By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Marv Levy always offers up his age-old prescription for winning.
“There really is no ‘formula’ for continuing success other than good ‘PR,’ and, by that I mean P for Preparation and R for Resilience,” said the native Chicagoan NFL Hall of Famer and 80-plus-year Cubs fan who attended both the 1945 and 2016 World Series. Levy also listened to Gabby Hartnett’s famed 1938 “homer in the gloamin’” on radio as a grade schooler in 1938.
Outright predictions for championships, though, are a dangerous area for the wise, wizened 91-year-old Levy into which to wade. Especially when he is asked if the Cubs will win two consecutive World Series.
“In regard to how I think the Cubs will do, I am compelled to say that predicting the winner is easy,” he said. “Being RIGHT? That’s the hard part.”
Indeed. Predictions are a dime a dozen in the hardest sport to forecast. Just remember the caution light thrown up by a half-Jewish, half-Sicilian, all-Runyonesque bookie who used to chomp down on his cigar in the Wrigley Field right-field bleachers in the 1970s:
“Don’t bet on baseball,” he said. “It’s too unpredictable.”
Any World Series winner requires a double dollop of mazel to possess the Commissioner’s Trophy the first week of November. The 2016 Cubs are the prime example.
Joe Maddon’s posse suffered just one serious injury – left fielder Kyle Schwarber – the entire season. Not one of the five starting pitchers had any ailments. Setup men Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon were aching near season’s end. But if 105 mph-flinging closer Aroldis Chapman had any twinges, it was from Maddon’s gross overuse in the World Series – 137 pitches, most by a reliever in the Fall Classic in 30 years.
Once in the postseason, the Cubs required a ton of good fortune and breaks to go their way.
They were on the verge of a Division Series Game 5 against feared pitcher Johnny Cueto back at Wrigley Field, but staged a four-run ninth-inning rally that consumed a flammable Giants bullpen to avoid the moment of truth showdown. They caught a likely tired Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw to avoid a League Championship Series Game 7 at Wrigley Field.
And they were fortunate savvy Cleveland manager Terry Francona shot his bolt with short-rest use of his starters early on during the World Series. Going up three games to one, the Indians’ hurlers had little finishing kick against the rallying Cubs.
Even in Game 7, the Cubs dodged several bullets after blowing a 5-1 early lead and avoiding the most catastrophic
loss in team history. Even Jewish Cubs bossman Theo Epstein, later named best leader in the world by Fortune magazine, thought he saw the ancient Curse rear its ugly head when the Indians tied the game at 6 against a sub-100 mph Chapman.
“You’re aware of the narrative…It fits the freakin’ narrative,” Epstein said in “Reign Men,” the CSN Chicago Game 7 documentary.
The Cubs went on to win after a fortuitous 10th-inning rally, collecting all the debts, with interest, from the many decades of bad luck and bad management throughout team history.
Now comes an even harder part: repeating. No major-league team has repeated as World Series champs since the 1998-2000 Yankees won three in a row. No National League team has gone back-to-back since the 1975-76 Reds, the prime of the Big Red Machine.
Members of Cubs Universe will look at a loaded, youthful roster, supposedly with its best days still ahead of them. But progress in baseball is never linear. Stars are human, susceptible to the varying electrical impulses from the brain and inevitable weakness of the flesh over the debilitating 162-game season.
Then there’s the month-long postseason. The five-game Divisional Series is a true tripwire, a killer of 100-victory teams. The seven-game League Championship Series is a true endurance test proven to be more intense than the World Series itself. The Fall Classic almost comes off as anti-climactic, players trying to reach the finish line almost beyond the end of their physical and mental rope.
The Cubs are charged with surviving all that all over again. They made such a good impression that the majority of Jewish pundits surveyed are forecasting a double dose of Grant Park rallies.
Most measured was the narrative from 54-year-fan Al Yellon, Highland Park native and managing editor of Cubs blog BleedCubbieBlue.com. Yellon attends every home game at his regular seat in the left-field bleachers.
“The postseason is a crapshoot,” he said. “Yes, the Cubs won 103 games during the regular season and were clearly the best team in baseball over the 162-game grind.
“But once October baseball starts, everything resets, and anything can happen. If the Cubs don’t have that miracle four-run rally in the ninth inning of Game 4 against the Giants, they faced the prospect of Johnny Cueto against them in an elimination game. They might have been bounced out in the first round. They trailed in the NLCS and had to win three straight elimination games in the World Series, the last one in 10 innings.
“Winning the World Series is hard. And it’s kind of random. Example: Now teams will have home field with the best record, instead of the nonsensical All-Star Game thing. If that had been the case in 2016, the Cubs wouldn’t have had Kyle Schwarber in Game 7 — and he started the game-winning rally.”
Yellon said the Cubs cannot bottle the mojo of last season.
“It will be impossible to replicate the win of 2016 – ever,” he said. “Breaking a drought longer than most human lifespans brought out emotions and thrills that no Cubs fan will ever see again. Never again will a drought that long occur, or at least we hope not.
“This Cubs team is very good, but I suspect they will miss (2015-16 leadoff man) Dexter Fowler. Their fifth-starter situation is still somewhat uncertain. I doubt they will win 103 games again. But they should win the N.L. Central, a very weak division. Call this a 95-win season, which is still really good.
“Having said all that, I’ll still pick the Cubs to repeat for the first time in 109 years. Just remember this: it will not be easy, and any one of a number of random factors could make that prognostication false.”
With an economy of words, former Cubs great Ken Holtzman said the journey will be hard, but the reward will be present.
“It’s hard to repeat but they still have the best team so I think they can win again,” he said.
Former Cubs center fielder Sam Fuld, the leadoff man on Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, is also a Chicago optimist.
