With inside access and reporting, Sports Illustrated senior baseball writer and FOX Sports analyst Tom Verducci reveals how Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon built, led, and inspired the Chicago Cubs team that broke the longest championship drought in sports, chronicling their epic journey to become World Series champions.
It took 108 years, but it really happened. The Chicago Cubs are once again World Series champions.
How did a team composed of unknown, young players and supposedly washed-up veterans come together to break the Curse of the Billy Goat? Tom Verducci, twice named National Sportswriter of the Year and co-writer of The Yankee Years with Joe Torre, will have full access to team president Theo Epstein, manager Joe Maddon, and the players to tell the story of the Cubs' transformation from perennial underachievers to the best team in baseball.
Beginning with Epstein's first year with the team in 2011, Verducci will show how Epstein went beyond "Moneyball" thinking to turn around the franchise. Leading the organization with a manual called "The Cubs Way," he focused on the mental side of the game as much as the physical, emphasizing chemistry as well as statistics.
To accomplish his goal, Epstein needed manager Joe Maddon, an eccentric innovator, as his counterweight on the Cubs' bench. A man who encourages themed road trips and late-arrival game days to loosen up his team, Maddon mixed New Age thinking with Old School leadership to help his players find their edge.
The Cubs Way takes readers behind the scenes, chronicling how key players like Rizzo, Russell, Lester, and Arrieta were deftly brought into the organization by Epstein and coached by Maddon to outperform expectations. Together, Epstein and Maddon proved that clubhouse culture is as important as on-base-percentage, and that intangible components like personality, vibe, and positive energy are necessary for a team to perform to their fullest potential.
Verducci chronicles the playoff run that culminated in an instant classic Game Seven. He takes a broader look at the history of baseball in Chicago and the almost supernatural element to the team's repeated loses that kept fans suffering, but also served to strengthen their loyalty.
The Cubs Way is a celebration of an iconic team and its journey to a World Championship that fans and readers will cherish for years to come.
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Prelude to Seven
Three hours before the most important game for the Chicago Cubs in more than a century, the desk of Joe Maddon in the visiting manager’s office at Progressive Field in Cleveland formed the cluttered tableau of a busy mind. Two opened, half-eaten, oversized bars of Ghirardelli dark chocolate. Eight-by-ten photos of deceased managers Earl Weaver, Chuck Tanner, and Dick Howser. All seven of his color-coded, two-sided, World Series lineup cards, complete with every piece of statistical information he needs in the dugout, not to mention a shorthand homage to deceased family and friends. An iPad Pro with stylus, which he used to design the lineup cards. And his smartphone, which buzzed with a text from one of his hometown buddies back in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.
Game 7 of the 2016 World Series between the Cubs and the Cleveland Indians, the two teams with the longest championship droughts in baseball, was drawing nigh.
Maddon faced two major questions heading into Game 7: How could his hitters possibly dent Cleveland starting pitcher Corey Kluber, the ace who had held the Cubs to one run over 12 innings in his two starts in the series? And what pitching plan could Maddon cook up to get the ball to his closer, Aroldis Chapman, whom he had taxed in the previous two games?
Maddon began this day with his usual daily meditation session. Then, as he does each game day, he mulled over what to do about his lineup over a cup of caffé Americano. He doodled ideas and batting orders on his iPad with his stylus, and when his lineup was ready he sent it, as always, to the recipients on his lineup chain: club president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer, assistant general manager Randy Bush, assistant director of research and development Jeremy Greenhouse, first base coach Brandon Hyde, and director of media relations Peter Chase. The distribution of his lineup was done more as a courtesy, less for approval.
About Epstein, Maddon said, “He’s never vetoed anything. He’ll just write back sometimes, ‘Have you thought about this?’ The last two years they’ve given me a lot of freedom to do what I think is right. And it’s been really enjoyable. We include each other in everything, but when it comes down to on the field, in the dugout, the clubhouse, he gives me all kinds of freedom.”
Hyde then texted the lineup to the players, as he always did. If the lineup includes a significant change out of the ordinary—such as a position switch or a day off for one his regulars—Maddon will send a personal text to the player involved to open the door to a conversation.
Maddon is an inveterate lineup tinkerer. He started a different rightfielder in three of the first four World Series games (Chris Coghlan, Jorge Soler, and Jason Heyward). But Maddon did not ruminate long over his Game 7 lineup. He stuck with the same one that he used in Game 6, and why not? His team had thrashed the Indians, 9–3, while cranking out 13 hits. The key change he’d made for that game was to put designated hitter Kyle Schwarber in the number two spot, which moved third baseman Kris Bryant, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, and leftfielder Ben Zobrist down one slot each, to three-through-five. In Games 1 and 2 in Cleveland, with the designated hitter used in the American League park, Schwarber had hit fifth. It was the first time he had seen major league pitching in 201 days after rehabbing torn ligaments in his left knee. Amazingly, within a single series Schwarber had turned himself into a legitimate threat at the plate after missing virtually the entire season.
