In Theo Epstein’s first three seasons as their GM, the Chicago Cubs’ record was a combined 200-286, their highest finish fifth out of six teams in the NL Central, saved only from the cellar in 2012 by the presence of the Houston Astros, soon to move to the American League. The closest they came to first place was when they finished 17 games out in 2014. Instead of getting closer to ending the longest championship drought in the history of sports, they were moving further away.
But after that, things happened quickly. Two No. 1 draft choices blossomed into elite big-league players. A stud free agent starter came aboard, as well as some lower-priced, but no less pivotal, role players. A dynamic manager was hired. And the final touch, a lights-out closer added at this season’s trade deadline.
And just like that, the Chicago Cubs went from doormats to the best team in baseball, a status confirmed not only by their MLB-best 103 wins in 2016, but by their thrilling seven-game victory over the Cleveland Indians in the World Series, snapping a 108-year dry spell.
But although it may seem as if they were an overnight success, that is hardly the case. The five seasons over which the current Chicago Cubs were built may have been an eyeblink buried in a century of failure, but for a suffering fan base, they might have felt like an eternity.
There is a lesson in there somewhere, and it is this: Sometimes, an organization, and a fan base, needs to be patient in order to allow a baseball team to develop. Sometimes, that patience must be extraordinary. And there is never any guarantee that it will pay off.
It is a lesson that can easily be applied to the ballclub in the Bronx, whose World Championship drought is now seven years and counting, and realistically has not been a serious contender for anything since 2011. In New York years, that is roughly equivalent to 108 years of suffering.
Now, for the first time in a generation, the New York Yankees seem to be assembling a nucleus of the type that carried the Cubs to the promised land, and in fact of the type that carried the Yankees to baseball dominance in the mid-1990s.
The question is, will the organization, and the fan base, have the patience to allow that nucleus to develop and the mix to marinate to the point that the Yankees might once again become a team of not just one good season, but a healthy run of them?
The fans I communicate with via my Twitter feed (@OysterBayBomber) tell me yes; history tells me, maybe not.
It may not be possible to exactly duplicate the Cubs’ formula; it’s not often that an organization goes back-to-back and belly-to-belly with draft picks like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. But the Yankees seem to be halfway there with Gary Sanchez, no draft pick but a highly-touted and paid international draftee, and could yet get lucky with one or more of Aaron Judge, Greg Bird, Tyler Austin and Rob Refsnyder.
It is possible, but by no means definite, that Didi Gregorius will continue to improve, as Anthony Rizzo did, drastically, after being given up on by the Red Sox and Padres. There are high hopes for Gleyber Torres, the crown jewel of the Cubs farm system who came over in the Aroldis Chapman trade, and for Clint Frazier, acquired in the Andrew Miller trade, and the home-grown Jorge Mateo, although as GM Brian Cashman often points out, “potential means you haven’t done anything yet.’’
But if nothing else, the stockpiling of talent done by the Yankees at last year’s trade deadline gives them the flexibility to put together a package that could bring in a Rizzo or a Jake Arrieta or a Dexter Fowler, all acquired through trades.
Finally, after decades of George Steinbrenner-ism, during which instantaneous success became the demand and sustained excellence the (unrealistic) expectation, the Yankees seem to have come to grips with the reality that virtually all other baseball teams have been living with: Namely, that success in this game is not only cyclical, but fleeting.
They also seem to have accepted the new financial landscape of the game, which says that they no longer always have the biggest checkbook, the most sought-after free agent will not automatically become a Yankee, and the Bronx is no longer the only destination for a player seeking a championship ring.
Slowly, the fans seemingly have to come to accept this as well, witness the eagerness of many to part ways with the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira, proven performers all, as well as the two elite closers, in favor playing a bunch of kids who so far are barely more than a promise yet to be kept.
That seemed to indicate the ever-demanding Yankees fan base was willing, for the first time in a generation, to plant a garden and wait for it to grow.
And with a weak free-agent crop this winter — there’s no Jon Lester out there to anchor their shaky starting rotation, although Chapman may be on his way back — there seems also to be an acceptance that Cubs-like success is not around the corner. In fact, it may be several seasons away.
That is the kind of patience they showed on the South Side of Chicago over the past five years, and it finally paid off.
Are Yankee fans capable of showing the same kind of restraint?
The early indicators say that at long last, they are.
But how long that will last only time will tell. Five years time? We’ll see.