Chicago Cubs still have some work to do, but building legacy fast

If there’s one place where I try to mind my own business, it’s on an elevator. Particularly early in the morning, when I’m still in my pajamas and haven’t had my coffee. Fortunately, awkwardness can generally be avoided by not making eye contact and saying nothing more than, “What floor?” But for some, even that’s an invitation to say more.

A man got on a few floors after me Monday morning, and while I didn’t glance up, it was obvious from his heavy steps and leash-tugging he was irritated. While his Great Dane sniffed my spaniel, he turned to me and said, “Why are the Cubs so bad right now?”

Few things signal desperation more than wanting reassurance from a complete stranger, but it was obvious what was on his mind: With the Cubs down 2-0 in the NLCS, the team’s fans have experienced a hard, unexpected fall from the playoff highs earlier this month. Nothing brings a party mood down faster than a dose of reality, a Cubs specialty going back decades.

The way things stand now — with the Cubs fighting for a chance at the World Series — it’s easy to forget that less than one month before the Cubs’ home opener, renovations on Wrigley Field were behind schedule. The right-field bleachers wouldn’t be ready until June, and the Cubs asked the city for permission to work around the clock, just to get the park ready for Opening Day. A peek behind the temporary chain-link fence would not instill confidence, revealing a sea of construction equipment, building material and the steel skeleton of the unfinished bleachers. The Cubs hung two large scrim banners across the fencing to obscure the chaos behind it. One read “Pardon Our Dust”; the other: “Building a Legacy.”

It had been five years since the Ricketts family purchased the Cubs, and three since they hired Theo Epstein as President and gave him carte blanche. Given the hole they were in, the Ricketts needed pedigree. Epstein had guided their closest analog — a team with a century-old World Series drought and its own history of curses — to a World Series championship before his 31st birthday, making him the closest thing baseball had to a slayer of defeatist mythologies. Epstein’s plan for the Cubs would be different than for the Red Sox, but straightforward enough: Build a better and less expensive team by grooming prospects, largely eschewing the short-term veteran fixes that had plagued the franchise.

Relying on prospects would yield financial flexibility and give them team-controlled talent to tinker with until all of the pieces were ready. Positive results would not happen overnight — they’d have to get worse before they could get better — but by March of this year, it was clear that Epstein’s plan, however unfinished, was headed in the right direction.

Patience was hard to come by. “Pardon Our Dust” seemed like an apropos slogan for the organization that hung it. After all, fans had been pardoning their dust for decades. The Cubs, a team so notorious for failure that you can pick from a menu of curses and abject failure to illustrate how often it has disappointed. At other times, they’ve been downright embarrassing. It is silly to hold Cubs players and management born at the end of the last century responsible for failures that date back to a time before television, but even if you focus on just the last 25 years, the Cubs had only eight winning seasons.

Look at the final years B.T. (Before Theo): his predecessor, Jim Hendry, constructed a team that yo-yo’d its way through the aughts. The Cubs went from the playoffs in 2003 to the worst record in the National League three seasons later, to reaching the postseason in 2007 and 2008 — only to get swept in their Division Series both times. So they missed their window those years, and over the next three years the Cubs were in the top two for payroll in the majors, but never reached the playoffs. There was a glint of talents on the farm, but those players had not spent any times in the majors, and the roster had aging players with astronomical salaries, a hangover from reckless spending from the prior owners, The Tribune Company.

All of this jerking from good one year to abysmal the next was taking place in a ballpark that, like anything celebrating its 100th birthday, was in dire need of renovation. The park’s every endearing idiosyncrasy, every memory of a momentous event that took place there, is rivaled by an indecorous story like the time in 2004 when “pardon our dust” became more like Watch your head! as city inspectors demanded that netting be installed to keep chunks of concrete from falling raining upon patrons. Some argued that modernization, particularly the addition of technology and video boards, would ruin the building’s integrity, but more bowed to the inevitable. You know, considering the danger of being brained by a brick that had witnessed Three Finger Brown pitching, or contracting something embarrassing in the already-deplorable bathrooms. Wrigley Field was, even in its deteriorating state, a treasure, but its splendor was cheapened by every refusal to modernize, with the Cubs favoring, much as they had with the roster, quick fixes like duct tape and plywood to hold everything together. Barely.

