Dave Otto is doing his usual hosting duties. He opens up by introducing the panel with Smokies announcer Mick Gillespie, SVP of scouting and player development Jason McLeod, farm director Jaron Madison, and Cubs pitchers Blake Parker and Justin Grimm.
Madison talks about the 2013 draft and how happy they were to land the people they targeted (Kris Bryant, et.al.).
Otto gives a recap of the minor league system, including the Daytona team that won the Florida State League championship.
Otto talks about how there used to be only one or two guys on the farm fans could get excited about. Things are different now with guys like Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, C.J. Edwards, Corey Black, Pierce Johnson, Jen-Ho Tseng, etc.
A fan asks about the plan with Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters. McLeod says the organization still has belief in both of them, especially Vitters, who has hit wherever he’s been and is still only 24. But both had rough seasons last year and were hampered by injuries.
Both Parker and Grimm talk about how rewarding it is to finally break into the majors and the belief they have in their ability. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth the grind.
Gillespie talks about how hard Parker worked back when he was with the Smokies in Double-A, and how much he enjoys seeing the players in their developmental phases. He remembers being the first guy to interview Darwin Barney after he got called up to the big leagues.
McLeod talks about the “Core Four” and how good they can be, but that the organization is much deeper than just them. Generally, you feel pretty good if you feel you have two guys who could become stars. He says the Cubs have multiple guys who could get there. Some won’t make it, but that’s why volume is important. Guys like Jeimer Candelario and Arismendy Alcantara could really make an impact.
McLeod talks about how he drafted Grimm out of high school and brought him up to Boston, but Grimm decided to go to the University of Georgia instead. McLoed jokes that Grimm just wanted a free trip to Boston. McLeod and Epstein went to see Grimm pitch in the SEC tourney the following year, and Grimm was pumping 97 mph fastballs. Epstein joked that he was going to fire McLeod for not signing Grimm. McLeod thanks Grimm for almost getting him fired.
Asked about routines and superstitions, both Grimm and Parker defer. Grimm does say he check through some pitching checkpoints on his iPad before games. It’s just stuff that helps him stay focused on his mechanics, etc.
One fan asks about the potential of Dustin Geiger. McLeod talks about how Geiger has been very solid but has been overshadowed by guys like Soler and Baez. He’s a big guy, so they are working with him on flexibility at first base. The front office doesn’t think he’s under the radar, but he doesn’t tend to get a lot of press. Geiger hit .281/.365/.458 at High-A Daytona last season.
McLeod talks about breaking the curse in Boston and how it’s better than he ever imagined. He also talks about the 2007 World Series team and how it was built with guys they drafted and developed. That’s what gets them excited and what they live for.
Parker explains the tradition of the youngest pitcher taking the pink backpack out to the bullpen. It’s just filled with supplies—gum, candy, etc. The guy with the least service time has to carry it out every game. It’s light rookie hazing.
McLeod talks about Arodys Vizcaino, who the club acquired from Atlanta in 2012. He had a setback after Tommy John surgery last year. He’s throwing well now but is not 100 percent yet. He was in the rookie development program this week and was really popping the glove (note: we were there, and he was). They are being conservative with his rehab to try to get him back into form.
McLeod responds to a question about the lack of system depth at the catcher position, and he says it’s definitely a concern. They have some young guys coming up, but they’re not quite ready yet. That puts some pressure on Welington Castillo this season.
Gillespie talks about how many guys there were at Tennessee who just need to take a step and they’ll be knocking on the door—guys like Matt Szczur and Christian Villanueva. Gillespie raves about Villanueva’s defense at third base, saying he’s better than most major leaguers. McLeod seconds how well Villanueva is progressing. The 22-year-old had 41 doubles, 19 home runs and 72 RBI last season at Double-A. He hit .261.
One fan asks about where Baez will play and if there is a path to the majors this year with Starlin Castro in the fold. McLeod says they’ll look at him in Spring Training and probably have him play multiple positions. But he will be the starting shortstop at Triple-A Iowa this year, and they see him playing short for the foreseeable future. He’s developing well at the position and has great instincts.
We get the obligatory question about Japanese free agent Masahiro Tanaka and about how his numbers will translate in the majors. McLeod says he’s incredibly talented, and they’ve been scouting him for years. The evaluation process is complete, and they met with him last week in LA. They’ll find out soon where he chooses. But any team will be happy to get him.
Madison says they generally want each player to “dominate” the level they’re at before they move up. They don’t want to rush players if they don’t have to because that can be damaging. It’s a lot of decisions to make about who goes where and when guys move forward, but there’s an entire staff in place to handle it.
Gillespie and McLeod talk about how complicated it is to put guys in a position to succeed. Roster management with the minor league system can be tough. Games are going on all over the country, and each roster only gets 25 guys. If one guys moves up, another guy needs to take his place, and keeping it all in order is tricky.
