Archive for the ‘ Profiles ’ Category

Now Playing: In the Dugout with Rick Renteria, August 2014

Things should get interesting for the Cubs as the season draws to a close, especially with some heralded prospects from the farm system getting late-season call-ups. When we sat down with manager Rick Renteria the day before the trade deadline, the Cubs were already getting strong performances from rookies Arismendy Alcantara and Kyle Hendricks. We talked to the skipper about the team’s youth movement, dealing with the deadline doldrums and squaring off against newly minted Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.

A Cubs fan is living the dream in the MLB Fan Cave

MLB-Fan-cave

(Illustration by Jerry Neumann)

Michael Bolling isn’t sure what he wants to do next year, but for now, he’s already got most baseball fans’ dream job.

The 24-year-old multimedia journalism graduate from Lewis University is the first-ever Cubs representative in the MLB Fan Cave in New York City. That means he’s spending this year meeting MLB superstars, blogging and tweeting on behalf of MLB and the Cubs, and—first and foremost—watching every big league pitch thrown in 2014.

The MLB Fan Cave debuted in 2011, putting its Dwellers “at work” from noon, when the first pitch of the first afternoon game is thrown until about 1:30 a.m., when games wrap up on the West Coast. They also conduct public tours of the space and participate in the filming of MTV2’s weekly Off the Bat show.

“It actually really hectic,” Bolling said. “There’s a ton of stuff going on, but the main focus is when there are games on, we’re in front of those television sets, and we aren’t missing any pitches.”

The Fan Cave first came to Bolling’s attention during the 2013 World Series, when he saw last year’s Dwellers covering the games and getting premium media access. He ultimately hopes to have a career in sports, so when he saw the link to apply online, he was all in.

“I felt like it would be a good opportunity to at least find the door—and maybe even get my foot in the door—and that’s something that probably doesn’t come around very often,” he said. “I figured if I got anywhere near the last few cuts, and they were thinking about bringing me in, I was going to drop everything to do it.”

Bolling, who spent much of his childhood living about six blocks from Wrigley Field, has been a Cubs fan since birth—his mother is from the Dominican Republic and was friendly with Sammy Sosa’s family. He and a friend even drove from Chicago to Anaheim, California, in 2010 to watch Marlon Byrd represent the Cubs in the All-Star Game.

So far this year, Bolling has met countless major league players and even got a chance to play a Playstation MLB: The Show Home Run Derby with Dodgers star Yasiel Puig (for the record: Bolling won). But what he’s really looking forward to is when the Cubs come to New York to take on the Mets August 15-18, because that means some Cubs players will stop by the Cave.

“I don’t care who comes through the doors. I’m going to freak out,” Bolling said. “I really hope we can get Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo through to the Cave just to show them around and interact with them a bit. But honestly whoever is wearing the pinstripes and comes through that door, I’m going to be so happy to see them. I can’t wait.”

Hot Off the Presses: August Vine Line featuring Anthony Rizzo

001_VL1408_Cover_newstand

Last month, the Cubs kicked off the annual trade deadline frenzy with some big Fourth of July fireworks, sending starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland Athletics for infielder Addison Russell, outfielder Billy McKinney, right-handed pitcher Dan Straily and a player to be named later.

In some ways, the trade was difficult for Cubs fans to stomach, as they lost two of the top pitchers from a team that was suddenly looking, dare I say, formidable. But it might also be the move that finally puts the team over the hump and on the path to sustained excellence at the big league level.

In exchange for a right-hander who was only under contract through 2014 (Hammel) and another under contract through 2015 and seemingly eager to test the free agent waters (Samardzija), the Cubs received the A’s top two prospects, including one of the best in the game, and an arm that could see time in the big league rotation this season.

No one likes trading proven talent, especially a longtime Cub like Samardzija. President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein made it clear several times in his press conference following the blockbuster deal how hard it was to part ways with the Shark.

“Nothing would make us happier than being in the position Oakland is in, which is to aggressively add to the big league team and enhance the team’s chances of making the postseason and winning the World Series,” Epstein said. “Being sellers is not what we want to do, so if we’re going to do it, we need to make it count. And we need to get a player back who significantly impacts the organization, helps change the landscape, helps make our future a heck of a lot better.”

