Joe Maddon and the Cubs embrace the expectations

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon knows what's at stake for the Cubs this postseason and welcomes the pressure that comes with it. Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire

"Pressure. Expectations. I want our guys to thrive on those two words for the years to come."
-- Joe Maddon, manager/philosopher-king of the Chicago Cubs

CHICAGO -- Suppose you were trying to accomplish something that hasn't been done in your lifetime, and hasn't been done in your parents' lifetime, either. And very possibly hasn't even been done in your grandparents' lifetime.

Ask yourself this: How would you handle that? Would you pretend it was no big deal, nothing worth talking about, nothing worth thinking about?

Or would you admit to yourself what you know is true -- that this is huge. Bigger than Yao Ming. Bigger than the Willis (nee Sears) Tower. Bigger, really, and more life-changing than anything you had done in all your time on this planet.

Think about what you would do. And if you spend enough time thinking about it, congratulations. Now you know what it's like to be the Chicago Cubs.

On Saturday night, on the North Side of Chicago, they will kick off a potentially epic National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Except that for the Cubs, this is more than just a baseball series.

After all these months and all these games of grinding away, they have put themselves on the precipice of altering the course of millions of lives. And not just their lives -- but the lives of several gazillion Cubs fans who have waited forever for this moment.

Four wins away -- four -- from reaching a World Series for the first time in 71 years.

Eight wins away -- eight -- from setting all the ghosts free, from ending 108 years of torture and heartbreak.

It's all within their grasp now. It's no longer some cool goal lurking over the horizon, but actually right there in plain sight, within their view.

And here's the thing: For the first time since, well, when -- 2003? 1984? 1969? -- the world expects them to do this. Pretty much from the moment the starting gates burst open, they've been the best team in their sport, which means that, theoretically, this is their time. They just have to be strong enough, tough enough, talented enough and lucky enough to meet their moment over the next three weeks.

So we ask you again: If you were in their shoes, how would you be looking at those expectations? Would you deflect them? Or would you embrace them?

That would be an overwhelming question for some people. But it's safe to say Joe Maddon isn't one of those people. Expectations? Pressure? Bring them on. And don't bring one without the other.

"My original, initial message to the boys was that, 'Why would you ever want to be in a situation that doesn't require a little bit of pressure added to it, or expectations?'" the Cubs' manager sermonized Friday at Wrigley Field. "I would not want to go into a season having zero expectations and zero pressure applied to you because you're going to finish fourth or fifth in a division. I mean, that's a bad way to live. So, I wanted our guys to understand that those words are going to be applied to us on an annual basis, and you need to embrace them."

As far back as spring training, Maddon rolled out his mantra for a season to remember: Embrace the Target. It's a fascinating little slogan, isn't it? The target is that title they're chasing. But the target is also them. If 29 other teams are looking at them as the team to beat, that's not scary. That's an honor. Embrace it -- and all that goes with it.

"And so it's fuel, man," Maddon continued. "Why would you not [use those expectations for fuel]? That's the baseball fossil fuel right there -- is expectations and pressure. Why would you not want to be affiliated with that or associated with [that]? I don't get it."

He makes it sound so cool and so simple, you might think it would be easy to hear those words and jump on board. But humans aren't all wired that way. Humans aren't all built with that bring-it-on DNA. And some of those humans play baseball. So it sure is a good thing that Joe Maddon is one of the great spinmeisters in America.

"I always tell him he'd be a great used car salesman," one of his favorite bench energizers, Chris Coghlan, said Friday. "He'd tell you 14 stories about this one car, and then you'd go, 'Well, I really want that one, but after these 14 stories, I'll take this one.'"

And that's the Cubs. They've bought the car. They've bought the stories. They've bought into Embrace the Target and all that goes with it.

"What I've always enjoyed with Joe," Coghlan said, "is how he can articulate it to people, because most people suppress it. They try to do whatever they can to suppress that pressure. And really, I don't think, in a humanistic way, we can do that. You're just deceiving yourself.

"When you know something's truthful and you try to lie to yourself constantly about it, at the end of the day, you know in a deep root of your heart that it's truthful. So if it's truthful, you can't get rid of it, and you know that."

Is there ever really a day that goes by that someone on the Cubs isn't hearing about those 108 years of emptiness? Of course not. Even if every single citizen in the city of Chicago made a pact not to mention it anymore, this team is fortunate to be surrounded by hordes of great media minds who figure out some way to ask about it approximately every 16 seconds this time of year.

"So the pressure and the expectation is truthful," Coghlan said. "You knew that when you came in. You knew that when you signed these guys. You knew that when you went to the NLCS last year, and then you signed [Jason] Heyward, you signed [John] Lackey, and when you got [Jon] Lester and all those guys. So to try to tell a group of individuals that, 'Hey guys, the target is on us. There's a lot of pressure here. You're chasing history -- 108 years. And you know what? Let's just lie to ourselves and pretend that's not really there?' It wouldn't work.

"And so what I think happens, and I totally agree with Joe on this, is that it ends up empowering you because your mindset embraces the truth. And then it goes, 'You know what? This is true. Everyone expects us to win. And we expect to win. Everybody's coming for us. So let's embrace it. And let's use it for ammunition.'"

This is this team's second straight trip to the National League Championship Series, and a year later, many of the faces are the same. But those expectations? Not even close to the same.

Last year's Cubs were that team that wasn't supposed to get this far. So if they won, awesome. And if they didn't, hey, what the heck, what a fun year.

So even though they wound up getting steamrolled by the Mets, that was one October sweep that didn't throw the entire franchise into a state of depression, for a change. Instead, the manager and the veterans in his clubhouse merely grabbed a hold of that October life lesson and used it to lay the groundwork for a very different journey back to this same place this season.

"I just think that these guys grew from that moment," catcher David Ross said, "from having a lot of success, and 97 wins. And finally getting over that hurdle of beating St. Louis. ... And then the Mets came in here and shoved it.

"So I think that they just learned not to take anything for granted and just to stay in the moment, go pitch to pitch. And they learned how fast it can go from all the way at the top to 'season's over.'"

Now, 12 months and one NLCS later, the stakes are higher and the pressure is greater. But as the 2016 Cubs peer into what's ahead, there isn't an ounce of fear in the room.

Not yet anyway.

"I think the expectations within the group are as high as anybody's," Ross said. "It's just not our way of doing things around here -- is to worry. We're not worriers. We're not going to worry about the negative and focus on the negative. It's all about the process and staying in the moment, and that's all you can control.

"You can't control 1930 or whenever that goat came here," Ross said, laughing with pride over his sketchy grasp of the Cubs' curse history. "I mean, I don't even know. And like, I don't care. I mean, who cares? I'm worried about the legacy that we're going to leave."

On Saturday night at super-stoked Wrigley, they head for the stretch in the drive to carve that legacy. Over these next seven games, many things will come hurtling at them. There are losses ahead, ugly plot twists ahead and a Dodgers team ahead with its own legacy to chisel. But the pressure that goes with that? The Cubs couldn't be happier to invite that pressure to the party.

"Listen," Maddon said. "If you hear the word pressure, you got to run toward it. That's a good thing."