Hot off the Presses: The August issue with Hector Rondon and the John Baker Game

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I have to admit: The first time I encountered John Baker, I didn’t know what to make of him. Or exactly who he was, for that matter.

The journeyman backup catcher, who spent parts of seven seasons in the major leagues, was in camp with the Cubs during Spring Training in 2014. I was only in Arizona for a few days, and the organization had just unveiled its new Sloan Park facility, so I spent the majority of my time exploring the flashy new digs and tracking down established players like Jake Arrieta, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Jeff Samardzija.

Still, it was hard to miss Baker. The floppy-haired, good-natured veteran seemed to be in the middle of any clubhouse antics and deftly bridged the gaps between player cliques—whether he was strumming his guitar or passing out Chicago skyline socks to the team (which, frankly, I’ve always regretted not purchasing at the time). Once I finally figured out who he was, and despite the fact that he seemed like an interesting fellow, I figured, “Well, everyone carries extra catchers in the spring to handle the workload. He’ll never break camp with the club.”

Of course, the then-33-year-old went on to spend the entire season with the Cubs, becoming a leader in the clubhouse and a folk hero in these parts for his one-man rain delay concerts and that remarkable late-July game, which he recounts for us in this issue. He’s now moved into the Cubs front office, but he’ll never forget what the marathon contest, in which he pitched one inning and scored the winning run in the longest game in Wrigley Field history, meant to his career.

The 2014 season, in hindsight, was also the turning point for a rapidly improving franchise. After dropping 96 games in 2013, the club improved in 2014, going 33-35 in the second half. These weren’t optimal results, but you could feel the tide shifting. This was before the organization made splashy free-agent moves to pick up players like Jon Lester, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist; before mastermind Joe Maddon graced the dugout steps; and before top draft picks like Albert Almora, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber progressed to Wrigley Field.

But there was something different about that team. They were tired of losing, they were oddly confident, and they were—for the first time in years—having fun. Much of this was due to a series of shrewd acquisitions most people don’t talk about anymore. Baker was certainly one of them. It helps backup catchers find and retain employment if they can both motivate young players and keep things light off the field. Baker had those qualities in spades, and he became part of a changing clubhouse culture in Chicago.

In addition, some of the Cubs’ foundational players were coming into focus. Rizzo was developing into a bona fide star, Arrieta was starting to prove he was something special, Kyle Hendricks was turning heads with his stellar second-half work, and a little-known Rule 5 pick out of Cleveland named Hector Rondon was morphing into a workhorse power reliever.

This month, we examine the development of Rondon, the former top starting prospect, turned Indians castoff, turned Cubs diamond-in-the-rough, turned dominant back-end reliever. It’s unusual for a Rule 5 pick to pan out at all—he has to stick on the major-league roster of the team that selected him for a full season or be returned to his previous club—much less turn into an impact player on a playoff-caliber team.

We also look at the other factor that has turned the once-moribund Cubs into a powerhouse—the MLB First-Year Player Draft. The 2016 event, however, was much different from the previous years’, with the Cubs not making their first selection until the third round. We talk to Senior Vice President of Player Development and Amateur Scouting Jason McLeod about this year’s draft and the development of the organization since he came aboard.

All the fruits of the Cubs’ labors have been on display this season. We’re there for every draft pick, trade, win and loss. Find us in print, here and on Twitter at @cubsvineline.

Let’s go!

—Gary Cohen

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