Clemson Embracing Target and Trying Not to Suck Reminds Us Where Cubs Are Going, Where They’ve Been

How ’bout that national championship game, huh? Man, I bet the Cardinals fans who took seriously Ben Fredrickson’s decree to cheer for the Crimson Tide in order to combat a “Clemson-Cubs allegiance” are feeling even saltier than Murray Chass this morning. In avenging last year’s loss, Dabo Swinney and his Tigers ended a losing streak against Alabama that stretched back to 1905, even longer than the Cubs’ famed drought.

It’s not exactly comparing apples to Orange Bowls, but Swinney was tasked with rebuilding a stumbling program and setting it on a path of consistent competition when he took the helm at Clemson in 2008. After a rough start in those first three seasons, he’s now won at least 10 games in six straight seasons, including consecutive 14-1 finishes with national title game appearances.

The breakthrough win against Alabama concluded a season in which Swinney had actually appropriated some of the culture Joe Maddon has fostered in Chicago. It may draw eye-rolls around St. Louis and elsewhere, but there’s no denying that the quirky slogans and the emphasis on embracing destiny while still remaining loose — you know, like the .38 Special song says — are key components to success on the North Side.

Swinney recognized right away how special the atmosphere was when he got the chance to catch a game and visit the Cubs clubhouse while in town for the NFL draft.

So there’s this rain delay, not sure if they’re going to play, so I’m walking around, I’ve got a chance to kind of see the culture there and I was like, “Man, this is really cool. These guys are loose, they know they’ve got a good team.’ And so I ended up going around and they take me to meet Joe. So I go meet Joe and I walk in his office and he’s got his baseball pants on and he’s got this shirt on that says ‘Try Not to Suck’ and I’m like, he’s big. I’m like, this is Joe Maddon.

So we talked for a minute and he’s like, ‘Hey man, I watched your team and watched you guys last year’ and we kind of have an instant connection. It was really neat. I told him, ‘You need to know this’ because I had met his players and been around, ‘You guys have a great culture. I’m telling you, you’ve got a winning culture here. You’ve got a good – just feel – in this building. You can smell it.’

They knew they had the best team and I think they embraced that. They embraced that. Don’t run from that. It kind of resonated with me and when I came back and I kind of got off this summer and had a little time, that was one of the things I came back and I told the guys Day 1: ‘Listen, everybody has been telling us we’re this target. Well, we are the target, but let’s embrace that. For us at Clemson, best is the standard. So if Clemson is the target, best is the standard. So let’s focus on being the best we can be. Let’s be committed to that and let’s embrace that. Let’s run right to it.’

I’ll spare you any talk of a linear relationship between the Cubs overtaking the Cardinals and winning the World Series and Clemson felling Nick Saban’s unstoppable crimson elephant, but it’s kind of fun to have witnessed both events in the space of two months. Even better, those who’ve followed the processes that led to each victory know that neither was a fluke. Quite the contrary, actually.

In finally raising the Commissioner’s trophy in 2016, the Cubs got contributions from homegrown talent, big-money free agents, and trade acquisitions. It was easily the team’s most satisfying season in damn near forever. But think back to the team the Cubs fielded in 2012, Theo Epstein’s first season in Chicago. They went on to lose 101 games and had many thinking the light at the end of the tunnel was really just an oncoming train.

I don’t necessarily want to bring you back there, but here’s the lineup they trotted out for Opening Day five years ago.

  1. David DeJesus, RF
  2. Darwin Barney, 2B
  3. Starlin Castro, SS
  4. Bryan LaHair, 1B
  5. Alfonso Soriano, LF
  6. Ian Stewart, RF
  7. Marlon Byrd, CF
  8. Geovany Soto, C
  9. Ryan Dempster, P

Only two of those guys are still in Chicago and only one is still employed by the Cubs, though it’s not as a player. As I look over those nine names again and again, I can’t help but marvel at just how far the organization has come in the last half decade. I mean, Ian Stewart? All-Star Bryan LaHair? Bruh.

When the 2017 season bows, the Cubs will be able to roll out more than one lineup in which they’re appreciably better at every single position (though a case could be made for the perpetually underrated Soriano). Guess the rebuild worked. But it’s about more than just the structural components and spending money in the right places. After all, a blueprint alone isn’t responsible for beautiful architecture.

These games aren’t played by soulless automatons — coached and presided over by them in some cases, maybe — and the humanity is what imbues the depth and color to sport. Speaking of color, my prose is in danger of turning purple any moment now. The point, if I ever really had one in the first place, is that the Cubs are so good that other elite teams are copying what they do. And while they and the Clemson Tigers ultimately prevailed because of elite athletic talent, both were able to make it fun along the way.

Maybe now it’s time for me to start heeding their shared advice trying not to suck.

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