McLeod runs down the 2013 draft. The team was definitely looking to stockpile pitching. In 2012, they focused on high school arms. Last year, they focused on more mature college arms. In players’ first years, the organization really limits innings. Most of the new guys only go about 20-30 innings. But they did draft a lot of big-bodied, high-velocity pitchers.
McLeod talks about Mike Olt’s struggles last year with vision problems and concussion after being hit by a ball. He was untouchable at Texas a few years ago when they were looking to deal Ryan Dempster. Olt’s been meeting with specialists and is feeling very good. His swing looks strong, direct and fast. All the talent is still there, but he needs to start facing live pitching.
That’s it for Vine Line at the 2014 Cubs Convention. We’ll see you next year. Thanks for following along.
The Cubs took their fans down memory lane Sunday morning. Eight members of the 1984 squad took to the podium, reminiscing about the squad that made a postseason run 30 years ago.
Bobby Dernier, Tim Stoddard, Steve Trout, Jay Johnstone, Rick Sutcliffe, Gary Matthews Sr., Scott Sanderson and Lee Smith spend the hour telling tales, complimenting each other and campaigning for Smith’s Hall of Fame induction.
A sentiment stressed throughout the seminar was that the squad shared a brotherhood through the success of the season.
“1984 team was not my team, they were my family,” Smith said.
Sanderson set the mood of Spring Training that season, describing it as a veteran group of guys coming together, understanding the task at hand.
He noted the club brought Dernier, Matthews and Ryne Sandberg over from Philadelphia, along with Stoddard from Baltimore.
“It was brand new to us, and there were a lot of veterans, there weren’t a lot of rookies on the team,” Sanderson said.
Johnstone said that he had won three World Series rings and yet he said this was the best side he ever played on.
On numerous occasions Matthews was said to be the leader of the team, and was viewed as the player who constantly pushed the club to be better.
Trout relived a game during the summer where he pitched well, but gave up a late homer in a 6-1 win. After the game, the pitcher went up to Matthews’ room to have a drink, Sarge kind of got on him, asking why he surrendered the home run.
“You gotta play for the shutout,” Trout remembered Matthews saying.
It couldn’t be stressed more how good Smith was that ’84 season.
Sutcliffe described handing the ball off to Smith to being a nervous freshman in high school, but then remembering “your brother is a senior, and he’s the starting middle linebacker on the football team.”
And of course there were jokes made, at many members of the panel’s expense.
Matthews described his Spring Training trade to Chicago from Philadelphia, as he was the only set outfielder in Phillies camp prior to the move. He and Dernier—a fourth outfielder who was likely facing demotion—were sent to Chicago midway through preseason camp.
“Bobby comes over and said ‘You’re coming with me to Chicago,'” Matthews said. “And I said, ‘No Bobby, you’re coming with me.'”
Dernier wrapped up the forum by giving Leon Durham praise for his efforts throughout the season, and asked fans to let the play go. During Game 5 of the NLCS, Durham let a ball go through his legs while playing first base, allowing a Padres comeback.
Len Kasper is moderating and opens the panel by introducing Pat Hughes, stadium announcer Andrew Belleson, Cubs historian Ed Hartig, groundskeeper and scoreboard operator Rick Fuhs and senior director of marketing Alison Miller.
Miller shows a quick slide presentation about what the Cubs are doing to celebrate the Party of the Century in 2014. The theme is 10 Decades and 10 Homestands. Each of 10 homestands (starting after Opening Week) will celebrate a different decade in Wrigley’s history.
At each of the 10 homestands, there will be a themed Friday bobblehead giveaway: 1910s Joe Tinker, 1920s Red Grange, 1930s Babe Ruth, 1940s All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, 1950s Ernie Banks, 1960s Gale Sayers, 1970s Jack Brickhouse, 1980s Rick Sutcliffe and lights, 1990s Kerry Wood’s 20K game, 2000s TBA.
On Sundays, the team will wear throwback uniforms. Unis being represented are 1914 (not a Sunday but the birthday game on April 23), 1929, 1937, 1942, 1953, 1969, 1978 (baby blue road jersey), 1988, 1994, 2008. The opponents will also wear throwbacks.
There will also be retro toys on Sundays for kids 13 and under. Each will represent the top toy from that decade from yo-yos to Viewmasters to Mr. Potato Heads to Etch-a-Sketches.
There will be themed food and beverages at the ballpark to represent the decades. This will include cocktails, like a Manhattan for the 1930s.
Organist Gary Pressey is working with the Cubs on decade-specific music.
The ballpark will be decorated, and the players will have sleeve and hat patches commemorating Wrigley’s 100th. The game balls will also be stamped.
For each decade, there will be special guests at the ballpark, from former Cubs and Bears players to celebrities.
