The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse
At one point in THE CUBS WAY, one of the team’s coaches takes 162 baseballs and lays them end-to-end along a baseline, separated by seven bats. One baseball, of course, for each game on the schedule, over the course of seven months. And then, for October, extra baseballs for the postseason. It must have been an impressive object lesson for the players about the length of the season and the need for total commitment over that span of time. But it’s an image that tells a lie. The baseball season only seems linear; it is not. Over the course of those seven months and those 162 games, anything can happen. Your highly touted left field prospect can blow out his knee the first week of the season. Your high-priced free-agent pitcher can develop a mental block that prevents him from throwing to first base. Your character-driven team can have the opportunity to sign the fastest bullpen arm in baseball --- that’s attached to someone with a history of domestic violence.
And the Chicago Cubs might win the World Series.
Veteran baseball journalist Tom Verducci tells the story of just how it happened that the Chicago Cubs, after more than a century of ignominy, incompetence and heartbreak, managed, at long last, to win baseball’s top prize. Verducci’s story begins with former whiz-kid Theo Epstein, who brought the Boston Red Sox to the heights of World Series glory and then was given the opportunity to replicate that feat on the North Side of Chicago.
"THE CUBS WAY is a tale of joy, redemption, making the last out in the last inning of the last game of the year, and bringing a tidal wave of celebration across the Upper Midwest."
The concept of the general manager as the protean hero of the national pastime was given its fullest essence in MONEYBALL, Michael Lewis’ epochal analysis of how Billy Beane of the small-market, low-budget, penny-pinching Oakland Athletics brought his team to the dizzying heights of competence before its annual immolation in the postseason. When Epstein was with the Red Sox, he heard about Lewis’ project and wondered why Beane was so foolish as to have someone write up his strategies for the world to see. And, as night follows day, once Lewis’ book was published, and the rest of baseball understood the ways that Beane had been outfoxing his competitors all these years, everyone else in the game started copying Beane’s methods, and the A’s sank back to the middle of the American League pack.
THE CUBS WAY is not the Chicago version of MONEYBALL, not by a long shot. There’s very little in the way of mathematics or quantitative analytics here. What Epstein did, and what Verducci reports, is that the team’s focus shifted towards evaluating and valuing individual character as much as individual statistics. This is reinforced by the decision to hire Joe Maddon, the former Tampa Bay manager whose iconoclastic methods mesh with the focus on positive thinking and mental preparedness.
The book’s title comes from a handbook that Epstein prepared and distributed among Cubs players and coaches. It describes not only the distinctive way that Epstein wants Cubs players to play (down to the specific foot that one uses to touch second base), but the appropriate mental attitudes for players to have. And it’s tempting to say that the success of the Cubs is due to this sort of planning and philosophy. But, like every other baseball success story, the story of how the Cubs won the World Series involves a quite unreasonable amount of simple dumb luck.
Verducci discusses any number of these moments of good fortune --- amateur drafts falling just the right way, cast-off starters suddenly blossoming in a new environment, opposing general managers (including, incredibly, Billy Beane, his own bad self) just up and deciding to trade you the future cornerstones of your team. But the process of how the Cubs ended up with Joe Maddon as their manager tops them all. When Clayton Kershaw --- of all people! --- gives up the series-clinching home run in the 2014 NLDS, the Dodgers cleaned house in their front office and brought Andrew Friedman in from Tampa Bay. This triggered an obscure clause in Maddon’s contract, allowing him to ditch the sad-sack Rays and jump to the Cubs. No amount of planning or positive thinking could engineer such an absurd result, but it happened, and the Cubs benefited richly from it.
The odd thing about THE CUBS WAY is that it is a story remarkably free of conflict. As all good novelists are told, conflict is what drives storytelling, and that has always been the case in baseball. Batters versus pitchers. Veterans versus rookies. George Steinbrenner versus Billy Martin. But THE CUBS WAY is the way of collaboration, if not outright brotherhood. The only real problem with the book is that it is almost as though Verducci is on the team. The only part of the book where he is even remotely critical is in the controversial decision to trade for Aroldis Chapman, the fire-throwing reliever who had been suspended earlier in the year for domestic violence.
But it is almost certainly wrong to find any fault with Verducci’s book. THE CUBS WAY is a tale of joy, redemption, making the last out in the last inning of the last game of the year, and bringing a tidal wave of celebration across the Upper Midwest. It is the kind of story that only a Cardinals fan could hate.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on March 31, 2017