Last weekend’s 30th Annual Cubs Convention was enjoyed by thousands of fans who had an opportunity to mingle with members of their favorite team at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers. Whether it was their first convention, or their 30th, most walked away with lasting memories. Though it was only a few days ago, here are some images to remember from the sold-out event:
The 30th Cubs Convention is in the books. In the January issue of Vine Line, we looked back at how the convention got started and some of the event’s highlights from the last three decades. Check out our recaps of the 2015 panels here on the blog.
Have you ever been to bingo?” asked Jim Oboikowitch, laughing. “You will think it is insanity. It is so fun. It is so packed.”
Out of context, you’d be hard-pressed to find many 30-somethings who would refer to a retirement center game-night staple as insanity. But Oboikowitch, manager of game and event production for the Cubs, has a very different take on things. His job puts him in charge of the most entertaining weekend of the offseason for North Side fans—the annual Cubs Convention—and one of the event’s centerpieces is always Cubs Bingo.
So while matching numbers and letters might sound a little tame or old-fashioned on the surface, the reality is Cubs fans will do just about anything to grab a game card and get in on the action. And the man in charge has a front-row seat for all the excitement generated by one of the convention’s most popular events.
“[In 2013] at the Sheraton … one door kind of cracked open, and people just started pouring through,” Oboikowitch said. “[Manager of Broadcast Relations] Joe [Rios] was about to get tackled by about 1,000 people. They come running in, looking for a table and grabbing the bingo card. There’s not a seat to be had. They’re sitting in the aisleways.”
For nearly 30 winters, masses of Cubs fans from all over the country have congregated at a downtown Chicago hotel to take part in a weekend’s worth of activities centered around the team they spend their summers supporting. Where else can fans and players share an elevator ride and spark up a conversation? How often do young players get the opportunity to receive instruction from major league talent in the batting cages? And is there any other place you can ask Cubs owner Tom Ricketts a question and snag Gary “The Sarge” Matthews’ autograph in the same day?
While attendance at modern conventions generally nears five digits, there was a time when the club was unsure of what to expect turnout-wise, so they intentionally limited admittance to roughly the number of people who can fit in today’s bingo hall. But that was almost 30 years ago, when the Cubs became the first professional sports team to ever attempt a fanfest and well before the event became an annual institution. Now it’s safe to say they probably underestimated themselves—and the passion of their Cubs-crazed fan base—in those early days.
The Cubs were hot. In the offseason following their magical playoff run of 1984—the same campaign that snapped a 39-year postseason drought—John McDonough was looking for a way to grow the brand. The then-Cubs sales, promotion and community services director, now the president and CEO of the Chicago Blackhawks, wanted to capitalize on the new wave of fandom that had swept over the club and made its players the talk of the city.
“McDonough’s idea was ‘Hey, this is a great brand. It’s something everyone knows, but we’re only being seen six months out of the year,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig.
One of McDonough’s first orders of business was to gather a large group of die-hard fans willing to share their ideas for how the organization could grow. They met at the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Illinois, and there McDonough collected opinions on how the Cubs could maintain relevance, even in the winter months. This led to the idea of a convention celebrating Cubs fandom.
Sports memorabilia shows were at their peak during the 1980s, which gave McDonough a solid framework for his own concept. After more than a year of brainstorming, the initial Die-Hard Cubs Fan Club Convention opened its doors from Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 1986, at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. The event was the first of its kind—no other professional sports team had ever dedicated an offseason weekend to celebrating its fans.
“At this time, card shows, autograph shows, those were pretty common,” Hartig said. “But the idea of actually having people mingle with the players and [offering] hitting clinics, that was all new.”
McDonough had no idea what to expect and kept event promotion to a minimum. One of the few places the convention was marketed was in the small “Odds and Ends” section of the Chicago Tribune. The blurb, which was published nearly a year before the event took place, stated what the weekend would entail, when it would take place and where it would be held.
“The only thing they told [fans] was that this wasn’t going to be a card show. This was not going to be an autograph show. This was going to be interactive,” Hartig said. “You’re going to see the players walking out of the hotel. You’re going to see them in the elevator. You’re going to see them at the restaurants. … It was going to be all-access. You were going to be with the players all weekend.”
Nearly 3,000 fans—roughly 1,000 more than expected—packed into the Hyatt in late January 1986 to witness something totally revolutionary. Ryne Sandberg and Rick Sutcliffe hosted hitting and pitching clinics, panels included the coaching staff discussing topics like Spring Training and injury recovery, and President and General Manager Dallas Green was made available for a Q&A session with fans. This was all in addition to memorabilia auctions, raffles, vendor booths and autograph opportunities.
The convention’s special guests included most of the 1985 team and Hall of Famers like Ernie Banks. For many of the players, showing up to that first event was a no-brainer. They understood the work McDonough had put in and immediately grasped what this could mean to the organization in the long haul.