The official birthday is on April 23, 2014. The Cubs will wear old Federal League Chi-Fed uniforms, and the Diamondbacks will wear Kansas City Packers unis (the team the Chi-Feds played that day). Everyone will also get cake. Yep, everyone. And the first 30,000 fans will walk out with a Chi-Feds jersey.
The Cubs are working with MLB on developing WrigleyField100.com to celebrate the ballpark. The site will feature historical facts, fan stories, ballpark facts and more.
Hartig talks about the ballpark’s beginnings as Weeghman Park for the independent minor league Federal League. For more info on this, check out the January issue of Vine Line.
Hughes talks about his first major league game as a broadcaster—an exhibition game between the Cubs and Brewers in 1992. He was immediately struck by Wrigley Field’s atmosphere. He’s now in his 19th season with the team.
Fuhs talks about how he runs the scoreboard and how he’s so fast putting up balls and strikes. He watches the umpire’s movements. If the ump moves his foot, it’s going to be a strike. He knows most of the characteristics of most of the umps in the league. He also credits Curt Huebert, who designed the scoreboard in 1937. Fuhs has been operating the scoreboard for 26 years, and there haven’t been any major problems with the electronics. He’s still using the original panel from 1937. Fuhs also credits Bill Veeck for helping design and plan the scoreboard. He complains about how slow umpire Tim McLelland is with his calls. Apparently, Quick Rick would like to take the day off whenever McLelland is umpiring.
Fuhs talks about Lee Smith and the closer’s relationship with the groundscrew. Those were Smith’s best friends on the team. After being repeatedly asked, Fuhs went down and visited Smith in Louisiana last year. Reiterates that Smith deserves a Hall call.
Belleson talks about getting the job at Wrigley Field. He was only 24 (he’s 27 now) when he got hired. Says he has the greatest job in the world.
Back to Hartig about ballpark history. Weeghman Park was originally just a single-story grandstand, and it seated 14,000. The scoreboard was originally in left field. For more on the original park, check out the January issue of Vine Line.
The team actually tried to install lights in the early-1940s. They had already bought them, but after Pearl Harbor, Mr. Wrigley donated them to the war effort. They were supposed to be used to play twilight games so people could attend after work.
One fan wants to bring back smoky links and Ron Santo pizza. There is something in the works on the smoky links front.
One fan asks if Wrigley Field will be the last park to turn 100. Kasper mentions Dodger Stadium was built in 1962, so it’s halfway there. But other than that, it’s not likely. Hughes agrees that no other park will last that long.
Belleson said he doesn’t emulate anyone in his job, but likes the simple style of guys like Paul Friedman.
Kasper compares Wrigley Field to Central Park in New York—a green oasis in the middle of the city. He says he loves coming into the ballpark before everyone else arrives. You can hear the sounds of the city around the park. Once baseball starts, it drowns out those city sounds.
Hughes talks about the possibility of being the only announcer living Cubs fans have ever heard say the words, “the Cubs win the World Series.” Kasper thinks about it too.
Someone asks about biggest pranksters. Rick Sutcliffe, Greg Maddux, Ron Santo and Keith Moreland all get mentions.
Asked about most exciting players to watch, Hughes brings up Derrek Lee as one his favorite ballplayers. Cites his defense, power hitting, modesty, friendliness and more. Kasper agrees that Lee was one of the best. Fuhs remembers Sosa in 1998 and the buzz around the ballpark.
Hartig’s favorite event at the ballpark happened in 1944—a ski-jumping event at the ballpark. They set scaffolding up behind home plate and trucked in ice. The skiers took off from about the current home television booth and landed at second base.
Asked about the most memorable seventh-inning stretch renditions, Fuhs talks about the infamous Jeff Gordon incident. Gordon called the park Wrigley stadium, possibly because Fuhs asked him about the “stadium” right before that.
Belleson talks about how scared people are before they sing the stretch, no matter how big the celebrity. And says no one did it better than Harry Caray.
And that’s it for us on Saturday at the 2014 Cubs Convention. Thanks for following along. We’ll be back up with the 30th anniversary of the 1984 season and Down on the Farm tomorrow.
Go Cubs go.
Jim Deshaies welcomes the crowd and the entire—mostly new—coaching staff. Mike Borzello, Bill Mueller, Mike Brumley, Jose Castro, Brandon Hyde, Chris Bosio, Eric Hinske, Gary Jones and new manager Rick Renteria. The ballroom is packed. Standing room only.
This is mostly a Q&A session with Deshaires moderating.
First question: First impression of Chicago and CubsCon. Renteria says it’s truly unbelievable. The amount of support and the love for Cubs is amazing and wants to prove this team deserves your support.
Renteria says every person on the staff has a tremendous quality of imparting information and confidence, and an array of knowledge. They all have compassion and understanding for players.
Bosio says pitching has made great strides in last few years with Samardzija, Wood, Rondon, etc. They now have more depth, big arms and a lot of talent coming in the system. He wants the staff to give the team a chance to win every game by the sixth inning. They definitely have more depth in the ‘pen with Wesley Wright, who should take some pressure off Russell, and other guys. That should give them more flexibility.
