Even though I’m certain the best is yet to come for this young, talented Cubs squad, in some respects, I still hate to see the 2015 season come to an end. It was just such a fun ride.
In recent days, I’ve been asked the same question over and over: How do I feel about the way the campaign ended? Even though the Cubs fell to the Mets in four uncharacteristic games in the NLCS, it was hard for me to really be upset or frustrated with the result. Sure, I would have loved to see the boys in blue win it all. But a club most figured to be at least one year away from true contention finished the season in the NLCS. They were one of the last four teams standing. And this was after winning 97 regular-season games and two postseason series. Anyone who saw that coming in 2015, please raise your hand.
Every year, before the first pitch of the regular season, we at Vine Line place a little wager on what we think the club’s final record will be. I predicted 85 wins—and I still contend that would have been a solid season. Anything above .500 typically keeps a team in the Wild Card hunt until the final weeks.
But the Cubs exceeded expectations on almost every front this year. When different members of the same team factor significantly in voting for the MVP, Cy Young, Manager of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards, something has definitely gone right.
After the final out of the season, Cubs baseball president Theo Epstein talked to the media, and he said something during his press conference that stuck with me.
“If you think back to where we were on Opening Day, many members of this team were in the minor leagues in Double-A and Triple-A,” Epstein said. “If you looked out in the bleachers, we had plywood covering all the stands out there. We lost to the Cardinals on a cold and dreary night. Then you fast forward seven months later and look where we were with a young, dynamic, magical team at the big league level. The bleachers were filled with fans going crazy and supporting the team, and [then] beating the Cardinals in a playoff series. It’s just amazing how far the organization came this year.”
The team’s progress between November 2014, when manager Joe Maddon was hired, and the end of the 2015 season was truly remarkable. For this month’s issue, we relive the year’s best moments, and there were plenty to choose from. The team played so well—especially from July on—it’s easy to lose sight of where it all began.
It’s easy to forget that the main topic of conversation when the season kicked off was not the team’s playoff chances but the Wrigley Field bleachers—or lack thereof. It’s easy to forget that the Opening Day roster did not include Kris Bryant, Addison Russell or Kyle Schwarber. It’s easy to forget that coming into the season, people still saw right-hander Jake Arrieta as something resembling a fallible, flesh-and-blood human being.
We dedicated this month’s issue to celebrating everything that went right in 2015. In our pages, you’ll find the best images of the year, a month-by-month season recap and highlights from Epstein’s post-NLCS presser. We’ll also give you a head start on your holiday shopping with our annual gift guide.
Honestly, the best part of this past year is knowing that it was only the beginning. The Cubs went into the 2014 offseason as a team on the rise, but one with serious question marks. They enter this offseason as an experienced, playoff-tested group with few holes and plenty of resources—in both talent and money—to fill those holes.
Another thing Epstein said that resonated with me was that the whole team was loath to see this season end, and that they all wished Opening Day was already here. I think most fans feel the same way.
While you can’t wish away the winter, you can keep track of all the offseason action, from the hot stove to the winter leagues, in the magazine and on Twitter at @cubsvineline. And keep an eye on Twitter for a special holiday offer on the magazine in the coming days.
On Tuesday, the Cubs punched their ticket to the National League Championship Series with a 6-4 win over the Cardinals in Game 4 of the NLDS. Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber all blasted home runs, and the bullpen sealed the game late to give the Cubs a 3-1 series win.
Yesterday marks the first time in franchise history that the Cubs clinched a postseason series at Wrigley Field. They now await the winner of the Dodgers-Mets NLDS series. The NLCS will get underway on Saturday.
(Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Behind Jake Arrieta’s dominant four-hit, 11-strikeout, complete-game effort and Kyle Schwarber’s two-run bomb into the Allegheny River, the Cubs topped the Pirates 4-0 in the NL Wild Card game Wednesday night. The Cubs now head to St. Louis for the start of a best-of-five National League Division Series on Friday against the Cardinals.
Some teams just have a certain magic. It usually manifests in walk-off wins, unlikely heroes and other assorted frozen moments. Think the 2014 Royals or the 2008 Rays.
But not every good team has this ineffable spark. Some just plod along, winning more than they lose, and the only excitement they really produce is a matter of inertia. By the end of the season, they simply rack up enough by-the-book wins to qualify for the postseason.
That is certainly not the modus operandi of the 2015 Cubs.
For a future article, we recently started compiling the 10 most memorable moments from this season, and we realized it’s going to be nearly impossible to keep it to just 10. As soon as we settled on Jon Lester’s 14-strikeout game, Jake Arrieta threw a no-hitter and made us readjust. We wrote up Anthony Rizzo’s amazing over-the-tarp-and-into-the-stands grab, and Kris Bryant delivered another walk-off miracle.
It’s not that this team hasn’t experienced hardships, but the second you think the Cubs are down, and the fatalistic, knee-jerk, “they’re-finished” reaction sets in, they pick themselves up, dust themselves off and do something amazing.
