonderful thing to behold. -Willie Stargell

They say the first World Series is the one you remember most. No, no, no. I guarantee you don't remember that one because the fantasy world you always dreamed about is suddenly real. -Sparky Anderson




Dear Drew,

The Chicago Cubs won the World Series.

I can barely believe it’s real. The Chicago Cubs…my beloved Chicago Cubs…have ended their historic drought. The team I’ve been relentlessly and fiercely devoted to, the team I’ve spent countless hours, seasons, and years of my life on…has reached the pinnacle. I have literally dreamed of this my entire life. It has taken weeks of processing to even get to this point of writing. I bought tons of championship gear and watched several documentaries just to somehow make this whole thing feel tangible and real. No matter how many times I watch the replay of Kris Bryant throw to Anthony Rizzo for that final out, I still find myself in goosebumpy, numb disbelief. This is actually real.

It happened.

But let me be clear from the outset: this is far, far bigger than David Perry’s fandom. I’m 30 years old. The Cubs went 108 years without a championship. That’s nearly four times longer than my time on this good earth. Fans like my parents have waited sixty years, some have waited up to ninety or one hundred years. Some…never witnessed a Cubs championship in their lifetime at all. And that’s what makes this so special. This is bigger than me, bigger than the Cubs, and even bigger than baseball. There are obviously so many rich narratives attached to the Cubs winning the World Series, but I believe the metanarrative is this: the seemingly impossible became reality. It was a story of hope and joy that truly resonated with all people, even with non-baseball fans. It was a story that made grown men cry. It was a story that made one man watch the World Series at his father’s graveside. It was a story that inspired hundreds of Cubs fans to write messages in chalk to deceased loves ones on the walls of Wrigley Field. It was a story that inspired me to drive seven hours round trip, just to be with my parents for the special moment, and then embrace them in pure elation after the final out. Years and generations of angst and disappointment ended on the night of Nov. 2, a night I’ll never, ever, ever forget. What once seemed like only a distant dream, what once seemed impossible, became reality.

But how did it happen exactly? That’s something I’m still wrapping my mind around. The month of October (and the first few days of November) were a huge “glass case of emotion,” to quote Anthony Rizzo, quoting the legendary Ron Burgundy. I honestly didn’t get much sleep for the entire month, because not only did the games go late, but it also took me an hour or two after every game to just calm down. Obviously, the World Series games were the high point of the postseason, but I believe no games epitomized the Cubs’ October run more than NLDS game 3 and 4 in San Francisco. The Cubs lost game 3 in 13 innings, in excruciating fashion. I stayed up to about 3 am, only to watch everything unravel. I went to bed completely drained and dejected. When the next night rolled around, I just wasn’t emotionally ready. Could the Cubs really choke, and get upset in the first round? For most of game 4, it appeared that way; the offense appeared completely anemic. And then…something absolutely magical happened. The Cubs scored four runs in the top of the 9th, capping off the largest 9th-inning comeback in postseason history. How do you explain that? That NLDS-clinching game was truly the first moment of the entire 2016 season in which I let my guard down. My calloused, guarded, Cubs-obsessed heart grew three sizes that day. For the first time since 2003, I imagined what was possible.

So yes, I was an emotional wreck after only the first round of the playoffs. But unbeknownst to me, there was plenty of more adrenaline inducing, heart-pumping action ahead. Next up: the Dodgers in the NLCS. I never thought of the Dodgers as being a great team this year, but I spent the whole series in perpetual fear of Clayton Kershaw. Everyone knew he was capable of being the difference-maker in the series. And after he and Rich Hill shut down the Cubs in games 2 and 3, once again, things looked rather bleak. But the Cubs offense awoke from its slumber…and this time, it all started with an innocent Zoby bunt. Oh, Zoby...that man truly cemented his legacy into Cubs lore this postseason. The Cubs went on to win three games in a row, clinching their first National League championship since 1945. And I have to tell you: there was a profound sense of arrival and satisfaction just in that. The Cubs in the World Series…for the first time in a generation! If the Cubs had lost the World Series, I would have been extremely disappointed, but I admittedly would have been somewhat satisfied with a World Series appearance. Fortunately, the team itself clearly wasn’t just satisfied with a National League pennant. No, they knew what their ultimate goal was.

By the time game 1 of the World Series rolled around, the Cubs had become a mainstream, national story. I don’t know why I was so surprised by this, but it felt…different. As a fan who had stuck with the Cubs through some very, VERY low moments the last few decades, I had to adjust to the hoards of bandwagon fans jumping aboard. When you watch a team for 162 games in a season, you feel like you belong in a little subculture. So my first reaction to the bandwagon fans was to feel a little territorial. But as the World Series progressed, I began to realize that this was a transcendent story that actually brought unity and joy to so many people. What else in our society can actually do that? It saddens me to say that even religion often fails at this. So by the end of the Series, much of my territorial cynicism had melted away. Who wouldn’t want to share this kind of joy with others?

But before we Cubs fans could experience that ultimate joy, we had to go through seven games of highly-intensified anxiety. People have often asked me if I enjoyed the Cubs playoff run. And in a way, the answer is: of course. I love baseball, and I love the Cubs. But on another level: it wasn’t enjoyable, it was completely nerve-wracking. The Cubs faced several great teams in the playoffs, but the Cleveland Indians were clearly the toughest test, though they were underestimated by myself and many others throughout the whole season. I was on the edge of my seat from game 1 all the way to the last out in game 7. This series was unreal.

After Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller shut down the Cubs in game 1, I was still optimistic. Cleveland’s rotation was riddled by injuries, and I knew that the Cubs could certainly make up ground against the other starters. And sure enough, the Cubs took game 2 in Cleveland thanks to Jake Arrietta and Kyle Schwarber. That’s right…Kyle Schwarber. Speaking of disbelief and shock, this is one aspect of the Cubs championship run that still seems surreal. All season long, I subconsciously applied a caveat to the Cubs success: yes, the Cubs were awesome, but how much better would they be if Schwarber hadn’t been injured in the third game of the year? I certainly never expected that question to be answered. But it was. Schwarber pulled off one of the most improbable World Series performances baseball has ever seen. After months of no baseball activity, he effectively jumped into baseball’s biggest stage, and proved to be a key contributor. Not only did he provide an offensive boost with his hits and walks, but he certainly also boosted the team’s morale. He gave the team excitement and swagger…heck, he gave the fans excitement and swagger. So it was certainly a bummer that he had to go to the bench when the Series moved to Wrigley.

The excitement and buzz around Wrigleyville for game 3 was apparent even through television. Oh if I only could have been there…but I just couldn’t pull it off. And maybe it was ok that I missed the games at Wrigley, because games 3 and 4 were painful. After the Cubs were shutout in game 3, and scored only twice in game 4, Cleveland led the Series three games to one. I’m ashamed to admit that I mostly gave up hope by that point. I was just so emotionally distraught…how could this team lose two in a row at home? Why did the offense disappear again? Did the pressure of winning in Chicago become too much for this team? But then game 5: the Aroldis Chapman game. This is why we traded away so much to get Chapman…for him to pitch nearly 3 innings in a World Series game, saving the Cubs from elimination. That performance was huge, and absolutely worth the trade. I’m not a Chapman fan, but I’m grateful for his contributions to this team.

After the Cubs won game 6 in Cleveland, it became clear: the Cubs had a legitimate shot at being the first team to come from behind 3 games to 1 since none other than your 1985 Royals. The Cubs were one win away from the Promised Land. On the day of Game 7, I posted this on Facebook:

A melodramatic reflection on Game 7 of the World Series:

I've been dreaming about this day my entire life. Literally...I've had dreams about the Cubs winning the World Series ever since I was a little boy living in Chicago. And tonight, that dream might finally come true. I don't know how I'll react if the Cubs win tonight, but no doubt about it...it would be a surreal, magical, transcendent experience.

Go Cubs Go. For the little kids in all of us...make our dreams come true!

This summed up my feelings perfectly. So after cancelling my church choir rehearsal that night, I drove straight from work to my parents’ house in Indiana. This was a night I needed to be with family.

The buildup and the hype leading up to the game was incredible. It really seemed like the whole country was focused on what was happening in Cleveland that night. And the game certainly started in a way that delivered on the hype…Dexter Fowler led-off with a home run, and us Cubs fans went into a frenzy. Was a beginning like that some sort of omen? By the 5th inning, the Cubs had opened up a 5-1 lead, but then Joe Maddon inexplicably pulled starter Kyle Hendricks in the bottom of that inning, for Jon Lester. I disagreed with the move at the time, because Hendricks seemed to be cruising. Unfortunately, Lester did give up some runs, but then Grandpa Rossy (just into the game to catch Lester) hit a home run in the top of the 6th…in what ended up being his final major league at-bat. I can’t say enough about Grandpa, and what he meant to this team and to the city of Chicago. I’m not sure if this would have been a championship team without his leadership and play.

Going into the 8th, my parents and I were counting the outs left. We felt the anticipation building, and it was almost too much to bear. Again, Maddon made a questionable move: he brought in Aroldis Chapman (who had just unnecessarily pitched the night before, with a big lead) to relieve Lester, who had really settled in. Chapman looked completely gassed. And then came the low point of the game, and possibly the low point of the entire postseason: Rajai Davis hit a two-run shot off of Chapman to tie the game. I was speechless. My mom said she was going to throw up and decapitate my stuffed animal billy goat. In that moment, whether we admitted or not, EVERY Cubs fan wondered whether The Curse was indeed real. JUST when it seemed the end of the World Series drought was within reach, a weak contact hitter hit a game-tying home run off our dominant closer. It just didn’t seem right. Unbelievable.

And then God had to intervene. That’s right, it took divine intervention to turn this game around…the skies opened, and a short rain delayed ensued. To the Cubs fan, this was a dark moment: the rains symbolized our depressed, accursed state. But little did we know that this moment was a turning point in Chicago Cubs history. While Cubs fans were pacing back and forth, waiting to get back to the stress of extra innings, Jason Heyward was delivering what was apparently an incredibly inspirational speech. The delay gave the team the space and emotional break it needed to come back out and fight hard. Who knows…maybe it gave us fans the break we needed too.

The rest of the game is history, and it will forever go into Cubs lore. My goodness, I’m getting goosebumpy again. In the top of the 10th, the Cubs put together an impressive rally, capped off by the one and only Zoby, World Series MVP (Although let’s not forget Miguel Montero also knocked in a very important run!) I cannot even begin to describe to you what I felt when I saw those runs cross the plate. Relief beyond comparison, redemption, unbridled joy, and hope. Going into the bottom of the 10th inning, it was all hitting me at once: the Cubs were three outs away from winning the World Series. With Chapman out of the game, the Cubs relied on Carl’s Jr and Mike Montgomery, of all pitchers, to close the game. I did not expect these two guys to be closing out a Cubs’ championship, but their names will also forever go into Cubs lore. After recording two outs, the Cubs allowed one run to score, and the Indians were threatening to tie the game.