Borzello talks about Welington Castillo’s development as a catcher. He’s really built trust with the pitchers and is helping get the best out of each one. He thinks last year was a great start on a solid career.
Each coach takes a minute to give his bio.
So the big question: Jose Castro. What is a quality assurance coach? Answer: He’s a jack of all trades, master of none. Castro jokes he will probably do some cleaning in clubhouse, laundry, whatever. In reality, he’s an extra pair of hands wherever they’re needed.
Renteria says Veras will anchor the back end of the bullpen. He has confidence that he can get the job done in the ninth inning. That’s why he’s here. But the team should have some flexibility to mix and match in the ‘pen before Veras.
Renteria says the focus shouldn’t be on him. It should be on the players. He wants to be like a little mouse that no one pays attention to. The team and players might at times feel disheartened but he will not let them quit. It’s not in his nature to quit. He’s a fighter. And he doesn’t believe he needs to beat people up to motivate them. If you ever see him quit, he welcomes fans and the media to “come and stomp on him,” but it won’t happen.
Bosio talks about how the staff used to be a bunch of veteran guys. It’s much younger now. The players call the games. It’s about getting them to believe in following the scouting reports and pitching to a plan. Sometimes players go off plan because they have confidence in themselves, but the goal is to follow the scouting reports. They spend countless hours on them.
There’s a question about returning to small ball—steals, sacrifices, hit and runs, etc. Renteria says the game will dictate what they can do, and Mueller talks about the need to really understand the players and what they can do. Then they’ll try to start working on these kinds of skills.
Renteria talks about the role of prospects. Says when a game-changing prospect arrives, it’s probably because he’s going to play. He’s not getting brought up to sit on the bench. Some guys make a splash immediately. Some don’t. He says dealing with prospects who succeed or struggle is all about communication in the system. Even if guys struggle and get sent back down, it can be a valuable experience—a learning experience.
Renteria says he’s not a micromanager. His staff is all very gifted and he’ll leave their jobs to them. But he likes to be active, throw BP, etc. He used to take infield with the players.
In response to a question about finding an everyday third baseman, Renteria throws his support behind the Murphy/Valbuena combo. He says he hates to hear people complain about what they don’t have. Let’s work with what we have and make it work.
In response to the usual World Series question, Renteria says he can’t answer to the past. He’s focused on moving the team forward. And he’s looking forward to the party in this city when it happens.
Mueller talks about really learning the players and finding their strengths and weaknesses, how they handle pressure, how they handle emotions, etc., so they can better help the players understand how to improve at-bats. Every player is different. Swings are very personal. They really need to get in the trenches so they can understand each player’s strengths and weaknesses.
Renteria cites Johnny Lipon (former Tiger infielder and coach) as a big influence because he was so positive. He never let anyone doubt themselves. Says Jim Leyland and Dick Williams were very firm. He tries to combine all of the good things from his former coaches and get rid of the bad traits.
Hinske cites Joe Maddon, Terry Francona and Bobby Cox as big influences. Players can struggle with confidence. Coaches can play a big part in keeping them upbeat.
Jones talks about how his dad taught him how to play to win, but he tried to learn from every coach and manager and take things from them.
Renteria says Starlin Castro is Starlin Castro. We want you to hit the pitch that you can hit, in reference to the push to make him more patient. He says Starlin had some “horrible” at-bats last season where he was swinging at balls in the other batter’s box, but he’s a guy who puts the bat on the ball
Renteria says the team needs to have better at-bats. It’s unacceptable to strike out with the infield back and a man on third.
“We mistake the idea of being a selective hitter with being a good hitter. We’re trying to expand the ability to be a good hitter.”
Renteria’s passion for working with young players is the same as it would be with veterans. His passion comes from being told he wouldn’t play in the majors. While going through process, he never thought his first-round selection was a mistake. His passion comes from proving everybody wrong. “You can beat me up, but you’re going to know you were in a fight.”
Finally, Renteria believes the team has the arms to get from the six through the ninth innings. And he believes any team that takes the field has a chance to win.
President of Business Ops Crane Kenney takes the stage to welcome a sizable crowd. Says they usually start by taking questions, but instead they’re starting with a short presentation this time.
Crane gets a smattering of applause for reference to going to Notre Dame. Talks about his history with the team, starting out representing them as a young lawyer. His job has always been trying to grow the business as fast as he can to support baseball ops.
He calls the Cubs a “100-year-old startup.” Like most start-ups, they started in an old garage (meaning the new front office space, which used to be a garage). They had to build the business side from scratch. 165 of 277 members of the Cubs team have been hired in the last four years—60 percent of workforce.
The goal is to become the best organization in baseball on and off the field. He offers a big thanks to the crowd for their loyalty and support.
