Posts Tagged ‘chicago cubs’

Wessler: Cubs can’t couch their shortfalls

Peoria Journal Star – Kirk Wessler – Oct 9, 2008 – Honesty being the first and most important step toward recovery, let’s start here:

The Cubs choked.

That’s not to say a left-handed power bat wouldn’t make the Cubs better. But really, how much better than 97 wins do they need to be? The Cubs have good bats. Good fielders. Good pitchers. Good manager. They had a terrific regular season.

Then came October, which has not been a good month for the Cubs since 1908.

Now, it’s possible, perhaps even probable, the Dodgers would have won the Division Series even if the Cubs were playing their best ball.

But the Cubs never gave themselves a chance. When it came time to step onto the playoff stage, the Cubs turned into Paris Hilton trying to play Lady Macbeth.

Ryan Dempster, a 17-win pitcher with a 2.96 ERA who walked seven rival batters the entire month of September, walked seven Dodgers in less than five innings of Game 1. Every Cubs infielder committed an error in Game 2. Aramis Ramirez, a career .284 hitter who consistently ranks among the National League’s top 10 in RBIs, is batting .061 with zero RBIs in his last six playoff games. Derrek Lee batted .714 with the bases empty in this series, but only .250 (a single, two strikeouts and a double play) with men on base and matched Ramirez’s RBI output.

Of course, you know all this and more. What you don’t know is why.

Why do good players choke? Why do good teams choke? Why did these good players on this good team gag the day the calendar turned to October?

I have a theory.

The Cubs could not separate themselves from the expectations of their fans. Cubs fans, the majority of whom had not been born the last time the team even played in the World Series, are unfailingly loyal – and desperate. These Cubs knew that by successfully defending the National League Central Division title as predicted, by posting the franchise’s most successful regular season since 1945, they were expected to reach the World Series for the first time in 63 years and win it for the first time in 100. So they carried their fans’ expectations into October, along with the desperation.

And they failed in spectacular fashion.

“Nobody can do well with a gun to their head,” sports psychologist John Murray says.

Murray, based in Palm Beach, Fla., has gained national recognition in recent years for his Mental Performance Index which measures how well football teams execute under pressure. Baseball isn’t football, but pressure is pressure, and the ability to manage pressure and continue to perform at peak efficiency is integral to winning.

“If what you say is true” about the Cubs wilting under the expectations of their fans, “it’s similar to a child trying to meet the parent’s expectations, rather than playing for himself,” Murray says. “When you do that, you rob yourself of the pleasure of the pursuit.”

Athletes who focus on the end result, rather than the process, are virtually doomed to fail, Murray says. Games and championships are not won in a grand instant. Winning is accomplished moment by moment, pitch by pitch, at-bat by at-bat, inning by inning, game by game.

“If you think about winning, you’ve already lost,” Murray says. “You have to get back to the moment.”

What’s required on the North Side of Chicago is a culture change.

Dusty Baker tried to do that in his tenure as manager of the Cubs. He got off to a good start; got the Cubs to the 2003 playoffs and five outs away from an NL pennant and a spot in the World Series before everything unraveled. The club never recovered and Baker got fired.

Lou Piniella has done a better job than Baker. This year, for the first time in a century, the Cubs won a title – the NL Central – for the second season in a row. Try as he might, though, Piniella can’t perform lobotomies on the players, who already know the history of franchise failure. Nor can he wave his hand and make his team blot out the urgent pleas of the fans to reach the Promised Land just once in their lifetimes.

“When you live in a fishbowl,” Murray says, “you try too hard, think too much, and your energy level is too high. If you’re too jacked up, you’re not going to do well.”

So how does this problem get fixed? Find a charismatic player with a “screw everything else and just play, baby” attitude? Develop one from within? Lock the gates to Wrigley Field and keep all the fans at home?

“You fix it by winning,” Murray says.

He points to the Boston Red Sox, who never could get past the New York Yankees in a close division race or playoff series. Then, down 3-0 in their best-of-7 American League Championship Series with the Yanks in 2004, the BoSox suddenly cut loose, rallied and started to win. They’ve claimed two of the last four World Series titles after nearly 90 years of previous futility.

“The Cubs are not doomed forever,” Murray says. “At some point, the Cubs are going to win. Even 100 years, from a statistical standpoint, is not that big a deal.”

A century isn’t a big deal?

There are 30 teams, Murray points out. That means, statistically, each team has one chance in 30 of winning the World Series in a given year. So the Cubs are only three titles shy of where they ought to be.

