SAN DIEGO – On one side, you have the American League All-Stars.
On the other, you have the Chicago Cubs.
It sure seems that way since Chicago has the largest contingent of All-Stars of any team for the 87th Midsummer Classic.
Seven Cubs made the roster. The entire starting infield will be a Cubs convention, because first baseman Anthony Rizzo, second baseman Ben Zobrist, shortstop Addison Russell and third baseman Kris Bryant were voted into the lineup. That’s the first time since the 1963 Cardinals that an entire infield was selected as starters.
There are so many Cubs players here that they had their own row against a wall Monday in a ballroom at the Grand Manchester Hyatt hotel, where All-Star media day took place.
“It’s not that often you go somewhere and there’s a Cubs wall,” said outfielder Dexter Fowler, who is injured and unable to play in the game. “That’s a lot of guys, but that’s cool.”
The Cubs won 97 games last season but were eliminated by the Mets in five games in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series. With expectations already high, the Cubs knocked one out of the park during the offseason, signing Zobrist, Fowler, outfielder Jason Heyward and righthander John Lackey as free agents.
The Cubs then started this season 25-6 and dominated until a recent 6-15 slide. That didn’t stop All-Star ballot boxes from being stuffed with votes for Cubs — and no one knows how to stuff ballot boxes like Chicagoans.
“A lot of guys deserve to be here,” Rizzo said, “and a lot of guys are here.”
It’s the result of a roster that oozes with talent and potential assembled by Theo Esptein, the Cubs president of baseball operations since 2011. Chicago lost 101 games in 2012, then 96 the next year. But Epstein restocked the farm system, made key trades and free-agent signings, and he hired manager Joe Maddon away from Tampa Bay before the 2015 season.
Righthander Jake Arrieta surged to the NL Cy Young Award last year and was 12-3 with a 1.74 ERA this season before struggling in his past three starts. He is backed up by veterans Jon Lester and Lackey in the rotation.
The roster isn’t perfect, as it might need bullpen depth and a lefthanded hitter off the bench. But it has the look of a World Series-ready team.
As a result, Wrigleyville — the neighborhood around the 102-year-old home of the Cubs — is the world’s largest beer garden before and after games.
“Let me put it this way,” said former Twins All-Star Ron Coomer, who now serves as the radio color commentator on Cubs broadcasts. “We had a Tuesday afternoon game and we had 41,000 people. We couldn’t fit another person into Wrigley Field on a Tuesday afternoon. You can’t. There’s not enough tickets. The neighborhood is packed.
“There are 60,000 people [trying to] jam into 41,000 seats, with standing-room-only tickets.
‘‘It’s the craziest thing I have seen, baseball-wise. We’re full now the rest of the rest of the season. Full.”
Coomer is amazed at how Maddon handles his diverse group. When the Cubs lose a series and the players expect Maddon to be upset, he plays music on the team charter and tells everyone to shake it off. And, as he did while managing the Rays, Maddon picks flights during which players have to wear funky outfits.
“It’s like playing for some spiritual guru,” Arietta said.
Maddon’s influence will be important coming out of the break, since the Cubs’ skid has enabled St. Louis to creep within seven games and Pittsburgh within 7 ½.
Cubs fans have started to get restless. That’s understandable, given that the team hasn’t won a World Series since 1908 and an NL pennant since 1945.
The players are aware of what’s at stake. A fanbase starving for success doesn’t want to be teased. It doesn’t want to be let down hard like in 1969, when the Cubs lost 17 of their last 25 games to fall out of first place. The Cubs know anything short of a World Series would be gut-wrenching.
“Personally, yes it would,” Zobrist said. “I think a lot of the enjoyment in this game needs to be found in the ride along the way, not just the end product. Hopefully that’s what we’re helping our fans enjoy during the year of 2016.
“For us, in the end, our goal is nothing less than that. We would be disappointed. A lot of fans would too.”
Does that mean there’s more pressure to win, given the history of Cubs baseball?
“Naw,” Arietta said. “The pressure is on the teams trying to catch us. Because it’s not going to be easy.”