If the Cubs are a start-up, then the fans are the investors. Your investment is helping build the team.
So how do you become the best off the field? By better serving fans, better serving players, better serving partners, better serving communities and giving the team the resources it needs to win a championship.
They did an in-depth study of how companies like Nordstrom’s, Starbucks, etc. provide customer service. Talked to 9,000 fans, 500 ballpark staff, then engaged the Disney Institute to help train the team.
To be the best, the also need first-class facilities for players to train, rehab, prepare for games, etc.
The Cubs have four principle facilities: Wrigley Field, administrative offices, Spring Training facility, Dominican Academy. They’ve made great strides in the last three.
Wrigley Field is still the best ballpark in America. The Ricketts family is ready to invest $500 million in the stadium and surrounding areas without public support. Kenney says not many teams do that. References how the Braves announced they could no longer play in their 17-year-old obsolete ballpark (to some laughter).
Thanks for mayor, City Council and Cubs fans for their support so they can stay at Wrigley for the foreseeable future with the operating flexibility they need. They’ve had lots of meetings in the last year.
They’re done with the night game ordinance, done with the landmark approvals, done with the zoning for the ballpark and plaza, done with the approval for new signage inside and outside, done with the traffic and parking plan and done with security/sanitation issues. So what’s the hold-up?
The remaining issue is the rooftops. They need to settle four issues:
1. Enforcement of current capacity limitations
2. Protections against ambush advertising
3. Ability to expand and add bleachers and signage
4. No lawsuit
There’s been lots of progress in last two weeks.
Kenney calls the rooftops a $20 million yearly drag on their business.
So which comes first—championship baseball or an abundance of economic resources? It’s a chicken-or-egg question. Every day, they’re thinking about how to outpace the other 29 teams, to grow the business and to put the best team on the field.
The Cubs play in the third-largest media market in an iconic ballpark. They’re the No. 3 tourist attraction in Illinois. They’re ranked fifth in baseball in revenue, which they’re using to make long-term investments. The vast majority of the revenue goes to building the major and minor league system. Kenney touts the minor league growth. The Cubs are No. 1 in MLB in spending on first-year and international amateur talent.
Kenney says just about every system at Wrigley needs maintenance and upgrades just to keep the team standing still. They can’t keep putting Band-Aids on the stadium.
Taxes are also a big drag. Of the five team-owned stadiums, the Cubs pay 17 times what the Giants pay in amusement taxes and three times what the Jays pay. The Red Sox and Dodgers pay no taxes.
Revenues come from gate receipts, media rights, corporate partnerships, and non-game revenues.
Gate receipts: The Cubs have held tickets prices flat for the fourth-straight year. They’re not looking to add new seats, but they do want upgraded seating options. Kenney also talks about moving to digital tickets.
Media rights: The WGN contracts expire after the 2014 season. They expect to have an announcement on the radio contract before opening day. They’re very thankful for the relationship with WGN. The Comcast contract expires in 2019. He says he wants to continue the relationship with WGN but can envision a smaller relationship or moving elsewhere.
Corporate partnerships: Kenney touts the Under Armour partnership. They’re looking to add other partners like it to provide a resource advantage. They will be adding a video board in 2015 for highlights, replay, etc.
Non-Game revenue: This can generate significant revenue for the club when the team is not in town. Corporate events, concerts, other sporting events, etc. The Cubs love this revenue because they don’t have to share it with the other clubs. Baseball-related revenues get shared throughout MLB.
Kenney finishes by talking about Cubs Charities and being a good neighbor. This includes the Fitness Trolley, Scholars Program, Diamond Program, etc. He feels they’ve made some good progress on being the best off the field, but they’re making the long-term investments to be the best on the field.
Kenney thanks the fans and brings up Mike Lufrano, Carl Rice, Colin Faulkner and Alison Miller for a question-and-answer session.
The first question is, of course, about Clark the Cubs, the new mascot and will they consider getting rid of him. Miller’s response: Clark took 18 months to develop and is here to stay.
One fan wonders why parts of the Wrigley rebuilding plan, specifically the player facilities still haven’t been started. Carl answers about getting things settled with the city and preemptive construction issues. But ultimately they need the whole plan done before they get started. Lufrano says they think they’re getting close with the rooftop owners. Rooftops have said if they don’t reach a resolution, they plan to challenge the zoning—in other words, the entire restoration of the ballpark.
One fan wants starter Wrigley vines for his house.
Fans want to know why the club can’t build a strong minor league system while winning at big league level. The answer: They’re working on it. But it all starts with building a strong internal foundation. He says 2003-08 was fun, but those big contracts hurt the team.
That’s it for business. Next up is the Meet the Skipper session.
In front of a nearly full ballroom, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Shiraz Rehman, Randy Bush and Rick Renteria took the stage Saturday morning. The first set of questions were pointed at Epstein and Hoyer, discussing the current state of the organization and the hope for playoff baseball.
