Archive for the ‘ Profiles ’ Category

Hot off the Presses: The May issue offers an inside look at the real Kris Bryant

001_VL1605_Cover

I had one guiding concept in mind when I set out to report the cover feature on Cubs star Kris Bryant for this month: Do not write a hagiography. There are plenty of St. Kristopher stories out there. I figured the world didn’t need another one.

I’d certainly talked to Bryant before—several times, in fact, from his initial signing through the final days of last season. And, cards on the table, I like the guy. But I’d never done anything in-depth with him. My goal as a writer was to stay impartial, impassive and honest. Yes, I work for the Cubs, but I still wanted to let the story tell itself without bias.

Soooo … that was my goal.

But here’s the rub: Kris Bryant is an excellent baseball player. Sure there are a few knocks on his game. He struck out a lot last season and likely will always pile up the K’s. His defense is still evolving, although he finished strong last season. And I suppose he got stuck on 99 RBI for a while. Anything else is nitpicking.

But the reason it’s so difficult to avoid writing a puff piece about him is that he’s also a genuinely nice fellow. I had only a short window to interview him at Spring Training in March, so I checked in with him on my first full day there—a Monday. He was literally dressed and walking out of the clubhouse, but he politely said he couldn’t do anything substantive until that Friday because he was booked solid with photo shoots, commercial shoots, interviews and, well, baseball.

For many players, “Try me tomorrow” is the sporting equivalent of saying, “It was fun; I’ll give you a call sometime,” after a bad date. Still, we checked in with each other throughout the week, and he held firm on Friday. I told him that was fine with me, but in reality I was nearly panicked because Friday was my second-to-last day there. No Bryant, no story.

But once that day arrived, I didn’t have to track him down (or beg, which I was prepared to do). He walked straight over to me, shook my hand, apologized for making me wait and then asked if I wanted to get out of the clubhouse so we could avoid the inevitable media scrum that surrounds him. That kind of behavior is not unheard of, but it definitely stands out enough that you notice. After a very respectful and engaging 20 minutes, I had what I needed and made my peace with what kind of story this was going to be.

What I really wanted to uncover was how Bryant handled the titanic expectations that were heaped upon him last year and what kind of an impact that would have on his sophomore campaign.

One of the first people I talked to for some insight was Cubs assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske, a two-time World Series champion with his own Rookie of the Year trophy, from 2002. I figured if anyone can relate to what Bryant will be going through this season, it’s him. When asked what the 24-year-old is like as a student, Hinske, who pretty much saw it all over his 12-year major-league career, seemed a bit flustered.

“Honestly, he’s far along in the process,” Hinske said. “He really doesn’t have to be a pupil that much. It’s more of just maintaining his swing. He’s so mechanically right. He’s a bright kid, a good character guy. He takes instruction well if he needs it, and he’s just a pleasure to work with every day.”

Our feature paints a picture of a very talented, grounded and decent human being—one who is likely to terrorize opposing pitchers for the next decade-plus. In the May issue, we also talk to hitting coach John Mallee about his expectations for the season and the work he’s doing with an incredibly potent offensive group. Finally, we look back at one of the most memorable games ever pitched at the Friendly Confines, even if there might not be a person alive who actually remembers seeing it—the remarkable dual no-hitter spun by Hippo Vaughn and Fred Toney in 1917.

For more insight into the players and team you love all season long, subscribe to Vine Line at cubs.com/vineline.

Let’s go!

—Gary Cohen

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Cubs bullpen is uniquely deep and versatile

Warren_Cubs(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

The 2016 Cubs are one of the deepest teams in baseball, but the thing that makes them so formidable is their versatility. And nowhere is that more evident than in the bullpen, where the Cubs have four swingmen capable of filling multiple roles. The following feature ran in the April issue of Vine Line.

Since the expansion of bullpen specialization in the 1950s and ’60s, most major-league relief corps have been constructed in a similar fashion. Teams tend to carry six or seven relievers, including a closer, an eighth-inning specialist, a seventh-inning specialist, a few set-up men and at least one long man. Often, that long man is a former starter no longer making the grade—the kind of arm teams feel most comfortable running out to the mound with a five-run lead or a five-run deficit.