“Yeah, it changes the whole lineup,” Maddon said in his office before Game 7. “I mean, everybody last night: K.B. didn’t mind hitting third, Rizzo didn’t mind hitting fourth, Zobrist, etc. They all like having [Schwarber] slotted in there. It sets up so different for the other side. It really does.”
Still, the Cubs once again would have to contend with the swirling and spinning pitches of Kluber, who would make his second straight start on short rest. He’d flummoxed them in Game 1 primarily with a two-seam fastball that headed straight for the left-handed batters’ front hip, only to swoop back over the plate just after they dodged out of what they thought was its intended path. Then Kluber had embarrassed them with a cruel game of bait-and-switch curveballs in Game 4. Most of Kluber’s curves tracked the strike zone long enough to entice the Chicago hitters to swing, only to veer into the dirt or off the plate at the last second. You could almost hear his curveballs snicker as they pulled their trickery time and time again. In Game 4, the Cubs swung at 49 percent of Kluber’s pitches that were not in the strike zone, the highest chase rate by any team against the right-hander all year.
Maddon knew if the Cubs took the same reckless approach against Kluber, they would likely ensure a 108th consecutive season for the franchise without a world championship. What concerned him most was that almost everywhere he looked on his color-coded lineup card, Maddon saw youth: Addison Russell, 22; Schwarber, 23; Javier Baez, 23; Bryant, 24; and Willson Contreras, 24. Only one other team in World Series history ever started so many players under age 25 in a Game 7, and that team, the “Impossible Dream” Boston Red Sox of 1967, played at home, and lost, 7–2, to the St. Louis Cardinals. Now Maddon had to hope that a lineup packed with young hitters could show the discipline it had lacked against Kluber twice previously, this time on the road and with the World Series on the line.
“We’re just trying to hit the ball up in the zone, and trying not to chase spin down,” Maddon said. “Those are the two things we’re trying to accomplish. The lefties must be on the [two-seam] comebacker, of course. But we’ve got to find out early where Kluber is at. This is his third game in nine days. So you don’t know if all that is going to be present today. For me the biggest thing is for our youngsters to not chase.
“Zobrist does that. Addison, on a good day . . . after Addison’s day yesterday I imagine he will not chase spin today. Contreras is in swing mode and Baez is in swing mode. We’ve been trying to get them not to do that. Yesterday, if you watched Baez’s BP . . . he almost had two hits up the middle. At least he moved the ball. But we’ve got to get them out of swing mode and not chase spin. So, yes, we talked about it: we are not swinging at spin today.
“I just think with these kids, give them another year or two. They can hear it, but the training is still taking place.”
A year or two? The game was just hours away.
As for his pitching plan, Maddon knew he would start with Kyle Hendricks, the low-key, low-velocity control artist, and end with Chapman, the hardest-throwing pitcher on the planet. But how could he bridge the gap between them?
Starter John Lackey was available, but, as Maddon said, the Cleveland lineup, with its heavy dose of left-handed hitters, “is a bad matchup for him.”
Jake Arrieta, who threw 102 pitches only the night before?
“No,” Maddon said. “I mean, he’s like way out” if the game went extra innings. Arrieta was so far out of his thinking that Maddon didn’t even list him on his lineup card among his available relievers.
The key piece to the planned bridge was another starting pitcher, Jon Lester, who had had two days of rest since throwing 90 pitches in his Game 5 win. But Maddon admitted he might need a second bridge just to get to Lester. The left-hander had been dogged for five years by a bad case of the yips throwing to bases. His inability to hold runners—Lester had not even tried a pickoff attempt since July—prompted Maddon to vow that he would not bring him into a game with runners on base, a situation he refers to as a “dirty inning.”
“If Hendricks is not as sharp, he’s coming out and Jonny Lester is coming in to that,” Maddon said. “We need a bridge to Lester. Because I’m not going to bring Jonny into a dirty inning. So you have to bridge him with either [Mike] Montgomery or [Carl] Edwards to get to Jon—give him a chance to warm up.
“And being an American League game, it helps that somewhat. I don’t have to worry about where the pitcher is in the lineup. That’s such an advantage. The more you get a chance to manage in the National League, the more you see the differences more clearly. When you go out there to make a pitching change, there’s nothing to think about but going out there and making a pitching change. So, yes, I’m watching Hendricks with high scrutiny tonight.”
How many innings could he possibly get from Lester?