“When [McDonough] created that … as a player I remember, quite honestly, we were open arms because we trusted him,” said former Cubs outfielder Bobby Dernier. “The idea is ‘Look, it’s good for the team, it’s good for the organization, and it’s good for the former players—on top of being good for the current players. So, really, it’s good for everyone.’”
Though Cubs regulars probably enjoy more interaction with their fan base than most other professional athletes—just ask the outfielders about their relationship with the Bleacher Bums—it’s still unusual for them to spend a lot of one-on-one time together. But the athletes quickly learned that the interaction with fans was one of the most enjoyable parts of the weekend.
“Most players would feel that it’s more flattering than nerve-racking,” said former Cubs outfielder Gary Matthews Sr. of the constant flock of supporters. “You’ve got to understand the Cubs fans.”
And for players who didn’t already understand Cubs fans, the convention served as quite the introduction. Former Cubs catcher Michael Barrett came to the team in December 2003 after spending his previous six years playing in the fan-starved Montreal Expos organization. Rios, who was in charge of the convention prior to Oboikowitch, still remembers the backstop’s reaction to the reception he received at his first opening ceremony.
“[Players] get quite a rush from the applause they get from the fans, especially the new ones,” Rios said. “I think of Michael Barrett, who played in Montreal, who played in front of [so few fans], and to come to the convention and have that many or more, and be sweating when they announce it—he was freaked out, and that’s still kind of cool to see.”
Mingling with the fans quickly became one of Dernier’s favorite parts of the weekend. The former center fielder said he’s missed only three of the 29 previous conventions, which puts him “in the 95th percentile” in terms of attendance.
“To be quite honest, I’ve gotten a lot of endearing experiences because I did take the time,” Dernier said. “Whether I sat with a bunch of 13-year-olds at the lobby there or I sat at the bar and had a cocktail with a dozen Cubs fans ready to watch the Bears at the playoff game that afternoon, they were enjoyable experiences.
“Whatever position I’ve been in, to get to come, it’s not a hard arm twist because all it is is just a giant hug waiting to happen.”
For the people in charge of the convention, knowing the players—the de facto entertainment—have an open mind about the event makes their jobs easier and allows a weekend with a high potential for chaos to run a little more smoothly.
Though the Convention spans only three days in January, it takes a lot longer than that to plan and organize the festivities. Oboikowitch said even during the baseball season, the convention is in the back of his mind. As the 162-game campaign is winding down, he’s in meetings and throwing ideas against the wall for what the next fan weekend will have in store.
“We’re always talking with fans throughout the season and through the offseason about what they might want to see, who they want to see, what activities they want to take part in,” Oboikowitch said. “We start putting together a road map of how we want to program Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”
This road map is a jigsaw puzzle of panels, events, autograph signings and meet-and-greets. When it all comes together, it looks like a work of art, but getting things to that point is a painstaking process.
The staff has to juggle player and personnel arrivals (many attendees come from out of town), make sure individuals aren’t accidentaly booked in two spots at one time, and provide fans the opportunity to attend must-see events like the opening ceremony and the Ricketts panel. Despite doing their best not to overschedule the program, Rios said forcing fans to make tough decisions is all part of the plan.
“One thing that fans should realize is we want to make it difficult for them to decide what to do,” Rios said. “Every hour of the convention, day or evening, has something going on. You can be getting five or six different autographs, you can be getting a photo of somebody, you can be in the interactive room learning about pitching, you can be in a seminar with one of our business teams talking about The 1060 Project. … You have to decide what’s important to you.”
But amidst all the commotion, while fans are making those red pill-blue pill decisions, one thing they seldom see is just how busy the players really are. They are constantly moving into private rooms for one-on-one interviews or doing special autograph signings for Cubs Charities.
“We do a lot of behind-the-scenes interviews with players that our broadcast partners will use during the season,” Oboikowitch said. “That’s where you get some of that footage for rain delays and for different pieces when you want to hear a player talk about Jake Arrieta’s season preview. So we do a lot of filming in that time.”
Perhaps the best indication that McDonough hit the ball out of the park on the first try is how little the convention’s format has changed over the last three decades. Certain panels have come and gone, venues have switched (the Hyatt from 1986-90, the Hilton Chicago from 1991-2012, the Sheraton Hotel and Towers from 2013-present), and there are fewer vendors today than in years past. But fans still get the chance to interact with their favorite players through seminars, clinics, autograph sessions and meet-and-greets, just like they did in 1986.
“I think what the fans really like, that I’ve learned from them, is that they just really like having that experience where they get to actually sit down in that little floor lobby with Anthony Rizzo, and he’s signing autographs for the kids,” Dernier said.