“The only way to make [the fans] happy is by playing October baseball on a regular basis, and that’s the plan,” Epstein said.
Hoyer continued that idea by saying World Series are won with sustained success, reaching the post season more times than not over the period of a decade, and that history has shown you don’t get there by spending a ton of money one season and hoping to get lucky.
“You don’t win a World Series with the lightning in the bottle, you win because you get there a lot and catch some good breaks,” Hoyer said.
New manager Renteria made some early believers of fans, demonstrating his appreciation for the team, even as it stands right now. He says he used to look over to the other dugout during his time in San Diego and think “I’ll take this team right now, and I know what’s coming behind them.”
“My personality is suited to young players, I’ve been raising young kids my whole life, they’re my kids now,” Renteria said.
Not a ton of new information regarding Japanese pitching phenom Masahiro Tanaka, as expected, as they don’t discuss the progress of signing situations.
Though Epstein said they weren’t going to spend for the sake of spending, he did say that if money wasn’t fully utilized this offseason, that it would be used at some point.
Epstein is also adamant that the Ricketts are in it for the long haul and not wavered by the criticism they’ve received thus far.
Finally, when asked about bringing up former top prospect Brett Jackson, Epstein admits it might have been a mistake to bring him up. At the same time, former manager Dale Sveum wanted to work exclusively with him on his swing.
Before things changed—before the day she sat at a table, signed on the dotted line and received a Cubs jersey with her name emblazoned on the back—Virginia Garcia-Rico was feeling lost.
The real world was coming at her fast, but the Lake View High School junior had no idea how to keep up, even though her classmates seemed to be racing ahead with ease. Her parents wanted to help, but they didn’t know much about applying to college.
Then, thanks to an impressive résumé and solid performances in a challenging round of interviews, Garcia-Rico caught a big break. She earned a spot in the first-ever lineup for a new Cubs Charities program called Cubs Scholars. Along with four other talented teens from Chicago-area inner-city high schools, she’s receiving a $20,000 scholarship, personalized college prep help from a mentor and a guarantee of guidance through all four years of college.
And Garcia-Rico is getting something else too. As a Cubs Scholar, she’s privy to a firsthand look at how the team leaves a footprint in Illinois that’s much bigger than pitches, hits and outs. Not long ago, the 17-year-old was there as the Cubs held an event to feed the homeless and young runaways.
“I thought that was amazing,” she said. “The Cubs do all these amazing things—and now I’m a part of it.”
Since 1991, the Cubs and Cubs Charities have donated more than $19 million to groups across the Chicago area. And since 2009, when the Ricketts family took control of the organization, giving back has become one of the team’s three cornerstone priorities, right up there with winning a World Series and protecting Wrigley Field for future generations.
The Cubs—from staff members to volunteers to the players themselves—regularly show up at schools, hospitals and community centers; they rebuild ballparks, playgrounds and classrooms; and they work hard to make sure kids have access to education, fitness and fun. These days, it’s hard to find a Chicago neighborhood that hasn’t been touched in some way by the ballclub.
And the team’s charitable efforts extend beyond Chicago’s borders. After tornadoes toppled buildings in several Illinois towns in November, the Cubs were quick to react. Within days, representatives from the organization had partnered with the community to fill a semitrailer full of supplies, which they hand delivered to Peoria, Ill., along with a sizable check for the Red Cross.
“I think the team takes its responsibility of being a Chicago team seriously enough to consider the boundaries of our giving to be not just in Chicago but across the state,” said Connie Falcone, vice president of development for Cubs Charities. “We’re blessed to be a team with a national following, and it’s important that we give back.”
Many of the team’s charitable relationships have stood the test of time. For about 14 years, the Cubs have given thousands of teens with the Union League Boys & Girls Clubs a chance to step up to the plate. Several reports have shown that fewer inner-city kids are choosing to play baseball—opting instead for football, soccer and basketball—but the Cubs are working to change that.
The RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) Program supports 16 teams around the city, each with about 15 to 20 players on its roster. These kids get an opportunity to play a sport that can often be too expensive for low-income families. Over the years, the program’s impact has been “huge,” said RBI program commissioner Emilia Nichols.
Several players have used their time on RBI teams as a springboard to college. Last year, 11 athletes landed college baseball scholarships because of their performance in the league.
“The coaches are really engaged in getting [the players] seen, making sure they have opportunities, bringing something that is sometimes so unattainable,” Nichols said. “For a lot of them, it’s so special knowing, ‘It’s the Cubs that are sponsoring me.’”
Other groups have joined forces with the Cubs more recently, and getting the team’s stamp of approval creates a ripple effect of giving. In the East Garfield Park neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, the nonprofit organization Breakthrough Urban Ministries works to keep neighborhood kids on track with sports and after-school tutoring. Bill Curry, the Breakthrough Youth Network’s chief program officer, said it’s a particularly challenging effort in a neighborhood that’s struggled with poverty and violence for decades.
