CHICAGO -- Remember Opening Night at Wrigley Field? The bleachers weren't open, it was 44 degrees, and the Cardinals beat the Cubs en route to their 100-win season. At that time, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber were all in the Minor Leagues.
On Thursday, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein recalled that April opener and how far his young team grew over the course of a magical 97-win season, which included ousting the Cardinals in the National League Division Series. On Wednesday, the Cubs were eliminated as the Mets completed a sweep of the NL Championship Series with an 8-3 victory.
The long wait for the Cubs to win a World Series is now 108 years, but Epstein said the Cubs feel they made huge strides because of the success in 2015. A lot of the credit goes to manager Joe Maddon, who seemed to feel most at ease even though he was the new kid at Clark and Addison Streets.
"He pulled off the impossible, of making a bunch of 21-, 22-, 23-year-old kids, 40 years his junior, gravitate toward him and feel comfortable around him and look forward to coming to work in part because of the environment he created," Epstein said Thursday. "It's an important part of our mix and what it means to be a Cub. What started in the Minor Leagues three, four years ago, that pride in being a Cub, that spirit we had, the morale we had, the pride we had, that percolated in the system with our players.
"It's always hard to conquer that last battlefield of having that same spirit at the big league level when things are infinitely more complicated. Joe and his coaching staff accomplished that this year."
Maddon pulled out all the stops over the year, from orchestrating a visit by a penguin and a cheetah to having a magician return on Wednesday prior to Game 4 of the NLCS.
"It was good -- it didn't work, but it was good," Epstein said of the magician, who first performed in New York on June 30 and lightened the mood after a five-game losing streak.
After Wednesday's loss, the Cubs' players and coaches came onto the field to tip their caps to the remaining fans. Epstein, who took over the Cubs four years ago on Oct. 25, 2011, called the gesture genuine.
"[The fans] were incredibly patient with us for three years during the rebuild and stuck with us," Epstein said. "When it was time to fall in love with the team and show up and get loud in the second half of the season and through the playoffs, they did that incredibly well and helped us get through the Cardinals series, Games 3 and 4, with their support."
Epstein toasted the players in the clubhouse on Wednesday to "thank them for the journey they took us on."
It was quite a ride. The Cubs finished with the third-best record in baseball and upended the Pirates in the NL Wild Card Game, then the Cardinals to reach the NLCS. And even though losing to the Mets stings, Epstein said it will "help us come back even stronger in pursuit of our ultimate goal."
Several of the Cubs' players posted thank you notes to the fans via Twitter on Thursday.
• Schwarber: "Thank you to all of the @Cubs fans for a great year and an awesome experience! You guys truly are the best fans in baseball!"
Thank you to all of the @Cubs fans for a great year and an awesome experience! You guys truly are the best fans in baseball!
The Cubs had a great time. Epstein called it "the most together, connected, selfless, team-first organization I've seen in a long time."
"No one was trying to grab any credit or deflect any blame," he said. "They all supported one another. I think the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. That's magical and to be coveted and appreciated."
The rookies' contributions were key. Bryant is the leading candidate for NL Rookie of the Year, Schwarber set a franchise record for most home runs in the postseason, and Russell shined at shortstop.
"They didn't come up here with a selfish attitude, they didn't come up here in awe," Epstein said. "They came up here and asked, 'How can I help the team win?'"
Besides tweaking the roster for 2016, Epstein may be in line for a new contract himself. He has one year remaining.
"That's not anywhere near the top of the list of priorities this winter," Epstein said. "I'm sure this winter, at some point, we'll talk not just about me but about a lot of the guys in the front office who contribute behind the scenes and make sure this group can stay together for a while and finish what we started."