In the past, Epstein has said there are two great currencies in baseball: deep reserves of young talent and massive amounts of payroll flexibility. The Cubs now have both.

Admittedly, most of this talent is still percolating in the minor leagues, but it’s coming fast. A year ago, it was the Big Three: Albert Almora, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler. This year—thanks to strong trades, draft picks and development—the Cubs have a Magnificent Seven of gifted hitters, with Arismendy Alcantara, Kris Bryant, Russell and Kyle Schwarber added to that mix.

Since the end of the steroid era, the big league pendulum has swung back toward pitching dominance, and hitting is becoming a rarer commodity. In other words, the Cubs are stockpiling the most precious resource in baseball—and they’ve got more of it than almost anyone else. With this trade, the organization now owns the No. 2 (Bryant), No. 5 (Russell) and No. 7 (Baez) prospects in the game, as ranked in the Baseball America midseason top 50.

Let me repeat that—the Cubs now have three of the top seven prospects in the game—and Baez is making his big league debut tonight in Colorado. Of course, prospects have a nasty habit of not always panning out as expected. But it’s important to remember all of these minor leaguers are essentially funneling into eight everyday major league spots. Two of those spots are already filled by 2014 All-Stars Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, while Alcantara and Baez are auditioning for two more.

This month, we look at cornerstone major leaguer Rizzo, who is having a terrific season on both sides of the ball and has taken a huge developmental step forward this year. We also say goodbye to Don Zimmer, a man who left an indelible mark on Cubs—and baseball—history over his 66 years in the dugout. Finally, we move off the diamond to the gridiron to remember what the Chicago Bears accomplished in their 50 years at the Friendly Confines, including Wrigley Field’s most recent championship in 1963.

To keep track of Cubs history—including history in the making—subscribe to Vine Line today and follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline. With the way things are coming together for the team, the next championship season may not be far off.

—Gary Cohen

Now Playing: Keeping Score with Lennie Merullo, the oldest living Cub

Despite hailing from the Boston area, Lennie Merullo is a Cub through and through. The spry, 97-year-old former shortstop is the last surviving link to the team’s most recent World Series appearance in 1945 and is the oldest living Cub. After his seven-year playing career ended, Merullo remained with the organization for decades as a scout and said he truly bleeds Cubbie blue. He still watches every game, and his house is filled with memorabilia from his years on the North Side.

Vine Line caught up with Merullo when was honored at the park in early June. To read the complete interview, pick up the August issue.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Our July Q&A with Ernie Banks and Derek Jeter

JETER_ERNIE_BANKS_JP-9994
(Photo courtesy New York Yankees)

Mr. Cub and Mr. November. When it comes to playing shortstop in the major leagues, it’s hard to do better than Cubs legend Ernie Banks and all-time Yankees great Derek Jeter.

Between them, they have 28 All-Star appearances, two MVP Awards (with 10 top-10 finishes) and six Gold Gloves. They have also amassed nearly 6,000 hits and 800 home runs. Banks was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977. Assuming Jeter holds firm on his decision to retire after this season, he just needs the calendar to turn to 2019 for his certain enshrinement.

Both enjoyed long and distinguished careers with one organization; both spawned memorable moments and were the faces of their respective franchises; and both became great ambassadors for the game.

When Derek Jeter made a rare interleague appearance in Chicago this past May, Vine Line and Yankees Magazine couldn’t let the opportunity to get the two iconic players together slip away.

Yankees Magazine Editor-in-Chief Alfred Santasiere III spoke to the man affectionately known as Mr. Cub and the Yankees captain about playing a demanding defensive position, spending their entire careers with a single team, playing at the Friendly Confines and more.

For baseball fans, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Vine Line: First of all, it’s an honor to be here with two of the greatest shortstops the game has ever seen. Thank you both. Mr. Jeter, how did Mr. Banks, who is over 6 feet tall, impact the future of the position?

Derek Jeter: I’ve had the opportunity to meet Phil Rizzuto and Pee Wee Reese, who were two of the other great shortstops from Mr. Banks’ era. Those guys epitomized who played that position back then—shorter guys without a lot of power. Mr. Banks redefined the position, and he really paved the way for taller players like me to get the opportunity to play shortstop.

