MESA, Ariz. - Hall of Famers Billy Williams and Ryne Sandberg felt it. So did Cy Young Award winner Rick Sutcliffe and modern icon Kerry Wood. And every manager from Leo Durocher to Don Zimmer to Lou Piniella.
That desire to be the ones — the ones to deliver a Cubs World Series championship to Chicago — is no longer imbued in just the players who grew up in the organization.
Now, it’s almost an intoxicant for free agent players, managers and executives alike, and the group gathered for this season can’t get enough of it.
“It drives all of us," said Cubs reserve catcher David Ross, 38, who’s retiring after this season. “You always want to do something special and to be remember forever, but to win it here in Chicago?
“It’s the holy grail of baseball."
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Cubs veteran pitcher Jon Lester won World Series with the Boston Red Sox in 2007 and 2013 but wasn’t on the roster of that 2004 team that ended 86 years of heartbreak. John Lackey led the Los Angeles Angels to their first World Series title in 2002 and won again in 2013 with Boston. Outfielder Shane Victorino was with the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies’ when they broke their 28-year drought. Second baseman Ben Zobrist was on the Kansas City Royals team last year that won for the first time in 30 years.
They will tell your their titles will pale in comparison to being part of what would perhaps be the most historic World Series title.
“I’ve thought a lot about that," Zobrist said. “It was definitely a big factor for me coming here. To win it in Chicago, in my home state, knowing how much it would mean people there, I can’t imagine the feeling of being on that team that finally breaks the barrier."
Cubs President Theo Epstein, raised in Boston as a diehard Red Sox fan, was the architect of the team that broke the 86-year Curse of the Bambino, winning the 2004 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Let Epstein tell the story.
“We partied all night in St. Louis after we won," Epstein told USA TODAY Sports. “We got in at Logan (Airport) at 7:30 in the morning, right in the heart of rush hour. We took the bus from Logan to Fenway, but as we did that, and folks realized it was the Red Sox, they were pulling over on the expressway. They were standing on top of their cars, jumping up and down. We had construction workers on the scaffolding hugging each other. Traffic was completely stopped while people got out and embraced each other.
“We passed cemeteries. We saw Red Sox pennants and caps draped over the gravestones for the mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers that were not around to see it. That image resonates the most with me.
“There’s still barely a day that goes by where I don’t have somebody come to me and talk about ’04 and what it means to them and their families. They are filled with so much gratitude."
The Cubs subtly remind prospective free agents of the historic impact of a World Series title. They send a 20-minute video, with testimonials from past and current players, telling them about the organization. It shows the beauty of living in downtown Chicago during the summer. Describes the family atmosphere for players and their families. Shows pictures of their gorgeous new clubhouse facilities that will be ready for their home opener. It comes to a crescendo by showing their name on the Wrigley Field scoreboard, playing Game 7 of the World Series, and scenes from a championship parade once they win it.
“It’s not something we like to hit our guys over the head with when we try to recruit them," Epstein said. “It’s an unsaid subtext to attracting the right kind of people for the right kind of reasons.
“It’s like they’re saying, 'I want to be there because that will be the most special championship in all of sports.' "
It’s why Jason Heyward passed up more money to be sign here. Same with Zobrist. And Lackey. And Dexter Fowler.
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No one wants to miss it.
“I stayed in Chicago as long as I could just hoping we could get this done. Be part of history," Wood said. "Then, the year (2009) I went to Cleveland, I was like, ‘Please, don’t let this be the year they win. Please, don’t win this year.’
“Everyone in here is aware of it. You don’t put the pressure of the organization on your shoulders, but you understand the history.
“When you’re on a team like this, you better be thinking it."
FOR THE WIN
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Yes, in the inspiring words of their manager who had T-shirts passed out with the message: “Try Not to Suck.’’
“It’s the most positive negative you’ve ever heard in your life." Joe Maddon says.
You can be assured the T-shirt will be the appropriate attire if the Cubs win the World Series, making Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street look like a Sunday social.
“I’ll be drinking until spring training starts up again," Cubs catcher Miguel Montero said.
And the rest of Chicago will be on a barstool sitting right alongside him.
“I told Joe Maddon if the Cubs win the World Series,’’ said David Axelrod, President Obama’s former senior adviser and campaign strategist, “they will build a 50-foot statue of him. And put it right in the middle of downtown Chicago."
Cubs manager Joe Maddon arrives in 1976 Dodge van.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon arrives in 1976 Dodge van. (Photo: Morry Gash, AP)
Maddon has not addressed the historical significance of a Cubs World Series championship to his team. He’s too busy assuring they stay relaxed. He pulled up in his 1976 Dodge Van one day at the clubhouse, wearing a bandana and a Cheech and Chong shirt, and jumped out, with Earth, Wind & Fire’s Shining Star’ blaring from the speakers. One day he’s bringing in Fowler on the sly to announce he’s back with the team, the next he’s leading them to the parking lot where Ross is presented with a motorized scooter, complete with a remote-operated electric cart to carry his equipment.
Pressure trying to end a 108-year drought? You kidding? Who else would have his 1972 Chevelle restored into a Cubsmobile, painted blue on the outside and with a maroon carpet inside the trunk, complete with an old-fashioned Cubs insignia from 1908?
“Honestly, the lure of being the first Cubs team to win a World Series in over 100 years is quite exciting,’’ Maddon said. “But I don’t fixate on parades and ticker tapes. Honest to God, I don’t go to bed thinking about it.
“But you hear about it all of the time. Anytime you talk to a Cubs fan, they say we’ve got a nice team, but finish the sentence with, 'No pressure.' Every conversation is the same ending: 'No pressure.’
“People want to know, 'Are you going to do it this year?’ And I always give the same answer: 'Of course we are.' What else am I going to say?"
Come back in eight months, and there might be a different mantra.
“We feel pretty sexy about ourselves,’’ Montero said, “but what we really want is to be remembered. For decades. For generations. For centuries.
“We want to be known as the Cubs team that finally wins it all."
Read More Here: A Cubs World Series? 'Holy grail of baseball'