Party room of the century? A week inside the Cubs' clubhouse

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MORE THAN ANY other place in sports,the baseball clubhouse is a womb. Submerged inside a stadium, windowless and guarded, it allows the men who play the game to bathe in the sanctity of their profession. As an outsider, walking into one always feels like a covert act.

The Cubs' brand-new 30,000-square-foot clubhouse is a grocery-store-sized monument to comfort, status and excess. In the middle of the main room is a circular conversation pit with leather seating and a projector beaming the Cubs' logo onto the ceiling, giving the space the feel of an underground planetarium. The lockers circle the room, each one precisely 60 feet, 6 inches from the logo.

It's disconcerting to walk through the 102-year-old ballpark, descend a staircase, make a left and a right and find yourself in this room, staring at the Cubs-blue mood-lighting panels that separate each locker and looking up to see the gallery lights that bend toward photos of children and spouses. It's like they built a Vegas nightclub beneath Stonehenge.

But the Cubs didn't stop there. As if the mood lighting and conversation pit don't provide enough of a sanctuary from reality, they created a players-only party room, a clubhouse within a clubhouse. The party room -- separate from the training room, separate from the interview room, separate from the dining room -- is reserved for wins. When those occur, and they occur often, there's a smoke machine and disco lighting and video screens hanging from the ceiling that show the head of the player of the game superimposed onto the body of some animated creature doing something or other. The player of the game gets doused with water while everyone dances and the videos play and the smoke wafts and the lights flash. Like all exclusive clubs, details are vague, but it's whispered that celebrities have been invited into the party room, and the entire grounds crew was once honored when the Cubs won a game after two rain delays.

Manager Joe Maddon and bench coach Dave Martinez started the concept with the Rays in Tampa, and they managed to get the party room built into the architecture of the renovated Wrigley. Their idea, as Ben Zobrist explains: "You win hard for 30 minutes, and you lose hard for 30 minutes. After that, it's gone."

THE CUBS' INSISTENCE on living in the present can be seen as a communal act of self-preservation. Given everything that has happened over the past 108 years, it's possible to say, without exaggeration and by whatever measure, that this is a team working under an unmatched level of expectation. The Cubs are constantly asked whether a finish other than the team's first title since 1908 will be acceptable. They could conceivably win 100 games, plow through the postseason, lose in the seventh game of the World Series and be considered failures.

How do they handle it? Easy: They ignore the mystical and live inside the cliché. It's a long grind, 162 games of trying their damnedest to end the day in the party room and trying just as hard to forget it if they don't. To them, there is nothing beyond baseball at work here. They don't care about Bartman or billy goats or 1908. They come to this glitzy clubhouse bearing the weight of their own histories, not yours. There's nothing sacred about what they're doing, no moral high ground to ascend. If they happen to win it, and in the process link you to your father and him to his, all the better.

"We understand that Wrigley Field is a special place, but I don't think anybody is worried about history or what happened before," catcher David Ross says. "If you go out and work as hard as you possibly can and play as hard as you possibly can, the only thing left is winning and losing. You don't have a lot of control over that. It's either your night or it's not."

The season is an unfinished sentence, a fraught pause. A lifetime of believing in the worst has taught Cubs fans to distrust the best. Maybe Kierkegaard was describing them when he defined the unhappiest man as one trapped in past memory or future hope, incapable of living in the present.

In Chicago, the obsession with the past is so thorough it can be mistaken for revelry. For fans, losing is its own culture, its own industry, and rooting for the Cubs is considered an accomplishment, as if waiting around for a championship imbues them with a life-affirming mixture of victimhood and virtue.

But all that is forgotten with every win at Wrigley, as fans break into a full-throated "Go Cubs Go," an empirically awful song that serves to remind those within earshot that they are, indeed, in the Midwest. And after the Cubs shake hands on the field, serenaded by that cheesy song, members of the best team in baseball head deep into the clubhouse facing an unusual challenge: staying motivated for yet another trip to the party room.

The dilemma even caused Ross, a 39-year-old backup in his final year in the big leagues, to confide in teammate Jon Lester: "Man," Ross said, "I don't think I've ever been tired of celebrating."

That tees up an obvious question: Will all these little celebrations have the cumulative effect of creating a momentous one at the end of October?

