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The Cubs’ Magic Has Gone Missing

After winning their first World Series title in 108 years, the Cubs have lost seemingly all the qualities that made their 2016 season special. Can the North Siders turn it around in the second half?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The first thing I ever wrote for The Ringer was a brash declaration in September 2016 that the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series. Eight weeks later, as you may have heard, that’s exactly what happened. The truth is, for as much as I’d like to take credit for being clairvoyant, predicting that the Cubs would win their first title since 1908 wasn’t exactly bold. Outside of an inconsistent three-week stretch leading up to last year’s All-Star break, the Cubs were the best team in baseball throughout the entire 2016 season. They had the best pitching and defense in the majors, and their offensive output was topped by only the Boston Red Sox (who use a DH) and the Colorado Rockies (who play half their games in a stadium that turns baseballs into helium balloons). In a sport that references so many advanced statistics that it’s virtually impossible for the casual fan to keep up, most seemed to arrive at the same conclusion: The 2016 Cubs were a great baseball team that had no glaring weaknesses.

The numbers were just a small part of why I was sure 2016 was finally the year for my beloved Cubs, though. What really convinced me was the aura surrounding the team from the moment Munenori Kawasaki delivered a karaoke performance for the ages during spring training. I don’t mean to suggest that supernatural forces were in play, of course. It’s just that what made the 2016 campaign so enjoyable wasn’t only that the Cubs won 103 regular-season games. It was how they won those games, in a way that elicited a feeling I’d never previously experienced as a sports fan.

Javier Báez (Getty Images)
Javier Báez (Getty Images)

The Cubs would often beat the absolute hell out of opponents, like when Jake Arrieta threw a no-hitter and they mashed five homers en route to a 16–0 win over the Reds on April 21, when they hit four homers off Max Scherzer on May 6, or when the offense exploded to beat the Cardinals 13–2 on August 12 and extend Chicago’s winning streak to 11 games. And if the Cubs weren’t beating the hell out of teams, they were often coming back in thrilling fashion, like when Javier Báez smashed a walk-off homer against the Nationals on Mother’s Day, when they beat the Mariners on a Jon Lester pinch-hit squeeze bunt on July 31, when Kris Bryant hit homers in both the eighth and 10th innings to down the Dodgers on August 26, or when Jason Heyward tied the game against the Giants in the bottom of the ninth and then won it in the bottom of the 13th on September 4. Even when Chicago wasn’t completing a dramatic comeback, it was almost always within striking distance when the final out was recorded. (The Cubs lost just 12 games by five runs or more last season, with five of those coming in that aforementioned pre-All-Star-break slump.)

Throw in all sorts of fun oddities that happened over the course of the year — Chris Coghlan’s clutch hit as he was trying to call timeout (which was followed by David Ross’s two-out RBI bunt); reliever Travis Wood playing left field and maneuvering for a catch he had no business making; Miguel Montero pitching a scoreless inning against the Yankees; Arrieta crushing a homer into the second deck against the Diamondbacks; Báez repeatedly defying physics with his slides (and his defense); Willson Contreras going deep on the first major league pitch he saw — and it’s no wonder why I considered every 2016 Cubs game to be must-see TV.

I never thought the Cubs were a "team of destiny" or anything of the sort. All of those unforgettable moments had just combined to build an absurd amount of trust equity in this lifelong fan by September. And that’s why I exuded a sense of calm confidence as the playoffs neared; I trusted the 2016 Cubs more than I ever trusted anything in my life. I knew they were going to win the World Series because they had to win the World Series. Nothing else would have made sense, not after a season that from start to finish had made following the team as joyous as sports fandom can possibly be.

The Cubs’ playoff run to end their 108-year title drought — and Game 7 of the World Series, in particular — made for an all-time iconic moment in baseball history. But remove the context of what was at stake, and the postseason was just an extension of everything the Cubs had done right since April. The Báez homer in the eighth inning to win Game 1 of the NLDS against the Giants. Chicago’s pitchers combining for three of the team’s five RBIs in Game 2 of the NLDS, including Wood’s homer in the same inning that he entered in relief. Arrieta’s three-run bomb (that was caught by a Cubs fan in a sea of black and orange) off Madison Bumgarner in Game 3. The historic comeback to close out the Giants in Game 4. Báez stealing home in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Dodgers, a game that was clinched by a Montero grand slam. The whole World Series. Moments like this happened over and over all season long, and that’s why 2016 will be remembered by Cubs fans as more than just the end of a supposed curse.

For those of us who religiously followed the 2016 Cubs, the journey was every bit as magical as the destination. And given the youth of the roster and how much of the core was set to return in 2017, this season promised to deliver more of the same.

In March, my colleague Zach Kram wrote a season-preview piece titled "How the Cubs Could Miss the Playoffs." In it, he laid out the scenarios in which the heavy favorites to win the 2017 World Series wouldn’t even earn the opportunity to defend their title. A good chunk of the article was written tongue-in-cheek, and for good reason. Of course the Cubs weren’t going to miss the playoffs. They lost one starter (Dexter Fowler) and one clubhouse leader (Ross) from team that went 103–58, brought back Kyle Schwarber after he missed nearly all of 2016 with a knee injury, traded Jorge Soler for closer Wade Davis, signed Jon Jay, and benefited from the development of exciting prospects like Ian Happ. And if that weren’t enough, the Cubs also boasted a flexible lineup loaded with guys capable of playing in multiple positions. Even if the Cubs took a step back, all signs pointed to them still comfortably winning an underwhelming National League Central.