Ernie Banks: Who were the shortstops you watched when you were growing up?

DJ: I was a big Cal Ripken Jr. fan. He’s 6 foot 4, and he played the position as well as anyone I had seen. I also liked watching Barry Larkin, who played his college ball in my home state of Michigan. Alan Trammell played for the Detroit Tigers, and they were on TV a lot in my house when I was growing up, so I got to see him play frequently.

EB: Why didn’t they ever move you to third base?

DJ: I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that out.

VL: Mr. Banks, what are your thoughts on Mr. Jeter’s ability to play such a demanding position so well for nearly two decades?

EB: Well, he’s a remarkable player, and that’s proven by the fact that he is still playing shortstop. We all slow down a little as we get older. I moved to first base after about 10 seasons at shortstop. But Derek has done what no one else has, and that’s remarkable.

VL: How much does it mean to each of you to have played for one team your entire careers—and to be synonymous with those teams?

DJ: Playing my entire career in New York has always been important to me. I’ve been fortunate because in this day and age, it’s more difficult to stay with one team than when Mr. Banks was playing. With free agency, there is so much player movement, and teams get rid of players when there are younger players available who can play the same position a little better. But I can’t imagine playing anywhere else.

EB: It means the world to me. We played all day games in Chicago back then because they didn’t have lights at Wrigley Field until 1988. That was something I got used to and really enjoyed. The only night games we played were when we were on the road. Like Derek said, I couldn’t have imagined what it would have been like to play for another team. If I had played for another team and I had to play most of the games at night, it would have felt like every game was an away game for me.

VL: How would each of you describe your respective fan bases?

EB: The fans here are loyal. When I was playing, I got to meet a lot of fans, and that was a lot of fun. I signed autographs for as many kids as I could because I thought that one day I might be asking one of those kids for a job. Cubs fans aren’t as loud as Yankees fans though. The first time I met Derek, I asked him what it’s like playing in New York. He looked at me and said, “When you win, it’s loud.”

DJ: That’s a great story. Yankees fans follow the team closely, and there’s a lot of energy in Yankee Stadium every time we take the field. The expectation level is high, but there’s no better place to win than in New York.

VL: The enthusiasm that both of you have for the game is well documented. What makes playing baseball for a living so enjoyable?

DJ: Every day is a new day. It’s kind of like life in that you wake up and you never know what’s going to happen when you get to the ballpark. Regardless of how you played the day before, you come to the ballpark with a clean slate the next day. I like that about baseball. I have enjoyed competing and being around my teammates as well. That’s why I have played the game for as long as I have.

EB: It was fun being out there every day. That’s why I said, “It’s a great day for baseball. Let’s play two.” I especially enjoyed playing the shortstop position. For me, making adjustments to where I was going to play in the field depending on who was on the mound and who was at the plate was part of the game I relished. I got as much fun out of the strategy of the game and making sure I was in the right place to turn double plays as I got out of hitting the ball out of the park.

VL: Mr. Banks, what were the most challenging aspects of going directly from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues to the Cubs at a time when there were very few African-Americans in the majors?

EB: As far as being discriminated against, that’s all I knew since the time I was growing up. But the hardest thing about leaving the Monarchs for the Cubs was saying goodbye to my teammates in Kansas City. I liked being around those guys, and I didn’t want to leave them. They were like my family.

VL: How did you adjust to life in the big leagues?

EB: I played for [legendary Negro Leagues player and manager] Buck O’Neil in Kansas City, and I played alongside Gene Baker and Tony Taylor, who knew a lot about the game. I learned how to play the game from those guys. They taught me about the intricacies of the game and the shortstop position. That along with some God-given ability made it so I was prepared to play in the big leagues when I arrived in Chicago.

VL: Mr. Jeter, how was your career impacted by what Mr. Banks and others did in breaking the color barrier in the early 1950s?

DJ: It’s unimaginable for me. Mr. Banks is one of the players who paved the way for all African-Americans to play the game. I’m grateful to him for what he did on the field, and I also appreciate the way he has treated me since I was a young player.

VL: Mr. Banks, what stands out about Mr. Jeter’s accomplishments and the way he has represented himself and his team over the years?