And now it’s time to return to that moment. That moment I referred to at the beginning of my writing: Kris Bryant throwing to Anthony Rizzo for that final out. How do I put this moment into words? It happened so quickly, but also so slowly. I was fearful, anxious, and relieved all within the span of a second. And in that second, everything changed. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I had essentially been holding my breath for the last month, and I could finally, finally exhale. The moment that I had dreamt about as a kid, was actually reality…The Curse had finally been broken.

I had always wondered how I’d react in that moment. I even wondered if I should video record our reaction, to forever hold on to that moment. But I decided to be in the moment as much as possible, and not plan or script my reaction and emotion. Truthfully, I don’t remember much about those first few minutes after the final out. I remember screaming, jumping, and hugging my parents…all three of us, hugging in a big group hug. I was hoarse within seconds. It was absolutely, positively surreal. The only reason I didn’t cry, was because of how surreal it truly was…it was just too much to humanly process in a moment.

I barely slept that night, and I didn’t want to. The next day at work, my co-workers completely decorated my office in Cubs championship stuff, and I just couldn’t stop beaming. I’ve been jokingly made fun of my whole life for being a Cubs fan, but now…being a Cubs fan is cool. My dedication has paid off. This is a new reality, a new era of Cubs fandom. This is what it feels like to be a loveable winner, and not a “loveable loser.” Apparently, the rest of Chicago felt the same way…because 5 million people came to the championship parade and rally, making it the largest North American gathering in recorded history, and the sixth largest in world recorded history. No doubt about it, everyone wanted in on this experience, on this incredible feeling.

Which brings me back to my proposed metanarrative: the seemingly impossible became reality. This is a story that anyone, in any walk of life can resonate with. It is always worth holding on to hope. The Cubs demonstrated that the fulfillment of hope is one of the sweetest, most redemptive feelings a community can experience. No matter what happens in the future, no matter what happens with the Cubs in 2017 and beyond, nothing can change the fact that that the impossible truly occurred. There is no more wait until next year. The Cubs are World Series champions.

It happened.

With unabated enthusiasm (more than ever),

Dave



My Dear Dave,

The Cubs have done it. They won the 2016 World Series, giving you a precious gift that fans who have lived their entire adult lives before you were even born never had the pleasure of seeing. Cubs faithful have witnessed two World Wars, the discovery of Penicillin, the Great Depression, the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Princess Diana’s tragic death, the rise and fall of the Backstreet Boys, and two airplanes crash into the World Trade Center…all while their team’s championship aspirations proved futile year after year. Their futility, along with the cute bear cub mascot lent them the nickname “The Lovable Losers”. Not so any longer. This Cubs team, characterized by brilliant play and unshakable team chemistry has earned them the title “Champions”.

As the World Series matchup locked into place with the two greatest droughts in Major League Baseball: the 108-year Cubs (the longest drought in professional sports history) and the 68-year Indians (psht! …what do they know of agony?!), we knew that no matter what, the conclusion of the Series was sure to fulfill an epic headline. But how in the world could the game play within the Series actually come close to matching the epic quality of said headline? Well, it just may have in a World Series that many will regard as the greatest of all time.

Let’s skip Games 1-4, because it’s really just an overture to what set up the real movements: Games 5, 6, and 7.

Game 5: Adagio
With the Cubs down three games to one and their backs against the wall, Jon Lester would go on to pitch six innings of two-run ball, passing it to closer Aroldis Chapman with a one-run lead for a two and two-thirds inning save to finally secure the dire win at Wrigley. Performances such as that are why Chapman was acquired, however, note the taxing workload. For morale’s sake, the significance of this win cannot be overstated. It turned a three-game behemoth of a deficit into an all-of-a-sudden two-game, “if we just win Game 6 then it goes to Game 7” scenario. Like an adagio, the game was slower, but none the less captivating, beautiful, or essential. It had an oddly calm feeling due to the implications, but it portended to the drama that was to come. The closer the Cubs got to pulling off the comeback, the nearer they also drew to the heartbreak of coming up just short.

Game 6: Scherzo
Scherzo means “I joke, jest, or play” in Italian, and in Game 6, the Cubs played with the Indians in a 9-3 blowout win. Usually written in 3/4 time, the Cubs scherzo’d the Indians early on by scoring three runs in the first and then four in the third with an emphatic Addison Russell grand slam. After the Indians scored a run in the fourth and fifth innings and Chicago reliever Mike Montgomery allowed two baserunners in the bottom of the seventh with two outs, Joe Maddon inexplicably called on Aroldis Chapman once again, for what appeared to be another 2+ innings performance, but this time with a five-run lead. Certainly Maddon was jesting! I remember texting you something along the lines of “WTF”, and you responding something to the likes of, “idk…”. Though Chapman would go on to pitch only 1 and 1/3 innings, it felt like an ominous ending to this comedy of a game when considering how an unnecessarily inordinate workload might affect this pitcher who would also surely be asked to close out a crucial Game 7 for the Cubs.

Game 7: Allegro
Game 7 certainly began “fast and lively”, as Dexter Fowler led off with a homerun for the Cubs. After scoring two runs in both the fourth and fifth innings to go up 5-1, I recall stating to my die-hard Cubs fan roommate, “They’re going to do it.” So of course it would take a bizarre play like a Jon Lester wild pitch that allows not one, but two runs to score in the bottom of the fifth to allow the Indians a glimmer of hope. David Ross’s homerun in the top of the sixth gave the Cubs some breathing room again, and the completion of this epic comeback seemed all but imminent as Jon Lester continued to cruise through the bottom of the sixth and seventh innings. But things would get interesting when Maddon would in fact call upon his overworked closer Chapman with two outs in the bottom of the eighth after Lester had given up a single to Jose Ramirez.

I’m a rational person, Dave. As such, I don’t believe in curses. I don’t believe in any mystical powers that are pulling the proverbial strings in circumstances as trivial as a professional sports game. But Dave, I will readily admit that after Brandon Guyer hit a double off Chapman, scoring Ramirez from first, and Rajai Davis, of all hitters, who chokes up on the bat for crying out loud, went on to flick his wrists on an inside pitch of Chapman’s to send it over the wall for a two-run homerun, I started to legitimately question. Few moments have the power to demolish your reasoned mental paradigm in an instant, and that was perhaps one of them.

But there was nothing supernatural about what had occurred. Chapman had thrown forty two pitches in Game 5 and was used again in Game 6. He was gassed, and consequently, couldn’t throw his fabled gas (Chapman has been clocked at the highest velocity of a pitch ever thrown, at 105.1 mph). Chapman is an imposing and formidable figure. He stands 6’4”, 200 pounds of pure muscle. He looks like a Clydesdale. It would be easy to believe that he is perhaps more than a man. But alas, he is indeed merely man. Cut him, and he bleeds. Use him too much, and his arm gets tired. Hit a game-tying homerun off him in Game 7 of the World Series, and he cries.

No, the real Paul Bunyon moment of this game came from the most unlikely person, in the most unlikely way. Following a scoreless ninth, the rains came in Cleveland that halted play for about a half hour. That’s when Jason Heyward, the seemingly underserving beneficiary of one of the largest offseason contracts in 2016, decided to make a major impact, arguably for the first time that season, albeit not on the field. Leaders come in many shapes and sizes, and leadership can be delivered in many manifestations. Most athletes lead in the only way they know how: via performance; after all, sports are performance-based and results-oriented. Throughout the entirety of the 2016 season, Jason Heyward had struggled immensely in that department. But as the rain continued to fall and the players congregated in their respective dugouts, Heyward seized the opportunity to make a contribution with his voice, rather than his bat. Legend has it that he rallied the somewhat-dejected team together and charismatically reminded them of who they were - the best team in baseball, and as long as they stuck together and played like they were capable, they were going to win that game. Ironic, coming from someone who hadn’t played to his potential all season. But Heyward wasn’t referring to singular efforts. He knew that the Chicago Cubs team was collectively better than the one in the other dugout; he knew that they were better than any other team in the world, and if they stuck to their process as a team, the night would prove true.

What came after the rain delay was the stuff of storybook. Kyle Schwarber led off the tenth inning for the Cubbies. Schwarber was in a collision with Dexter Fowler in early April that resulted in a torn ACL and LCL. Following the incident, the organization declared him out for the season. But Schwarber healed and rehabbed faster than expected - so much so that he was healthy enough to swing the bat and run by the World Series. So a man who no one thought would be in a position to play in the postseason came up to bat to lead off the top of the tenth inning of Game 7 of the World Series and proceeded to hit a single. After his pinch-runner Albert Almora adeptly tagged up on a deep fly ball to center by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo was intentionally walked, Ben Zobrist…Ben “I’m an effing awesome baseball player and quite possibly an even better man” Zobrist delivered his MVP moment by hitting an opposite-field double down the third base line. Miguel Montero would go on to hit in an insurance run with a single. And though the Indians would score once in the bottom of the tenth, it never truly felt like they were back in it. And when Mike Montgomery got Michael Martinez to ground softly to Kris Bryant, who fittingly threw to his friend and fellow MVP-caliber teammate Anthony Rizzo for the final out, 108 years of Cubs futility was extinguished, a curse was officially broken, and the great Midwest city collectively exhaled and then rejoiced like no other fan base ever has.

The Offseason: Coda
In our first correspondence, I wrote to you from the perspective of a fan who had basked in the afterglow of a championship, and I compared it to sipping on limoncello, as one reflects upon an exquisite meal. You have now been sipping limoncello, my friend, and I hope that you have enjoyed it as much as I did. I hope you have watched the highlights, I hope you have read copious amounts of articles, I hope you have daydreamed of Zobrist’s double and Rizzo catching that last out often, and I hope you continue to do so. The coda is a recapitulation of the main theme, and it helps us to look back and take in the story. The Cubs are reigning champions for the first time in over a century. If that doesn’t deserve a good coda, then I don’t know what does.

We obviously didn’t know when we set out in writing these correspondences together that this was going to happen. We didn’t know while writing them that our letters to one another essentially represented me as a fan passing the torch on to you. But that’s indeed what happened, and I’d say it was rather fortuitous…even beautiful. As I said before, I cannot think of a better person or collective fan base to graciously bestow championship honors to. You deserve it, my friend. You all deserve it.