ON DAY 1 of the seven days I follow the Cubs, they come back from a six-run deficit to the Mariners and Felix Hernandez and win the game when Lester, a starting pitcher who pinch-hits in the 12th inning, lays down a perfect squeeze bunt with a 2-2 count. Brian Matusz, a left-hander called up from Triple-A who started for reasons that are difficult to fathom, gives up three two-run homers in the first three innings. And nobody remembers any of it. From Matusz forward, it's the perfect Joe Maddon mixtape. Five guys play left field. One of them, relief pitcher Travis Wood, makes a tremendous catch at the wall in the seventh inning. The tying run scores in the bottom of the ninth on a wild pitch.

The temptation is to leave, right then and there, and tell the epic story of the one game that signaled the beginning of the end of 108 years of civic angst and exaggerated heartbreak. That's how baseball works, right? Through omens, premonitions and the craziness of five guys playing left field? Haven't people in this city spent more than a century relying on the paranormal to explain away everything from random misfortune to systemic ineptitude?

After the game, Maddon enters the interview room dripping wet, having been deemed player of the game and thus soaked in the party room. "Weird things really do work out when you're playing for him," Ross says. Adds Zobrist, "I've had to say to people, 'It's worked before. I know it sounds crazy, but it's worked before.'"

Maddon's famous hipster glasses are fogged, and he's running one hand through his hair and the other across his face as if he just underwent enhanced interrogation. "This is the kind of moment that can propel you," he says. Asked whether it could be a defining game, he says, "We're going to find out."

Baseball is famous for false syllogism -- if we can win this crazy game, we can win any game -- so it was no surprise when the talk turned to turning points and omens. Everyone buys in, except the Cubs. Throughout my stay -- seven games, seven wins and seven celebrations -- the Cubs put the NL Central out of reach en route to an 11-game win streak that still, they would insist, meant nothing more than, well, 11 more wins.

Over the course of four games at Wrigley and three in Oakland, I discover the near-obsessive preparation of Addison Russell, the numbing consistency of Kyle Hendricks, the statesmanship of Jason Heyward and the posture of Jake Arrieta, who walks off the mound after every inning like a man being judged by a team of chiropractors.

I see Latin players interact with the other players far more than they do on most teams, in the clubhouse and on the field. I listen as Maddon addresses the media twice a day, and I come away believing he could have a second career as a late-night television host. He answers a question about rookie Willson Contreras' athleticism by saying, "I'd like to be his boxing manager." He compares the way Javier Baez attacks every pitch -- roughly as if the ball has just insulted his mother -- with the way John Daly hit off the tee. Explaining why he put Russell in the fifth spot in the order, Maddon says, "He likes it." And after plate umpire Marty Foster confronts John Lackey after Lackey -- a noted red-ass, in baseball parlance -- expresses displeasure with the strike zone in a game against the Marlins, Maddon says, "It's really hard to tell John your side of the story during the game."

To be fair, Lackey's crustiness isn't confined to the field. At the postgame news conference -- months from even the wild-card game, let alone the World Series -- Lackey is asked a tortured question about expectations, and pressure, and what the Cubs believe to be realistic, and whether those beliefs could possibly -- you know, given the history -- include winning it all.

As the question unfolds, Lackey curls his lip and jerks his head back as if popped with a quick jab. "I didn't come here for a haircut," he says, the tone incredulous, maybe even insulted. "I came here for jewelry."

On the Cubs, institutional memory isn't part of the job.

HOW MUCH CAN one game, even one week, tell about a team? On that Sunday night on the last day of July, Matusz is relieved by Carl Edwards Jr., previously known as CJ, a 25-year-old right-handed reliever with a nickname -- the String Bean Slinger -- that desperately needs wider circulation. He is listed as 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds, a weight that seems to overstate the case by at least 10 pounds. In 2011, the Rangers drafted Edwards in the 48th round, which doesn't even exist anymore. (Back when it did, it was often used to draft the sons of general managers and car dealers.) Edwards is a testament to the randomness, or lack of imagination, of baseball's scouting system. Before he was traded to the Cubs in the July 2013 Matt Garza deal, his preparation for the big leagues included team-mandated consumption of Oreo-and-peanut butter milkshakes in the dugout between innings.