EB: I really admire him. He’s accomplished so many great things. He’s knowledgeable about every aspect of playing the game. He studies the opposing pitchers, and he learned how to hit the ball to all fields at a young age. He’s an amazing young player. When he got his 3,000th hit on a home run, that was really special for me to watch. What was that like for you, Derek?

DJ: Well, I appreciate you referring to me as a young player. Hitting that home run felt great. More than anything, I was happy that it happened in front of our fans in New York.

EB: How did you do that?

DJ: I closed my eyes and swung the bat.

VL: Mr. Banks, what makes Wrigley Field such a special baseball destination?

EB: It’s special because it has been here for 100 years, and we’ve had some great teams. It’s a beautiful place, and so much history has taken place on this field. Babe Ruth stood a few feet from where we are sitting, pointed to the seats and then hit the ball out of the park. More than 80 years later, Derek Jeter will come up to the plate in the same place. That’s an amazing thing. Also, the fans are very close to the field, and that makes it an intimate setting for baseball. There’s no better place to watch a game.

VL: Mr. Jeter, how exciting is it to visit Wrigley Field in your final season—and during the stadium’s centennial?

DJ: I like being a part of history and tradition, and I’m thrilled to get one last chance to play here—especially since I was on the disabled list when we played here in 2011. I drove here with my class on my last day of high school, and that is a great memory. If I could have written a script for my career back then, I would have included a trip to Wrigley Field during my final season.

EB: You’re not really going to quit, are you?

DJ: After this season.

EB: You can’t do that.

DJ: Yes, I can.

EB: I wish guys like you never had to quit.

DJ: Well, let’s just say I’m moving on.

—Alfred Santasiere III

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 2000s—Carlos Zambrano

Carlos_Zambrano

(Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images)

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the final installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, we look at the eccentric and exciting Carlos Zambrano. Though it might come as a surprise to some to see Big Z on the list, he had very solid numbers throughout the 2000s.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman
1940s – Bill Nicholson
1950 – Ernie Banks
1960s – Ron Santo
1970s – Rick Reuschel
1980s – Ryne Sandberg
1990s – Mark Grace

2000s – Carlos Zambrano, 26.5 WAR

Seasons: 2001-09
W-L: 105-68
G-GS: 259-238
IP: 1,549.0
K: 1,324
K/9: 7.70
ERA: 3.51

Say what you will about Carlos Zambrano’s time on the North Side. Sure, some of his most memorable moments in a Cubs uniform occurred inside the dugout, including a scuffle with teammate Michael Barrett in 2007 and a few notable run-ins with the beleaguered Gatorade dispenser.

But at the beginning of Big Z’s career, he was an animal on the bump as well. The hard-throwing Venezuelan made his debut in August 2001 and became a workhorse soon after, logging five consecutive seasons with 200-plus innings from 2003-07. During that time, he made three All-Star teams, finished in the top five in Cy Young voting three times, led the NL in wins in 2006 and earned MVP votes in 2004.

The right-hander was the only NL pitcher to win 13 or more games each year from 2003-08, and he served as the Cubs’ Opening Day starter from 2005-10.

Zambrano’s finest effort in a Cubs uniform came on Sept. 14, 2008, when he tossed the club’s first no-hitter in 36 years, striking out 10 batters and walking one in 110 pitches against the Astros. By the end of the 2000s, his numbers had slipped dramatically, and he was out of the game at age 31.

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 1990s—Mark Grace

Grace

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the ninth installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, we look at first baseman Mark Grace, one of the biggest fan favorites ever to play on the North Side. He’s also grossly underrated and essentially dominated the 1990s.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman
1940s – Bill Nicholson
1950 – Ernie Banks
1960s – Ron Santo
1970s – Rick Reuschel
1980s – Ryne Sandberg

1990s—Mark Grace, 36.2 WAR

Seasons: 1990-99
AVG/OBP/SLG: .310/.385/.449
PA: 6,467
HR: 117
R: 843
RBI: 786
SB: 49

Given Mark Grace’s enduring popularity on the North Side, it’s hard to believe how much the beloved first baseman flew under the radar on a national scale.