I’ll go even further with that statement as I wrap up here. A lot of 2016 and into 2017 has been hard. It’s been hard for our nation in many respects, and it’s been hard personally for many I know. At the risk of abandoning my prose, it just seems like a lot of shit has happened, and it’s sucked. But this Cubs team and this World Series story…it was a bright spot to many - Cubs fans and non Cubs fans alike. It was compelling, it was dramatic, and it was beautiful. In the midst of everything, it was the storybook ending we needed, and it was also the one we deserved.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Correspondence Between a Cubs Fan and a Royals Fan - Part 4: The Playoffs

For such a time as this...
-Esther 4:14



Dear Drew,

It’s hard to believe the end of the regular season is already upon us. In so many ways, it feels like just yesterday that we were both in Anaheim on Opening Day, watching my Chicago Cubs capture win #1 of 103. But in so many other ways, that feels like an eternity ago. It is now five months later, and SO much has happened in baseball and in life since that night…it’s been nothing short of a magical summer. Despite a pre-All Star break slide and a losing month of July, the Cubs have dominated baseball overall, in every facet of the game. They have captured their first 100-win season since 1935. They’ve won the NL Central, and won home field advantage through the NL playoffs. The team has been a true joy to watch, and they’ve been absolute must-see TV. Throughout my various travels and vacations throughout the summer, the Cubs’ success and consistency has brought a certain stability and continuity to life. Even when I’ve missed a few games while travelling, it’s been a thrill to check on the final scores, and hear of one miraculous game after another. I’ve always been a diehard Cubs fan, but if it was even possible…this year’s team was so dominant, so successful, and so darn likeable…that I now am more invested in this team than ever.

So let’s briefly review everything that has happened in Wrigleyville since we last wrote. After the All-Star break, the Cubs quickly righted the ship and eventually went on an 11-game winning streak at the beginning of August. After they distanced themselves from the Cards and Pirates in the division, they never looked back. Despite the Cubs domination, there was always a sense that the bullpen was the Achilles heel of the team. So at the end of July, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer made a bold move, and traded top prospect Gleyber Torres and a few other players to the Yankees for dominant flamethrower Aroldis Chapman. I’m still very uncomfortable with Chapman’s ethical/moral presence on the team, but there’s no denying his supreme talent. Watching a 104 mph closer pitch for your own team is exhilarating. The Cubs definitely overpaid for Chapman, but if he pitches the final out of a World Series championship, it will all be worth it.

A significant storyline for the Cubs this year is their insanely awesome rotation. They have the 2015 Cy Young winner in Jake Arrietta. (who’s actually underperformed a bit) They have two legit 2016 Cy Young contenders in Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. Can we just talk about Kyle “The Professor” Hendricks for a second? I’ve enjoyed watching his development and growth ever since the Cubs got him for Ryan Dempster, but never in a million years did I expect a year like this for him. NL leader in ERA?! Not bad for a guy who pitches around 90 mph on average. We quite possibly have the new Greg Maddux on our hands. But then we also have Jon Lester, who’s having nearly just as an impressive season as Hendricks. In fact, Hendricks and Lester are the top two ERA leaders in the NL, and are probably THE leading candidates for Cy Young. Though this team was built around young offensive talent, it’s the depth of the starting rotation that has been key to the Cubs’ success.

Speaking of the offensive talent, I can’t summarize the second half of the 2016 season without discussing Bryzzo. While Lester and Hendricks are leading Cy Young candidates, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are leading MVP candidates. Rizzo has been solid for a few years now, (and has been my favorite player, as evidenced by the Rizzo’s cereal box now proudly displayed in my apartment) but Bryant in particular has developed into a superstar. In only his second season in the bigs, he’s put up 100+ RBI and 39 homers…and he can play nearly anywhere in the field. And wait…did I mention his dreamy eyes?

Other young guys have taken steps forward. Javy Baez is a defensive wizard, but has also dramatically cut down on his strikeouts at the plate. Addison Russell has knocked in close to 100 runs, and has developed into a clutch hitter when the game is on the line. And thank God for the development of these guys, because they’ve adequately compensated for the offensive crappiness of Jason Heyward. Sure, he’s a Gold Glove fielder, but mercy…he’s had a horrific offensive year. Overall though, the lineup is deep, just like our rotation. The position players are quite versatile, and are interchangeable amongst their fielding positions. The defense is elite. And with the Strop-Rondon-Chapman connection now at the end of the bullpen…the Cubs appear to have no weaknesses.

And now as the green ivy of Wrigley begins to fade, the season of Fall dawns and playoff baseball is upon us. It feels SO different than last year. At this time a year ago, I just felt surprised and thankful the Cubs made it into the playoffs at all. Since the team was seemingly a year ahead of schedule in its development, I almost viewed the playoff run as just a nice bonus. But this year…well, there’s no doubt that anything less than a World Series championship would be a disappointment. So consequently, I’m incredibly excited, but I’m also VERY nervous. What if the entire magical season is undone by one week of lackluster playoff baseball? What if the offense chokes like it did last year in the NLCS? What if Arietta implodes when the team needs him the most? What if the team feels the weight of the expectations and The Curse?

I first wrote to you at the beginning of the season about my cautious optimism. The optimism then turned to giddiness, then to concern…my emotions naturally reflected the normal ups and downs of the regular season. But now, I’ve come full circle, and returned to cautious optimism. But, extra cautious. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next month, but whatever happens doesn’t change the fact that this summer has been historically amazing.

I almost feel bad comparing our teams at this point. When we began our correspondence, our teams were both riding high…but over the course of the season, the Royals and Cubs have clearly gone different directions. I noticed the Royals did have a nice winning streak in August that briefly put them back in the Wild Card race, but alas…the injuries piled up, and the mediocrity in all facets of the game eventually undid them. I’d love to hear your analysis of the team. Were the 2016 Royals a disappointment? Or were the 2015 Royals playing above their heads? Or both?

I’m sure you’ll be cheering for the Cubs in the playoffs with the Royals out. But I’m not sure if you really need a vicarious experience, because of what the Royals gave you last year? At any rate, next time I write to you, the Cubs could very well be basking in their first World Series championship in over a century.

With unabated caution and optimism,
Dave



Dear Dave,

I thought long and hard about actually writing this post from a booth at Denny’s. You know, actually dining at the restaurant, ordering up a Grand Slam meal and some watery coffee, and churning out this blog with the taste of mediocrity fresh on my tongue. My Royals finished 2016 with a record of 81-81…the epitome of average. I had hopes when we began this correspondence that both of our teams would be vying for their respective pennants once the playoffs began; as such, only you can say as much. But you can keep your sympathy, my good friend. After back-to-back World Series appearances and a championship in 2015, I feel that expecting my team to be playoff-bound again would be greedy, especially taking into account that I waited my entire life just to see them make the playoffs two years ago. God help me if I ever become an entitled fan the likes of a Yankees fan. I suppose as a fan, I can sit this year out.

To answer your questions, yes, I think the Royals underperformed this season, just as they most likely over-performed in 2015. A lot went right for Kansas City in 2014-15; I suppose balance was inevitable. Still, after six consecutive seasons of improving upon their previous record, it’s hard to experience regression. The exhilarating youth movement that has occurred on Kansas City’s roster for quite some time at last seems to be tapering. After 2017, we lose control of both Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, whose play and intangibles have been integral in lifting the fog of a plagued (I won’t use the “c” word) losing franchise, and replacing it with one that absolutely has a winning culture and realistic championship aspirations. That being said, I think the overall feeling in Kansas City is that we have a one-year window to contend with the pieces that currently comprise what has proved to be an incredible team. We’d better make it count…

The second half of this season was one that featured both soaring heights and depressing lows. It’s worth noting that the All-Star Game was a declaration of the stardom represented in both of our dugouts. As you’ll remember, Kris Bryant’s first inning solo homerun was followed in the bottom of the second by a solo shot by Eric Hosmer and then a two-run bomb by Salvador Perez. In the bottom of the third, Hosmer plated one more run with an RBI-single, as he would go on to earn MVP honors in the game. All four American League runs were generated off Royals bats. Although an exhibition game, it was still titillating to see our guys produce on the big stage yet again. I must apologize in advance, however, if the home field advantage the Royals won the American League for the World Series comes back to bite the Cubs in any way.

A horrible July (in which I had abandoned all hope of playoffs) gave way to a terrific August, in which the Royals rattled off a 9-game win streak in the middle of a 16 wins in 19 games stretch and positioned themselves to within 2 games of that second wild card. At one point, Danny Duffy, who at the age of 28 has had an incredibly frustrating and inconsistent career, was lauded by national pundits in regards to a Cy Young contention. But as you know, in this game you live and die by pitching, and the same starting pitching that had been the backbone of the team’s surge imploded late in the season, and they wound up limping down the stretch towards their first .500 or below record in three seasons. But as the Giants and Red Sox have taught us, just because you miss the playoffs one year doesn’t mean that you can’t win a championship the next. We will look onward with hope to 2017!

You wrote to me with the Cubs’ regular season still unfinished and their final record of a magnificent season yet undetermined. Well that number ended up 103-58 - a robust .640 winning percentage. No other team in baseball was over .600; no other team was even truly close. Both Washington and Texas ended the season with a .586 percentage. The Cubs’ overall run differential posted at +252; no other team was even close to 200. Most years you could debate who the best team in baseball was at the conclusion of the season. Not in 2016. Your Cubs were hands down the best.

The disparity between the product the Cubs have put on the field and the competition is a bit mind-blowing. Most teams would be overjoyed to have a legitimate MVP or Cy Young candidate, let alone two of each! You’ve already mentioned the emergence of the two-headed MVP monster that is Bryzzo. The similarity between their respective numbers in 2016 was a bit uncanny. They both batted .292. They both had on-base percentages of .385. Bryant’s OPS was .939; Rizzo’s was .928. Why Bryant will probably wind up winning MVP honors is because homeruns are sexy, and so is he. He hit 39 of them, while Rizzo hit a mere 32. Bryant also had a significantly higher WAR, at 6.6, compared with Rizzo’s 4.6. This must be due to defensive metrics, which I think are slightly overvalued in WAR, as there is no way Bryant was that much more valuable than Rizzo; however it may speak towards the value of Bryant’s versatility in the field, with the ability to play first, third, and outfield, whereas Rizzo is the conventional one-trick-pony at first. And Bryant does have those dreamy eyes…

You also mentioned The Professor - Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester as possible Cy Young candidates. Each of these pitchers owns certain categories over the other that would make his respective case compelling. Hendricks possesses the better ERA (2.13 to Lester’s 2.44). Lester, however, has more strikeouts (197 to 170), more innings pitched (202.2 to 190), and more wins to boot (19 to 16). This year’s race feels different from the last in that last year’s featured three candidates with otherworldly numbers, each of whom would’ve won this year’s Cy Young going away. Despite both Hendricks and Lester being deserving, I think Max Sherzer of the Nats will probably wind up winning, given that he bests both pitchers in terms of wins (20), strikeouts (284), and innings pitched (228.1). He also possesses the better WAR (6.2 to 5.0 and 5.3).