“We try to create a new normal experience for kids in our neighborhood,” he said. “Right now, the normal experience is that you’re more likely to go to jail than go to college—more likely to have a child as a teenager.”
Three years ago, the Cubs offered up some help, donating $30,000 to expand Breakthrough’s efforts. Since then, the ballclub has pitched in the same amount each year, which has allowed the nonprofit organization to boost its tutoring program participation from 75 to 90 students.
All the while, Breakthrough has been busy trying to raise money for a new, $13 million facility. Back when the Cubs began contributing to the group, it was still searching for about $3.5 million. After partnering with the Cubs, that number started shrinking fast.
“It was really interesting,” Curry said. “As we showed who our funding partners were, and when the Cubs came on board and people saw their logo, for some reason people thought, ‘Breakthrough must be legit.’”
The funding came through, and the new facility is expected to be open by early 2015.
Across town, a new organization called the Illinois Mentoring Partnership can tell a similar tale. The group provides guidance to about 150 mentoring entities across the state. In its first year of operation, the partnership got a deal from the Cubs it couldn’t pass up: more than $70,000 worth of free game tickets to hand out to its mentors and their young mentees.
Season ticket holders donated the tickets back to Cubs Charities, who, in turn, gave them to the Illinois Mentoring Partnership. The seats ultimately went to more than 2,000 children and volunteers, including many who had never seen anything quite like Wrigley Field.
“Most of our kids had never been to any kind of professional sporting event before,” said Sheila Merry, the organization’s executive director. “A lot of them had never been outside of their neighborhoods before, so it really was an incredible opportunity for them.”
Plus, having the Cubs tickets made it easier to get connected with other mentoring efforts across the state. Since then, about 90 groups have taken advantage of the partnership’s training programs.
But it’s not just the Cubs front office doing the heavy lifting. Cubs players have been making regular visits to the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago (formerly Children’s Memorial Hospital) for years.
They often stop in at a classroom on the 12th floor that’s named for the team (the Cubs donated $2 million to make it a part of the brand new facility). There, young patients who are well enough to keep up with their schoolwork get help from tutors and participate in games, classroom science experiments and other kid-friendly activities.
There’s a mural on the wall that depicts Wrigley Field—if Wrigley were some kind of magical classroom where you could also play baseball. The scoreboard on the mural features math equations teachers can incorporate into lessons, and a map used for geography is dotted with cutouts of players’ faces. Every time a Cub comes to visit, he picks out his favorite location and marks it on the map.
During the season, players are around every month, said Elizabeth Wolcott, the hospital’s corporate giving officer. Anthony Rizzo, himself a cancer survivor, is the most frequent visitor.
“The Cubs have always been really fantastic partners with the hospital,” Wolcott said.
For players like Darwin Barney, this kind of hands-on help is more than just good PR. The Cubs infielder said he enjoys going out on the Cubs Caravan every January to meet people at schools, hospitals and YMCAs.
“It’s a way to connect with the fans and make a difference in their lives,” he said. “And not just in wins and losses.”
Last summer, Cubs Charities incorporated a new program called the Cubs on the Move Fitness Trolley, which visited summer camps across Chicago. The Trolley is an initiative designed to curb childhood obesity by teaching kids about all aspects of fitness, including healthy eating. The goal is to encourage kids to “play every day” with 60 minutes of vigorous activity.
Becca Martinson, a program coordinator with Urban Initiatives, a group that partners on the Fitness Trolley, said her group has been working with local schools for about 10 years to keep kids occupied during the summer break. But last year, organizers decided to step up their efforts to get young participants interested in fitness.
At four schools spread from Chicago’s far West Side to the far South Side, when the trolley pulled up, it was time to get moving. The Cubs brought professional fitness trainers from Chicago Athletic Clubs to lead warm-up exercises and players to oversee baseball-related games and activities.
“We’d do different games with passing the ball,” Martinson said. “We’d work on sportsmanship and teamwork.”
Throughout the summer, the kids learned about good nutrition and kept detailed fitness logs. If they filled out the logs properly, the Cubs would hand out prizes, ranging from water bottles to T-shirts to a trip to the Friendly Confines for a game.
Martinson said the activities were so popular that program leaders started noticing larger-than-expected crowds. It wasn’t just the camp kids showing up to work out; it was their siblings and parents as well.
“I think what was so special about it was having this huge Chicago institution coming to these schools and giving individual attention to students,” she said. “It made them feel valued and special, because they are.”
Martinson said the Cubs even managed to win over some tough audiences at schools on the South Side. She recalled one boy named Justin, who announced at the beginning of camp that he was strictly a White Sox fan. But by the end of camp, she said, he was wearing Cubs temporary tattoos on his cheeks and a big smile. It turned out learning about fitness also provided a lesson in being open-minded about people he thought were very different from him.