Over the course of a week, I will see him face 10 batters and strike out eight of them, mostly with a high-90s two-seam fastball that moves like a whiffle ball in a windstorm. He throws with the ease of someone tossing the ball in to the umpire, except the radar gun flashes 97. In the Game of Many Portents, he enters with his team down 6-0 in the fourth and retires all six batters, five by strikeout.

"We understand that Wrigley Field is a special place, but I don't think anybody is worried about history or what happened before." David Ross

The story of how Edwards was discovered sounds like something from the 1950s. He was pitching for the Newberry Pirates in a predominantly black community league in rural South Carolina called the Bush League. (Edwards knows how that sounds, so he prefers to avoid the term.) The Pirates' roster consisted almost entirely of family members, and when Edwards was 16, with his nearing-40-year-old uncle as his catcher and a future Rangers scout in the stands, he was summoned to the mound by his father in the fourth inning with his team trailing 13-0. He struck everybody out long enough for the Pirates to come back and win 14-13.

"That's how my career basically began," Edwards says.

Late on the night of the win over the Mariners, after the fans have sung their song and Maddon has dried off, Edwards calls his father back home in Prosperity, South Carolina. "I couldn't believe it," Junior told Senior. "It was like I was back pitching for the Pirates."

TWO DAYS LATER, in the seventh inning of the second of three games against the Marlins, Cubs reliever Pedro Strop strikes out Ichiro Suzuki, who was pinch-hitting while sitting on 2,998 hits. In the clubhouse afterward, with "Gin and Juice" playing softly in the background, Strop faces his locker and begins to get dressed before stopping when he senses movement behind him.

He turns to find 17 Japanese reporters in a tight semicircle surrounding his locker.

The look on his face is stunned amusement. He surveys the scene: microphones and cameras and notebooks three and four deep. He takes a deep breath. He's struggling to keep a straight face -- and so are the reporters, who know this peculiar drill better than anybody -- as he gives a standard answer about Ichiro's greatness and the honor of striking out a man to deprive him, for the moment, of getting one step closer to his 3,000th hit.

From across the room, exactly 121 feet away, the chorus begins.

"Pedro, how could you strike out Ichiro?"

"Everyone in Japan hates you."

"If you let the man get his hit, these people can go home."

Strop laughs and waves his right arm over his head in the general direction of Lester, Ross and Lackey while lifting a bottle of Presidente to his lips with his left.

THE WEEK-ENDING SWEEP of the Athletics -- a group of bodies gathered in the same uniform for the purpose of ensuring its owners receive revenue-sharing -- feels perfunctory, an obligation of the schedule. It's just three more work shifts, three more exhausting celebrations. In the series finale, Kyle Hendricks, a Dartmouth graduate who doesn't look like much but pitches like he borrowed someone else's confidence, makes yet another argument for his case to be the most unlikely Cy Young winner in history. ("Nobody even asks for his autograph," Ross says. "He's that guy.") Hendricks, who allowed one run in 16 innings over two starts in the seven games, works with a reptilian disposition and a consistency that borders on compulsive. Every fastball is 89 mph, every curveball 81, every changeup 79. He hits his spots with such regularity that catching him often appears to be an exercise in squeezing the mitt.

"There have been a lot of skeptics along the way, but that's true with anybody," Hendricks says. "I just tried to stay true to who I am as a pitcher. I've always known I've been able to command the baseball."

He shrugs. I wait for more, but no. That's it. "He does ... not ... talk," Ross says. Every day, Ross greets every person in the clubhouse. It's a ritual that borders on obsession. "I just want to say hello to you," he says. Hendricks, along with the equally shy Russell, initially proved resistant to Ross' charms. "I had to tell Kyle, 'I don't need to hear your whole skit. Just a hi, hello, how you doing today?' I'm just checking in with everybody."

The Cubs, as a group, are particularly mindful of the toll a season takes on the psyche. Ross tries to discern his teammates' moods based on a calculus that combines their personalities with their willingness to say hello. Maddon analyzes workload in a manner that is associated far more with the NBA and NFL.

"When I was coaching, I really saw guys fade in September, and I thought far too often we ask them to work too hard in August," Maddon says. "I've been involved in teams that used to hit every day in August. Here comes September, man, and it went backward. I don't know if, as an industry, we understand how important rest is."