Of course, the planning committee is constantly learning from fans, and they fine-tune things every year. In 2015, the Cubs will add a second interactive instructional field with hitting tees and batting cages. They will also pay tribute to the 2007-08 NL Central champion teams with a panel featuring Ryan Dempster, Mark DeRosa, Bob Howry, Jacque Jones and others. Another panel will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the convention and will include regulars like Dernier and Matthews.
The goal is to improve the weekend every year, while still offering the panels and events fans have come to know and love. In other words, rest assured, Cubs Bingo isn’t going away anytime soon.
The Cubs’ minor league system is viewed as a powerhouse, with many calling it the best in baseball. Several of the top prospects—including Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Kyle Hendricks—made their Wrigley Field debuts last season, but who is going to get the call this year? Accompanied by top prospects C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, Director of Player Development Jaron Madison, and Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod close out the convention by giving some insight into the Cubs farm system. This is always one of the better panels, and this year did not disappoint.
Mick Gillespie, broadcaster of the Double-A Tennessee Smokies, is helming the panel and gives a quick intro. He also does Spring Training games with Len Kasper. Gillespie touts how this entire panel will soon be in the big leagues. These are the guys you’re paying to see in the minor leagues.
McLeod talks about his early days with the Cubs. He’s only three drafts in, but still feels really good about the type of players they’ve brought in. But it did take some last place finishes and difficult trades to make the Cubs top-ranked system happen. Russell wouldn’t be here if not for the Jeff Samardzija trade. The goal is to keep the talent flow going. There are great players at the top levels now, but they have to keep that talent coming.
Madison talks about how the process Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have has already been successful in Boston and San Diego. Now it’s successful here. They’re not just looking for good players. They’re looking for good people, and they all feel great about the caliber of young players the Cubs have.
Edwards talks about being a 48th-round pick. He was not phased by that because he knew what he could do on the mound. His dad instilled in him how to play the game. He says his love of the game is what got him to where he is now. That plus dedication and hard work.
Johnson grew up around the game. His dad worked for the Padres. His mom wanted him to do homework when he was younger, but he joked that he didn’t need to do it because he was going to be a pro ballplayer.
Schwarber talks about the choice between playing football and baseball. He only had three baseball offers for college. He had more than that for football. Though he had a chance to play both sports at Indiana, he decided to commit to baseball because he loved it and didn’t want his academics to suffer by playing two sports.
Russell talks about the differences between the A’s and Cubs fan bases. The fans here actually pull for you, and there are a lot more of them.
Next comes the question-and-answer session with fans:
- An Indiana alum asks Schwarber about the challenges about playing on the IU field. The entire field is artificial turf, including the mound. Schwarber says everyone seemed to like it, but it was tough for opposing teams coming in. But with the cold weather in Indiana, they could practice in almost any conditions.
- Schwarber talks about helping build the IU program. The team was .500 when he got there, but they knew they were better than that. Eventually they got to Omaha and the national championship series. He says he loved the challenge there.
- The next question is about Russell’s reaction to his trade to the Cubs. Russell was in Arkansas. He says he missed a lot of time with a hamstring injury, and was just settling in with his teammates. Next thing he knew, he was traded. He didn’t know what to think. Did the A’s not want him? But he talked to a few people, and they assured him this was a good thing. Now he’s very happy to be a part of what the Cubs are building.
- A question about the upcoming draft. The Cubs are picking ninth. McLeod says they are evaluating the talent pool. It’s a strong college pitching draft and a strong high school draft. College position players haven’t really separated themselves yet. You have to let the season play out, but he feels confident the Cubs will get an impactful player.
- How do you know when to bring a guy up, especially a newer draft pick? Top college hitters like Schwarber tend to succeed pretty quickly at the lower levels, Madison says. But they look at each guy individually. They all have strengths and weaknesses. They talk to each player about these things. The Cubs lay out what they expect each player to work on. The players know themselves better than anyone. “When they show you they’re ready, that’s when you have to reassess the player plans,” Madison says.
- A high school player asks what each guy did to get noticed. “I grew out my hair,” Johnson says. It’s really about working hard and getting better, they all agree. Johnson and Russell went to showcases. Schwarber didn’t do many, but he thinks that’s why he didn’t have many college offers. Madison says they start to really look at players around their senior year of high school. Occasionally you can notice younger players when scouting older guys.
- There’s a question about Gleyber Torres and Armando Rivero. How do they assess these guys? McLeod likes them a lot. Rivero has a good mid-90s fastball, strong slider and has had nothing but success so far. He’ll be in big league camp this year and will challenge for a spot in the Cubs ‘pen. But he’s not on the roster yet, so that might factor in. Torres just turned 18. He was a high-profile guy when they signed him. He’s a long way away, but he’s good. He’ll probably start in South Bend.