But enough about regular season exploits; that is all merely to get one’s team in position for the postseason, and two games into the Divisional Series against the Giants, things couldn’t look much better for the Cubbies. Though Madison He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named continues to be untouchable in the playoffs, that has not affected the Cubs, since he used his 119-pitch shutout against the Mets in the Wild Card Game. That is the beauty of this new playoff format, as it truly places value on winning your division versus making it in as a Wild Card. If San Francisco had not had a crappy second half and had taken care of business, they would’ve won the NL West, played the Nationals rather than the Cubs, and saved He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s gem to get ahead in Game 1. As is, now He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named has to pitch another beauty just to simply keep the Giants in the mix of things, and he will only be pitching in one game this series,  as opposed to two. These are not trivial details but factors that could end up deciding the fate of this series.

But I don’t want to depict the Cubs’ 2-0 lead as falling into a fortunate scenario. Far from it! The Cubs very much deserved to be in this situation due to their regular season dominance. And in those first two games, the Cubs still had to outperform their opponent, who by the way threw another ace against them in Game 1 in Johnny Cueto. Cueto was brilliant, but Lester was better. And when unlikely hero Javy Baez hit the go-ahead homerun in the bottom of the eighth, it was time for Joe Maddon to release the Kraken in the form of the most dominant closer in baseball - Aroldis Chapman, whom the Cubs had traded for earlier this season for such a time as this. Chapman has already converted both save opportunities presented to him, including a perfect ninth with two strikeouts on Saturday.

This sets up a compelling, must-see matchup for tomorrow night, as Madison He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named will face off against last year’s leviathan and Cubs’ own mountain man Jake Arrieta. The pressure now rests decidedly on the Giants. My hope is that the Cubs can be the first postseason team to find a chink in MadBum’s armor, and they can finish this thing tomorrow night, thereby putting an end to this stupid “Giants win every even year” bullshit. When the Mets beat the Cubs in the second round of the playoffs last season, my Royals avenged you. The last team to beat the Royals in the playoffs was of course the Giants. Please return the favor, my friend.

The next time we correspond, for better or for worse, the baseball season will be over. We will either be singing the Cubs’ praises or offering up a dirge. I will be cheering for them every step of the way. If we as Royals fans have to let go of the championship scepter, I can think of no better fan base to place it in the hands of than yours. Go Cubs, go!


With vicarious enthusiasm,
Drew

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Psychology of Confidence: Tiger Woods and the Curse of Extraordinary Talent


Golf is a game that is played on a 5-inch course - the distance between your ears.
-Bobby Jones

For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
-Matthew 23:12

"Golf is Damn Difficult"


Golf is a funny game. Within it, a stark dualistic contrast exists between the beauty and serenity of the external factors versus the entropic inner turmoil that resides within each golfer’s mind.

Many have derided the golf course’s place with regard to its 

"natural beauty", however one need only view Pebble Beach's 18th,
flanked by Northern California's majestic pine forests and Carmel Bay's curved ocean shore, or Augusta National's 12th, featuring its lush hues of green foliage, placid glassy creek traversed by a quaint, cobbled bridge, finally giving way to a perfectly-manicured green and picturesque backdrop of the pink and violet azaleas, in
order to concede that, though engineered, golf courses can offer us some incredibly stunning scenery. 

For many of us amateurs, the beginning of the round represents the day’s apex, with a blank scorecard offering limitless amounts of hope and delusional ideation of how the round will unfold. A picture of a cool, crisp start in the morning with a mist rising from a nearby body of water tends to confound the dramatic irony that every golfer is either consciously or sub-consciously aware of…the club-throwing and cursing chaos that is soon to blemish the pretty trees and their puffy little cloud-friends on the Bob Ross canvases sketched within our minds. The dew that gently rests atop each blade of fairway grass is as a siren of false promise, and will in time, much like the golfer’s confidence, have evaporated into thin air, into the place where dreams lay waste to reality…the reality that golf is damn difficult. 


It’s a mental game. You hear that idiom uttered often in sports, and as cliche as it may sound, its overuse doesn’t make the phrase any less true. But if it were ever true, in its truest sense, then it would have to be true foremost of golf. Anyone who has ever played knows this, because no game toys with the mind like golf does. On any given 400-yard hole, you may have four shots or so (and that’s if you’re pretty good) with all the space and time in the world between them to either dwell upon your last shot or fret about the one to come, right up until your backswing.

The speed of other sports necessitates that the players react to what is happening through instinctual mental processes and muscle memory. Think about Klay Thompson’s catch-and-shoot from the three point line. Think about Tom Brady reading the defense and quickly firing a pass as the pocket collapses around him. Better still, think about a baseball player trying to hit a baseball. Is there a better example of making a million computations in one’s head while not even having the time to really think about it? Hitters literally have a microsecond once they see the baseball leave a pitcher’s hand to answer a whole host of questions: There is the ball. But where will it end up? How fast is it traveling? What is the rotation and movement? Will it be a strike? If it is a strike, is it a strike that I should swing at, or is it one I should pass on for a better strike later in the at bat? These are all questions a hitter needs to process in order to make the ultimate decision - do I swing, or don’t I? - paradoxically without ever truly having time to think.

Not so in golf. In golf, there is an abundance of time; it becomes an exercise of meditation. You are hitting a little stationary white ball that sits there on the grass with a seemingly wry smile, mocking you the more and more until the instant your club collides with it, implicitly insisting that this should be the easiest thing in the world. But then, you swing, and the shot that follows often betrays the lie the ball just telepathically conveyed. Sometimes if it’s bad enough, the ball might vanish into oblivion - a disappearing act that no amount of squinting can reveal the secret to. Sometimes the orb sails left, and when you line up right the next time in order to correct its waywardness, it then spasmodically curves even further right. Sometimes you get under it, and the ball is popped up and hardly advanced (once I literally hit a ball behind me, for negative yards). Other times, you top the ball, and it sputters down the fairway thirty or forty yards, with nothing but its topspin to give it any kind of distance. Yet still, sometimes the heavens open and anoint a well-struck shot, with the head of the club flush to the ball and the plane of your swing perfectly aligned. The ball goes straight, and it goes far, and seeing the beautiful shot that ensues is euphoric. You may have a handful of those amidst the hundred you shoot all day, but their memory is enough to make you love the game (while of course still maintaining hatred for its far-more-consistent insolence) and return to it again and again, with hopes of improving that ghastly ratio.

Even the semantics of golf’s scoring seem derisive. “Birdie” - or one under par, is innocent, sweet, and whimsical, just as it symbolizes something difficult to catch. “Par” is the insidious word used to indicate an unreasonable standard for how one “should” score on any given hole. Par for the course is the mainstream phrase meant to convey that something is normal. But every golfer knows that actually achieving par is challenging, and for most amateur golfers, uncommon. Inevitably when you don’t reach par, the word is there serving to mock you and your incompetence. “Bogey”, coincidentally the slang Brits use for boogers (as anyone who has read Harry Potter is well aware), describes one over par. Personally, I’d be elated if I had eighteen boogers in my round of golf.

The Tragedy of Tiger Woods

Taking everything about the game into account, golf is certainly not for the mentally weak. This brings us to our case study, Tiger Woods. Everything I just got done describing applies to earthlings.
Woods is for all intents and purposes from another planet.

He began learning golf before the age of two. At age three, he shot a 48 through nine holes.That’s better than I can do presently, which makes me want to dramatically throw myself off the beautiful cliffs of Torrey Pines. By age five, word of his precocious skill had already made him a child star, finding himself putting with comedian Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show, and featured in Golf Digest magazine, as well as on ABC’s show That’s Incredible. He would go on to win the Junior World Golf Championships six times. He first defeated his father, Earl Woods - a skilled amateur golfer in his own right - at the age of eleven, and would never lose to him again. At age thirteen, Woods played in a national junior tournament that featured pairings with professionals. In the final round, he was paired with Jon Daly, who would eventually go on to become an extremely successful golfer, albeit mercurial off the course in his own right. Daly had to birdie three of the last four holes in order to beat Woods by just a stroke. In 1994, Woods would go on to play golf at Stanford, where he was voted Pac-10 Conference Player of the Year.
He turned pro in August of 1996 and won his first major championship, The Masters - perhaps golf’s most iconic tournament - in April of 1997…by twelve strokes (that’s not a typo). It was his first of fourteen majors he would claim during an eleven-year stretch between 1997 and 2008 - an average of 1.3 major championships (there are four of them) per year. With well over 100 professionals entering tournaments, along with the capricious nature of golf (unlike a predictable sport such as tennis), that is simply remarkable. Since his fourteenth major championship in 2008, however, Tiger has failed to win another.

That is just a cursory glance at Tiger’s meteoric ascent, but as you can probably surmise, that ascent didn’t feature very many dips. Since his birth, Tiger’s life arrow had trended only in one direction - up. Up and up and up.

Tiger Woods was different; for so many reasons he was different, and he quite simply changed the game of golf. Sometimes in life, the perfect combination of nature and nurture in a human being’s genetic code and development collide to produce someone transcendent in their respective niche. What Shakespeare was to writing, Thomas Edison to invention, and Martin Luther King Jr. to orating, that is what Tiger Woods was to golf. He was a savant. To me, a golf club is a cold, titanium object, both terrifying and volatile. To Woods, it was as reliable an appendage as his own feet and arms. He was unlike anything we had ever seen before. For starters, in an Anglo-originated sport dominated by the White upper-class, Tiger represented a break from that homogenous mold. Previously, golfers had been thin and ordinary in terms of stature. Woods was tall, svelte, and powerful, and his drives of over 300 yards proved the merits of his rigorous work out regimens. He was cool, too. Whereas golfers before him largely adhered to the “gentlemen’s game” persona of a stoic and reserved behavior, Woods broke from that mold as well. He was fiercely competitive and unapologetically demonstrative on the course. He injected youth and style into an otherwise stale game for the middle-aged. He appealed to everyone - White, Black, old, young, rich, or poor. You wanted to emulate everything about him, from his chic black Nike hat with the white swoosh, to his signature fist pumps after
drilling a long putt. All of that, combined with how otherworldly good he was at golf made an otherwise boring sport suddenly compelling to watch…the same way you might feel compelled to watch any event in which one human being is so far superior to the rest of the field - like Usain Bolt running, Simone Biles jumping, Michael Phelps swimming, or Lance Armstrong cycling. I didn’t give two shits about the Tour de France before Armstrong, but I started paying attention because every year I expected him to do something spectacular…something that would push the bounds of human capabilities.

