Joe Maddon’s new normal for Cubs: A team people love to hate?

Joe Maddon’s new normal for Cubs: A team people love to hate?

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs destroyed that “Lovable Loser” image years ago, no longer running the team like a mom-and-pop operation, squeezing the local government here for a brand-new spring-training facility and battling the rooftops, small businesses and City Hall for control of Wrigleyville.

A sleeping-giant franchise made the home-run hires, bringing in a guitar-playing, Ivy League-educated, future Hall of Fame executive to run baseball operations. A groovy, unconventional manager who loves the cameras and hates baseball’s unwritten rules would lead the team.

The players wouldn’t have to act like robots, with Theo Epstein’s culture and Joe Maddon’s attitude allowing them to express their individual personalities, show their emotions and design a Party Room inside Wrigley Field’s state-of-the-art clubhouse.

It’s too early to really feel the backlash — less than 48 hours before the defending World Series champs hold their first full-squad workout in Arizona — but the Cubs can sort of see it coming.

“I don’t know if the word’s ‘hated,’” Maddon said Thursday at the Sloan Park complex. But making a sense of swagger or arrogance part of this team’s identity? That’s Cub.

“It’s all about that,” Maddon said. “Just go back in history. I’ve often talked about the Dodgers when I came up in the minor leagues (with the Angels). Their uniforms were whiter than everybody else’s. They thought they were better than everybody else. And then they went out and they won all the time.

“I hated it, but I liked it at the same time. I think the Yankees have developed that kind of a culture. (With) teams that win — whether you even want to talk about the Patriots in football — it’s part of it.

“It’s not that you feel as though you’re just going to show up and throw your gloves out there and you’re going to win. That’s not the point. You gain this confidence based on winning — and there’s something to be said for knowing how to win.”

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Within the last two seasons, the Cubs have won 200 games, five playoff rounds and the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908. There still seemed to be a level of overexcitement, at times, in dissecting Maddon’s Game 7 decisions. Flashy, stylish players like Javier Baez and Willson Contreras will inevitably upset baseball’s fun police at some point this year.

After appearing all over the late-night talk-show circuit this offseason, this group is also positioned to be the next-generation version of the ’85 Bears in terms of seemingly unlimited marketing potential.

“The target grows bigger and bigger on this team,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “Even though people are gunning for us, we expect to win. We intend to see everybody’s best every time we step in between the lines.

“Dealing with pressure, I think, is a good thing. It shows you care. It’s an opportunity for guys to shine in big situations, especially trying to repeat and redo what we did last year. It’s possible. It’s definitely doable with the group we have here.”

Love it or hate it, this is the new normal, the Cubs starring as Major League Baseball’s glamor team.

“It works both ways,” Maddon said. “You’re going to get the group that absolutely jumps on the bandwagon, too. There’s a part of the world that wants to be attached to a winner. By the same token, there’s that group that’s always looking for somebody to fail.

“Regardless of the camp somebody may be in, for me, it’s about us, taking care of what we want to do, how we want to do it daily and creating the culture that we want. And then let people decide where they want to be with that.

“But I know (about) the genuine nature of our guys, the authentic nature of our players and their work ethic. I know we know what we’re all about — and that’s really what matters.”

Kyle Hendricks is back, but Cubs will likely have to wait for their next shot at Yu Darvish

Kyle Hendricks is back, but Cubs will likely have to wait for their next shot at Yu Darvish

Within the first several weeks of the Theo Epstein administration, the Cubs finished second in the Yu Darvish sweepstakes, though nowhere close to the $51.7 million the Texas Rangers bid for the exclusive rights to negotiate a six-year, $60 million deal with the Japanese superstar.

The Cubs will probably have to wait a few more months for their next shot at Darvish, who is “unlikely to move” before the July 31 trade deadline, a source monitoring the situation said Monday. Darvish means enough to the franchise’s bottom line as a box-office draw and magnet for corporate sponsors that the Rangers would be reluctant to trade a player with global appeal and potentially jeopardize that relationship heading into free agency this winter.

Beyond the possible impact on re-signing Darvish, that would also mean foreclosing on a season where Texas is only 2.5 games out of an American League wild-card spot, making this final week critical to the buy-or-sell decision.

The Cubs would obviously prefer to stay out of the rental market after shipping two top prospects to the White Sox in the Jose Quintana deal. Quintana’s reasonable contract – almost $31 million between next season and 2020 once two team options are picked up – creates financial flexibility for a free-agent megadeal (Darvish?) or the next big-time international player.

But the cost of doing business with the White Sox probably means the Cubs wouldn’t have the super-elite prospect to anchor a trade for Darvish, anyway. That would be another obstacle in any possible deal for Sonny Gray, with an AL source saying the New York Yankees are going hard after the Oakland A’s right-hander (and have a deeper farm system and a greater sense of urgency after missing on Quintana).

All that means Kyle Hendricks could function as the trade-deadline addition for the rotation, with the Cubs instead trying to shorten games and deepen their bullpen by July 31.

After spending more than six weeks on the disabled list, the Cubs activated Hendricks for the start of this week’s crosstown series, watching him pitch into the fifth inning of Monday’s 3-1 loss to a White Sox team that had lost nine straight games.

[Willson Contreras may be ‘the f------ Energizer Bunny,’ but Cubs still need to get another catcher before trade deadline]

Hendricks is a rhythm/feel pitcher who blossomed from an overlooked prospect in the Texas system into a piece in the buzzer-beater Ryan Dempster deal at the 2012 deadline into last year’s major-league ERA leader.

Hendricks clearly isn’t locked in yet. He gave up eight hits, but minimized the damage against the White Sox, allowing only one run while putting up five strikeouts against zero walks.

“He wasn’t as normal,” manager Joe Maddon said. “The velocity was still down a little bit. There was not a whole lot of difference between his pitches. He was not what you would call ‘on.’ He would be the first one to tell you that. He looked fine delivery-wise, but the ball just wasn’t coming out as normal.”

Hendricks described his fastball command as “terrible,” called his secondary pitches “OK” and ultimately came to this conclusion: “Health-wise, everything felt great, so we’ll take that. Just got to get back (to my routine).”

The biggest takeaway is Hendricks didn’t feel any lingering effects from the right hand tendinitis that was initially classified as a minor injury in early June. Meaning the Cubs (51-47) are just about at full strength and have another week left to upgrade the defending World Series champs.

Are You Smarter than a Cubs/White Sox Fan?

Are You Smarter than a Cubs/White Sox Fan?

The crosstown rivalry doesn't end on the diamond.

Both Cubs and White Sox fans are highly competitive when it comes to trivia, too. 

We found that out when we bounced around Wrigley Field to quiz North and South Siders in a special edition of "Are You Smarter than a Cubs/White Sox Fan?" 

Watch the video above as we pitted fans against eachother for the chance to win a killer shirt.