- Which position would Schwarber rather play: catcher or outfield? Schwarber wants to catch. He’s played there all his life. He’s self taught and was doing a lot of things wrong. He got a crash course at Kane County, and it really clicked in. He loves catching, but you have to really like the position to be there.
- Who are some under-the-radar players to watch? Madison says they have a lot of good guys who don’t get noticed because of the talent they have in the system. Victor Caratini is due for a breakout year. Jeimer Candelario has all the tools to be an impact third baseman, and they expect a big year out of him. McLeod says he expects one or two people from the Kane County staff this year to become major leaguers. He also really likes Bijan Rademacher and what he can do.
- McLeod talks about the wonderful problem of having too many talented shortstops. You can never have too many good middle infielders. They just let these guys go out and compete, and it will sort itself out. Players will force them to make decisions, and that’s a good thing. McLeod talks about meeting Schwarber in college and asking him if he thought he could really make it as a catcher. Schwarber looked at him stone-faced and said, “It really *** pisses me of when people think I can’t catch.” They loved his confidence and knew he was their guy. He was not intimidated in the least by talking to Epstein and McLeod.
- What’s the difference between college and pro ball? Schwarber talks about the difference in the schedules. You get a lot more days off in college. If you’re struggling, you have days off to work on your swing and go figure it out. In pro ball, you have to fix things on the fly because there are really no days off.
- Who is your mentor/hero? Russell says his favorite player was Barry Larkin, but his idol is his dad. Or Bruce Lee. Schwarber most looks up to his mom and dad. He was outside every day hitting, and they helped him every day. His dad coached him and came to almost every game in college. Whenever things are going bad, they are always there for him. Johnson also credits his parents. They supported him and brought him to practices and games. He still talks to his parents after every game. Edwards also talks about his parents and his dad. He says he started throwing a baseball at 3 years old. When he was growing up, he admired Pedro Martinez the most.
- What was your favorite team when you were younger? Russell didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up. He played outside. But he’d have to say the Red Sox, even though he’s from Florida. He was actually more of a football fan. He wears 27 partly because of Edie George. He loved the Tennessee Titans. Schwarber grew up near Cincinnati so he rooted for the Reds. Johnson’s dad worked for the Padres, so he grew up rooting for them. Edwards was a Red Sox guy because of Pedro and Manny. Madison lived in New York so he started with the Mets, but he transitioned to the Yankees. McLeod grew up in San Diego, so he followed the Padres and Chargers.
- A question about Kevonte Mitchell. McLeod says he’s very interesting. He was drafted last year out of southern Missouri. He was a basketball player and is a tremendous athlete. He had a great first season in rookie ball, but he’s still a long way away. Still, he has a great body and a lot of talent. They were surprised by how well he controlled the plate this year.
- How is the pitch clock in the minor leagues going to change how the game works and your approach? Edwards was in the Arizona Fall League, where they used it. It wasn’t a big factor for him. He moves quick already, but he thought it was more of a factor for relievers. If you’re in a rhythm, you should be fine. When things go wrong, it could be trouble. Schwarber says it will only affect someone if they are really, really slow, so it’s probably a good thing to speed them up.
- Any failures you’ve had to overcome? Russell says failure is good, especially early on. He really struggled coming out of high school. You dig deep and learn from failure, and it ends up being a good thing. Schwarber struggled to get better as a catcher in college. The things that frustrate you are the things that drive you to get better and better. How you rebound from struggles defines you as a player, he says. You just can’t let failure get the best of you. Johnson talks about the injuries he had to struggle through last year. Edwards struggled in extended Spring Training too. He started questioning whether he really wanted to play baseball. But he knew he didn’t come from the west coast to the east coast to fail, he’s still riding that wave.
That’s it for our 2015 Cubs Convention coverage. We’ll be posting a video recap early next week. Thanks for following. Next stop: Mesa.
This year, the organization is celebrating the 30th consecutive Chicago Cubs Convention, dating back to “The First Ever Die Hard Fan Club Convention” from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2, 1986. This panel gives fans a chance to visit with some of their favorite Cubs of the past as they tell 30 years worth of stories and talk about what it’s like to come back to Chicago each January. The panel, hosted by Wayne Messmer, is comprised of convention regulars Bobby Dernier, Gary Matthews, Lee Smith, Rick Sutcliffe and Billy Williams.
This panel was actually more about reminiscing with a host of Cubs favorites from the 1980s than celebrating the Convention, but it was enjoyable hearing players recount stories about everything from Harry Caray to Ryne Sandberg the prankster.
The event started with a thank you from the players for the fan support and some recollections from Cubs Conventions past.
One of the highlights included when Sutcliffe explained how being a Kansas City guy, his lifelong dream was to play for the Royals. But after his first half season with the Cubs in 1984, his mindset changed largely because of the fan base. Sutcliffe then said he was part of a video that was used in the recruiting of Jon Lester. After the two talked at the convention, the newly acquired free agent said Sutcliffe’s portion about Cubs fans sold him.
