'There's no bad blood': Cubs' bond is strong despite disappointing finish

MILWAUKEE - For the second time in as many days, Cubs manager David Ross couldn't bring himself to share his feelings on this season.

Was it a success despite missing the playoffs? Was it a failure? A little of both?

"I don't know if I'm there yet," Ross said before the Cubs dropped their season finale 4-0 to the Brewers at America Family Field. "Still feels very disappointing."

The pain is there for a couple of reasons, with the primary one being how a talented roster allowed a solid wild-card lead evaporate.

But it cuts deeper than that.

This was such a tight group. They truly bonded and loved each other over the last seven-plus months, in ways many longtime veterans have not seen before.

"It kind of reminds me of college, like a big boy's club where everyone's young and excited to be with each other," said pitcher Drew Smyly. "Yeah, a lot of us have families, but when you show up it truly is a bonding experience. There's no bad blood anywhere in this locker room. ...

"I'm 34 and near the end of my road and the last two years has been the most fun I've had playing baseball in a long, long time."

So how did this unique environment blossom? For Ian Happ, who wrapped up his seventh season with the Cubs, it started last season with some tough conversations.

"Halfway through last year - myself, Yan (Gomes), Nico (Hoerner) - we just had some of the discussions in hotel rooms when you're struggling and talking about what you want it to look like," Happ said.

While Jed Hoyer gets some heat at times from fans, he deserves credit for bringing in proven winners Dansby Swanson, Cody Bellinger, Jameson Taillon, Trey Mancini and others.

"It's pretty unique because we've got a bunch of dudes who signed on to be here for a similar amount of time and coming from different places and different backgrounds," Happ said. "Everybody wanted the place to function this way and that's what you've seen. It's also a testament to Jed and the group of just good humans he put together."

• • •

You can see the love and camaraderie on the field, but it's the same behind the scenes when nobody's watching.

Some of the pitchers and members of the coaching staff golf on off days - or even when there's a night game. According to Smyly, that's truly rare.

"I haven't been on many teams where the players and staff connect as good as they do here," he said. "We hang out with each other outside of the field. It's a cool thing to know they have our backs and they can talk to us."

There are two fantasy football leagues. Mark Leiter Jr. had a massive championship belt created (think Heavyweight Champion of the World style) after winning the title last season. He displays it in his Wrigley Field locker to remind everyone who the reigning champ is.

Before Sunday's game, players were sitting on the couch checking their phones to see how they were doing. Right after D'Andre Swift scored for the Eagles, Cody Bellinger - who had just traded Swift - exclaimed, "I am the worst GM ever!"

On plane rides, there are two or three different card games going on. Another group is often in the back playing Mario Kart, trying desperately to keep up with Dansby Swanson and Patrick Wisdom. ("They're two powerhouses," Taillon said. "They're tough to beat.").

Starting pitcher Marcus Stroman - who doesn't even play video games - was the one who bought many teammates Nintendo Switches so they could play against each other whenever they want.

"I don't game, but I recognize how popular it is and how much guys love it," Stroman said. "One of my buddies was talking about how everyone can just play on the Switches and you can all play the same game.

"I was like, 'That's pretty cool. I'll get that for the team.'"

Think about that. How often does that happen on other squads?

But now the season's over and everyone goes their separate ways. Ross hopes the pain and disappointment of how things ended spurs everyone to come back with a burning desire to take another step in 2024.

"What's so disappointing about such a fun group and a team that overcame a lot of odds with their back against the wall ... is that it doesn't mean anything," Ross said. "Continue to feel that in our work in the offseason is important. But also know this was a really fun team and a group that took a step forward from last year.

"That's the main thing we all have to take away - we're all gonna start over at 0-0. Doesn't matter what kind of year you had this year."

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