New Cubs normal sinks in as champions hit spring training

MESA, Ariz. -- Pride and love.

Those were the words fans used as they watched the Chicago Cubs come to spring training as champions for the first time in their lives.

“I’ve always had pride in being a Cub fan, but now we have bragging rights,” Cubs fan Jeff Braggs said. “It’s going to be crazy down here. So many fans will want to come see them.”

The players saw that love all winter long and are adjusting to it as their new normal.

“I felt it in the offseason in Las Vegas,” third baseman and National League MVP Kris Bryant said Wednesday. “I didn’t realize how many fans we had around the country. I got a sense of that this year. ... It shows what we did is something we can be proud of.”

That emotion is shared by everyone sporting Cubs jerseys these days, whether they are players or fans. The team’s new saying, "That’s Cub," is a positive term and shows just how far the franchise has come. Compare it to "That’s SO Cub," which used to be said when things went wrong -- which was often over the previous 108 seasons.

“It stood out because for a century it had a different connotation,” team president Theo Epstein said.

The players who appreciate it most are those who went through the low points of the Cubs’ journey. There aren’t many holdovers from the losing years -- the organization recently said goodbye to its longest-tenured player, left-hander Travis Wood, who had been a Cub since 2012 -- but Pedro Strop was with the team while winning was still a hope, not an inevitability.

“It was tough,” Strop said. “We had some tough moments. But our fans have always been there, even when we were losers, so I’m really happy for Cubs fans.”

They are no longer lovable losers, and outside the clubhouse, the fan base is preparing for a spring training like no other. It will be a six-week lovefest unheard of at this time of year.

“In the clubhouse, there is a buzz,” newcomer Brian Duensing said. “Outside the clubhouse, there’s a buzz. You can definitely tell there’s something different down here than other places. ... It’s exciting. This atmosphere rubs off on you. You just want to be part of it.”

The front office hopes this isn’t a one-and-done feeling. Could a new generation of Cubs fans avoid going through life as lovable losers?

“After a World Series, you either get complacent or get even hungrier now that you’ve tasted it,” Epstein said. “There’s no real in-between. I never doubted it for a second: They will be extremely hungry.”

While happy their team won, the Wrigley faithful have high hopes for the season ahead. Fans expect the Cubs will remain among the elite teams.

“We have the money, we have the young players, and we have the manager,” another fan, Casey, said near the batting cage. “Why shouldn’t this continue?”

Manager Joe Maddon knows that achieving success is the best way to gain confidence. His players have been there before, so there’s a natural feeling that it can happen again.

“Pressure and expectations,” he said. “You talk to them about it. Everyone is aware what’s at stake. There are no surprises now.”

It took the parade in Chicago, after they won the World Series, for many players to understand what the title meant to the city. It’s one thing to see several thousand fans in an opposing stadium, but when millions line up to honor your achievements, it’s something that sticks.

“That was it for me,” outfielder Matt Szczur said. “I’ll never forget that.”

Neither will those who attended. But for many fans coming to Arizona, this will be their first glimpse into a new world in which the Cubs are champions. And that very well could become baseball’s new normal.