On Tuesday, August 28, 2018, Jacob deGrom sat in front of his locker in the visitor’s clubhouse at Wrigley Field with his shirt off and his back to the TVs that hung in the center of the locker room. MLB Network commentators Chris Rose and Kevin Millar were loudly insisting that deGrom couldn’t win the Cy Young because the Mets, 58-74 at the time, weren’t any good. Only once did deGrom turn slightly to acknowledge the on-air debate.
In eight innings that night, deGrom struck out ten Cubs batters and walked just one while giving up one run. The Mets wound up losing, 2-1.
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Modern baseball is covered extensively and intensely, and the players are almost perpetually under a cacophony of feedback. TV, radio, newspapers, websites, blogs, their social media feeds — there is almost no escape from someone opining on their play. And when they’re doing poorly, the noise around the team only intensifies.
Eight months after deGrom sat tuning out the TVs behind him, the home clubhouse at Wrigley was funeral parlor quiet. The TVs — perhaps wisely — tuned to a golf tournament. A few hours before playing the Pirates, members of the Cubs were scarce. The ones who were around practically whispered as they spoke to each other. The noise around the team had been mostly strident and negative for the two weeks since the season started.
But ask and they’ll insist that they hear none of it.
“It doesn’t matter. None of that stuff matters. Whether it’s going amazing or it’s going not how you want it to, that’s all going to happen often in the season, so those stories don’t really matter,” Jason Heyward told Sporting News. “The only story that matters is what happens at the end.”
They’re bombarded with the noise though. Kris Bryant shared during spring training that seeing the negativity on Twitter about his 2018 performance motivated him, but just days into the season said that he had deleted his Twitter to tune it all out. Even if they’re not plugged into social media, players still have to avoid everything else.
“I don’t watch that shit or listen to whatever. I don’t have Twitter, none of that stuff because really at the end of the day it does not matter,” Heyward said, slowing down to emphasize the final three words.
Heyward had a Twitter account but deleted it during the 2016 season when he was struggling mightily at the plate. A Facebook and an Instagram page remain, but nuking Twitter has done a lot to keep his life quiet. Heyward is loquacious about baseball in the clubhouse but guarded about his life off the field. He said that helps him keep things simple and in perspective.
The catalyst for success for the Cubs might have to be about quieting the noise around them and keeping it out of the clubhouse as a whole. Sure, rolling out a long winning streak would do a lot to make that happen, but there’s the day-to-day angst to contend with in the meantime. Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before Monday’s home opener at Wrigley that he wants his team to focus more on the day in front of them and push aside the rest.
“You gotta be careful with semantics, man, because you don’t know how everybody is going to interpret them,” Maddon said in response to a question about his team’s sense of urgency. “I want them to really process today, period. I want to stay in this moment and attack this moment as well as I possibly can.”
The question of the Cubs’ sense of urgency sprung from the way the 2018 season ended, and it has been amplified since by their relative absence in the free agent market during the winter and the sluggish start to the season. But, like Maddon, team president Theo Epstein isn’t in love with using the word “urgency” either.
“I think this entire sense of urgency narrative or subject line has taken on a life of its own, and completely outside of the clubhouse,” Epstein said to reporters from the Cubs dugout before Monday’s game. “That storyline is completely over inside that clubhouse, and until we start winning it’s going to continue to be perpetuated outside. It was kind of over the first day of spring training. It was an offseason thing.”
Epstein characterized the notion of urgency as just one part of the improvements proposed by players and staff after the 2018 season ended. They wanted to apply the appropriate amount of focus and preparation every single day, Epstein said. Some of the hyper-focus and overreaction to the first two weeks of games is a result of the sustained excellence over the past few seasons and the expectations to remain so.
“That’s a privilege, it’s not a burden,” Epstein said of the added attention and raised standards in Chicago. “There are going to be times when you’re not living up to expectations and the heat’s going to be turned up a little bit. That’s the reality of the game and the modern game, the way it’s covered.”
Unlike last season, particularly at the end, the Cubs’ primary problem this year has not been the offense. Through Wednesday’s games, they ranked 6th in baseball in wRC+ and slugging percentage. They have scored at least 10 runs in five of their eight games. It’s been the pitching that has let them down so far. Through Wednesday, Chicago had the third-worst team ERA in baseball and the highest walk rate, at over 13 percent. If the Cubs are going to right the ship, the pitchers have to stabilize, Maddon said, but when asked on Monday if his relievers were pressing, he was again careful with his semantics.
“That group is probably trying too hard. I don’t know if that’s pressing or not,” Maddon said.
It’s not urgency, it’s about today. It’s not pressing, it’s trying too hard. Whatever words are used, the Cubs have that noise to quiet, and as Epstein said earlier this week, some of that comes from not overreacting to the small sample size of the early season.
“We can’t start to analyze baseball like football. It’s the equivalent of a quarterback dropping back on his first play from scrimmage and missing a guy open on an out pattern,” Epstein said. “That’s where we’re at in the season.”
Early or not, the Cubs have shown their weaknesses, and until they start winning regularly, it’s going to stay loud while they try to prevent the buzz from entering the clubhouse. It was quiet there before Thursday’s game, and Heyward sat with a demeanor similar to deGrom’s months prior: relaxed and with the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head, a water bottle balancing on his right leg and his cell phone on his left, watching golf on the TV.
“It’s not going to do anything to dwell on how well something is going, or when something may not go well because any moment it can change,” Heyward said. “That’s the humbling part of baseball.”
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