“Yes, they seem well-quipped to repeat,” he said. “For any team to win the World Series, I think you need a little bit of good fortune; I don’t think it’s any different for a team trying to repeat or not.”
Nevertheless, any negative event in the postseason can derail a repeat attempt. Bruce Levine, longtime Chicago baseball analyst now pontificating on AM 670 The Score, the Cubs’ flagship station, painted an October scenario not pleasing to the back-to-back forecasts.
“To repeat or not? That is the question,” Levine asked. “Nothing tougher in baseball. No National league team has done it since the’ Big Red Machine ‘ The Chicago Cubs win 94 games and their division. They lose in seven games to the San Francisco Giants during a memorable NLCS. Jeff Samardzia out of the bullpen wins the finale with a shutout tenth inning. Javier Baez strikes out with the tying and winning runs at second and third base.”
Still another doubting Thomas (or Cohen) is Richard Reeder, West Rogers Park native and chief kibitzer at Max and Benny’s deli in Northbrook.
“The Cubs have so much young position player talent, yet I am skeptical of those older arms on the staff,” he said. “I definitely predict a win in the division, and a good playoff showing, but a World Series repeat is unlikely.”
Recovering from these jolts of potential reality, other Chicago Jewish pundits are more optimistic:
- David Schuster, reporter for AM 670 The Score who is in his 40th season covering Chicago baseball, longest consecutive tenure of any journalist: “Obviously to repeat in any sport you need a little bit of luck along the way. Luck mostly in the fact that health has to be preserved. And that’s the only thing that I can see possibly derailing the Cubs from winning it all again this season. “They are equally, if not stronger, than they were last season. Their starting pitching is intact and their bullpen might overall be better than last year. Their lineup is incredibly loaded and Joe Maddon will have numerous options on a daily basis. And maybe the biggest factor is that they have now gotten to the top of the mountain and once you’ve done that, you know you can do it again. “This is still a young nucleus with many of the players only to get better so for all those reasons I don’t see why the Cubs can’t and won’t repeat this season.
- Aviv Ezra, consul general of the Israel Consulate of the Midwest, proud his arrival in the summer of 2016 just preceded the Cubs’ title: “As a diplomat, I know better than to predict the outcome of any baseball season. However, as a sports fan and an Israeli, I ask why not? “Since I arrived here, I have pointed out that the Cubs have won the World Series for the first time in more than 100 years. The Northwestern Wildcats played basketball well enough to be in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 79 years. And the Israeli team that played in the World Baseball Classic in Japan won three exciting games despite all odds. So, another World Series for the Chicago Cubs — why not?”
- Laura Castle, Morton Grove native and 30-year Cubs fan: “I predict the Cubs can win it all again. Stranger
things have happened! I’m an optimist at heart and this Cubs team is nothing short of incredible.”
- Jack Rosenberg, 90, longtime Lincolnwood resident and former WGN-TV sports editor who covered the Cubs for 40 years starting in 1954: “I definitely do (see a repeat). Now they finally got over the hump, I think they’ll continue and be contenders for years to come. Far more than I expected to see in my lifetime.
- Bruce Rottner, Skokie resident and former Chicago Police Dept. deputy chief of patrol: “I believe the Cubs have an excellent chance of going to their second World Series in 2017. Their core group is intact and their young players will have matured a year. Even with the losses of Dexter Fowler and Aroldis Chapman, their pitching and hitting appear to remain solid. Kudos go to Cubs management for their commitment to winning and to Joe Maddon for his ability to motivate both his young and veteran players.”
- Newton Minow, 91, longtime Glencoe and Chicago resident and former FCC commissioner: “Of course the Cubs will win the world championship again. This young team has the energy, the confidence, the talent and the smarts to repeat. With Epstein’s brains, Madden’s congeniality, the community’s support and the team’s spirit, the Cubs are true winners.”
- Janet Feder, Highland Park resident and lifelong Cubs fan: “Of course they’ll win it again. But whenever they do, it won’t be like the first time. It took 108 years to get to the Promised Land. Now that was a miracle!”
- Dave Kaplan, Cubs pre- and post-game host on CSN Chicago, and ESPN-1000 talk-show host: “The team will go 99-63, they will win the division, they will win the pennant and they will win the World Series.”
- Miriam Romain, Evanston native and longtime internet baseball columnist: “I’ve been asked many times if I think the Cubs will repeat as World Series champs. It’s a difficult question to answer. Looking at baseball history, it’s unlikely that any team will repeat as World Series winners two consecutive years. Even the San Francisco Giants, who won three World Series championships in five years, couldn’t do it consecutively. So, history proves it’s not easy. “That said, I do think the Cubs will win again this year, as long as they stay focused and healthy. Joe Maddon will need to be sure that the players don’t let it get to their heads. They have a very strong core and know how to work together. I fear the bullpen is our weakest spot, but that can be worked on. “While I don’t believe we can win another 103 games, and what we do win won’t come easily, I do believe the Cubs will repeat. They have to. It’s time to silence the naysayers and show that winning the World Series wasn’t a fluke. This is a new generation of Cubs. They are not bottom dwellers.”
No matter what the actual forecast, the Cubs and their fans are in a radically new era. The collective mindset will take time for the proper adjustment. Everyone, from present-day players to batboys to frustrated fans, has been beckoned by team leader Anthony Rizzo to possess a share of the title.
Even those caught up in what Sweet Lou Piniella termed “Cubby Occurrences” proclaim the Cubs Universe moves in a new age.
“No, I’m not surprised at all,” said Mark Prior, at the center of the cosmic vortex of the 2003 Bartman Game. “I think they did it the right way, and hopefully they do it the way that they can sustain it.”
Stay tuned, and stay on the edge of your seat.