He will sit Heyward for four straight games in mid-August. He'll give his starters an extra day's rest on weeks with off-days. He'll employ a six-man rotation for the final weeks of the regular season. The result: His Cubs teams have played nearly .700 baseball in August and September.

On the video boards in the clubhouse before two of the three night games at Wrigley, the rules are laid out:

Game time: 7:05 p.m.

Dressed: 5:30 p.m.

"A big league team told to be at the ballpark 90 minutes before the game?" Ross says. He starts laughing as he searches for the words to properly convey the ridiculousness of such an order. "Unheard of," he says. "Absolutely unheard of."

I PRESENT TO you Ben Zobrist, a man whose talents are so varied and unique that referring to him as baseball's Swiss army knife has become the Swiss army knife of Ben Zobrist descriptions. In the eighth inning of the finale against the Marlins, Zobrist stands in the left-handed batter's box wiggling his bat like a man stirring a bowl that's hanging upside down from the ceiling. Facing the odd stylings of Fernando Rodney, down by two runs with runners on first and second, with the count full and the Cubs down to their last six outs, Zobrist pivots toward the pitcher and bunts the ball up the first-base line to move the runners over.

Zobrist is not a conventional cleanup hitter, but he is often the Cubs' cleanup hitter. Giving up an out with so few left to give seems an odd choice, but Zobrist is a realist, and his track record against Rodney (0-for-12) presented an easy choice: Help the team.

When he got to the dugout, he was greeted the way all selfless players are, with a line of hands awaiting his. Some of those hands undoubtedly were acting on orders from brains that didn't fully understand the thinking, but protocol is protocol.

"I'm not the best athlete," Zobrist says. "I'm not the most powerful. I'm not the fastest. I don't have the best arm. I don't have any of that, but put it all together and do the little details well and you're going to be a very productive player."

In the bottom of the ninth, he will walk with the bases loaded to force in the tying run. He will stand there, his bat wiggle belying his infinite patience, secure in the knowledge that a rattled A.J. Ramos will throw four balls before he throws three strikes.

"You still battle the thoughts of, 'OK, I want to walk this off. I want it to be dramatic,'" he says. "Then you realize: Don't think about that stuff. In the past, I would have been more focused on external circumstances. But once you've played in the playoffs a few times, once you've played in a World Series and you've failed and succeeded, it loses the drama."

I present Ben Zobrist, the most self-aware player in the big leagues. He can't hit Rodney, so he decided to do something to help his team. He knew Ramos was flailing about, so he let him flail.

"I was never the star of my team, not even in my small town," he says. "There were always kids better than me. Because of that, I had to learn to be a role player and do my part."

Zobrist is 35, has 11 years in the big leagues and signed a four-year, $56 million contract with the Cubs after winning a World Series last season with the Royals. His skill set -- excellent on-base percentage, solid defensive metrics, versatility, selflessness -- makes him a favorite of the analytics crowd and the traditionalists. The Venn diagram of people who can elicit positive responses from both groups while hitting .270 with limited power is a narrow slice.

So, back in Eureka, Illinois, who was better? "Mike Hasty in junior high. Chris Martin in high school," he says with the quickness of someone naming his children. He shrugs. "I've never been the best player on any team I've been on."

And so he bunts, and he watches, and he jogs back to the dugout a hero in a minor key. Hey, it's a living.

"It's how I was raised," he says. "My parents always told me, 'It's not about you.'"

THIS IS WHAT hope feels like: Lester's bunt rolls just far enough, and Heyward slides across the plate, and the building starts rolling underfoot, shaking the pillars of possibility and history. The old beams sway as everyone manages, for this one joyful moment, to live squarely in the present, with that stupid, stupid song ...

Hey, Chicago, whaddaya say

The Cubs are gonna win today

... withering their ears and sticking in their brains. They're all singing, all believing, walking into the night beery and loud. Just one game? Sure, you tell them that. The players jump on Lester and scream and act like 10-year-olds, thrilled to have one more chance to get tired of celebrating. The sentence remains unfinished, the possibility for more heartbreak still real, but as they sing and laugh and pour into the streets, like bats out of a cave, they're all thinking the same thing:

Maybe. Just maybe.