But as Cubs fans discovered all throughout last season, the way manager Joe Maddon’s teams are put together is far from conventional.

The 2016 Cubs sprint into the regular season as one of the deepest and most formidable teams in baseball, with a unique mix of young stars at key positions and battle-tested veterans to help lead the way. But the thing that might make this group truly dangerous is its versatility up and down the roster—and that includes exceptional bullpen depth.

The Cubs do have an established closer in Hector Rondon and several talented set-up men with electric stuff, including Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm. But behind them, the club has a quartet of arms—Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren and Travis Wood—who can all start, relieve or do just about anything in between. All four pitchers came into professional baseball as starters, and they all have experienced success in that role. But each ended last season in the bullpen, and their versatility gives the Cubs a big weapon as the season wears on.

“It’s an unusual group in the most positive way possible in the bullpen, with the variety of multiple-inning guys that are also capable of closing games if you wanted them to and could also start games if you wanted them to,” Maddon said. “I think any manager would love to have those four guys to choose from, whether it be to fill the latter part of the rotation or to have at your disposal on a nightly basis. It’s all good stuff.”

GOING DEEP
Interest in versatility has been trending upward in baseball for years on the positional side. New Cubs acquisition Ben Zobrist became a legitimate major-league star by playing multiple positions and helped usher in the age of the super-utilityman. But until recently, there has still been a stigma associated with being a bullpen swingman. The typical narrative was that these pitchers couldn’t cut it as starters and didn’t have the stuff to be back-end relievers.

In recent years, big-league front offices have begun to see the value of versatility in the ’pen as well. Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Executive Vice President and General Manager Jed Hoyer have repeatedly spoken of needing eight or nine viable starters to feel comfortable heading into a season. Injuries and underperformance are almost inevitable, and teams need to protect themselves for those eventualities.

Now, in addition to an imposing starting five that includes 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, World Series champions Jon Lester and John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs have four pitchers who can easily slot into a starting role if necessary. And that doesn’t even include minor-league arms like Pierce Johnson, Dallas Beeler and others.

“If you look at this position just a couple of years ago, it had a totally different feel,” Richard said. “What people are starting to understand is that there’s value in the versatility. You see we signed Ben Zobrist, and people place so much value because he’s capable of doing so many things. That holds weight as a pitcher too, if you’re needed for a start or if you’re needed for multiple innings out of the bullpen or if you’re needed for a situational lefty with me or Woody. There’s value in that, and it’s neat to be a part of it.”

Plus, if the starter is shaky in a particular outing—and even Arrieta had an off day or two last season—the Cubs have several pitchers who can step in and provide long relief, without overtaxing the bullpen for the next day’s game.

The best example of this might have been the 2015 postseason. Going into the playoffs, both Hammel and Hendricks were struggling. The two pitchers made four combined starts between the NLDS and NLCS and didn’t last through five frames in any of them. Cahill, Richard and Wood all stepped up to log valuable innings and keep the Cubs’ hopes alive—and they were almost never used in the same situation twice.

“A team might be stacked and have the best rotation, and there’s always something that comes up, whether it’s a little nagging injury or a big injury,” Cahill said. “Depth helps out a lot. I think they figured out that starters can pitch out of the ’pen effectively. Me, Woody, Clayton, we’re all throwing harder out of the ’pen. It’s nice to have that versatility. I think we got more comfortable throwing in those later roles instead of just being a long guy when we first went to the bullpen. But if one of us is going well, you can just keep running us out there—one inning, two innings, three innings.”

Another major benefit of having so much versatility is that it offers Maddon more flexibility in how he can use his pitchers, which should reduce wear and tear on the starting rotation. The veteran skipper has always been cautious about overusing his arms, but with depth an issue last year and the team in position to make a deep postseason run, Maddon leaned more heavily on some of his guys than he might have liked.

