Cubs Close Winningest Chapter In Franchise History

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Keith Allison

(Courtesy Wiki Commons)

By Brian Preece, Sports Writer

 

Here’s the 0-1… (crack of the bat) This is gonna be a tough play, Bryant… THE CUBS WIN THE WORLD SERIES. IT’S OVER! AND THE CUBS…HAVE FINALLY WON IT ALL. 8-7 in 10.”

— Joe Buck, 2016 World Series

The throw from Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant settled into the glove of first baseman Anthony Rizzo, securing the final out of an all-time Game 7 and giving the Cubs their first World Series championship since Orval Overall (I didn’t make that name up) led them to the 1908 title. A franchise long known as the “Lovable Losers” had risen to the top of the MLB world, finally.

It was fitting that the final play involved Bryant (24), a Cubs first-round pick in 2013, and Rizzo (27), the unabashed on and off-field leader of this young group. Affectionately known as Bryzzo, they were half of a core of four young position players that fans hoped would end the curse. They were joined by Javier Báez (23) in his second full season at second base and rookie catcher Willson Contreras (24).

Optimism on the north side of Chicago was sky-high. Thoughts of a potential dynasty danced in the heads of fans and the franchise alike.  

Fast forward five seasons; a 2017 NLCS appearance followed by Wild Card flameouts in 2018 and 2019. Throw out a farcical 2020 season that never should have been played, and what do the Cubs have to show for this talented core? Only Contreras remains, while the other three get to test whether the grass is actually greener on the other side.

Years of trade rumors and reportedly contentious contract negotiations (depending on who you want to believe) combined with impending free agency for Rizzo, Baez and Bryant meant that decisions had to be made this season. There would be no more kicking the can down the road for Cubs GM and President Jed Hoyer.

After Rizzo reportedly turned down a 5-year, $70 million contract offer during Spring Training earlier this year, and the contract status of Bryant and Baez remained up in the air, the writing was on the wall as the club headed north to Wrigley Field. Unavoidable change was coming to the north side.

The Cubs hung around, threatening to make one more run at the playoffs. The high water mark, a 4-0 combined no-hitter over the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Sitting at 42-33, second in the National League Central division, Chicago promptly lost 11-straight and fell to fourth in the division.

In an acknowledgment that the Cubs would be selling at the trade deadline, Hoyer explained how quickly the management’s priorities changed.

“We’ve believed in these guys since 2015,” he said. “They’ve had a ton of success and I would never count these guys out. Life comes at you fast. Eleven days ago, this is not where we were mentally. Eleven games certainly changes a lot of things.”

Once the dust settled on the July 30 trade deadline, Bryant was a San Francisco Giant while Baez and Rizzo both ended up in New York — Baez with the Mets and Rizzo a Yankee.

Confusion, heartbreak, anger, devastation and simple resignation are some of the emotions I felt seeing the news come across the ESPN ticker. The favorite Cubs team of my lifetime had been dismantled. It is the way of sports; teams rise and fall. Players capture lightning in a bottle before falling off, but this one hurt.

What did the Cubs lose by sending out these three star talents?

Javier Baez — “El Mago”

A Cubs first-round pick in 2011, Baez made his major league debut against Colorado in 2014. When he hit an extra-inning walk-off opposite-field shot, “Javy” became an instant fan favorite. I wrote about Baez previously here.

Never before had anybody made tagging and sliding must-watch plays. With the bat, the glove or on the base paths, Baez has a unique ability to think two steps ahead of the competition and always be the most exciting player on the field. 

In that magical 2016 run, Baez accounted for the only run of the Cubs’ first postseason game, a high arcing ball to left that just had enough to land in the famed Wrigley Field basket. Javy ended up sharing NLCS MVP honors with teammate Jon Lester. After struggling at the plate in the World Series, Baez homered in game 7.

His often all-or-nothing approach at the plate was frustrating at times, but there is no denying that when Javy was on the field in Cubby blue, you just had to watch.

Kris Bryant — “KB”

A baby faced kid taken second overall in the 2013 MLB draft, Bryant experienced one of the best individual runs any player will ever see:

  • College Player of the Year — 2013
  • Cubs Minor Leaguer of the Year — 2014
  • National League Rookie of the Year — 2015
  • National League Most Valuable Player — 2016

Bryant has always been a slugger with immense home run power. What became a pleasant surprise for Chicago was his defensive versatility and base-running ability. In his 2016 MVP campaign, Bryant’s 39 home runs and .292 batting average provided consistent production in the middle of the Cubs lineup.

Injuries have limited Bryant’s on-field ability since 2017. When healthy, Bryant remains one of the best hitters in the game and has played every position but catcher, pitcher and second base this season, all at or near Gold Glove level.

Anthony Rizzo — “The Captain”

The first acquisition made by Theo Epstein when he came to Chicago from Boston in 2011 was to trade SP Andrew Cashner for a Padres minor league first baseman, Anthony Rizzo. “Rizz” would go on to play 87 games at the big league level in 2012 and cement himself as a leader almost immediately.

His 1,311 hits, more than 500 extra-base hits (242 home runs), 784 RBI and Gold Glove defense can’t tell the whole story. Rizzo finished his Cubs career with three all-star appearances, four Gold Glove awards, a Silver Slugger award and a Platinum Glove. Rizz always told his infielders, “Just don’t throw it over my head, and I’ll catch anything you send my way.”

In 2020, as the Cubs finished the year as the only team without a positive COVID-19 test, Rizzo was credited with leading the way and encouraging players to follow MLB protocols.

But my favorite Rizzo story of all: less than an hour before game 7 in 2016, Anthony Rizzo stripped down and jumped on top of a table in the Cubs clubhouse. He began shadowboxing naked and shouting out lines from Rocky, a film the Cubs had relied on for motivation all season long. It may not have been a pretty image, but it certainly broke the tension heading into one of the biggest games of their lives.

No matter what, Rizzo goes on to accomplish in his career, one thing is certain, he’ll never have to buy another drink in Chicago.

Turning the Page

Beyond the numbers, the Cubs are losing their core, the heart and soul of an organization that had broken a 108-year championship drought, largely on the backs of these accomplished players.

Fans will look back on this era of Chicago Cubs baseball with an odd mixture of fondness for the championship that came, and a feeling of what could have been. 

While the lineups manager David Ross draws up daily to close the 2021 season are a far cry from the glory of 2016, optimism for the future already grows, just like the ivy that adorns the iconic outfield walls at Wrigley. 

Better days are ahead. At the end of the day, I’m a Cubs fan. The name on the front of that pinstriped jersey will always matter more than the name on the back. 

Go Cubs Go!

 

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