After an 11 game losing streak and ownership unwilling to act like the rich team the club is, the Chicago Cubs are on the precipice of trading away the core that ended a 108-year title drought.
This could very well be a smart move. The modern understanding of the game all but dictates that teams should trade their aging stars for prospects that can lead a championship charge. The Cubs themselves employed this method to rebuild and win the 2016 World Series. Trading away their best players today will likely increase the odds of the Cubs contending in the future.
Yet, trading the stars of today would be the wrong move for the Cubs. It would be the wrong move for baseball.
World Series-Winning Cubs
The 2016 Cubs were one of the most fun teams to have graced a baseball diamond. Anthony Rizzo’s antics. Javy Baez’s slides and reinvention of the tag. Kris Bryant’s homers and consistently great plate approach. Willson Contreras’s game management combined with offensive production. Kyle Hendricks’s World War II GI-like appearance coupled with Greg Maddux-like control. Jake Arrieta’s brilliance on the mound.
This team ended the drought. So far, this roster has one World Series, a pennant, three division titles, and three wild card berths. That is a solid run, and one in which the players and fans both deserve to see retirement in Cubs blue.
Rather than wax rhapsodic about the 2016 squad, here are a few clips that hopefully encapsulate part of the magic.
Baseball’s Star Hopping Problem
The Cubs character and history might be unique, but baseball’s inability to keep stars with one team is ubiquitous. Just in recent years, young players seemingly in place to be the faces of their respective franchises were traded away or let go in free agency. Cleveland traded Francisco Lindor. Colorado traded Nolan Arenado. Washington let Bryce Harper walk in free agency. Now Chicago seems poised to do the same with its stars. This approach prevents teams from forming an identity, which could potentially impact club success.
A few teams have taken a different approach. Milwaukee signed Christian Yelich to a long-term deal. Fernando Tatis Jr. signed a massive multi-year contract with San Diego. Surely this is better for baseball. Team, player, and fan identities are stronger when the likes of Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken Jr, and others spend the vast majority of their careers with one club.
What Are the Cubs?
When the Cubs finally won their third World Series, only 18 Americans alive in 1908 were still drawing breath. In that century-plus interim, the Cubs somehow became one of the nation’s most beloved and endearing teams. The North Siders achieved this unexpected accomplishment by keeping iconic players and leaning hard into their identity as lovable losers.
First Endearing Generation
As the championship-winning Tinker to Evers to Chance generation phased out (after succeeding the championship-winning generation of Cap Anson, King Kelly, and Larry Corcoran), they were replaced by new stars. Hack Wilson set the single-season RBI record. Kiki Cuyler became a fan favorite (my grandfather among them). Charlie Root set the franchise career wins mark. Stan Hack’s joy at playing Chicago baseball was comparable to his third base successor, Ron Santo. Gabby Hartnett hit the Homer in the Gloamin that reverberated for decades.
These stars won five pennants, but they never claimed a World Series title. More importantly, these players stayed with the Cubs for decades, most of them for their entire careers. This consistency helped the club establish an identity that was independent of on-field success. These Cubs were Chicago’s team.
Second Endearing Generation
If the first generation solidified the titleless Cubs as Chicago’s team, the second arguably established the Cubs in the nation’s sports consciousness.
Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks, encapsulated the Cubs’ attitude with his desire to play two even during the lackluster seasons of the 1950s and 1960s. Banks won back-to-back most valuable player awards with losing teams. Ron Santo’s boundless joy was exemplified by his heel-clicking leaps and extended into his passionate post-playing radio announcing. Billy Williams swung with sweetness. Fergie Jenkins dazzled crowds on his way to becoming the franchise’s strikeout leader.
The team did not win a pennant or make a single playoff appearance. Yet these players are perhaps the most iconic in franchise history. Wrigley Field became a must-see destination for baseball and non-baseball fans alike.
The key: this group of joyful players spent the vast majority of their big league careers with the club. This dynamic created magic that captured hearts and solidified the Cubs as an essential franchise.
Third Endearing Generation
The next generation saw a bit more winning. The club won two division titles behind the bats of Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, Shawon Dunston, Leon Durham, Andre Dawson, and Gary Matthews and the relief pitching of Lee Smith.
Despite the two division titles, this iteration of the club is also remembered for the long-term tenure of its stars. Sandberg became such an iconic star that he was present for the World Series win 20 years after the end of his playing career. Sandberg and Dawson jerseys continue to sell regularly among the Wrigley faithful.
Fourth Endearing Generation
There are possibly two generations here, but Sammy Sosa, Mark Grace, Kerry Wood, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Zambrano, and Derrek Lee took Chicago closer to the World Series than at any time since 1945. Yet they could not claim a title.
Instead, these Cubs set league and franchise records for single-season home runs, career home runs, and strikeouts in a game. They played with heart and commitment for many years. Ramirez ended the notorious Cubs deficient third baseman streak. In the process, these Cubs continued and grew the tradition of the Cubs meaning more to the city and the game than as merely temporary champions.
Keep the Heroes
This season is the 150th in franchise history. If the Cubs trade away and fail to re-sign their 2016 stars, this would mark the first time in franchise history that the team’s core would not exceed a decade’s run.
Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, and Kyle Hendricks are the modern versions of Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Stan Hack, Ryne Sandberg, Sammy Sosa, and Fergie Jenkins combined with the winning element of Tinker to Evers to Chance and Anson, Kelly, and Corcoran.
These players bring a sense of identity and continuity to the Cubs as a franchise. Tearing down this core makes a statement to players and fans alike: the Cubs are not unique, the Cubs are not special, this is a team like any other.
That would be a tragedy and a true break with the heart-winning (if not game-winning) tradition of this franchise. The Cubs have earned a reputation as meaning something more than baseball to many millions. Let them play as a team, with a sense of roster continuity. Take advantage of this special opportunity and group of talented athletes. The Cubs should act like the rich team they are and build around this core. If this does not work, and the next decade is filled with losses, that is okay.
The Cubs mean more than an occasional, inherently temporary championship. Winning certainly feels better than losing, but winning is not everything. This franchise represents the idea that we fans root for the team regardless of its performance, and our players try to win even in losing seasons. It is the very antithesis of bandwagon or fair-weather fandom. Cub fandom, strengthened by decades-long commitments to its core players, is about mutual loyalty and love.
The Cubs should keep their heroes so that the Cubs can remain the Cubs.
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Main image credit Embed from Getty Images