Sutcliffe recalls the first Cubs Convention. ‘The phone call came from John McDonough, and this was really John’s idea. This was before sports-talk radio, this was before autograph sessions. … He really wanted to break down the barrier between fan and player.” He also talks about Harry Caray being the first honorary chairman of the convention.
“Something that’s so awesome for me is that everyone remembers me as a Cub,” Smith said.
The panelists start talking about Smith in his playing days. A favorite story from Sutcliffe: After Smith beaned an opposing Mets hitter after a brawl, Smith puts down his glove and offers a challenge to the Mets’ dugout, and they back down.
Sutcliffe talks about the Cubs Convention. The people are still here. “For me, you just get another little piece of what Cubs fans are all about. They keep calling him the big red head, but you take that cap off and there’s no red hair.”
“We’re always in first place at the Cubs Convention,” Messmer said.
All of the panelists agree that what makes playing for the Cubs special is the fan base, and that really came alive when they played in 1984. “I played for a couple of ballclubs, but when I came through here, I have so many fans I remember on a first-name basis,” Smith said.
Next comes the question-and-answer session with fans:
- A fan thanks Dernier for spending time with her kids years ago in the lobby and talking for hours.
- Dernier told a story about a time they were in Montreal and Harry Caray said to him: “Even when ya stink, you look like you’re trying.”
- A fan asked about the panelists’ time with Don Zimmer, and Sutcliffe recounted a story about how Zimmer, who had a tough time as a manager in Boston, emotionally thanked the 1989 team for their efforts. He said he was so disliked in Boston he couldn’t go out to dinner with his family. In Chicago, he was loved because of those guys.
That’s it. Down on the Farm with the Cubs minor leaguers is next on the schedule, and that will close out the 2015 Cubs Convention.
From hot stove rumors to fan engagement, social media has become a game changer in sports. Led by Vine Line magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Gary Cohen, this event discussed the role of social media in today’s game from the perspective of Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks, broadcaster Len Kasper, cubs.com writer Carrie Muskat and Cubs communications manager Kevin Saghy.
Over the last decade, the way people obtain information has drastically changed. Instead of receiving a morning newspaper regarding yesterday’s news, information is passed along in up-to-the-minute fashion.
To wrap up Saturday night’s convention, the Cubs introduced a new panel to the fan fest in #CubsSocial. The panel explained how receiving information quickly has altered the way the Cubs operate from a broadcast standpoint to the players themselves.
Saghy explained that through social media outlets like Twitter, he has better connected fans to the organization, with state lines and distance no longer an issue. Using the Cubs’ twitter feed, he is now able to communicate and better interact with fans.
“Social media is a conversation,” Saghy said. “If you want to reach out to the team, we’re out there.”
In addition to providing an update on the organization’s accomplishments and progress, the Business Operations Update gave fans additional insight into what to expect at Wrigley Field next season. From the overall expansion and restoration of Wrigley Field to the new video board, Cubs executive leadership covered a wide range of important topics related to the 2015 season.
All great plans have minor setbacks. That may be the case for the 2015 plans of the extensive 1060 Project, the stadium-wide renovation of Wrigley Field. During Saturday afternoon’s business panel, a panel that continued its trend of being one of the most attended, the Cubs announced that the bleacher restoration will not be ready for the start of the 2015 season.
The left-field bleachers are expected to be ready in early May while the right-field bleachers hope to be prepared by late May. That said, the new scoreboard in left field will be up and running come Opening Day, while the scoreboard in right field should be ready in May.
Bleacher season-ticket holders have been given three options on their tickets for the first few series: receive a credit on their account, relocation on tickets, or a full refund on the game tickets. Those fans have until the end of January to let the Cubs know of their decision.
“This is about trying to get this project done right instead of cutting corners,” said Carl Rice, the vice president of ballpark operations.
It wasn’t all bad news from the panel, as business president Crane Kenney announced the Cubs have more season ticket holders today than any time in the organization’s history, and could possibly have the most in the league. Season ticket renewals were also at 90 percent.
Though there may be a delay in the 2015 plans, the Cubs’ concourse restoration has actually made 2016 renovation plans ahead of schedule. The 2015 delay has also not slowed plans for new clubhouse construction, which was planned to be finished prior to 2016. The organization plans to work all season long to ensure its completion.
“We’re getting ahead of next year’s project, now,” Kenney said.
In terms of the new video boards, the panel unveiled what types of graphics and images would be displayed going forward. Concepts were divided into five categories: game replays, in-game stats, historical videos of the club, in-season team videos and other scores around baseball. Though the new video boards will be nothing short of state of the art, the Cubs intend to have the text graphics look similar to the historic scoreboard in center field. The Cubs showed simulations as to what the scoreboard would look like on an in-game basis. They’ll combine the classic look with some some full-color animated images. They wanted to remind people the purpose of the boards is to enhance the game-day experience, not detract.
