For years they've been the punch line to jokes and poster child for heartbreak. Don’t look now but the Chicago Cubs have suddenly become role models.

Yes, those lovable losers, the Cubbies, are the ones downtrodden teams — namely the one here in red pinstripes — will try to emulate as they try to scrape themselves off the bottom. After five straight seasons losing at least 87 games — and usually a lot more — folks in Chicago are suddenly gearing up for the post-season, with their 82-60 club getting better by the day.

For the team "leader" in seniority, 25-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro, it’s been a long wait.

“I knew this team was gonna be good one day," said Castro in his fourth full season after arriving late in 2010. “It’s been frustrating all the years I’ve been here. But I don’t think about that now. I just try to enjoy the moment and the way we’re playing We have a lot of good young players and a really good future.”

They also have a manager who’s been at the center of two dramatic transformations. While Joe Maddon says he just came into a situation where anyone could’ve succeeded, pitcher Jason Hammel says otherwise having witnessed Maddon do the same thing in Tampa Bay.  

"It just takes one person to get everything in gear," said Hammel, who spent part of the 2008 season on the Rays, but wasn’t on Tampa’s World Series roster.  “It’s kind of funny that Joe’s been a part of it now with two different teams. And it’s nice to see hard work and dedication from the front office to stick with it and put the final pieces together.”

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Downplaying his role, the 61-year-old Maddon says all the ingredients were in place when he arrived.

“Baseball players make managers smarter,” said Maddon, who had two bus loads of friends and family from his native Hazleton, PA. make the trek down here Friday.  “Any manager would love to have the opportunity to work with this group of young, very talented players.

“Believe me, it’s not about me. It’s about them. Theo (GM Theo Epstein), our scouts and minor league development people have done all the heavy lifting. That’s where the work began.

“I know that’s what Ruben was trying to do when he was here.”

Even before Ruben Amaro Jr. was dismissed Thursday, though, Maddon says he’s likes much of what he sees here — even though the lineup’s not close to being on a par with the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and rookie sensations Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.

“They’ve got some good, talented kids,” said Maddon, 2008 and 2011 American League Manager of the Year. “They kicked our butts in Chicago (sweeping that July series, including Cole Hamels’ no-hitter). 

“I know it’s not gone well this year, but I’m seeing a lot of interesting athletes. I know the fans don’t feel that way, but I think the Phillies are gonna reap the rewards the next couple of years. 

“Once they get their pitching in line, heads up.”

With 19-game winner Jake Arrieta leading the way, the Cubs have put together a solid rotation built around veterans Jon Lester, Dan Haren and Hammel, along with Kyle Hendricks.  How far they — plus all those booming bats--take them this October remains to be seen.

But after being down for so long Cubs fans can finally come out of hiding.

“A lot of good things were already happening last year before I left,” said Hammel, who was traded to Oakland in mid-season, along with Jeff Samardzija for top prospect Addison, then chose to return as a free agent.  

“There was already an idea that the winning was coming and this was on its way. The confidence is there right now and it starts with Joe.”

And even if this doesn’t turn out to be their year, who’s to say — with a straight face — next year won’t be?  

“We’ve shown teams it’s possible,” said Castro, who looked like a surefire star when he came up, but has since settled into mediocrity. “We were a bad team and showed how to become a winning team. It’s all part of the process.”

That’s what Phils’ president Andy MacPhail, owner John Middleton and whoever’s calling the shots from the dugout next season and beyond are hoping for. Yes, the process can work.

Just look at—of all teams—the Cubs!