Photos as the Cubs practice at spring training in Mesa, Ariz.
The Cubs may wear the name of their city on their road jerseys, but it’s a stretch to believe this is still just Chicago’s team.
A championship season, a slew of young, telegenic stars and a celebrity manager have turned the Cubs into a national phenomenon, much like the 1985 Bears, albeit without the rap video.
Whether it’s Kris Bryant’s Red Bull video going viral or Anthony Rizzo showing up dressed in black at the Grammys, the cult of Cub is spreading like never before.
"I felt it in the offseason in Las Vegas," Bryant said. "Didn’t realize how many fans we had around the country, and I really got a sense of that this year. It’s kind of hard to even go places.
"In my hometown, I’m seeing Cubs hats everywhere. Driving my car down the road and a guy is running in a Cubs cap. I’m like, ‘This is crazy.’ It shows that what we did is something we can be proud of."
It’s hard to believe only two years ago, Bryant and shortstop Addison Russell started the season in Des Moines playing for the Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate. Bryant is now a household name, and Russell may be on his way.
"This whole fame thing is completely new to me," Russell said. "Walking into the airport, they all want autographs and stuff. Different airports, different cities. It’s very humbling; (I’m) very blessed. I’m just a small-town guy, so it hit me very hard. It’s very exciting, though."
As the Cubs gathered for the start of spring training last week, visions of a repeat danced in their heads. But the spoils of victory also include new opportunities that can cause one to lose focus on the task at hand.
Manager Joe Maddon isn’t worried, knowing the personalities of his players.
"I thought that was happening a lot last year, too, even prior to winning," he said of the off-field opportunities. "I have a lot of faith again in our guys. I haven’t felt (it’s an issue) yet."
Maddon said media relations chief Peter Chase makes sure the players aren’t barraged with things that take away from their primary job, and he said no one has "gone off the rails yet."
"It’s something that we’re cognizant of," Maddon said. "Even for me, I don’t want to do too many things right now either. I have things that I’ve got to do, but I don’t want to do too much because if you don’t do this job well, then none of the other stuff matters."
Maddon prefers his players get their marketing work done before the regular season. Russell is working on deals with Pepsi and Audi, while Rizzo has endorsed BodyArmor sports drink and Buona Beef and filmed a video Friday at Sloan Park for Reynolds Wrap. Rizzo also just finished a digital commercial for Tyson Foods called "Legends of the Grill" in which he grills Hillshire Farm sausages with David Ortiz.
"There is a lot more content being done (in digital videos), plus it gives them a lot more of an opportunity to capture more of stuff with the guys," said Marc Pollack, Rizzo’s agent. "A guy like Anthony, to really see his personality is easier in a bunch of 30-second clips as opposed to one 20-second commercial."
Russell has a much quieter, lower-key personality than Rizzo, but he’s starting to become more outgoing as his reputation grows.
"The opportunities are coming, which are great," Russell said. "It’s a whole new playing field. I’m glad that I’m getting to see a different side of baseball where I can actually find a couple talents off the baseball field."
Is he honing his acting skills?
"If you break me out of my shell, maybe," he said with a grin. "Not sure I’ve reached that point in my life where I could just throw it all on the table. It comes with growth. Maybe if I get a few more years of experience, that may have to be another route.
"It’s all pretty cool. We’ve got great ballplayers, beautiful faces on this team. Just talent galore in this clubhouse, and that’s really cool to see because these guys handle themselves like real troupers."
Things have gone so swimmingly for some of the young Cubs that it’s unknown how they’ll react to any long-term adversity. It would be easy to get overconfident after so much early success, but there are no signs of anyone going overboard or becoming jealous.
Veteran catcher Miguel Montero, who probably would be the first to burst the balloon of such a teammate, said he doesn’t expect the Cubs to get too big for their britches.
"I don’t think that’ll be the case," Montero said. "I had the same question last year, after we went all the way to the playoffs in ’15. It was the first year for a lot of these guys, and I asked myself: ‘Do these guys think this was easy, what happened? They probably are going to take a step back because of overconfidence.’
"But they impressed me because that wasn’t the case. They wanted it even more because they felt they had unfinished business, and that’s what we did. And so far, what I see in the clubhouse, I see the same atmosphere, energy and hunger."
The Cubs have always had a large fan base, of course, but now it’s bigger than ever. While the Braves were the first baseball organization to call themselves "America’s Team" during the early 1980s, when TBS was part of everyone’s cable package, the Cubs also drew from a national audience thanks to Harry Caray and the WGN superstation.
But the Cubs’ championship drought continued long after Caray’s death in 1998, and in 2014 Tribune Co. stopped putting the WGN-9 Cubs telecasts on the WGN American national cable channel.
Now they’ll be regulars on national Fox and ESPN broadcasts after the Cubs-Indians World Series posted the highest ratings since 2004.