Almost four months later, though, the defending champs begin the second half of the season at 43–45, 5.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the division and 7.5 games behind the Rockies for the second NL wild-card spot. Missing the 2017 playoffs is not only possible at this point; it seems more likely than not. So what the hell is going on? How could a team that steamrolled through the 2016 season suddenly become so average?

Jon Lester (Getty Images)
Jon Lester (Getty Images)

Kram’s piece originally seemed like a lighthearted hypothetical; now, it reads like a working script of the horror movie that the 2017 campaign is turning into for Cubs fans. Kram warned of regression on defense, since the 2016 Cubs were historically great with their gloves. That’s been the case so far, as Chicago’s defensive efficiency rating has dipped from .728 a season ago to .694 now. He listed the starting rotation experiencing strife as another potential point of caution. That feels apt given that Kyle Hendricks (the NL leader in ERA in 2016) has been on the disabled list since early June, while Brett Anderson (a lefty brought in to replace Jason Hammel as the team’s fifth starter) has also been out since May 6 with a back injury. Meanwhile, the rest of the Cubs rotation — Arrieta, Lester, and John Lackey — is faring significantly worse than it did a season ago, with the most notable example coming in the Cubs’ final game before the All-Star break. Lester got pulled after giving up 10 runs to the Pirates while recording only two outs.

Kram even cracked a joke that a reason the Cubs will miss the playoffs is because "A Joe Maddon Team-Building Stunt Goes Awry and Sends the Entire Starting Infield to the Disabled List." Even that’s eerily accurate. Sure, the starting infield is healthy (knock on wood), but I’ll let you decide if it’s a coincidence that the Anchorman-themed West Coast road trip devised by Maddon kicked off a stretch in which the Cubs lost 11 of 17, or that 2016 World Series MVP Ben Zobrist went on the disabled list for three weeks shortly after it was completed.

Virtually every holdover from last season has gotten worse on the hitting side, too, with the primary exception being Heyward, whose 2016 season was so horrendous that having an OPS of .698 is technically an improvement. Kyle "Literally Babe Ruth" Schwarber is a DH being forced to play left field who is batting .178 and was briefly sent down to Triple-A because he’s been so bad. Addison Russell is hitting .226, and his personal life has become the subject of controversy and a legal mess. Montero, a fan favorite who coined the mantra "We are good," was cut after he flamed Arrieta in the press because the Nationals stole seven bases on him in one game. In 88 games the Cubs have used 75 different batting orders and 64 different defensive lineups. A year after the Cubs entire infield started the All-Star game, Davis was the only Cub to be named a 2017 All-Star, and he proceeded to give up the game-winning home run to the first batter he faced in the Midsummer Classic. The most famous Cubs player right now may very well be a Dancing with the Stars runner-up who isn’t even on the roster anymore, while the most famous Cubs player from the last 20 years has been exiled from Wrigley Field and turned into internet punch line. Worst of all, the Cubs’ official hashtag for 2017 is the objectively awful #ThatsCub.

I and every Cubs fan I know have always said that we’d give up anything to experience one World Series title. That was the deal we tried to make with the so-called baseball gods. No matter the cost, just give us one, and we’ll never ask for anything again. Shortly after Heyward called the most successful players-only meeting in sports history during a rain delay in Game 7 of the World Series, the "gods" delivered. But now it’s apparently time to pay the piper, and the fee seems to be a 2017 season that was filled with so much promise at its onset.

Would Chicago fans have agreed to a cosmic negotiation in which a 2016 title preceded a disappointing 2017? Of course. No Cubs fan would argue otherwise. Part of the human condition is to always want more, though, which is why, less than a year later, that one title we swore to be forever content with suddenly doesn’t feel like enough.

To be fair, I’m not sure it’s even another title for which I’m longing. I can’t speak for all Cubs fans, but I’m just chasing that high I felt last summer well before the playoffs started. That’s the magic I want these Cubs to discover, where every moment seemed to build on the one before to make me feel like I was witnessing something transcendent. There have been a handful of those moments this year — Anthony Rizzo’s walk-off single to beat the Dodgers in the home opener; Russell’s walk-off homer to take down the Brewers on April 19; Happ’s homer in his major league debut on May 13; Schwarber’s grand slam against the Cardinals on June 3; Lester picking off Tommy Pham in the same game; that brief stretch where Rizzo emerged as the greatest leadoff hitter of all time; the two-out rally in the ninth inning to beat the Nationals on June 29 — but they’re far too infrequent, especially for a fan base that was spoiled a year ago.

Maybe the Cubs can put it all together and make a second-half run at the division crown. A 5.5-game deficit with 74 games left to play is far from insurmountable, especially for a team that possesses the talent this group does. If nothing else, acquiring White Sox ace José Quintana in exchange for a few top minor league prospects is a step in the right direction for a couple of reasons: (1) The Cubs’ abysmal starting pitching will surely improve from here on out; and (2) it makes it clear that Theo Epstein is willing to make aggressive moves to get the Cubs back on track. One pitcher isn’t going to drastically change this team’s trajectory overnight, but bringing in Quintana signifies that the front office is just as frustrated with this season as the fans are, and that’s enough to provide a small source of optimism.

No matter what these next few months hold, it’s obvious that the magic from 2016 is gone. Given how historic last season was, maybe that was always going to be the case. All I know is that I find myself in a familiar spot, where I’m bargaining with the baseball gods I don’t believe in, telling them I’d give up anything just to get one more taste of what 2016 brought. It’s a selfish, ridiculous, and almost certainly insufferable stance to have. Nonetheless, I’m prepared to hold out hope that that genie can be put back in the bottle.

And even if it can’t … well … there’s always last year.