“I can almost guarantee you,” Murray says, “that in the next 50 years the Cubs are going to win one.”

That should come as encouraging news to fans who’ve already been waiting 100 years.

CHICAGO WONDERS: CAN CURSE-BUSTING CATCH ON?

Sun Sentinel – Apr 3, 2005 – Mike Berardino – Watching the Boston Red Sox end the Curse of the Bambino last October, Ryne Sandberg couldn’t help but smile.

You know Sandberg as the former Chicago Cubs second baseman, maybe the greatest ever to play the position. You probably remember his disappointments in the National League playoffs of 1984 and 1989, how even the great Sandberg was unable to return the Cubs to the World Series for the first time since 1945.

But you probably didn’t know Sandberg has been a closet Red Sox fan all these years.

“I had great feelings [watching Boston win],” Sandberg says during a break at Cubs spring training in Mesa, Ariz. “In a lot of ways, I’ve been a Red Sox fan for a number of years, just pulling for the underdog. I just wanted to see them win finally, which I can relate to here with the Cubs.”

Although the Red Sox hadn’t won the World Series since 1918, Cubs fans have been suffering even longer. Their last championship came in 1908, when it was Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance around the infield and Teddy Roosevelt in the White House.

Their most recent tease came two years ago, when they were five outs from besting the Marlins for the National League pennant with Mark Prior on the mound. Before you could say “Steve Bartman,” the whole crazy notion of a Cubs championship collapsed beneath the weight of history and a stirring Marlins comeback.

Wasn’t a part of Sandberg saddened the Red Sox got to the mountaintop before his beloved Cubbies? That the Curse of the Bambino was toppled before Chicagoans could lay waste to the Curse of the Billy Goat once and for all?

Apparently not.

“I thought it was great to watch,” Sandberg says. “I had a good feeling about it. To me it kind of brings hope to the Cubs getting to the World Series and winning the World Series. It can happen. If you’ve got the right guys, and you’ve got them all playing like a bunch of wild guys like the Red Sox were doing, it works. That brings optimism for me.”

Extending the thought, perhaps the entire city of Chicago should be more hopeful than ever in light of Boston’s Band of Idiots’ unlikely success. Baseball’s second-longest championship drought belongs to the pride of the South Side, where the White Sox haven’t won since 1917.

There have been five postseason appearances since Pants Rowland managed those Sox to the title, but each — most recently a three-game sweep by Seattle in 2000 — has ended in disappointment. Most painfully, 1919 brought the Black Sox Scandal in which eight players were exiled from the sport for their role in fixing a World Series loss to the Cincinnati Reds.

One city. One sport. Two franchises. Two excruciating waits for a modern-day championship.

Maybe that’s why White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen admits he, too, was uplifted by Boston’s comeback from a 3-0 American League Championship Series hole against the hated New York Yankees and subsequent four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.

“My reaction was that it was a great thing for baseball, and the way they did it was great, too,” says Guillen, a White Sox shortstop on their 1993 playoff team. “The Red Sox were down and out. All of a sudden they wake up and win.”

To hear Guillen talk, Boston’s victory stirred him into heightened consciousness as well. You can almost picture him sitting bolt upright on his couch in Miami and realizing his destiny was at hand.

“It made me feel like, `Wow, it’s time for us to turn around and do it,'” Guillen says. “It’s just something that you look up and say, `Wow, now it’s the White Sox’s and Cubs’ opportunity.’ We should look at that as an inspiration.”

Breeding confidence

The theory is calling “modeling,” and it has nothing to do with a handful of Red Sox players showing up this season on Queer Eye For the Straight Guy.

According to the concept, which originated in the 1960s with psychologist Albert Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy, the success of one team or individual can improve the confidence and, in turn, the results of another.

Dr. John F. Murray, a South Florida-based sports psychologist, says he “absolutely” would use the theory if he were hired to assist either Chicago baseball team.

“With modeling we can see somebody else like the Red Sox who have finally broken down that door,” Murray says. “We then say, `Hey, I’m a White Sox person. If the Red Sox can do it, now I can do it.’ Confidence can come from others if you do it right.”

Murray has helped expedite psychological breakthroughs before. He helped tennis pro Vince Spadea overcome a 21-match losing streak and rise to his highest career ranking.

In 1997, Murray and Dr. James Bowman, now working with the U.S. Olympic program, conducted regular sessions at Washington State University. The Cougars tennis team spent three months doing mental imagery in an effort to end a long losing streak against its archrival Washington Huskies.