The two banners hanging on the fence at Wrigley this spring are best read as one sentence: “Building a legacy; pardon our dust.” Perhaps it was just a marketing slogan, but it served simultaneously as apology and promise. The former is a peculiar admission, a symbolic rebuke to the organization’s mixed history. Intentionally or not, the banners carried a resolute message for the changes happening to both the park and the team — two World Series, 10 pennants, and a Who’s Who of Hall of Famers cannot be diminished or disavowed, but baseball has a short memory. When it asks, “What have you done for me lately?” prior to hiring Epstein, the modern Cubs could only say, “Not a damn thing, other than headaches and heartache. So we’re starting over.”

With Epstein came a demand for better technology and scouting. At the start of the 2013 season, chairman Tom Ricketts revealed a $500 million renovation plan for Wrigley Field and the surrounding area. The changes had to come in tandem; it would have been wasteful to fix a team if there wasn’t a proper stadium to hold it; it made even less sense to renovate the stadium without also upgrading the men who would play there. It was projected that it would take three to five years to renovate the park, and perhaps just as long for Theo & Co. to untangle the knotted roster. The Cubs’ best option was also the most complicated: throwing all the balls in the air at once and waiting for them to land.

Wrigley Field remains behind schedule and might take a year longer than publicly projected, but Epstein’s portion came in early. The Cubs finished third but with 97 wins, and given the way they evolved over the season, it’s easy to argue that by the end of September there was no clear difference in quality between them and their NL Central betters, a point they underscored by beating both in the postseason.

There are no perfect teams, at least not in 2015, and you can quibble with some aspects of this year’s Cubs. Some argued that they needed better starting pitching to truly contend, and that while Jon Lester was the right decision, Edwin Jackson was not. (Pardon our dust, those people were right). The season might have gotten off to a hotter start with Kris Bryant in the Opening Day lineup, and Starlin Castro could have been traded in July (which would have proved foolish in the short term, given that he responded to the organization’s patience with his summer-long slump by hitting .333/.362/.555 down the stretch). All of that proved beside the point: The roster Epstein inherited in Year 1 was bloated with Sorianos and its own curse of sustained incompetence; of course it wasn’t going to be perfect, but it might well be good enough.

I told the man in the elevator that some say a postseason series doesn’t really start until the home team loses a game. What I would have told him, given enough floors, is that win or lose in the NLCS, these new Cubs are built to last. That doesn’t mean they will win the World Series now, or ever. But it’s not hard to imagine this same roster, next October, again beating their opponent with six home runs over the ivy. The bulk of the lineup’s under team control until 2020, and that gives management copious flexibility. This isn’t Milton Bradley, Ryan Theriot and Kosuke Fukudome. Nothing is for certain, but this should last.

If they don’t win it all, though, the emotional part of the long-suffering brain, for men in elevators and across Chicago alike, might not be inclined to forgive the dust at all. We all want instant gratification, even if it’s 100 years in coming,and confirmation bias will rear its mind-altering head, saying this is just another Cubs failure … and bringing to mind every time the Priors were left in too long, Mr. Sianis and his goat were asked to leave, and assorted other Bartmanesque snafus. That part can’t be stopped. But the rational brain, the one that understands that process outweighs outcome, will focus on the legacy; the legacy that, oxymoronically, is newly built.

The 2015 Cubs might join the last 107 editions on the list of championship misses, but something nearly as good has happened here: Hope. And Hope not just for a moment, but for as long as our long-suffering brains might imagine.