During an appearance recently on MLB Network, Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo casually mentioned the team's "humble cockiness" as it prepares for the 2021 season.
No one questioned what Rizzo meant, which tends to happen when interviews are pre-scripted to a fit a five-minute window.
But obviously you can't be humble and cocky at the same time. And based on my dealings with the Cubs over the last six seasons, "humble" is not really a word in the team's vocabulary, from the owner's box to the front office on down to the dugout.
That's not a bad thing per se. Cockiness is a trait many great athletes — and executives — have in their arsenal.
That supreme feeling of inner confidence exhibited by Cubs players like Rizzo, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Jake Arrieta and others helped propel them to a World Series title and made them an annual contender, something that's never happened before in our lifetimes.
A typical Cubs run lasted two or three years at most, and then it was back to the drawing board, usually with a new manager.
This bunch began to change those expectations in 2015, but now, for the first time since Year 3 of the rebuild in 2014, the Cubs enter a season without the usual preseason hype.
The reasons for this are well-documented.
Last year was one of the worst-hitting Cubs teams in history with a .220 average. They dealt ace Yu Darvish and return only one starter in Kyle Hendricks They've put their trust in Craig Kimbrel to return to form as the closer, and made only two significant offseason signings — Joc Pederson and Arrieta.
And they're coming off a season when only a couple of returning players can honestly say they lived up to their capabilities. Most of them — particularly Rizzo, Baez and Kris Bryant — suffered through the most difficult years of their career, albeit during a 62-game season, including the playoff loss to the Miami Marlins.
If that isn't enough to humble you a bit, what is?
For Cubs fans, the good part is knowing all three are capable of having comeback seasons and should be motivated entering the final years of their contracts. But until they prove it, we can't really know for sure.
So here we are, entering 2021 on hope and a prayer.
Opening day is three days away, and at the very least everyone is duly excited about the return of fans to Wrigley Field for the first time since 2019.
In case anyone has forgotten, the Cubs lost their last six home games that year with fans inside the ballpark, blowing a shot at the postseason in Joe Maddon's final year and leading to some loud booing of Kimbrel, one of the chief culprits of the downfall.
Kimbrel lost his job last year to Jeremy Jeffress but pitched well enough in middle relief the final month that manager David Ross announced at the start of camp he'd return as closer without having to compete for the role.
Kimbrel entered Sunday with a 14.25 ERA and 1.76 WHIP in six outings. The Cactus League is not always a good indicator of how well a player will fare, so it remains to be seen which Kimbrel we'll see in 2021.
Cubs President Jed Hoyer said over and over in the offseason he has to keep "one eye on the future," which suggested a transition toward building the next window of opportunity. But on Saturday, the Cubs optioned future second baseman Nico Hoerner to the alternate site in South Bend after previously signing 34-year-old Eric Sogard, who hit .209 last year with the Milwaukee Brewers.
David Bote, who hit .200 in 2020, will start at second after a nice spring, but now he must show he's capable of being an everyday player. Hoerner's glove will be missed, and it's hard to understand how this is better for him.
Either way, Ross appears to be given more say on decisions in his second year on the job — and his first with Hoyer in charge after Theo Epstein's resignation. Ross said he relied on Epstein and Hoyer "for almost everything" in 2020 but now is more comfortable doing his own thing.
"Theo has a way about him that's very confident, knowing what he wants and moving that forward," Ross said. "I felt like he was leading and I was following a little bit more last year, whereas Jed is definitely leading. But our relationship has grown a ton and the conversations we've had, he treats me very well in the room and respects my opinion.
"He also has some really good feedback in his thoughts . I think he's doing a phenomenal job of making me feel heard and also directing me still in tough decisions and tough moments."
At the start of spring training, Ross said he would show less patience this season, which can only be a good thing. The honeymoon period is over, and his decisions will undergo more scrutiny over the course of a 162-game season.
"Hopefully I make a lot more good ones than bad ones and we win a lot of ballgames," he said.
"We're here to help you," one reporter said.
"I really appreciate that," Ross replied. "I feel you guys are always on my side. You guys are just so good at your job and I value our relationship and how you guys treat me. I know I give you guys a lot of good energy and feedback. I'm looking forward to this season working alongside such a wonderful group."
It's not easy to know on Zoom if someone is being facetious, but anytime a manager calls the media corps a "wonderful group," you have to assume he's joking.
Check back in September to see if he feels the same way.