When the breakthrough finally came, the Cougars won by the exact score the team had envisioned.

That same year, the Washington State football team, which also worked with Bowman and Murray, reached the Rose Bowl for the first time in 67 years.

“When you talk about losing streaks or breaking down barriers, you’re talking about the whole concept,” Murray says. “It can almost be like a slump, but a historical slump. How do you break that wall?”

The answer comes from within, although Murray cautions every player on a given team could have a unique set of mental challenges.

“You have to believe in yourself,” Murray says. “It’s critically important. It’s not the only thing that’s important. You also need talent. But confidence is a component that’s relevant.”

`It wasn’t us’

Not everyone buys into this psychological connection between the two cities, or at least not into the notion that the Red Sox’s breakthrough somehow makes the quest more attainable for the Cubs or White Sox.

Cubs pitcher Greg Maddux, who returned to the club in 2004 after 11 years in Atlanta, says watching the Red Sox win was “no different than being in Atlanta when the Yankees won. It wasn’t us.”

Says White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko: “I don’t draw anything from it other than the Red Sox are off the hook. They don’t have to worry about people getting on them anymore or calling them whatever. I guess it just moves to the next couple teams that are in line that haven’t won in a long time, which would be us and the Cubs.”

Former Cubs television analyst and White Sox pitcher Steve Stone downplays the connection as well.

“I think the Red Sox winning has absolutely no bearing on what the Cubs will do,” Stone says. “I just don’t really believe in curses and I don’t believe when curses are broken, it helps other people. It certainly helped the Red Sox, but so did having Pedro [Martinez] and [Derek] Lowe come on and adding [Curt] Schilling to that group. They had a very good team who got hot at the right time and refused to quit, but there’s no bearing on the Cubs.”

He smiles and points down the hall toward the Cubs’ clubhouse.

“If Kerry Wood and Mark Prior go down the first week, how do you think it will affect the Cubs?” he says. “A lot more than the Red Sox winning will.”

Personnel key

Indeed, the fragile co-aces of the Cubs pitching staff have spent much of the spring battling arm problems. No amount of Beantown idiocy would likely lift the Cubs past that sort of hardship.

Along those same lines, trading Sammy Sosa and losing Moises Alou via free agency this offseason wouldn’t seem to bring the Lovable Losers any closer to ending their nearly centurylong drought. At best, the Cubs are expected to have a ferocious battle with the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros for the top spot in the National League Central.

Moreover, the White Sox must open the season without their best hitter, Frank Thomas, still recovering from offseason ankle surgery. Most preseason forecasts picked the Minnesota Twins to win their fourth straight American League Central title, with some placing the White Sox below the Cleveland Indians and even the improving Detroit Tigers in a relatively weak division.

But that doesn’t mean people in Chicago can’t dream. The Red Sox breakthrough was that significant.

“I guess this is one of those things over the years: Boston and the Cubs haven’t won in so long, people just tie the two together,” says Cubs Hall of Fame outfielder Billy Williams. “They got rid of the Curse of the Bambino, so we should get rid of the Curse of the Goat and all that kind of stuff. I know this: When you’ve got good ballplayers, no curse could stop you.”

But does Boston winning make things any easier for those in the Second City?

“It depends how you look at it,” Sandberg says. “It can bring hope or now maybe it can bring more of a spotlight and more pressure. It all depends how it’s perceived and how it’s taken. But I look at it as a positive, as there is hope. Now it’s the Cubs and the White Sox, both in the same city, that haven’t been to the World Series in a long time.”

Count Cubs superscout Gary Hughes, one of the early Marlins architects, as a proponent of the “modeling” theory. He sees no negatives whatsoever in the Boston victory.

“If there was doubt before, there can be no doubt now,” Hughes says with his trademark chuckle. “The Red Sox have done it. We still haven’t. So it’s our turn. All those people saying, `It’s never going to happen.’ Well, it just happened. Why not again?”

Then there’s Guillen, who admittedly has daydreamed about a championship parade in the Windy City and what it would mean to his life.

“Having played there for so many years, being one of the biggest White Sox fans in the history of baseball, that’s one of my dreams,” Guillen says. “I told my wife and my family, if we win the World Series in Chicago, I’ll quit managing baseball.”

Wouldn’t that be pretty drastic?

“I’ll be running for mayor in Chicago,” Guillen says. “Whoever wins first is going to own the city.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.