“He began to associate feeling good about himself and being fit with the Cubs,” Martinson said. “He could think, ‘These are the people who taught me that really fun game I play with my brothers now.’”
And while the network of giving stretches well beyond Chicago’s city limits, the Cubs have a particular affinity for the neighborhood that has supported the team for a century. In Wrigleyville and Lake View, Cubs associates pitch in to help solve problems with parking, littering and crime around Wrigley Field.
Recently, the Cubs donated $25,000 to nearby Greeley Elementary School. After years of expansion, the school had outgrown its playground and needed a new, safe space for its youngest students. At the playground’s dedication last summer, students sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The school’s principal, Carlos Azcoitia, said he’s lucky to have a good neighbor like the Cubs right around the corner.
“We’re grateful they’re investing in the neighborhood school closest to Wrigley Field,” he said. “We’re very fortunate.”
And that’s exactly how many organizations around Chicago and Illinois feel to be associated with a side of the Cubs many people never even see.
Clark, the newly introduced Chicago Cubs mascot, made his debut Monday night along with more than a dozen prospects in the Cubs Rookie Development Program at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center’s Pediatric Developmental Center. Together, they helped reinforce positive activities being taught to children with autism and other developmental challenges.
Clark was joined at Advocate Illinois Masonic by prospects Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, C.J. Edwards, Kyle Hendricks, Pierce Johnson, Eric Jokisch, Mike Olt, Neil Ramirez, Armando Rivero, Rubi Silva, Jorge Soler, Christian Villanueva and Arodys Vizcaino.
The players divided into four rooms and hosted activities for the children and their siblings, including an interview room where kids asked questions of players and practiced social skills; a reading room where players and kids looked at pictures of Wrigley Field and read stories about baseball; a game room where kids practiced sportsmanship in matches against their Cubs counterparts; and a gym where Clark and players stressed the importance of learning from others through pre-activity stretching drills and practiced motor activity skills during a ball-toss drill.
The next stops for Clark will be the Cubs 100 Gifts of Service 2014 Caravan Tour and the Cubs Convention.
Kids, meet Clark, the Cubs’ new mascot.
The Cubs will introduce the organization’s first official team mascot Monday evening when Clark visits children at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center’s Pediatric Development Center. He will make his debut alongside more than a dozen Cubs prospects who are currently participating in the Rookie Development Program.
“The Cubs are thrilled to welcome Clark as the team’s official mascot,” said Cubs Senior Director of Marketing Alison Miller. “Clark is a young, friendly Cub who can’t wait to interact with our other young Cubs fans. He’ll be a welcoming presence for families at Wrigley Field and an excellent ambassador for the team in the community.”
After consistently hearing through survey feedback and fan interviews that the Cubs needed more family-friendly entertainment, the team surveyed fans and held focus groups to determine the interest in and benefits of introducing an official mascot. The appetite for more family-friendly initiatives became clear, and the concept of a mascot who interacts in the community, engages with young fans and is respectful of the game was widely supported.
Clark will play a big role in the Cubs Charities’ mission of targeting improvement in health and wellness, fitness, and education for children and families at risk. Young fans can see him at the Cubs Caravan, Cubs On the Move Fitness Programs, hospital visits and other Cubs events.
On game days, Clark will greet fans as they enter Wrigley Field, and he’ll stop by the Wrigley Field First Timer’s Booth to welcome new guests. The mascot will also help kids run the bases on Family Sundays.
The young Cub will interact with fans at Wrigley Field all season long at Clark’s Clubhouse, where he’ll spend most of his time during Cubs games.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
The Cubs announced the schedule for their 100 Gifts of Service 2014 Caravan Tour Friday. The annual event features players, coaches and front office personnel traveling through the Chicagoland area to give back to the community.
The 2014 Caravan, themed 100 Gifts of Service, will kick off a yearlong program wherein Cubs staff and players will engage in community service projects to help celebrate Wrigley Field’s 100th birthday. This year, members of the Cubs organization will visit three schools, three hospitals and a military base.
Here is the schedule for the two tours of the Cubs Caravan:
10 a.m. – Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy – 250 E. 111th St., Chicago
11:30 a.m. – 2nd Battalion 24th Marines – 3034 W. Foster Ave., Chicago
2 p.m. – Casals School of Excellence – 3501 W. Potomac Ave., Humbolt Park
10:30 a.m. – Blaine Elementary – 1420 W. Grace St., Chicago
11:30 a.m. – 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines – 3034 W. Foster Ave., Chicago
2 p.m. – Casals School of Excellence – 3501 W. Potomac Ave., Humbolt Park
11 a.m. – Advocate Children’s Hospital – 4420 S. Sacramento Ave., Oak Lawn
11:15 a.m. – Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital – 225 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago
11:30 a.m. – Advocate Children’s Hospital – 1175 Dempster St., Park Ridge