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.