With the new TV deals, some fans are concerned they’ll be blacked out for a vast majority of Cubs games in the near future. Kenney said the team is willing to contact outlets like MLB.TV, should something not be worked out.
On Nov. 3, 2014, the Cubs hired former AL Manager of the Year Joe Maddon to be the 54th manager in Cubs history. Known as a player’s coach and one of the best, most visionary minds in the game, Maddon brings credibility, personality and more to the North Side. The entire coaching staff covered a number of topics with host and CBS Radio-WXRT personality Lin Brehmer.
Cubs fans enjoy Joe Maddon. The applause after his introduction says as much. As festivities of the Cubs Convention rolled into Saturday, people poured into the Joe Maddon and His Coaching Staff panel to get a first-hand look at the first-year Cubs manager.
“Where’s the fire marshal?” asked Maddon when looking out at the standing-room-only crowd.
Hosted by Brehmer, the staff gave insight in terms of what to expect for the upcoming year. They also answered an array of questions from fans, explained their expectations of the task at hand and had some fun in the process. Some of the highlights included:
“People always run away from expectations,” Maddon said, when discussing the Sporting News’ prediction that the Cubs will win the World Series. “Bring on the expectations, I think it’s great. … Let’s do what Riz wants us to do, let’s win the Central.”
On multiple occasions, the new skipper stated he hadn’t yet filled out a lineup card and that he needs to better evaluate the players on his staff. He did say he got his information from various places, joking he even took some lineup-creating advice from the Tampa Chamber of Commerce while with the Rays. They finished with a 3-2 record.
He also retold his story of his appreciation of Wrigley Field, comparing walking off the pitcher’s mound after a meeting and gazing around the stadium to a view from reminiscent of the movie Gladiator.
New bench coach Dave Martinez, who spent eight seasons as Maddon’s bench coach in Tampa Bay, joked that “if it’s 70 [degrees] or less, he’ll wear that Elmer Fudd hat.
“I’ve heard things like he’s a mad scientist but this guy eats, sleeps, breathes baseball.”
New hitting coach John Mallee said he has an out if the team’s offense fails to live up to expectation.
“If we do well, I’m going to look like genius, if I don’t I’ll blame [new assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske].”
When asked a question regarding pregame rituals, Maddon responded “I don’t have any superstitions, and I hope not to acquire them,” a statement that brought a lot of laughs given the Cubs’ superstition-filled history.
The main aspect Maddon hopes to work on as the team heads to Spring Training is the creation of relationships. He believes a team reacts better to criticism when coaches and players have a better trust between themselves.
Through a series of trades, free agent signings and the hiring of new manager Joe Maddon, this offseason has been busy for the Baseball Operations department. On Saturday morning, Cubs radio broadcaster Ron Coomer and CBS Radio personality Josh Liss met with President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, Executive Vice President/General Manager Jed Hoyer, Assistant General Manager Randy Bush and Assistant General Manager Shiraz Rehman to discuss how the offseason unfolded. Here’s what went down with the Baseball Operations department at the 2015 Cubs Convention:
Josh Liss kicks things off thanks to the new CBS partnership. Coomer talks about having total knee replacement surgery in the offseason. He looks pretty good for eight weeks out from surgery. Coomer opens by talking about the excitement of the Cubs this season. “Baseball is a better game when the Cubs are good,” Coomer says.
When asked about the team’s confidence, Epstein mentions that the team is still undefeated in 2015. He’s done tempering expectations. Cubs fans deserve to get excited after the last three years. He thinks the team will be really fun to watch this year.
“When you have players who have won the World Series and been to the top of the mountain, it provides great perspective for everyone else.,” Epstein says of signing Jon Lester. Bush talks about how experienced players can be steadying for the club.
Bush and Rehman talk about working for Epstein and Hoyer.
“It’s a pretty dynamic place to go to work every day,” Bush says. “It’s a pretty exciting group of guys from Theo all the way down. … It’s one of the most exciting places I’ve ever come to work.”
Rehman talks about the strides the team has made rebuilding the farm system. The trades they made were tough, but they were building for the future. Now that’s starting to pay off.
Bush talks about Epstein/Hoyer’s great sense of humor and how smart they are. They’re all about gathering information and accumulating as many resources as possible about players.
Hoyer and Epstein talk about their trip to a Florida RV park to land Maddon. They knew it was a great opportunity and wanted to be aggressive. Maddon was traveling the county in his RV (the Cousin Eddie). They met him in Florida and realized they hadn’t brought anything for Maddon and his wife. They quickly made a stop at Publix to get some wine. They sat and talked baseball for about six hours on plastic chairs in the sand. Epstein talks about how engaging Maddon is and how he can bring out the best in you. Players feel that too. Two days later, they were in Maddon’s agent’s office in Chicago hammering out a contract.