“I think a good two innings, and then [after that] it would be a matter of how many pitches he throws,” Maddon said. “I have to talk to him about that. He was wanting to pitch yesterday, too.”
Maddon was down to three true relievers he trusted: Chapman, Montgomery, and Edwards. Key relievers Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop, for instance, had not bounced back reliably enough from late-season injuries. There was no need, Maddon said, to talk to them about their reduced role—not under the coldhearted urgency of the World Series, anyway.
“I can’t worry about that right now,” he said. “It would be a disingenuous conversation on my part, just trying to ameliorate something. Ronnie has not been back to where he was. You saw Strop yesterday. Maybe the fastball command is not there. So maybe the intent is proper, but the execution isn’t. All year he’s been good. But to count on him to throw his fastball where he wants to, it’s not always going to work out that way. Beyond that, C.J., Montgomery—all of these guys are in in short spurts—maybe one to three hitters. But I can’t worry about that.
“Travis [Wood] is throwing the ball pretty good, but their lineup is so awkward it doesn’t fit Strop and Rondon’s strength—at all. That’s part of it, too. It’s just a difficult matchup. Whereas Montgomery with the curveball and changeup on righties is good, C.J. with the big old hook on lefties is good and the cutter is good. They play opposites well.
“They’ve been doing it all year, but this whole postseason has been a challenge, bullpen-wise, because of our skills versus their skills.”
Just before game time, Epstein would visit Maddon in his office to review the game plan.
“Hendricks, Lester, and Chapman,” Maddon told him. If all went well, he said, those were the only three pitchers he would use.
“How many innings do you want from Hendricks?” Epstein asked.
“Five,” Maddon said. “I’ll take five good innings.”
Five? Epstein was surprised. It sounded like a curiously low number to him. Hendricks was the 2016 National League ERA champion and carried a run of 15 scoreless postseason innings into his Game 7 start. Epstein was hoping for more than five innings from him. Maddon wanted just five innings from Hendricks because he was counting on Lester and Chapman to take care of the other four. In Maddon’s perfect world, Lester could get through three innings so that Chapman, who worked hard in Games 5 and 6, needed to pitch only one inning.
Maddon picked up his lineup card and studied it. Though it was small enough to fit into his back pocket when folded in half, the card was a veritable encyclopedia of information. Left-handed hitters and pitchers in blue ink, right-handed hitters and pitchers in black, and switch-hitters in red—just the way he always did it.
“Honest to God, if everything is the same color it screws me up,” he said.
Next to every hitter on the front of the card was a number that looked like a batting average, but was Maddon’s propriety number marked “Matrix.” Under Epstein’s leadership, the Cubs spent five years creating finely detailed strategies about how to score and prevent runs. Maddon’s Matrix was the last dash of secret spice added to the recipe. As for every game, Maddon took a trove of information about a hitter—such as what types of pitches he likes, whether he hits well or not against velocity, how hot or cold he is at the moment—and distilled it into one number, the Matrix, that instantly told him how that hitter matched up against the starting pitcher.
“It’s like a regular batting average,” he said. “A .300 number is really good; .200 is bad. Those are color-coded also. So the high numbers are highlighted in red.
“I don’t even know batting averages anymore. I don’t even know how many hits you have against Chapman or whatever. I have no idea. I have no idea what you are against a pitcher. I just know my number, and my number has everything baked into it, man.”
A hitter who is batting .100 in his career against a pitcher, for instance, might have a red .300 Matrix next to his name on Maddon’s card.
“Correct. It happens all the time, and vice versa,” Maddon said.
The color code worked like this, in ascending order of Matrix: the box with the number was highlighted blue for .239 and below, light blue for .240 to .260, white for .261 to .275; pink for .276 to .290; and red for anything above .290.
The highest Matrix on his card for Cleveland against Hendricks belonged to second baseman Jason Kipnis, who had a .270 in a white box to the right of his name. That meant that Kipnis represented the greatest threat in the Indians’ lineup against Hendricks. But it also meant that nobody in the lineup posed either of the two highest levels of threat; there were no pink or red boxes on the Cleveland side of the card.
Table of Contents
1 Prelude to Seven 1
2 Ready for Change 17
3 The First Piece 47
4 Game 1 60
5 The Plan 75
6 That's Cub 100
7 Game 2 108
8 The Beast 114
9 The Recruit 131
10 Broad Street Joey 146
11 Game 3 170
12 The Zen of Joe 184
13 Game 4 204
14 Flipping the Culture 213
15 Game 5 240
16 Embrace the Target 259
17 Game 6 293
18 Seven 306
19 Interlude 344
20 Heaven 352
Credits for Photograph Insert 367
Index of Names 368