In the first homestand following the All-Star break, the Cubs were swept by the last-place Phillies and no-hit by Cole Hamels—the first time the franchise had been held hitless since Sandy Koufax turned the trick in 1965. The offense had been struggling for about a month, and the Cubs looked ready to take a tumble. But the team responded by reeling off an incredible 16-2 run, highlighted by a four-game sweep of the Giants, the team directly behind them in the NL Wild Card chase.
So where does this resilience come from?
It all starts at the top with manager Joe Maddon. One of the true joys of covering the Cubs this season has been getting to see the veteran skipper work his magic up close. In interviews, sports figures can be dodgy, belligerent and downright unresponsive. But Maddon never has a false moment. He’s unfailingly honest, willing to discuss just about any topic and nearly impossible to rile.
As the leader of a franchise with a unique history, he is frequently asked about curses, goats and the pressure to deliver the big one to a long-suffering fan base. His typical response: “I just don’t vibrate on that frequency, man.”
He’s also a master at defusing tension and keeping things light. After two reporters got into a spat during a media scrum with GM Jed Hoyer, Maddon walked into his daily pregame presser wearing a catcher’s mask and carrying a bat because he “heard things got a little testy.”
Sometimes Maddon’s bag of tricks even includes actual magic. Following a late-June five-game skid against the Dodgers and Cardinals, he brought a magician into the Citi Field clubhouse in New York to perform an impromptu show for the team.
“I’m more concerned about just mental fatigue more than anything,” Maddon told reporters at the time. “When you have a couple bad days in a row, or a bad week, it can wear on some guys who have never really gone through it before.”
The skipper’s 30-minute rule—celebrate the win or bemoan the loss for a half-hour, and then move on—has resonated with his troops. And, boy, do they celebrate. By now, you’ve no doubt heard of the Cubs’ famous postgame victory bashes, complete with light shows and smoke machines, and themed pajama-party road trips.
In the October issue, we examine what Maddon has really meant to a young, talented Cubs team—not to spoil the story, but it’s a lot. We also look at some of the good work the organization has been doing off the field through its charitable foundations and initiatives. Finally, we travel back 100 years to when the Federal League’s Chicago Whales delivered Wrigley Field its first championship season.
This magical year is about to lead into a magical offseason. Don’t miss a minute of it. Subscribe to Vine Line at cubs.com/vineline and follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.
With Monday’s game deadlocked at 0-0 in the bottom of the 11th inning, pinch-hitter Chris Denorfia took the first pitch he saw from Royals reliever Miguel Almonte into the left-field bleachers, giving the Cubs their major league-leading 13th walk-off victory of the season.
Here’s a bit of advice for aspiring sports journalists out there: If you ever plan on writing a story about Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta, you need to get comfortable with waiting. It’s not that Arrieta isn’t accessible or approachable. Quite the contrary, in fact. He’s polite, intelligent, thoughtful and probably takes reporters’ questions much more seriously than they deserve to be taken. And when he’s in the clubhouse, he’s happy to accept queries from all comers.
He’s just not in the clubhouse all that often. And if you’ve ever really looked at the 29-year-old starter, who twirled the first no-hitter of his career Sunday night in front of a national ESPN audience, you can probably imagine why.
When we were trying to track down Arrieta (and his glorious beard) for our cover feature this month, we asked various sources if they had seen him around. Here’s a sampling of the responses we received:
“When I got here at around 2 p.m. (for a 7:05 game), I know he was on his Pilates machine.”
“The last I saw him, he was in the weight room.”
“I know he was throwing earlier. He’s always working. He’s impossible to find sometimes.”
This may or may not come as a surprise to you, but Jake Arrieta is an extremely hard worker. Still, that’s not what makes him unique. Most major leaguers are hard workers. It’s the wide range of activities he does to keep himself in shape—from Pilates to cycling to weights to isometric work—and the gusto with which he undertakes these activities that make him a bit of an oddity.
What I found most interesting during the reporting process was listening to how his teammates talk about him. Even in a room full of professional athletes, most Cubs players still seem to view the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Texan with wonder. Rotation mate Kyle Hendricks said he aspired to be like Arrieta one day. Catcher David Ross called him a tree bark-eating caveman. Pitcher Jason Hammel mythologized him as a Greek god. Most freely admitted they couldn’t keep up with him, while others hesitantly said they were weighing whether they should actually join him on his famous Pilates reformer.
“Some of the stuff I see him do in the weight room, there’s no way my body could even get in those positions,” Hendricks said, laughing.
Arrieta also might be the poster child for why the Cubs need the 1060 Project’s improved player facilities. The current Wrigley Field weight room and clubhouse are surprisingly small, so Arrieta has moved his Pilates machine (yes, he has his own Pilates machine—of course, he has his own Pilates machine) into the media room. In the last few months, Cubs beat writers have grown accustomed to waiting a few extra minutes for their daily pregame briefing with manager Joe Maddon, while Arrieta either does Pilates himself or puts one of his teammates through the paces.