Along with his special ability and unique attributes, Tiger also became rich. Heavens to Betsy, he was rich. Of course he became plenty wealthy from his earnings on the course, but the bulk of his worth came in the form of endorsements. Tiger Woods became the most marketable athlete on the planet. Beginning with his ascension to the professional tour, Woods began to endorse General Motors, American Express, Buick, TAG Heuer, Gillette, and Gatorade. If you wanted your product to sell, all you had to do was slap Woods’ winsome smile next to it. He was most known, however, for his relationship with Nike. Although Nike was not a major player in the world of golf before Tiger Woods (far from it, actually), they had the prescience to recognize that the first brand to become associated with Tiger would win the sweepstakes. Indeed they did. The swoosh and Tiger Woods became an unbeatable marriage, and Nike Golf became a veritable juggernaut in the sport largely because Tiger made them appear legitimate. In 2000, Tiger signed a 5-year, $105 million contract extension with Nike - the largest endorsement deal signed by an athlete at the time. By October 1, 2009, Forbes had declared Tiger the first athlete billionaire.

During 2001’s British Open Championship, Woods was introduced to Swedish
golfer Jesper Parnevik’s model-nanny, Elin Nordegren. Nordegren was apparently the apple of many single golfers’ eyes, but Tiger, the alpha male of the bunch, went on to win her and her hand in 2004. They instantly became an endearing celebrity couple and would go on to have two lovely children together - daughter Sam in 2007 and son Charlie in 2009. Even Tiger’s personal life appeared to have a Midas touch.
But Tiger’s wholesome persona was in reality a house of cards, ready to topple at any moment…

On November 26, 2009, Woods and Nordegren were hosting Thanksgiving with Woods’ mother at their home in Windermere, Florida. The newest edition of the National Enquirer had just been released, with a headline that read Tiger Woods Cheating Scandal. The story chronicled what was ostensibly a months-long affair between Woods and a New York City night club hostess Rachel Uchitel. Woods denied the accusations and even put his wife on the phone with Uchitel for a half-hour conversation, in an attempt to placate her. Astonishingly, the strategy would prove to be ineffective.

On Thanksgiving night, Woods, an insomniac, had taken an Ambien sleep pill and some Vicodin, and had passed out asleep. Meanwhile, Nordegren confiscated his phone and began to scroll through the contacts. Posing as Woods in order to catch them in their lie, she texted Uchitel, writing, “I miss you. When are we seeing each other again?” Uchitel wrote back immediately, expressing surprise that Woods was still up. Nordegren then called Uchitel, saying, “I knew it was you. I know everything.” “Oh, f—k”, Uchitel replied, and promptly hung up.

At this point, Nordegren finally lost her stoic Swedish cool and began screaming, waking up a stupefied Tiger in the process. She threw the cell phone at him, chipping his tooth, and proceeded to chase after Tiger with the nearest weapon she could find - ironically, a golf club. A dazed and petrified Woods then bolted to his Escalade and attempted to extricate himself from his ballistic spouse, who was in hot pursuit in a golf cart - again, ironic…and hilarious to picture.

Now, I’ve taken Ambien once in my life on the night my dad passed away. It is a gnarly thing. It doesn’t just make one incredibly drowsy; it causes vertigo as well. I remember turning off the TV in the living room and stumbling upstairs to my room. The effects must be similar to what the immediate aftermath of a concussion feels like. Needless to say, driving a large vehicle while under the influence of this powerful drug would be ill-advised.

Woods did just that and pulled out of his driveway, quickly accelerating to thirty miles-per-hour, proceeding to hit about everything he could have - a nearby hedge, the curb, a fire hydrant, and finally, a tree. Not Tiger’s finest moment.
The neighbors would go on to call 911, and Woods was admitted to a nearby hospital in “serious condition”.
It wouldn’t be long before news of Woods’ domestic incident became a ubiquitous storyline and Pandora’s Box would be opened on his personal life. It would become clear that Rachel Uchitel was not an isolated incident; she was merely the first domino to fall. Following Uchitel, fourteen other mistresses came to the fore with allegations of having ongoing relations with Woods. He would eventually admit to being a sex addict and confessed to sleeping with over 120 women, for which he checked himself into rehab for.

The reality that a super wealthy and famous sports star would be so promiscuous was not the surprising, nor appalling storyline. One might say precedent had already been set for that, with Hall of Fame basketball player Wilt Chamberlain famously bragging that he had slept with over 20,000 women. No, it was Tiger’s infidelity as a married man at the pinnacle of “The Gentlemen’s Game” that turned his sexual exploits into a full-blown scandal. National sports radio personality Colin Cowherd said, “The only thing that makes Tiger Woods any different from Derek Jeter are two words - I DO.”

The fallout for Woods was catastrophic. He went from being golf’s golden boy and hero into America’s villain. He was vilified by the media. His story was covered nonstop, which met the demands of a nation transfixed by good gossip. The paparazzi were incessant. The toll it took monetarily on Woods was also not insignificant. Just as his paramours came forth initially one after the next, so Woods’ sponsors began dropping like flies afterward. AT&T, Gatorade, General Motors, Gilette, and Tag Heuer all completely severed ties with him. Consequently, his endorsements dropped by about half. In his divorce with Elin in August of 2010, she was awarded over $100 million in palimony.

What happens when someone who has only ever experienced monumental success seemingly comes into contact with colossal failure for the first time? Tiger Woods had only known one feeling in the conquest that had been his life: unadulterated confidence. The dominance he exhibited in his livelihood no doubt inspired confidence in his personal life also. The victories of his personal life then yielded further success on the golf course. It’s a cycle of prosperity. Tiger Woods began to believe in his own invincibility - the proof of which lies in his impetuous decision making of the time - decisions that men who understand well the limitations of life tend to steer clear of.

Money, fame, talent, and good looks can cover a multitude of sins in the celebrity relational world, but they cannot supersede the conventional rule that if you cheat on your spouse, there will be hell to pay. His image suddenly tarnished and his family slipping away before his very eyes, Woods now had several chinks in his seemingly unbreakable armor.

To that point on the golf course, Tiger Woods had been known as the consummate closer. Entering the last day of a tournament, if another golfer was tied or slightly behind Woods on the leaderboard, playing out the last day was a mere formality. For all intents and purposes, the tournament was over. In those moments of primal mano a mano competition, Woods would reach down deep and find his very best. As with all of humanity’s transcendent competitors, Woods would rise to the occasion, rather than shrink in it. The more that was at stake, the greater Woods would channel his unparalleled determination and focus. In those moments, he was very much the predator, whatever poor bastard he was paired with the prey.

On August 16, 2009, shortly before Tiger’s scandal, he found himself in the very familiar position of possessing a lead on the final day of a major. The tournament was the PGA Championship, and his foe this time around was Y.E. Yang - a relatively unknown Korean golfer. I remember watching that day, waiting with eager anticipation for Tiger to continue separating himself from the pack and never look back en route to victory. But that never came. Woods would shoot a +3 on the day and go on to lose to Yang, thereby assuming the perplexing title of runner-up.

Since then, Woods has by and large failed to contend in another major tournament. His golf game has become unsightly at points…a far cry from the golfer who was widely proclaimed as the greatest ever. Jack Nicklaus’ record of eighteen major championships, which prior to 2009 seemed all but imminent, now seems impossible.

Professional life affects personal life, which then affects professional life again. Only this time, the inverse occurred - the cycle of destruction.

Recall on that infamous November evening that his wife chased after Woods with a golf club. To be sure, it’s ironic, but it’s also symbolic. When Tiger Woods’ personal life imploded, so too slid his professional career. When Elin wielded his golf club, the tumult of Woods’ personal life invaded his golf haven.

The Pillars of Confidence and How They Turned on Tiger

1. Unrealistic Optimism

Optimism and performance appear to be inextricably linked. Researchers Shelley Taylor and Jonathan Brown have concluded that “overly positive self-evaluation, exaggerated perceptions of mastery, and unrealistic optimism are characteristics of normal individuals, and that, moreover, these illusions appear to promote productive and creative work.” (2004). An individual who approaches a pursuit with unrealistic optimism is likely to outperform someone with correct perceptions and realistic expectations. Overly optimistic ideation results in the individual taking on more risky endeavors - often things they “should not have”; however, paradoxically, within that risky endeavor, they have a higher probability of success because of their perhaps unwarranted sheer and indomitable belief.

Unrealistic optimism is a euphemism for overconfidence, and it takes a very large ego to incubate the kind of mindset that our society’s largest risk-takers possess. That is why some of the most arrogant and narcissistic pricks enjoy the loftiest rises and also experience the steepest of downfalls. For such people, it’s win huge or don’t win at all, and their legacy ultimately is chiseled by the results while the rest of us look on and judge them from the ivory tower of prudence. We venerate them when they succeed; we cast stones at them when they fail. We call the behavior bold when it works and reckless when it doesn’t. But there is no mistaking that we are fascinated by them and the things we would and could never do.

To say that the greatest golfer in the world was overly optimistic seems a little ludicrous. We’ve been through his laundry list of successes on the course. But who is to say that Tiger, before he was the greatest golfer in history, didn’t innately exhibit this kind of unrealistic belief in himself that propelled him on early in his development towards victory after victory? No golfer in the world could have believed in himself more than Tiger Woods, and belief is a powerful success agent indeed. Tiger Woods the golfer took more risks than the field, and because he was so otherworldly talented and believed in himself so unwaveringly, he more often than not succeeded.

At what point Tiger’s brash confidence began to manifest in his personal life would be impossible to know, but it is clear that Tiger took many risks in his personal life also. Each extramarital rendezvous was a risk - a reckless decision, we might say, and Tiger’s risky behavior caught up with him that Thanksgiving holiday in 2009. And the same way the feeling of invincibility had traversed his professional to his personal life, the feeling of mortality also crept into his golf game from his injured love life.

Unrealistic optimism devolved into realistic parameters. Cut Tiger, and he actually bleeds.

