ANAHEIM, Calif. -- With respect to 1985, 1990, 2004 as well as 2008, the most anticipated Chicago Cubs season of our lifetime is about to take off. Those other years began with high expectations as the team was coming off playoff appearances the previous fall. Not only did they fail in their championship quest in those postseasons, most of the time the follow-up was a disaster. Only in 2008 did the Cubs return to the playoffs -- but that lasted all of three games.
After six long weeks of spring training, this Cubs team will embark on a journey many feel will end a 107-year championship drought -- that 2015 was only the beginning of something special. Make no mistake, the Cubs are not anointing themselves winners of anything, but there is a quiet confidence brewing under the surface. Why shouldn't there be? The front office has assembled one of the best, young lineups in the game, and has a manager who has proven he knows what buttons to push.
"Put yourself in my position," manager Joe Maddon said rhetorically on Sunday morning. "I really trust my players. They have to trust me, but I have to trust them, meaning that when you talk about pressure and expectations it's spread out among the whole group. It's not just one guy. We have so many good players here."
That's the crux of why Maddon and the Cubs say they believe this team can handle the pressure. There's so much talent here that one or several players slumping or even injured at the same time won't derail the season. Each player knows the guy behind him can get the job done, including the pitching staff. Consider this: The Cubs' best spring hitter by a wide margin -- Addison Russell -- will bat ninth on Opening Day.
"It makes the day even more fun," Maddon said. "Why would you want to go with 10,000 in the ballpark and predicted to finish last? Why would you ever want to be there? I've been there. It's no fun. I'd much rather [have] a raucous ballpark with a great fan base with great expectations. And trying to live up to those not because you're trying to satisfy anyone's urges but because you're a major league baseball player, you're a professional and your goal is to win and that's what you want to do. If your motivation comes from the outside in, it's not going to work."
Maddon has repeated that message several times this spring and though he surely believes it, it also reduces the magnitude of what the Cubs are trying to accomplish. If players are carrying 107 years of futility around with them that seems like a heavier burden than just going out and trying to win because it's your job. In any case, you can't fast-forward to October. It's day-by-day in baseball.
"If you want it to be, it could get too much, but I feel like our group doesn't let it," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "Right now we're really hungry. We're a hungry team. Anyone in this clubhouse thinking about the World Series right now [is] in the wrong spot. We have to think about tomorrow and dominating April. And keeping it small steps."
It's what any experienced, favored team needs to adhere to. But the Cubs' players are human beings, too, and they realize what's at stake, even if they're blocking it out as much as possible. A worldwide fan base will be watching from Game 1 until whenever the last out of their season is made. The Cubs dig that kind of attention while keeping it an arm's length away.
"That's exciting to me," newcomer and Illinois native Ben Zobrist said. "That's one of the biggest challenges that brought me here. For me, that's what's a little bit different this year. I get to play for my home state team trying to chase a championship here."
Added Rizzo: "It's nice to be in that spotlight. We've come a long way to get that. [Sunday and Monday] there will be a ton of Cubs fans here. We feed off that energy."
With 162 games to get it right, it's hard to imagine the Cubs imploding before the calendar turns to October, though, a decent start probably would keep any outside panic in check.
"The difference is this year we're better able to put the foot down sooner because of the experience of last year plus the additions," Maddon said. "I do believe chemistry can be created among the group. You do have to nurture that."
The Cubs say chemistry can be different from year to year, but let's face it, this team will pick up where it left off last season. Rizzo claims he's not sure what their post-win celebration will look like, but odds are it'll be a lot like last year. Third baseman Kris Bryant often said during the spring that it feels as if 2016 is just a continuation of 2015 with a "three-month break." In that regard, if the offense picks up where it left off -- as does the chemistry -- then the sky is truly the limit for this team.
Before the circus begins, Maddon was presented two bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue Label Scotch whiskey by his players, led by Dexter Fowler. One had the team's slogan for this year, "Embrace the Target," engraved on it. The other has space for an engraving after the season, a "pre and post" bottle as Maddon said Sunday. The engraving can't come until seven months from now, but the journey begins Monday with one thing in mind.
"It's cool they would do something like that," Maddon said of the bottles. "A lot of them want to be here to become part of the team that wins the first World Series for the Cubs in a long, long time."
Maybe it takes an Illinois native to truly understand what the accomplishment can mean. Zobrist won a championship as recently as last year, with the Kansas City Royals, but winning with the Cubs would have the most unique feeling in sports -- perhaps for any professional athlete, anywhere.
"There are other guys that have done it too, but no one has done it in Chicago," Zobrist stated. "That's what makes this team hungry and thirsty for a championship here."