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Cubs relish the smell of success after back-door clinch

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Cubs lock up first playoff spot since 2008 (1:34)

The Baseball Tonight crew breaks down what got the Cubs to the postseason earlier than expected. (1:34)

CHICAGO -- As the Chicago Cubs' clubhouse door opened into the concourse on Saturday afternoon, the pungent scent of success invaded the airspace.

What does success smell like?

Well, in this case, like the house parties and bars of a really fun public university. On Saturday, triumph smelled like Wrigleyville itself, bottle after bottle, pint after pint, was poured into a small rectangular room with no windows.

The party had come to the source.

The Cubs lost to the Pirates 4-0 on Saturday, all but eliminating their chance to host them in the wild-card game on Oct. 7. But that's not the story. The Cubs came into the day knowing they were in the postseason for the first time since 2008. So they were getting loose after the game no matter what.

This team has a dance party, complete with smoke machine and light show, after every victory. Yes, 89 times and counting. Some teams would look down on that, but for this group it’s part of their charm. This Cubs team has been so enjoyable to watch and there’s a sincerity to their celebrations.

“Why not celebrate every time we win?” Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez said earlier this month. “You should celebrate every time you win. It’s a great feeling, you know? When we get to the big dance, the celebration will be even bigger.”

Bigger than clinching the second wild-card berth? You bet.

It’s not often a team celebrates a shutout loss to their division rival in a game that still had meaning for both sides, but the wait made it all worth it. It’s obviously a new phenomenon to go nuts clinching the second wild card, but why not do it?

Fun isn’t a four-letter word around here, thanks in part to manager Joe Maddon, who said he doesn’t like how the word “party” has gotten a bad rap.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a good party,” he said earlier in the week.

The Cubs, who have lost two straight to the Pirates, couldn’t immediately celebrate clinching their first playoff berth since 2008 because it happened the night before when Oakland beat San Francisco 5-4 around midnight. It was an awkward situation, clinching in your sleep, but this group wasn’t getting robbed of its chance to get a little crazy.

“We’re going to enjoy this one,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s been a long time coming, five, six, seven years now. We’ve had tough years, but we have a confident group and we’re going to have some fun.”

The Cubs haven’t had a winning record since 2009. The Theo Epstein-led rebuild, which began in 2012, had painful moments and plenty of unwatchable baseball, even by Cubs standards. But his promises came true in a way even he didn't expect.

"We knew something special was developing," Epstein said. "We just didn't know how it would shake out."

Everything came together this season as the Cubs went from being “interesting” to borderline unstoppable over the course of the season. They were eight games over .500 after the July 31 trade deadline, but then, despite no big additions, they got really hot, going 19-9 in August. They are currently 15-9 in September with eight games to go. The mix of veterans and talented rookies was just right. The coaching staff fit together.

"There's a great balance among this group," Maddon said.

The players definitely have fun together and they learned how to share as Maddon and Martinez mixed and matched players in new and exciting positions.

"We don't get to pick our friends in this job," Rizzo said. "We're stuck with who we have. To be able to come in every day with the enjoyable group that we have is a lot of fun and it's a big reason why we win a lot of games."

Maddon has preached positivity from his opening news conference at The Cubby Bear. But he said he didn’t know this team was for real until it swept a series from the visiting Giants in early August, calling it “really pertinent.” He also didn’t expect to be popping bottles on Sept. 26.

"Here's the other thing that's really strange, to be through it like this with this many games left,” he said before Saturday’s game. “Not used to that. To be in playoffs with nine games left, that's kind of new territory. I'm not even sure how to treat that right now. I'm pretty used to going right down to the wire."

After the game, as the media was let into the clubhouse, the players, most wearing ski goggles to go along with official postseason T-shirts and hats, filed out on the field to celebrate with a little more space. Family and friends awaited them, along with hundreds of fans who stuck around.

The players stood near the dugout exit, armed with bottles of $7 Cuvee Tradition Blanc de Blancs Brut sparkling wine. They poured them on each other, saving some for their mouths. Cubs president Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer got blasted by nearly the entire team.

“I didn’t think I’d get wet,” Epstein said later. “I thought I could stand on the fringes, but they were lying in wait.”

After that, the players got in a circle and chanted, “We never quit! What?! We never quit! What?!”

Everyone associated with the team got doused and seemingly everyone got drunk, if only on the moment.

Pitching coach Chris Bosio, the organization’s most important coaching hire before Maddon, poured a bottle on team chairman Tom Ricketts and then embraced him in a bear hug, while Rizzo, the Epstein regime’s first big trade acquisition, poured another bottle of sparkling wine on Ricketts’ head.

While Epstein built up the farm system and made a few savvy moves, particularly the trade for Jake Arrieta, which was baseball felony theft, players like Rizzo and Starlin Castro suffered through a 101-loss season and an ensuing 96-loss one. Last year’s 89-loss season was at least a building block, but nothing really changed until the Cubs hired Maddon, signed Jon Lester, added some pieces, called up the rookies, and kick-started the most important phase of any rebuilding process: the winning.

“This is as good as it gets,” Rizzo said. “Starlin and I were talking about how we have to enjoy this. We had some tough times here, obviously, and hopefully this is the switch of a new generation of Cubs fans and Cubs players and the organization, where we can do this every year.”

That’s the key. It’s hard to do this every year. In 2003, we thought Kerry Wood and Mark Prior would pitch this team into the postseason every year. In 2008, we thought the Tribune Co. would keep spending big bucks to keep a winner on the field. This Cubs team is different. It’s built to last, form ownership to the farm system. At least that's the hope.

But winning a wild-card berth isn't the goal. Neither is winning the divisional series. When Epstein left Boston for Chicago, it was for a chance at baseball immortality.

"We haven't done what we set out to do yet," Epstein said. "We're trying to win the whole thing."

This was just the first step. You never know what tomorrow will bring, so you might as well tip your bottle, put on your ski goggles and get a little wild. Just don't forget to tip your sportswriter.