2. Mood

As obvious as it may sound, mood is a key contributor to confidence, and by means of association, success. Mood affects performance, quite literally. Research conducted on test subjects reveals that when a negative mood is induced, the subjects become physiologically slower, and consequently, score lower on tests involving kinesthetic speed (2004). Conversely, mania, or a prolonged state of euphoria, is associated with ultra-productivity, just as it is with reckless and risky behavior.

True, moods are ephemeral and can shift like shadows, but anyone who has ever been through life’s ebbs and flows understands that mood is largely associated with whatever circumstances you find yourself in. Ergo, it is entirely conceivable that Tiger Woods, before his extramarital affairs were unearthed, was a mostly happy individual. But following those events, after Tiger had lost his marriage, his relationship with his children, most of his sponsors, and his public perception, he may well have been quite a sad chap. Mood affects blood flow. It affects body movement. It affects a whole host of our physiology. A sad Tiger Woods on the golf course is far worse than a happy one.

3. Inventory of the Past

Also affecting confidence is one’s perception of past empirical successes (or failures) (2004). Perceived success triggers confidence, while perceived failure triggers anxiety - one of the major mental road blocks to success. Whether or not we succeed in an undertaking informs our belief. If the first time I play a game of soccer I score a goal, I am likely to take inventory of that success, which will then inform my belief that I am good, and finally, inspire me towards confidence and commitment in becoming a great soccer player. In that sense, developmentally speaking, it can’t be overstated how significant our first experience with an undertaking is.

Tiger Woods’ inventory of golf success was silly. He had more reason than anyone by far to look at what he had accomplished in the game and allow the empirical evidence to inform him that he was fantastic. And he absolutely was. But in the 2009 PGA Championship, he took a two-stroke lead into the final day and wound up losing to Y.E. Yang by three strokes. That result had quite frankly never happened before, and suddenly, Woods had to work to reconcile that failure being a part of his past inventory. He has been conspicuously quiet in the world of golf ever since.

Unrealistic optimism, mood, and inventory of the past…they were all severely wounded that Thanksgiving holiday of 2009, and Tiger Woods has not won a major championship since.

Golf is indeed a mental game, whose success is bolstered by confidence - something that Tiger Woods had limitless reserves of. But on August 16 at the PGA Championship and Thanksgiving night in his own home, seeds of doubt began creeping into Woods’ seemingly impervious mind. And during those large spaces of time in between shots that make golf such a rich mental pursuit, the script running through Woods’ head may have changed - subtly at first, but noticeably. Instead of the ego that had always served in assuring him of his imminent victory, perhaps Woods began to wonder the thought: if my personal life can undergo disaster, perhaps I can miss this putt…bogey this hole…lose this tournament. In the preeminent mental game, confidence is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. A golfer without confidence is like Thor without Mjolnir. Perhaps Tiger, too, was unworthy to wield the otherworldly power bestowed unto him.

I’m not sure what exactly to take away from the story of Tiger Woods, or how exactly to wrap a bow around this blog. I’ve lambasted Woods in the past, but I can’t quite come to judge him in the present. I’ve never walked a mile in his shoes, but I’d imagine that being thrown into the cosmic gifting that he was allotted is a much more onerous position than I would’ve cared to admit. Is it a blessing or a curse to be given such incredible talent? In my experience, I cannot say. The first time I swung a golf club I shanked the crap out of it, and I'm beginning to see the silver-lining in that result.


References

Compte, O. & Postlewait, A. (2004). "Confidence-Enhanced Performance." American Economic Review, 94 (5), 1536-1557. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Correspondence Between a Cubs Fan and a Royals Fan - Part 3: The All Star Break


The only bad thing about winning the pennant is that you have to manage the All-Star Game the next year. I'd rather go fishing for three days. -Whitey Herzog


Dear Dave,

Happy Independence Day, my friend! Although there are several personality traits of our country currently that I will not count as points of pride (Hillary and Trump…really, America? Really??), I will always remain proud of baseball - our nation’s pastime and something simultaneously beautiful and also quintessentially American. All I want to do right now is watch Sandlot, eat apple pie, and reminisce about 1776, or as I like to refer to them, “the good old days”.

So much has happened since I last wrote to you, and yet the state of things seems to have remained much the same. At 35 games in, the Royals were 6.5 games back in the division. Now, at 80 games in, we find ourselves 6 games back - albeit to the Cleveland Indians instead of the Chicago White Sox. Your Cubs, then 19 games above .500, now find themselves just 21 games above .500. Mirroring life, there have been mountains in the past 45 games…and there have certainly been valleys. The undulations could stand to be smoothed; Jesus, take the wheel!

Here is a bit of a recap of what has happened during this time from KC’s camp:

On Friday, May 27, the Royals hosted the White Sox for a 3-game series over the weekend. It was the best weekend of regular season baseball I have watched in my life. On Friday night, down 5-2 late, the Royals scored in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings to win the game 7-5. Then, on Saturday, the unthinkable happened. This time, down 7-1 in the ninth inning, they would go on to score seven runs in the bottom of the ninth to walk off with a victory. The chance of victory was literally one in a thousand, and they pulled it off. Afterward, I went back and watched the Chicago broadcast of the bottom of the ninth, just so that I could witness Hawk Harrelson’s steady incredulous, melancholic descent into madness. As if that magic wasn’t enough, the Royals came from behind again on Sunday afternoon. This time, biding their time against the future AL Cy Young winner Chris Sale, they scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth against a weak Chicago bullpen in order to win 5-4. That’s three come-from-behind victories in what was at the time a crucial series against the hated, at the time division-leading White Sox. The Royals continue to have an uncanny penchant for late-game heroics.

Following that, the Royals would go on to sweep the Tampa Bay Rays, closing out a six game win streak which would put them 2.5 games in front of the division. It was short-lived. Following the Tampa series, the Royals went on the road to Cleveland for a four-game series. In the first game, they took a one-run lead into the ninth inning and would end up getting Royaled by the Indians for a loss. Having gotten so used to the kind of bullpen that quite literally does not allow runs in late innings, I was left in the wake of that loss struggling to identify the emotions one feels when losing a game late. I believe the technical term for it is choking, and it sucks. It was the start of a disastrous eight-game losing streak. They followed that up by winning eight games out of nine. Momentum is a funny thing, and the Royals have either enjoyed it or fallen prey to it perhaps more than the average bear this season.

The injury bug has continued to bite this team. A collision between left-fielder Alex Gordon and third-baseman Mike Moustakas on a foul popup left Gordon on the disabled list with a broken hand and Moustakas out for the year with torn ligaments in his knee - an incident I know that you as a Cubs fan can empathize with. Then, the very Saturday afternoon game I referenced earlier in which the Royals came back to score seven runs in the bottom of the ninth against the Sox, our all-star catcher and World Series MVP Salvador Perez was injured in a similar collision with replacement third-baseman Cheslor Cuthbert. Several games ago, Lorenzo Cain had to be put on the 15-day disabled list thanks to a hamstring strain when attempting to leg out an infield single. And I just literally watched as starting pitcher Yordano Ventura twisted his ankle on the base paths after singling in a National League game against the Phillies. He had to be removed from the game. It feels like the remarkable health the Royals have enjoyed these past two seasons has finally caught up with them and compounded in 2016. Baseball truly is a 162-game battle of attrition - a battle the Royals are currently losing decisively.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Indians have been running away with the division. Their win in a 19-inning marathon against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday afternoon culminated a 15-game winning streak that began just after Kansas City swept them at home. The significance of such a streak can’t be overstated. If Cleveland simply played .500 ball for the rest of their 147 games, they would end the year with about 89 wins, which can potentially win a division.

Normally, I’d be okay with Cleveland doing so well. I recently watched the documentary Believeland, which chronicles the city’s much-maligned sports history of the past half century. At the time, the Cavs were down 3-1 to the Warriors, and yet another heartbreak seemed imminent for the northeast Ohio faithful. But then we all bore witness to the remarkable comeback that broke Cleveland’s curse and emphatically pushed LeBron into the game’s Mt. Rushmore of elite players. I know that one championship does not make up for a city’s 50-year plight, but as the curse was washed away, so too went my sympathy. Call me heartless, but I no longer care. That’s the fan in me talking. As Cleveland has showed themselves to be a worthy adversary in the AL Central, I find myself seething with the animosity that comes from feeling legitimately threatened. And yes, I do mean that as a sort of compliment. In sports, you should always feel a sense of pride when people start to hate you; it means you’re doing something very right.

Nonetheless, good things have been taking shape as well. Alex Gordon is back healthy and looks better than he did before the injury. Kendrys Morales, who a month ago had struggled mightily at the plate - a luxury that can be ill afforded to a team’s designated hitter, has completely turned things around. Beginning June 25, Kendrys has gone 19-31 at the plate, with six homeruns. The manner in which he has carried the team throughout that stretch has led to my dubbing him “The Offense”. Danny Duffy, our young left-handed starting pitcher who has historically struggled with command and efficiency, all of a sudden looks like the second coming of Cliff Lee. He once could not get to the seventh inning if his life depended upon it; now he has had consecutive games in which he has gone 8+ innings and walked 0. Baseball old-timers will tell you that sometimes left-handed pitchers take a while to develop their command. Personally, that sounds like crotchety old, unfounded baseball speak to me, but Danny Duffy seems to be undergoing such a chrysalis. This could be incredibly significant because, while the Royals are 6 games back of their division, they are a mere half game back in the Wild Card currently. If they were to have to play in the sudden-death game again, Danny Duffy’s emergence as a dominant pitcher could mean the difference between the season’s conjunction or its period.

That’s the scuttlebutt on my boys. How about your Cubs? Let’s get the obvious out on the table: the Cubs are struggling - relative to the Cubs, of course. You won’t truly know struggling until your club loses eight straight. But yesterday’s loss culminated a 4-game sweep at the hands of the hated Metropolitans, in which the Cubs were outscored 32-11. The Mets just seem to be the Cubs’ kryptonite. They are now 8-0 against the Cubs dating back to last year’s NLCS playoffs. Of all the National League juggernauts to fear, I would imagine Cubs fans may be most intimidated by the prospect of meeting the Mets in the playoffs a second straight year. It’s been said that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Here in Southern California, I am amongst Cubs fans and Dodgers fans. Throw me, a Royals fan in there, and you have every team who the Mets had to face last year in the postseason. Our collective hatred of New York's red-headed stepchild has been a very organic thing to share a bonding experience over.

