Chicago Cubs: How a change in clubhouse culture propelled them

Feb 21, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon during Spring Training Media Day at The Arizona Biltmore. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 21, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon during Spring Training Media Day at The Arizona Biltmore. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

What goes into making the Chicago Cubs–a historically awful team–World Series champions for the first time in 108 years?  Is it simply acquiring and developing great players?  Or could it be more than that?

On Sunday, ESPN‘s Mark Saxon wrote a story about how newly acquired outfielder Dexter Fowler is trying to change the clubhouse culture of the St. Louis Cardinals.  As Saxon notes, the Cardinals have long had a history of being a team defined by “old-school toughness.”  But with the Cardinals taking a big step back last year and forfeiting their throne atop the NL Central to the Chicago Cubs, Fowler now sees an opportunity to change things up in St. Louis.

Fowler was a member of the Chicago Cubs from 2015 to 2016.  As any of his former teammates will tell you, Fowler was one of the catalysts of the loose, yet energetic attitude that has enveloped the Cubs’ clubhouse in the last couple of years.

This raises the question–does it take more than talented players to make a team great?

Loosen up

No one understands the plight of perennial losing quite like the Chicago Cubs and their fans.  For more than a century, the Cubs were a team known as the “lovable losers.”  A team loved by its city, often filling up the stands regardless of paltry win totals, but serial losers nonetheless.

And then things started to change.

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2015 saw the Cubs progressing ahead of schedule.  They didn’t make it as far into the playoffs as they would’ve liked, but no one expected them to.  Things were different in 2015, though.  The fans could feel it.  We’re not just talking about the winning record here.  Rather, we’re talking about the clubhouse culture that helped to cultivate that success.

This starts with the skipper, Joe Maddon.  The veteran manager has always had a reputation for being a quirky, eccentric guy.  And when the Cubs brought him on in 2015, he spread his infectious charisma throughout the Wrigley clubhouse.  With his horned rimmed glasses and laid-back demeanor, Maddon’s role quickly extended beyond filling out the scorecard and constructing the lineup.  Early on, the 63-year-old manager just felt like one of the guys.

New culture, new Cubs

With a new manager, a slew of young new players and some newly renovated features to Wrigley Field came a new philosophy: Cubs baseball was going to be fun again.  The tone of the 2016 season was set with the slogan “Try not to suck.”  And suck, they did not.  This was a team determined to take care of business while having as much fun as possible in the process.

Each player in the Cubs’ lineup just has an enthralling personality.  From the habitually endearing inclination of Kris Bryant to the goofy and affable tendencies of Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs quickly became the MLB’s most charming team.

For decades, the term “lovable loser” stemmed from sympathy.  Not lovable in the literal sense, but rather, a team that lost so frequently, it was hard not to feel sorry for them.  With the “loser” aspect no longer relevant, and the “lovable” expression taking on an entirely different meaning, the Cubs have re-branded themselves.  “Lively winners” would be more applicable these days.

When Theo Epstein took over the team in 2012, it was clear that a fresh start was imminent.  In many ways, he took the opposite approach than that of the Cubs’ arch rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals.  While the Cardinals tend to use the earnest tone of their seasoned veterans to reach the top, Epstein opted instead to build a young core that embraced the advantages of lightheartedness.

Every sport has its unwritten rules.  Baseball, in particular, has always stressed humility in the face of personal accomplishment.  While that outlook has started to change recently, the Cubs have found a way to bring that fun-loving attitude to the forefront without completely breaking the barriers of humbleness.

A different kind of dynamic

One thing that separates this Cubs team from teams of the past is their dynamic.  This is part of what Joe Maddon has brought to the team.  These Chicago Cubs don’t look like a group merely putting up with each other in order to succeed.  This is a squad of players that seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company.  Each player feeds off the other’s energy and optimism.

The talent level of these players can never be understated, but this team’s road to glory goes far beyond that.  Indeed, the Cubs have built a clubhouse culture that encourages having a good time.

From bringing in a mariachi band on Cinco de Mayo to dressing in onesie pajamas on road flights, the Cubs have set the stage for how a franchise should operate.  One of Maddon’s many mantras is “never let the pressure exceed the pleasure.”  Finding that perfect balance between staying loose and working hard has been the recipe for success for the Chicago Cubs.

This approach has helped the young players feel comfortable in the spotlight and under pressure.  The traditional role of the rookies on a team and their relationship with the veteran players has seen a dramatic shift on the north side of Chicago.  There is a certain cohesive atmosphere that has permeated throughout the Cubs’ clubhouse.  But the underlying feeling of respect and admiration for the accomplished veterans is still there.

Next: Charcer Burks a prospect to watch

The path to prosperity

These aren’t your grandpa’s Chicago Cubs.  This is an entirely new, enthusiastic group of players hellbent on winning and enjoying themselves while they’re at it.  And they’ve done just that.  Even if this team doesn’t win another World Series in the near future, one thing is guaranteed–they’ll be a whole lot of fun to watch.

The Cubs will employ that same mentality in 2017 with their new slogan, “That’s Cub.”  The term was coined in 2013 as a way of holding each other accountable on and off the field.  This season promises to be just as entertaining as the last.