By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) This is all new and different and — if we are really being honest with ourselves — more than a little weird.
As spring training commences in the swamps and deserts and major league teams convene to catalog their rosters and lay out the grand plans for the next eight months, here’s a Cubs organization doing so unfettered by having to hope. The annual customs have been blown up, scattered to the winds by their World Series victory party that’s still echoing as pitchers and catchers roll into Mesa.
Manger Joe Maddon will undoubtedly rise to the responsibility of setting the competitive tone, choosing some clever combination of words to encapsulate this new reality, but nothing can do it justice. His guys have it easier than the fans do, able to go to work and absorb themselves in the banality of routine. Those on the outside are still adapting to a new life and identity, however, lacking the comfort of the usual crutches and confronting over and over again the fact that something that defined them now doesn’t exist.
No more trite symbolism of spring eternal and rejuvenation, as the entire Cubs ecology has been irreparably altered. Not to mention both playing into November and the extraordinarily mild and snow-less winter here that are combining to obviate the contrast between seasons that has previously fueled such anticipation for baseball to come around after long last.
It’s just here, already, on the other side of something and unrecognizable.
The Cubs are again a favorite to win the championship, but those predictions don’t resonate as the did before, because the nervousness and electricity that accompanied reasonable expectation of contention have been defused. Of course the Cubs are expected to win, because that was the whole point of this. We were told that we would be here, in a window of sustained competitiveness.
But not even all that transparency prepared one’s psyche for this new territory, in which something that hadn’t happened just happened. So now what?
Reporters are descending on the training facility as we speak, ready to begin weeks of coverage of a defending champion by profiling players we know, on a team with few significant questions about its construction. We will essentially welcome back something that never really left, devoting time and space to whatever novelty can be mined from management’s tinkering around the edges. It still feels like the morning after a celebration, with the awareness of the long new schedule to come not as tantalizing with portent and possibility.
This can’t be “The Year,” because last year was and always will be. The once-fundamental Cubs question can’t be asked now and can never be asked again.