For the last few seasons, people have been asking—and I asked the same question of everyone I spoke to—why the Cubs’ version of Jake Arrieta is so much better than the Orioles’ original version. The consensus answer points back to his Herculean work ethic. Arrieta is truly driven to be great in every aspect of his life. He always had the stuff. That’s why he made an Opening Day start for the Orioles in 2012, even though his numbers never said he was an ace.
This month, we examine how Arrieta transformed himself from an underachieving prospect into one of the top pitchers in the National League. We also get to know the next wave of heavy hitters in the system, this year’s top draft picks Ian Happ and Donnie Dewees. Finally, we look back at the last time the Cubs were flush with young talent during the tenure of aggressive and often aggravating general manager Dallas Green.
The 2015 season is almost in the books, but things are just heating up. Here’s one more piece of advice: Don’t miss a second of the Cubs’ playoff push. We’ll be there for every last pitch in print, on the Web and on Twitter at @cubsvineline.
To subscribe to Vine Line, go to cubs.com/vineline.
With one out in the top of the sixth inning, first baseman Anthony Rizzo scaled the rolled tarp lining the wall just beyond the first-base dugout, put his left foot atop the knee-high brick wall separating fans from the field and snagged a foul ball before falling into the stands. The first-base umpire originally signaled that Rizzo was out of play before making the catch, but the call was overturned after an official review.
After Dexter Fowler tied the game with a single in the eighth inning, Chris Coghlan stepped up with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth and drew a walk-off walk to give the Cubs a 2-1 victory Wednesday. The Cubs go for the four-game sweep over the NL East-leading Mets Thursday afternoon.
All winter long, we couldn’t wait for Spring Training to arrive so we could catch our first glimpse of Jake Arrieta, Starlin Castro, Dexter Fowler, Jon Lester, Miguel Montero, Anthony Rizzo and the rest. Add in Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, C.J. Edwards, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler, and it portended to be a hot time in the desert.
But just how much more exciting this team really is became readily apparent on our second day with the club at Sloan Park. Like all Spring Training complexes, the Cubs’ beautiful facility in Mesa, Arizona, has a number of practice fields in addition to the main stadium field. Most of the veteran major leaguers—or, as manager Joe Maddon called them, the “varsity squad”—took batting practice in the stadium, while the high-level prospects did their work on Fields 1 and 2.
Though it’s certainly easy to get from one field to the other, there is a bit of distance between them so you need to allot a few minutes for travel.
We were making our usual series of Spring Training videos (check them all out at here on the blog), so we needed to capture footage of several different players. To figure out where we should set up camp that day, we checked the batting groups, which Maddon had posted in the clubhouse. On Field 1 was uber-prospect (and world’s nicest future superstar) Bryant. Well, we had to see him. But Field 2 boasted Almora, Russell and Schwarber. We definitely wanted to catch them too. Of course, there was also the stadium field, where players like Baez, Castro, Fowler, Montero, Rizzo and Soler were taking their hacks.
This posed a bit of a dilemma because, as of this spring, we still hadn’t figured out a way to be in three places at one time.
We ran into this same quandary all through spring camp. It’s not that the Cubs didn’t have exciting players scattered throughout the practice fields in previous years. There just wasn’t quite this volume. And it’s not like you didn’t believe Cubs personnel when they said they felt the playoffs were a possibility in, say, 2014—spring is a time of boundless optimism. But this year, when person after person, without hesitation, said his goal for 2015 was to win the division—or, better yet, the World Series—there was a different intensity to it.
These guys know they are good, and they expect to win. Anything less would be a disappointment.
“The goal is always to win the World Series,” Maddon said. “I don’t understand how a team goes to Spring Training and doesn’t believe that. We have a young core group with some really nice veterans. I want our guys to believe we’re getting to the playoffs and going to the World Series and winning it.”
For the April issue, we got our first chance to meet new center fielder and leadoff man Dexter Fowler, acquired in an offseason trade with the Astros. For a Cubs team that struggled to get on base, lacked a leadoff hitter and was short on everyday outfielders last year, he might just be the perfect acquisition.
We also sat down with new bench coach—and familiar face—Dave Martinez, who was drafted by the Cubs in 1983 and has spent the last seven years by Maddon’s side in Tampa Bay. He spoke with us about returning to Wrigley Field, working with the Cubs’ new manager and setting lofty goals for 2015.
Finally, as the team embarks on a new relationship with CBS Radio WBBM-AM 780, we go back in time to look at the Cubs’ storied history on the dial. The organization was one of the first to see the value of broadcasting games to a wide audience and has remained at the forefront of the medium for nearly a century.
So there you have it—postseason or bust. We like the sound of that. Stick with us for the entire journey in print, on the blog and on Twitter at @cubsvineline. It should be an exciting ride.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta turned 29 years old Friday. The right-hander enjoyed his best season as a major leaguer last year, finishing 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA and a 9.6 K/9 rate over 156.2 innings. He’s projected to start Sunday as the Cubs host the Rangers in Cactus League action.