Despite the Cubs’ struggles, it has been an absolute pleasure owning Cubs players on my fantasy team. I’ve been proactive in acquiring three of the Cubs’ big boppers - Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Willson Contreras. Even now, as I watch the Independence Day game against the Reds, I just literally saw Bryant and Contreras go deep in the same inning. Bryant seems to be transforming into a bonafide superstar before our very eyes. Just a week ago, he became the first player in Major League history to hit three home runs and two doubles in a game. When all is said and done, it will probably be the most impressive offensive performance from the 2016 season. As good as the legitimate MVP contender has been, Bryant still plays second fiddle offensively to his teammate Anthony Rizzo, as evidenced by Rizzo’s team-leading 1.006 OPS (Bryant is of course second, with .962).

There has been a lot of hubbub circulating around the prospect of the Cubs making a significant trade in order to acquire bullpen depth. Two names from the Yankees have been thrown out early and often - setup man Andrew Miller and closer Aroldis Chapman. Both are power left-handed arms and elite relievers who could complement Hector Rondon quite nicely. Rumor has it that the Yankees are going to drive a hard bargain for the acquisition of either - most likely Kyle Schwarber, who as we recall is out this season with torn knee ligaments in an injury akin to Mike Moustakas’ collision. I don’t know how you as a Cubs fan view it, but I don’t like the idea of the Cubs dealing Schwarber at all. I know that Schwarber seems like the perfect fit to hit in the American League, with the designated-hitter, but he’s also a power-hitting left-handed bat…in other words, precious baseball gold. The Schwarbers of the world are heaven-sent, and re-gifting them is like spitting in God’s face. In addition to wanting to avoid offending the Creator, there is pragmatism in keeping Schwarber as well. The Cubs have to consider sustaining this team’s future success, and I personally see Schwarber as a significant part of that success, in solidifying a viable “murderer’s row” in the lineup for years to come. If the Cubs can acquire either pitcher for the likes of Addison Russell or Javier Baez, then by all means, but don't trade Schwarber, who again, was knitted in his mother's womb to become a great hitter, packaged by angels with a big blue ribbon on top, and sent to Cubs nation with a note that reads, “We thought you might need this. You’re welcome.”



Dear Drew,

As I write this, I’m watching the Cubs play the Pirates. Jake Arrieta is on the same mound on which he dominated Pittsburgh in the Wild Card game last October. But right now, Arrieta…and the entire Cubs team for that matter, don’t resemble anything close to a playoff team. In fact, I’d say that this particular game is a microcosm of the Cubs’ last month: bad starting pitching, no clutch hitting, inconsistent relief pitching, and just a noticeable lack of swagger overall. They are crappy in every facet of the game, and somehow, the crappiness is contagious. I hate contagious crap.

Yes, I agree with you the Cubs are very much struggling, but not just by their own standards…I’d argue by any standard. They’ve now lost seven of eight, 13 of their last 18. (worst in the NL during the span) For the first 67 games of 2016, Cubs starting pitchers allowed 30 home runs. In the last 19 games, they’ve allowed 26. The Cubs are 4-28 when scoring less than 4 runs. I could go on with more stats, but you get the point: the Cubs have been a mediocre team for about a month now. Cubs President Theo Epstein said recently, “Honestly it’s just a baseball reality. It's impossible to win at the pace we were winning at early in the season the whole year. Every team, even championship-caliber clubs, go through a month or so where they play .500 or so baseball, and that's what we're doing. It's not surprising.”

They say a team is never really as amazing as it is during its best winning streaks, and it’s never as awful as it is during its worst losing streaks. In fact, I even apply this motto to life: life isn’t actually as amazing as it is during its best moments, but it’s not as awful as it is during its worst moments. The reality is, life is somewhere in-between those two extremes. And in my mind, I know the Cubs are somewhere in-between the two extremes we’ve experienced this year. They aren’t the juggernaut we saw the first month of the season, but they’re also not the lovable losers we’ve seen the last month. However, as a Cubs fan, my heart tells me this isn’t just “a baseball reality,” but The Curse taking effect once again. At one point does regression end and a new normal set in? Yes, it’s too early to panic, but as a Cubs fan, my cautious optimism has always been remarkably fragile. I’m not going to lie to you: my “unabated enthusiasm” from when I last wrote has turned to great concern.

So as we reach this year’s All-Star break, the unofficial halfway point of the season, I’m honestly wondering whether this team is still one year away from being legitimate World Series contenders. After all, this team is still quite young, we’re missing Schwarber, and the bullpen clearly has holes. And that leads me to your musings on Schwarber and our potential trade partner, the Yankees. I’m totally with you, I would not trade him for Andrew Miller. A lefty power bat is just far too valuable, and not even a dominant lefty reliever is worth that. Now, if the Cubs can find another way to land Miller, then I’m all for it (especially since I traded for him in fantasy), but I don’t think they should play this too aggressively. This team has years of highly competitive baseball in it, and I’d hate to see Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer jeopardize that future for this one season. If we can keep this nucleus intact, 2016 should only be the beginning.

A few concluding thoughts about my team: ironically, while the Cubs have collectively been at their worst in the past few weeks, Kris Bryant has been at his absolute best. As of this writing, he leads the National League with 25 home runs, and I’d argue that he is the first half NL MVP. I wish he was on my fantasy team too, because holy crap…this dude is for real. And he has dreamy eyes. But I do want to mention one guy that IS on my fantasy team, and that’s Dexter Fowler. He’s been on the DL for a few weeks now, and I think it’s no coincidence that that the Cubs have struggled during the same timespan. Fowler’s on-base abilities are vital to this team, not to mention his presence just makes this lineup deeper. He has been sorely missed, and I hope that his post-All Star break return makes a considerable difference. One thing is for sure…if the Cubs hadn’t re-signed Fowler over the offseason, this would be a very different team. The Cubs would also be a very different team without the emerging young talent of catcher/outfielder Wilson Contreras. I’ve been waiting for this guy ever since the Cubs’ “first wave” of prospects hit the big leagues last year. The fact that he’s been our everyday cleanup hitter says it all. Contreras can just hit. Add in his above-average defensive skills, and you’re potentially looking at one of the best catchers in baseball for years to come.

Now about your Royals…I must admit I’ve sort of unconsciously written them off since we last wrote. I was camping in the Smoky Mountains when I caught a brief moment of reception and received your cryptic text saying Moustakas was out for the year. You’re correct, I absolutely felt significant empathy for you when I received that news, and I could even detect your distress and despair through text. Losing an important player like that almost makes you sick to your stomach, especially when (like the Royals) there isn’t offensive depth on the roster to compensate for the loss. In the past month, the Royals seemingly have been buried in the standings.

That said, I don’t think the Indians are really this good. So since I invested all my pessimistic energy already into writing about the Cubs, let me know offer you some optimistic words of encouragement. As of this writing, the Royals are only 7.5 games back of the Indians, and there’s no way the Indians can continue the recent hot streak they’ve been on. In fact, odds are great that they won’t ever be this hot again this season. (It’s hard to top a 15-game winning streak!) Just take a look at that Indians lineup: it’s not that good. They’ve had several players all overachieving at once. I predict the Indians will slide enough to keep the Royals and Tigers in the mix. And even if the Indians don’t regress…the Royals are merely 2.5 games out of the Wild Card race. And if you need the best case for optimism, here it is: the 2014 Royals had a record of 48-46 at the All Star break, and they made it to the World Series…and nearly won. I think it’s safe to say they’ll have similar record at this year’s break. There’s still hope.

Yes, there’s still hope for your struggling Royals and my faltering Cubs. The optimism of March and April has quickly faded, and the realities of the 162-game marathon have set in. But just as things can negatively change on a dime, so can things quickly change in a positive way. I’m looking forward to all that the second half of the season has in store…both the ups and downs!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Correspondence Between a Cubs Fan and a Royals Fan - Part 2: The Quarter Turn


The key to winning baseball games is pitching, fundamentals, and three-run homers. - Earl Weaver

















Dear Dave,

I write to you thirty-five games into the baseball season, from the perspective of a throne whose polish and luster is quickly fading. The Royals have lost twelve of their last seventeen and find themselves 6.5 games back of those south-siders opposite your beloved Cubs. I once would've been very okay...maybe even pleased with being just one game under .500 at this point in the season. But 17-18 is the epitome of mediocrity, and mediocrity will not do for a team that has been to consecutive World Series and ran away with the AL Central division just last year. This team is in desperate need of dusting off the cobwebs and rediscovering how to be championship-caliber.

A lot has not exactly gone according to plan, and one might have said there were ominous signs on the horizon, even after the Royals' 8-2 start. The offense had struggled to that point, and there had been many tight victories that had been won on the shoulders of some surprisingly great starting pitching. But that mirage is no longer in tact. Kansas City flirted with danger when deciding to install 36 year-old Chris Young and Kris Medlen, fresh off his second Tommy John surgery, as their fourth and fifth starters in the rotation. Both pitchers have struggled and currently find themselves on the disabled list. Yordano Ventura, who is not elderly, nor has he undergone any surgeries, was supposed to establish himself as a reliable power pitcher. Instead, he has shown himself only to be as volatile with command of the strike zone as he is in temperament. In the past three seasons, his velocity has slowly decreased, his ERA steadily increased, and his strikeout to walk ratio in 2016 is a miserable 26:28. What was once a pitcher who showed remarkable promise now looks more lost than ever. Any hope a fan once had in his developing into a staff ace has since dissipated.

The offense hasn't been much better. Lorenzo Cain, Kendrys Morales, and Alex Gordon - three middle-of-the-order guys, have all gotten off to slow starts. Gordon's has perhaps been most frustrating, after having signed his four-year deal in the offseason. The one bright shining spot in the lineup is Eric Hosmer, whose robust .338 average appears to be a stark anomaly from the rest of the lineup. To make matters worse, Mike Moustakas, first on the team with 7 homeruns and second in OPS (.850), recently went on the 15-day disabled list with a broken thumb. When it rains, it pours.

Lately, as the Royals have gotten good pitching, their offense has sputtered. When the offense has resurrected, the pitching has been lifeless. Whether high-scoring or low-scoring, the Royals are finding ways to lose many of the close games they seemed to have an uncanny knack for winning in past years.

And so I find myself in that dreaded situation I prophesied before the season began. It's not quite so bad as Denny's...more like Chile's. There's nothing inherently wrong with Chile's. Chile's is in fact supremely average, and sometimes it can hit the spot when you either haven't eaten out in a long while or you're perfectly happy to concede away an average dining experience. There is merit to Chile's. But as I referenced in our last correspondence, it's simply hard to find yourself staring at your uber-sugary strawberry lemonade and slightly overcooked burger when your last memory was medium-rare filet and limoncello. Regression is depressing.

But there remain 127 games left in this 2016 baseball saga, and I withhold hope that my team's amnesia will lift soon, and they will remember what it's like to play like champions.

