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Nightengale: Cubs’ 2017 Challenge at Hand: From Revelry to World Series Repeat

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Oct 28, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon (70) smiles before game three of the 2016 World Series against the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Cubs clubhouse is littered with strewn boxes, clubhouse attendants furiously going in and out of the door, loading luggage and equipment onto the huge orange moving van in the parking lot.

It’s just like the start of any other season, the Cubs kept saying Tuesday, getting ready to move out of their spring training home, preparing for the 2017 season.

But, come on, who are they fooling? This has been a spring like no other.

Huey Lewis stopped by to sing Take Me out to the Ball Game, while Jimmy Kimmel stretched out behind home plate. The folks from 60 Minutes dropped in for interviews. Cubs President Theo Epstein was declared the world’s greatest leader by Fortune magazine. And Mesa became Chicago’s most popular tourist destination, with legions of fans camped out every morning just to see their favorite players walking by them.

You didn’t need to see the large decal on the moving van, the one reading “World Champion Cubs,” to know this will be a season no living Cubs player has experienced.

When the Cubs play Sunday night against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, it will be the first time in 16,945 games they will open the season as defending World Series champions.

There were no rings or even a trophy commemorating the triumph when the Cubs last won, in 1908.

Now, for the entire season, wherever they go, whoever they play, they will be reminded they are World Series champions, with an inquiring nation wanting to know if they can dare repeat.

Chicago’s Ben Zobrist was named the World Series MVP. Photo: SI.com

“We’ve got to find a way to forget everything that happened,” Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist said. “You’ve got to move past it, and it won’t be easy. We’re not going to be able to really do that until after the ring ceremony.

“Once we have that in the bag, then we’ll really have to turn the page.”

The problem is the Cubs won’t have the ring ceremony at Wrigley Field until April 12, eight games into the season. They desperately want to get off to the same hot start of a year ago when they went 25-6 and built an 8½-game lead in the National League Central race.

“We had open dialogue with our players about these moments, whether it’s raising the pennant or the ring ceremony,” Epstein said. “We collectively decided that the best way we can honor 2016 and everything that happened before us is to continue to put the team first and come together as a ballclub.

“That’s the best way to honor it, so when we see the trophy, when we see the ring, it reminds us of the small sacrifices that the players have made, the culture that they built. When you win, you can either get complacent or hungrier.

“Our guys have definitely got hungrier.”

The Cubs, who won 103 games last year, and 200 over the last two seasons, are vying to become the second NL franchise in 95 years to win back-to-back World Series championships, joining the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds.

Then again, there are 29 other teams that will do everything in their power to make sure it doesn’t happen.

The Cubs are heavily favored to again win the NL Central, but the New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants are all expected to stand in the way in the quest for the NL pennant.

The same American League teams that were in the postseason a year ago are favored to return. Yes, we’re talking about the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers, with perhaps the Houston Astros supplanting the Baltimore Orioles.

“If you want to talk about a team that’s hungry,” Cubs catcher Miguel Montero said, “how about the Indians? Man, are they good.”

The Indians, who took the Cubs to 10 innings in Game 7 of the World Series, could win 100 games, executives and scouts widely predicted this spring.

Maybe even by Labor Day.

While we eagerly await to see if we’ll have our first World Series rematch since the New York Yankees and Dodgers in 1977-78, we’ll be curiously watching whether the Seattle Mariners end baseball’s longest active postseason drought at 15 years. Whether the Mets will return to the World Series for the second time in three years. Whether the Nationals will get their first postseason series win. Whether the game’s best pitcher, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, will be in his first World Series. Whether the game’s best player, Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, will get his first postseason game win. Whether the Giants can win a World Series in an odd year. Or whether this is really the year of the Astros.

“It doesn’t matter what we did last year, or anyone else did, either,” Montero said. “You’ve got to flip the switch. Everyone needs to move on and start over, because on Sunday, we’re all 0-0.

“The reality is that we won last year. And the reality is that we have a legitimate chance to do it again. Will we do it?

“I think the world is waiting to find out.”

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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