By Dan Bernstein —
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) Theo Epstein was smart enough to not promise too much when he assumed control of Cubs baseball in 2011. At his initial press conference upon introduction, he told fans only that, “I firmly believe we can preserve the things that make the Cubs so special and over time build a consistent winner, a team that will be playing baseball in October consistently and a team that will ultimately win the World Series.”
2016 was the year that championship happened, and both the 2015 and 2017 seasons have now fulfilled the first aspect of Epstein’s confident statement of purpose. That must remain the perspective in the wake of their playoff ouster at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who advanced to the World Series with an 11-1 win in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field on Thursday.
It stings, sure, but winners these days rarely return to the tournament at all, let alone pull away for a second consecutive divisional title and avoid the dreaded coin-flip play-in game. The Cubs trailed by 5 1/2 games in the NL Central as late at July 15 and are understood now by most involved to have suffered from a shortened offseason filled with every kind of wining and dining and dancing and prancing befitting a deserved champion.
The Cubs pulled it together after the All-Star break enough to extinguish the dreams of the upstart Brewers and wannabe Cardinals, shaking off recent history of defending title-holders to return – as Epstein said they would – to the point where variance is more important than anything else. No matter the quality of that roster’s offense, defense or pitching, the only known determining factor of playoff success after years of the best analysis is the randomness of outcomes in small samples.
It was about just being here, for the Cubs and for you. Despite the sinking disappointment upon the realization so early on in Game 5 that it was over, they were where they said they would be. They just didn’t stay there long enough this time.
That’s all that was foretold and all that can be expected reasonably, even at a time when the vicissitudes of baseball cause reason to run screaming out of the screen door in the back of the house to stand on the patio and howl at the moon and the heavens, beseeching the planets specifically by their individual personae as Roman gods, pining for divine and ancient favor and deliverance from the evils of Kershaw and Hernandez.
But to just have a chance every year is the stated goal, and each next team that brings that is making good on what you knew.
It’s OK, in other words.
“We’re going to make building a foundation for success a priority,” Epstein said back then. “That will lead to playing October baseball more often than not. Once you get in October there’s a legitimate chance to win the World Series.”
Epstein was right then. He was right in 2015 after the Cubs were swept by the Mets, he was right when they won it all last year and he’s just as right at this very moment that the 2017 Cubs are no more, any immediate pain be damned.