“When things present themselves that are such great opportunities, don’t overthink things. Just pounce,” Epstein says of Maddon’s hiring. Says he’s missed out on other opportunities/players by not being so aggressive. You deal with the ramifications later.
Hoyer talks about the challenges of playing/managing in Chicago, but says Maddon is great at finding creative solutions to bringing teams together. Won with few resources in Tampa.
Maddon understands that players need to have a life away from the ballpark, Hoyer says. You need to keep players fresh and keep things interesting. He has days when players don’t have to show up early for batting practice, themed trips, etc.
Hoyer talks about the new coaches. Calls Dave Martinez a future manager. Talks about Mallee’s work in Houston with guys like Jose Altuve and Cris Carter. Plus, he has had success with right-handed power hitters (which the Cubs have a lot of).
Epstein says Eric Hinske will be a nice complement to Mallee as asst. hitting coach. Very different personalities. Also talks about the guys who are coming back, Borzello, Strode, Jones, Bosio, etc.
Borzello and Bosio work amazingly hard breaking down hitters and going over scouting reports. Epstein says every time he goes into coaching room, those guys are watching video, breaking down opposing hitters. Rehman says he and Borzello had an hour-long conversation last night after midnight about pitch-framing. That’s the kind of passion these guys have for the game, he says.
Now we’re on Jon Lester. Epstein talks about how Lester could have gone a lot of places given his career, character, track-record, but he was up for the challenge of coming to Chicago. At dinner after the initial meeting, Lester kept saying, “They’re going to burn this city down again when we win the World Series.”
They really tailored the pitch to Lester because they knew him. Felt like they were cheating because they knew so much about Lester and his family. But, ultimately, Lester simply wanted to come here.
Epstein talks about Lester’s pitch mix and his experience pitching at Fenway. It has forced him to get creative and be adaptable. He should be able to handle pitching at Wrigley Field. He doesn’t just rely on one thing/pitch to get guys out.
Hoyer talks about the catching situation and what they have in Miguel Montero. He’s a great pitch-framer, great defensive catcher and a guy who really relates well to pitchers. Many people have told Hoyer David Ross is one of the best teammates in the game and an excellent clubhouse leader. These are the kinds of guys who can be mentors to a young team. They still like Welington Castillo a great deal, but Ross was just too good to pass up.
They knew they needed to add leadership this offseason to help build a winning culture. They feel really good about what they’ve added. Coaches can’t do everything. You also need teammates who can pull guys aside and correct bad behaviors or help guys who are struggling.
Young players are mainly thinking about staying in the big leagues/survival. There’s a necessary selfishness there, Bush says. We need guys who can help foster a team concept and make those guys more comfortable. That’s why they liked hearing Rizzo’a comments about wining the NL Central.
Next comes the question-and-answer session with fans:
- The first question is about the draft and how they choose players. Epstein talks about how the track record for the best college bat is usually very good. They have a predisposition to that type of player with high picks. They tend to return about twice as much value as a pitcher at the top of the draft. You get your pitching through volume. You have to hammer it throughout the course of the draft.
- How do you determine how young guys get at-bats? Javy Baez got a lot even though he struck out. Olt and Lake had a shorter leash. Hoyer said they wanted Javy to learn through his at-bats. They felt he needed that to get his feet under him in the major leagues. They wanted to bring him up and let him play. Lake and Olt lost time because other guys, like Chris Coghlan and Luis Valbuena, had strong seasons.
- Here’s a question about when Kris Bryant is going to come up, especially if he hits in Spring Training. Epstein says it’s a balance of factors. It’s not just protecting the service clock. He uses Baez and Soler as an example. They’re trying to do the right thing for Bryant’s development and for the team.
- The next question is about where the offensive production is going to come from. Epstein says there’s a good chance for improved production behind the plate with Montero/Ross/Castillo. But if the Cubs are going to be really good, it’s because young players are going to take big steps forward. They still really like Luis Valbuena at third, and Bryant will likely be up this year. But guys like Baez and Soler will have to step up. Alcantara can beat you with power and speed. There’s a lot of young talent on this team, but they need to take steps forward.
- There’s a question about the development of the minor league pitchers like C.J. Edwards and Carson Sands. Rehman says Duane Underwood took some real steps forward last year. Jen-Ho Tseng has a four-pitch mix and throws up to 95. Really just a teenager. Edwards and Hendricks are more known commodities. Pitchers tend to surprise you more than hitters.
That’s it. Maddon and his Staff are next on the schedule. Stay tuned for more. We’ll be blogging all day today and tomorrow.
