Eye on the Ball: The rise of the Chicago Cubs
By Brandon Niles EBS Sports Columnist
With the best record in Major League Baseball a third of the way into the season, the Chicago Cubs are providing hope and excitement to a fan base that hasn’t seen sustained success from their beloved ball club in more than 60 years.
During the 1945 World Series, the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, Billy Sianis, was ejected from Wrigley Field due to the presence of his odorous pet goat. Sianis was outraged and allegedly placed on the team what became known as the “Curse of the Billy Goat.” The Cubs proceeded to lose that series to the Detroit Tigers, and haven’t been back to the World Series since.
The Cubs have had a few winning seasons since then, but have largely struggled. They had a few moments of hope in the ‘80s with All-Stars Ryne Sandberg and Rick Sutcliffe on the team, winning the division in 1984 and again in 1989, but lost in the first round of the playoffs both years. They returned to the playoffs four more times between 1998 and 2008, but only made it past the first round once, following the 2003 season.
But last season the Cubs made it all the way to the National League Championship Series before being knocked out by the New York Mets. The hiring of the manager Joe Maddon in 2014 was a big part of their success last year, but the most understated reason for the Cubs’ rise was the 2011 arrival of President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Executive Vice President Jed Hoyer.
Epstein and Hoyer were a big part of building the 2004 Boston Red Sox championship team that broke the 86-year-old “Curse of the Bambino,” and they’ve changed the culture in Chicago. They used excellent scouting to build a stable group of young talent, including drafting infielder Kris Bryant with the second overall pick 2013. They also recruited Cuban-born Jorge Soler in 2012, signing him to a nine-year deal.
In the midst of a disappointing 2013 season, Epstein and Hoyer hit the reset button, trading away veterans for youth midway through the season. This included acquiring a talented pitcher named Jake Arrieta from the Baltimore Orioles. Arrieta has developed into one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball, and won the National League Cy Young Award last season. When former Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon was hired after the 2014 season the seed was planted for the future.
The emergence of Arrieta was a massive boon to the Cubs, and last season Soler and Bryant took center stage after a couple of years in the minor leagues. Soler is still developing but is a great prospect, while Bryant has quickly emerged as one of the top young hitters in the league. Only 24 years old, Bryant was tied for fourth place in the league in RBIs and tied for eighth in homeruns with 13 at EBS press time.
The Cubs have also added quality veterans to supplement their young talent. Infielder Ben Zobrist was acquired during the offseason, and at press time was hitting .339, fourth best in the league. Veteran pitcher Jon Lester, acquired from the Red Sox in 2015, has a career-best ERA this season. Also, veteran Cubs players like first baseman Anthony Rizzo and pitcher Jason Hammel are enjoying excellent seasons, fueling the team’s success.
While players like Bryant and Arrieta are sure to be lauded for their tremendous performances, and manager Joe Maddon will get his well-deserved recognition, the front office personnel likely won’t get the accolades if and when the curse is broken.
Yet it’s Epstein and Hoyer who deserve much of the credit for the Cubs’ success. And after playing large roles in breaking the curse in Boston, Epstein and Hoyer may need to add “curse breakers” to their titles if the Cubs are able to finally return to the World Series.
Brandon Niles is a longtime fan of football and scotch, and has been writing about sports for the past decade. He is a fantasy football scout for 4for4 Fantasy Football and is co-host of the 2 Guys Podcast.