I tried to condense that as best I could because the bigger story by far between our two teams is not the Royals' early ineptitude but the Cubs' sheer and utter dominance. It is not very surprising that they have asserted themselves this early as the best team in baseball, but the way they have done it to the degree of superiority over their opponents has been nothing short of jaw-dropping.

I've watched a fair amount of Cubs baseball this season - in part because the Cubs were the team I cheered for while I resided in Chicago for eight years - my official National League team, and also because my roommate, who you've met, is a huge Cubs fan. I in fact just got done watching their latest victory - a quintessential 8-2 drubbing of the Pirates - an above .500 team that the Cubs have not yet lost to in five games so far this season. Reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, who we've taken to calling "The Beast", was on the mound. He went 8 innings, struck out 11, gave up 2 earned runs, and saw his ERA balloon to 1.29, leaving me wondering what the hell's wrong with Jake today?? With his performance, he's now given up 3 earned runs or less in 28 straight starts - the longest such streak of a starting pitcher since 1893, neatly wedged in between the Civil War and the First World War. They'll go for the double-sweep tomorrow to make it 6-0.

I say "quintessential" because, in taking into account the many Cubs games I have watched this season, if I could pick a generic score that best represents the 2016 Cubbies, it would be an 8-2 win. I feel as though the Cubs routinely score around 8 runs and nearly as routinely give up less than 3. They almost never lose, and when they win, it's rarely a close game. In fact, in the Cubs' 27 victories thus far, Hector Rondon has only been left with 7 save opportunities, of which he's converted every one. For the baseball-illiterate, a save means closing a game out by 3 runs or less. To only have 7 saves in 27 wins is kind of silly. By comparison, Jeanmar Gomez, the closer for the 21-15 Philadelphia Phillies, has 14 saves.

The Cubs are currently 27-8, just 1 game away from being 20 games above .500. The 2015 American League second wild card team - the Houston Astros - ended the year 10 games above .500. The team with the best record in 2015 - the St. Louis Cardinals - ended the year 100-62, 38 games above .500. The Cubs are already halfway to that mark, and we're barely over a fifth of the way through the season. They are currently on pace to win 125 games and lose 37, which would shatter the 2001 Seattle Mariners' record of 116-46.

But records can be deceiving - especially records this young in the season. Let's take a quick look at the manner in which the Cubs' record has taken shape. The 2015 Cubs went 97-65 for the third best record in Major League Baseball. Throughout the course of the season, they scored 689 runs and allowed 608, for a run differential of +81. The 2016 Cubs have already scored 213 runs, second only to Boston's 219, and the Red Sox have the luxury of playing with the designated hitter in the American League, as well as having played 2 more games than Chicago. Undoubtedly the Cubs would be above that mark were their pitchers not batting every ninth spot in the order. Oh, and they've done all this without Kyle Schwarber, who was lost for the year with torn knee ligaments in a collision with center-fielder Dexter Fowler. Defensively, the Cubs have only allowed 103 runs, which is least in the major leagues. This adds up to an absurd run differential of +110, best in baseball by 52. That's right: in just over a fifth of the year played, the Cubs have eclipsed their run differential of 2015, when they featured the third best record in the league, by 29 runs. For all those who believe that the Cubs have been slightly lucky this far, the Pythagorean Theorem actually states based on their differential that they should be 28-7, a game above where they currently find themselves. If anything, they have been slightly unlucky.

The Cubs are averaging over 6 runs per game - best in the majors. Their average margin of victory is 4.9 runs, which means they're obliterating their opponents. Several of those were also "close" wins due to the Cubs being so far ahead that some of the low-end relievers allowed the opposition back in the game. That's actually not true. They were never in the game...not for one moment.

We all know about the lineup, which has been as advertised as a murderer's row. Fowler, Zobrist, Rizzo, and Bryant have all been tremendous. Even the wiry, baby-faced Addison Russell is beginning to tear the cover off the ball! But what's been most impressive for the 2016 Cubs has undoubtedly been their starting pitching. The Cubs currently have three of the top ten starting pitchers in ERA. That would be Jake Arrieta (1st - 1.27), Jason Hammel (6th - 1.77), and Jon Lester (10th - 1.96). It makes sense that the Cubs are performing this well with elite hitting and elite starting pitching. This has rendered the one possible Achilles heel of the team - middle relief - nearly inconsequential. Opponents only have about one or two innings after the starter is removed to take advantage of a Cubs relief pitcher, and by then they're usually down 4 or more runs. And if by some reason it is in fact a close game, Maddon can turn it over in the ninth to one of the best closers in the game in Hector Rondon. This is not a recipe for success; it's a recipe for complete domination.

In the middle of all of this is Ben Zobrist - the bridge linking my team to yours. Zobrist was a trade deadline acquisition for the Royals last season and proved to be invaluable to our championship run. Time and time again, he would put together a crucial at-bat when we needed it most in the playoffs. I miss that man. The Cubs signed Zobrist in the offseason and now enjoy the fruits of his labor in the middle of their lineup. He got particularly hot in the middle of the Cubs' four-game sweep of the Washington Nationals, in which he went 6-13, with 3 homeruns. I smile when I think about how much fun he's had in the last two years. Think about it. He began 2015 and played much of the season with a struggling Oakland Athletic team. He then was traded to the American League front-runner Kansas City Royals and proceeded to win a championship in a magical postseason run that featured 8 come-from-behind wins. Now he finds himself on another, different sort of magical team, that collectively has the opportunity to set baseball records together. Shortly following Kansas City's championship last season, Zobrist's wife gave birth to a daughter. They named her Blaise Royal. Perhaps their next child will have the pleasure of being named Cub.

I await your unabated enthusiasm...

















Dear Drew,

Is this real life? Seriously, somebody pinch me. The first month of the 2016 Cubs season has been nothing short of magical, miraculous, joyful, triumphant, euphoric…I’m running out of words, but you get the picture. Never before in my life have I witnessed a Cubs team like this. I’ve labored through over two decades of Cubs fandom, and I’ve grown very accustomed to Denny’s-like mediocrity, or worse. What the Cubs are doing right now is a once-in-a-generation spectacle…maybe even a once-in-a-century spectacle. You’ve done well in statistically summarizing the Cubs historic dominance. Yes, they are currently on pace to be one of the greatest, if not THE greatest team of all-time. Of course, it’s way too early to assume anything, but the statistical evidence is there. So instead of elaborating any further on the Cubs statistical dominance (although trust me, I’d love to dive into some nerdy peripheral sabermetrics like BABIP, WAR, FIP, XFIP, etc.) I’m going to simply describe to you how this team makes me FEEL. Because, really that’s what ultimately matters about sports fandom. I’m going to give you what Stephen Colbert famously calls “truthiness,” a hyperbolic assertion that comes from the gut rather than pure fact/data. And in doing so, maybe you can live vicariously through my euphoria as your Royals continue their World Series hangover.

The Royals…that’s a good place to start with my truthiness. Are the Cubs this year’s Royals? When I compare the two teams, there seems to be a certain intangible magic at play. Last year’s Royals had an uncanny knack of always coming through in the clutch. You just always had a feeling that they were never truly out of a game…in fact, you almost came to EXPECT them to pull off a miracle. That’s exactly what is happening with this year’s Cubs. Case in point: opening night at Wrigley Field. I was there with my dad, freezing my butt off in freezing wind chills. The atmosphere was October-like, and not just because of the chill. The crowd was buzzing at the beginning, especially when Kyle Schwarber hobbled out of the dugout for his introduction. (more on Schwarber in a moment) But the buzz wore off gradually over the course of the game, as former Royals World Series hero Brandon Finnegan no-hit the Cubs deep into the game. But then the 8th inning…oh my. Addison Russell (seriously, is he REALLY seven years younger than me?!) hit a go-ahead home run when all seemed lost. My dad and I were jumping and screaming like little kids. It was miraculous, but it summed up the magic of this team. The 2016 Cubs are never truly out of it.

So back to Schwarber. Turns out, when you and I saw him and the Cubs on Opening Day in Anaheim, we saw one of his only three games of 2016. Just days later, he blew out his knee in a collision with Dexter Fowler. And when the news came out that he was gone for the year, it was a huge blow to the psyche of every Cubs fan. Schwarber isn’t just a good player; he embodies the joy, excitement, and swagger of this Cubs team. When Schwarber went down, it felt like the good magic had evaporated, and the dreaded black magic of the infamous Curse was working its power again. But again, that’s what’s so incredible about this team. They seemingly haven’t missed Schwarber at all. Sure, the lineup would be more imposing with him. Of course. Would the Cubs have a better record? Maybe. But there’s no disputing it…the Cubs have tremendous depth. (which could be even further tested if Jason Heyward’s injury costs him time on the DL) Kris Bryant’s versatility in the outfield combined with Javy Baez’s emergence has more than compensated for Schwarber’s loss. In previous years, losing a significant player like Schwarber would have sunk the Cubs. But not this year. This year is different.

Personally, this year is different for a fun personal reason: my mom is 100% devoted to this team. (and I hope she’s reading this) I’m very proud of her commitment to this team, because she was a devoted Cubs fan way before I was, back in the days of Ron Santo, Billy Williams, and Fergie Jenkins. Group texting with my parents during nearly every game has become a really fun way to experience this team, especially when my mom gets excited about one of our favorite new players, Ben Zobrist. (who we all affectionately refer to as “Zoby”)

Drew, you are quite correct in pinpointing Zoby as the link between our two teams. Plain and simple, this guy knows how to win, and his patience at the plate is infectious…he brings a winning culture to any team he’s a part of. Ok, only one nerdy stat: from 2009-20012, Ben Zobrist had the best, most robust WAR (wins above replacement) of any position player in baseball. Translation: he was arguably the most valuable non-pitcher in that time period. And I’d argue he still is incredibly valuable, even at the ripe old age of 35. In fact, his power numbers suggest he’s getting even better with age. Drew, I remember you telling me during the offseason that I was going to fall in love with Zoby. I was a little skeptical of the signing at first, because I still (somehow) believed in Starlin Castro. But two months into the season, it’s clear: Zoby is a huge upgrade over Castro.

So there you have it: that just about sums up how I feel about my beloved Cubs at the one-quarter mark of the 2016 season. The Cubs have provided me with joy at a time in my life in which I’ve very much needed it. They have delivered on the pre-season hope and optimism that I wrote about previously. There’s a long way to go, and there will certainly be peaks and valleys ahead. But there’s a growing feeling…in my head AND my heart…that “next year” might finally be here.

With unabated enthusiasm,

Dave