As it does every year, Saturday at the Cubs Convention kicked off with the Ricketts Family Forum. Heading into their sixth season as owners of the Chicago Cubs, the Rickettses have made significant progress on the organization’s goals to win a World Series, preserve Wrigley Field for future generations and be a good neighbor in the community. Tom, Todd and Laura Ricketts were on hand with host Len Kasper to discuss the strides the team has made in support of these goals over the last year. As always, they also took plenty of questions from fans. Here’s are the highlights from this morning’s convention:
Pete couldn’t be here because he is now the governor of Nebraska. I guess that’s a good excuse, but the rest of the family is here.
Tom Ricketts opened things up with a statement about the state of the Cubs now. He started with the Ricketts’ three stated goals—winning a World Series, preserving the ballpark and being a good neighbor in the community. He said they have made a lot of progress on all of them last year.
Cubs Charities donated more than $4.5 million in 2014. Cubs associates donated 100 gifts of service during Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary year.
On the ballpark side, the Cubs had THE year. Ricketts joked about how easy that process has all been.
“We are going to preserve and improve the best ballpark in the world,” Tom said.
On the field, it doesn’t all happen at once. They have been spending a lot of time, energy and resources to build best organization in baseball. The new facilities in the Dominican and in Mesa, Arizona, have been big steps. They broke all Spring Training attendance records at Sloan Park/Cubs Park in 2014. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have been adding talent through minor leagues, trades and the draft. It was rewarding seeing people say the Cubs had the top minor league system in baseball.
“When you add all those things up, we feel like last year was a real inflection point in the history of the organization, and we look forward to the year ahead,” Tom said.
Next came the question-and-answer session:
- The first question is not a question, but a huge pat on the back from a fan. He complimented the Ricketts family on the care they’ve put into their ownership.
- The second “questioner” brought a prepared, written statement. It started with an audible audience groan, but it was actually pretty complimentary. And not as long as you’d expect.
- Another compliment, but we do finally get a question. She has heard the ivy and outfield wall are down and wants to know if they will be up for Opening Day. Tom says the ivy has been taken off the wall and laid on the ground, so they can work on the wall brick by brick. They keep what they can, and replace the damaged bricks. The wall is actually still standing right now. They will always keep the same ivy. Also, this isn’t the first time the ivy has been removed.
- Laura takes a minute to thank the fans for their patience with this process. It’s a lovefest so far.
- When are the bathrooms going to be done? They can’t say exactly when each thing will be done in the restoration. It’s a process. They can’t do everything at once because they want to play at the ballpark in the summers, so they can only work in the winter. The Cubs contemplated trying to play at the Cell or in Milwaukee for a year to get the renovations done faster, but quickly decided against it.
- How hard is it to balance profitability with the other three main goals? Tom talks about the context of making money in sports. You generate as much as you can, you pay your expenses, then you take the remaining dollars and allocate them to the organization. That’s why the restoration is so important. That money goes back into the team.
- A question about the three new rooftop properties the Ricketts family recently purchased. Tom talks about doing what is best for the Cubs to generate revenue and do what’s right for the team. They intend to run the buildings as rooftops for the time being. It’s what’s right for the team and what’s best for the organization.
- Here’s the long-awaited question about the new broadcast deal. The questioner is now out of market for many games. Is there anything that can be done for people in Peoria, Rockford, etc.? Tom says the Comcast games are still on Comcast, but he talks about how the WGN Superstation—or the idea of a superstation in general—is going away. Tom says it’s a high priority to make sure people have access, but he doesn’t have many answers to offer yet.
- If the bleachers aren’t ready on Opening Day what’s going to happen? Tom says it looks like it’s going to be a challenge to get that done. It could take through April. They do have a contingency plan in place for season ticket holders, and that will be discussed in detail in the Business Ops panel at 2 p.m. Renovating this ballpark is a big challenge, and there may be delays here and there, but it’s well worth it to continue to play at Wrigley Field, Laura says.
- There’s a lot of talk about making the park more kid friendly. The Ricketts are working on it. Clark was a big step in that direction. But a 100-year-old ballpark wasn’t built with kids in mind. The restoration will add more kid-friendly aspects. Quote of the panel: “If you’re bringing your five best friends from college, Wrigley Field is built for speed,” Tom says. “But for kids, it’s a little bit more of a challenge.”
- A question from a local resident about what fans will see at Wrigley on Opening Day and what the parking situation will look like. It will be similar to years past, Tom says. There’s the free remote lot. But things really won’t be that different from a parking perspective.
- A fan who grew up in the 1990s asks a question about Sammy Sosa and whether a reunion is in the works. Sosa is the main reason he became a fan. Tom says there are a few things that have to happen before Sosa comes back. It was a pretty vague answer, but that’s been the answer for a while now.
That’s it. Off to the Baseball Ops panel. Stay tuned for more. We’ll be blogging all day today and tomorrow.