Rozner: Chicago Cubs have graduated from cute and cuddly
After the way he managed the past two rounds of the postseason, it would be easy to forget the magic Joe Maddon has worked since arriving in Chicago.
But at least one Chicago Cubs player doesn't want you to do that.
"I don't think people even realize what he's done," said Anthony Rizzo, who has been here through the worst and best of Cubs baseball. "He changed the way everyone around here thought. He doesn't get enough credit for that."
When Maddon arrived before the 2015 season, there was little belief that the Cubs could compete. A .500 season would have been a significant leap forward, with the 2016 season considered as one in which the Cubs might finally threaten for a playoff spot.
Maddon, however, put no ceiling on the season.
In golf-swing parlance, Maddon began spring training 2015 by showing the players how to put the left hand on the club.
In Week 2, he demonstrated the proper way to grip with the right hand.
In Week 3, they began to address the ball. In Week 4, it was balance. Week 5 was how to shift weight, and when the season started they were working on the take-away.
He never let them think about how good they were. He never let them feel pressure. He never let them look at the standings or think about tomorrow.
One tiny step at a time with the focus on today -- and only on today.
By the time they faced the San Francisco Giants in a critical wild-card matchup in early August 2015, Maddon was ready to have them grip it and rip it. The Cubs swept the Giants in a four-game series and haven't looked back.
It was a job done remarkably well by the manager.
He took over a preschool class and slowly moved the kids along, one grade level every week or two, urging them to celebrate each graduation and insisting the process be hard and fun at the same time.
By the time they entered last season as the favorites to win the World Series, coming off an NLCS sweep at the hands of the Mets, the Cubs were ready to go out into the world as professionals and take the National League apart.
Maddon was the perfect guy at the perfect time for the perfect team.
But the Cubs are the world champs now and they really don't need their hands held anymore, which makes the current attempt to find the right T-shirt and slogan feel a bit pedestrian.
In talking to the players at the Cubs Convention, it was easy to see their temperatures rising already with a month to go before camp. They are still young, but they're now proven and hungry to beat the snot out of someone again.
They're not just happy to be here. They're not just happy they won a World Series. They're not just excited to get their rings. They don't lack for motivation or confidence.
They are, however, facing the prospect of an eight-month grind after a short winter, and fatigue -- both mental and physical -- is a real concern, but that is also where Maddon works wonders.
He has the luxury of a flexible and deep lineup that should help keep his position players fresh, and Theo Epstein has been collecting pitchers all winter, hoping that will keep the pitching staff nimble as well.
But there won't be a slogan that makes a difference this year. T-shirts are fine. They make lots of money for the ballclub and revenue is a good thing. No one gets hurt in the process.
It just feels so elementary school for a group that has left the university and gone out into the world to make its own way.
It's difficult to imagine the Yankees or the Patriots forcing this into the conversation, and it's no longer necessary for the Cubs.
They are, after all, the world champs. They don't have to be cute and cuddly anymore.
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