Throughout the 1990s, Grace’s WAR total ranks eighth of all NL position players. It’s also a well-known fact that he and Pete Rose are the only two players in major league history to lead the league in hits for a decade without being elected to the Hall of Fame. While those chances quickly faded—Grace received just 4.1 percent of the vote on his first Hall of Fame ballot in 2009, removing his name from future consideration—there’s a good reason Gracie has always been a fan favorite.

He had a solid debut in 1988, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting, before becoming a legitimate star in the 1990s. Not only did he lead the decade in hits, he also had the most doubles, went to three All-Star Games (1993, 1995 and 1997), and helped the Cubs to a postseason berth in 1998. For the decade, he hit .310/.385/.449 with 711 walks versus 448 strikeouts.

Grace was also one of the better defensive first basemen of his era, picking up four Gold Gloves, all in the 1990s. He would go on to win a World Series title with the Diamondbacks in 2001.

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 1970s—Rick Reuschel

Reuschel

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the seventh installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, we look at towering right-hander Rick Reuschel, who was a consistent workhorse throughout the 1970s.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman
1940s – Bill Nicholson
1950 – Ernie Banks
1960s – Ron Santo

1970s – Rick Reuschel, 41.3 WAR

Seasons: 1972-79
AVG/OBP/SLG: 114-101
W-L: 284-274
G-GS: 284-274
IP: 1834.1
K: 1122
K/9: 5.50
ERA: 3.43

Unlike some of the other players on this list, Rick Reuschel’s numbers don’t jump off the page. He even led the league in losses in 1975 with 17, albeit with a 3.73 ERA. But while he didn’t earn a lot of attention for his efforts, Reuschel was definitely the standout performer for the Cubs during a down decade—a stretch that saw the team win between 75 and 85 games nine times.

The right-hander’s lofty WAR total can largely be attributed to a clean bill of health and a high level of consistency. He won at least 10 games from his big league debut in 1972 through the end of the decade. He also pitched no fewer than 234 innings a season from 1973-79, making at least 35 starts in each of those years. As a result, his WAR total ranks fifth among all pitchers in the 1970s.

The 1977 All-Star wasn’t one to strike out a ton of hitters—he averaged 5.1 K/9 for his career—but he used deception and a wide arsenal of pitches to get hitters out.

Big Daddy’s finest season came in 1977, when he went 20-10 with a 2.79 ERA, made his lone Cubs All-Star appearance and finished third in the Cy Young race. He ultimately pitched for 19 seasons and earned 214 major league victories.

 

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 1940s—Bill Nicholson

Nicholson

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the fourth installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, Bill “Swish” Nicholson provided the team with some necessary pop in the 1940s, especially during the early part of the decade.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman

1940s – Bill Nicholson, 36.9 WAR

Seasons: 1940-48
AVG/OBP/SLG: .271/.369/.472
PA: 5,371
HR: 200
R: 701
RBI: 795
SB: 26

Bill Nicholson was at his best in 1943 and 1944, when he won both the home run and RBI titles. He hit 29 homers and knocked in 128 in 1943, and followed that with 33 bombs and 122 RBI in 1944, when he was runner-up in the MVP voting. The right fielder also led the league in runs scored that year. But power was Nicholson’s game, as his 211 home runs in the 1940s (200 coming with the Cubs from 1940-48) rank second in the decade among NL hitters. All four of his All-Star appearances were with the Cubs during the 1940s, and he made starts in 1941 and 1943. Despite earning the nickname Swish for his swing-and-miss tendencies, Nicholson managed to draw more walks than strikeouts in his nine seasons on the North Side.

Now Playing: In the Dugout with Rick Renteria, July 2014

Cubs manager Rick Renteria is all about forward momentum. He doesn’t waste time worrying about trade rumors or other distractions. Instead, he’s focused on creating a positive learning environment and developing the team’s young major league talent. When we sat down with the skipper during a three-game sweep of the Mets in mid-June, things seemed to be heading in the right direction. We talked to Renteria about the team’s learning curve, Anthony Rizzo’s development as a hitter and the bullpen’s burgeoning youth movement.

To read the full interview, pick up the July issue at the ballpark or at Chicago-area retailers. Or subscribe to Vine Line, the official magazine of the Chicago Cubs, for just $29.95.

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