Injury, inconsistency, idiocy. All can stand in the way of a team’s success, whether in terms of fruition or continuation. We can pretty assuredly rule out the latter of those factors when it comes to the Cubs, but the former pair can still sink their poisoned fangs into the team. And since getting hurt is a matter of random consequence, we’re left with only the troublemaker in the middle.
Flagging performance can stem from manifold physical influences, to be sure, but I’m more concerned for the time being with the mental side. What goes on between the ears can have a serious impact on what happens between the lines, and to think otherwise is to deny the humanity of the game and reduce its practitioners to mindless automatons. And while I suppose it’s possible such players exist, they’re few and far between and won’t last too long in the game.
Nor, it figures, will the players over whom the psychological stuff holds too much sway. It doesn’t take a giant speculative leap to assume that Jason Heyward’s forgettable offensive campaign was largely the product of a mental funk. Yes, there were physical issues with his swing, but you could see frustration radiating from him like a heat shimmer as the season wore on.
While Heyward has been hard at work to re-craft both sides of his game this winter, it’s not the weariness of fighting through adversity that concerns Theo Epstein. Rather, it’s the laziness that can come from winning that battle.
“The primary reason why it’s hard to repeat is just because it’s really difficult to win the World Series,” Epstein told CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney (requisite and repetitive plug here for Mooney, who’s at the very top of the Cubs beat writer list). “In any given year, if you’re any old team, you have a 3-percent chance. If you’re the best team, you might have, you know, a 10- or 12-percent chance. So it’s just hard to do. But there are things that get in the way.”
It’s even harder to win a second time, regardless of how many players you return or what oddsmakers and projections say. And when you finally complete a journey over a century in the making, it’s easy to understand why there might be a tendency to spend a little time sort of basking in that glory.
“When you win, you get pulled in a lot of different directions,” Epstein said. “There can be a tendency at some point, no matter how high the character, to start thinking about yourself a little bit more. You have to work really hard — we all do — to avoid any kind of organizational arrogance, any sense of entitlement, to really understand that of all the great things that happened last year, the most special aspect is that we all got to be part of something bigger than ourselves.”
This is where the focus on makeup will really show itself, perhaps even more so than in the early-July swoon or the various setbacks at each playoff level. If hardship serves to develop and reveal character, success shines a big-ass spotlight on it. There’s a marked difference between trusting someone to follow through on a goal and trusting them to stick with it once that goal has been achieved.
“That’s where having such great character guys is important. And I really trust our group to get locked back in again.”
If what we’ve seen already in February is any indication, I don’t think getting locked back in will be much of a problem. And with continued emphasis on the mental side of the game, it won’t be a problem for the foreseeable future.