In 2008, as the Chicago Cubs were well on their way to winning 97 games and being declared the best team in the National League, something suddenly happened. The team started struggling and completely laid an egg in the playoffs.
We now know that something was pressure.
The weight and burden of expectations from media, fans, and management for a team that hadn't been to the World Series since 1945 was just too much to bear. They collectively looked like deer in the headlights come October.
And so it seems the 2009 Cubs have, at least in part, fallen victim to the expectations dilemma. I call it a dilemma because on the one hand, it's a good thing. High hopes for success indicates that people believe you have a good team. And isn't that what you want?
Yet it also means that everyone—from the players to the coaches to the front office—need to step up to the plate, literally and figuratively, and produce. With great expectations comes accountability. Some respond well, others do not.
So let's keep this in mind as we approach the end of the season for our 2009 Cubs. They are 9-4 in September. Carlos Marmol is closing out games. The defense is a bit better. The team seems more relaxed.
In short, the collars aren't tight because there is nothing to play for.
Well, except for young guys like Sam Fuld, who are trying to make an impression for next year.
Fuld has become a fan favorite even though his next run batted in will be his first. Ever.
While that points more to lineup position and what an opportunistic and somewhat meaningless stat the RBI is, it also shows that Cubs fans appreciate solid defensive play and hustle more than ever after watching most of the team stumble and bumble their way through such a disappointing season.
But don't confuse grittiness and desire with future stardom. Fuld has not proven that he is the center fielder of the future any more than Jake Fox has proven he belongs with a glove on his hand. A bat? Certainly. Can you say DH?
Sample sizes being relatively too small for some of these spare parts, combined with unmoveable contracts, mean that we're likely to see a similar set of players again next season, assuming that new owner Tom Ricketts isn't hungry enough to swallow some big contracts.
Meanwhile, expectations will be lower, too. On paper, no one should expect this Cubs team to win anything in 2010. Despite what will be another huge payroll, there are too many tough hurdles to overcome to expect greatness.
This may actually play to the Cubs' benefit.
Without the burden of lofty expectations weighing heavily on their collective shoulders, the 2010 Cubs will breathe freely and play more relaxed. Whether that translates into more wins is not quantifiable, but it's something for a fan base to hope for.
At this point, we'll take almost anything.
In what will almost certainly be the last hurrah for Lou Piniella, the window of opportunity remains open just a sliver. Maybe Milton Bradley continues to hit up to his career norms. Perhaps Soriano improves to his career levels. Hopefully Zambrano is healthier, mentally and physically. A full season from Aramis Ramirez would be helpful too.
And with the burden of expectations lessened, who knows what's possible, come to think of it?