In 2016, the Cubs should be able to go to the ’pen earlier if needed to preserve their starters and reduce the workload on some of their key high-leverage relievers, especially early in the season. As Maddon will be the first to tell you, he’s quite comfortable with any of his swing quartet closing a game or two in certain situations.

“We have a lot of talent, and that gives Joe a lot of flexibility with how he wants to use the bullpen,” Warren said. “He can say, ‘All right, I want to let this guy eat up three innings tonight,’ and we still have a long man the next night. You don’t have to make a move. It allows for that flexibility. You can throw just a matchup guy and then still have a long guy.

“I know in New York, we had a longer guy who pitched two or three innings. Once that guy pitched, it was almost like panic for the next day. ‘What if the starter goes down in the first? We’re screwed.’”

MAKING ADJUSTMENTS
Pitching from the rotation and in relief are very different jobs that require different preparation. Just because someone has been a solid major-league starter doesn’t mean he’ll make an effective reliever, and a reliever who excels in one-inning bursts won’t necessarily remain effective in a second turn through an opposing lineup. To be able to do both well is an acquired, and impressive, skill.

“There are four days as a starter that you know you’re not going to pitch,” Warren said. “So you’re like, ‘OK, I got this. I’ve got running and lifting today. The next day I’ve got a bullpen.’ You have a set routine, whereas coming in from the bullpen, it’s ‘OK, I might have to pitch today, so I have to get up and have the same routine.’ You have to prepare yourself to pitch every day.”

You also can’t discount major-league egos. Most pitchers would rather start or throw in high-leverage, late-inning situations. That’s where the glamour—and, let’s be honest, the money—is. All four of the Cubs swingmen have spent most of their lives in a starting role.

In 2010, Cahill went 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA in 30 starts with the Athletics, earning a spot on the All-Star team. He’s logged six seasons as primarily a starter. Richard has two 14-win seasons under his belt in six years as a starter with the White Sox and Padres. Wood logged five seasons in the rotation with the Reds and Cubs and made the 2013 All-Star team before being moved to the ’pen in 2015.

Warren’s background is a bit different. He was a starter at the University of North Carolina and in the Yankees’ minor-league system, but pitched mainly in relief after getting his first real big-league shot in 2013. Injuries in New York forced Warren back into the rotation for parts of the 2015 campaign, and he made 17 starts, going 6-6 with a 3.66 ERA in the role.

When pressed, all of the Cubs swingmen say they prefer starting. But what makes them—and many other Cubs players—special is that their first priority is winning, and they’re willing to do whatever is asked of them in pursuit of the ultimate goal. Each took the move to the bullpen well, worked hard to master the new routine and came out firing.

“[Being willing to move around] goes with the background, the makeup on the individual,” said Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio. “That has a lot to do with the people we’re looking to pick up.”

Each pitcher also admitted to struggling a bit at first with moving back and forth and not being in a defined role, but that all comes down to personal preference. Cahill said going from a reliever to a starter is more difficult, while Warren said the exact opposite. Ultimately, it’s about mastering the different mentality needed for each job and making your pitches.

“Initially [going back and forth] can be difficult,” Richard said. “But you can’t think about it too much because when you do that, you put undue pressure on yourself. At the end of the day, it’s still executing pitches. If you’re going to be successful either as a starter or as a guy out of the bullpen, you have to execute pitches.”

Or, as Wood said: “It’s still 60 feet, 6 inches.”

MIXING IT UP
One thing that does—or can—change coming out of the bullpen is pitch mix. While most starters use three or four pitches to keep hitters off balance, top relievers really need only two plus pitches. One of the best closers in major-league history, Mariano Rivera, threw his cutter almost 90 percent of the time by the end of his career. Some relievers work with a larger repertoire, but most are fastball-slider guys.

This is one of the characteristics that makes the Cubs’ talented foursome unique.

“I think the advantage for us as a staff is that most of the guys who have been starters are three- or four-pitch guys,” Bosio said. “We’re bringing another pitch in there that normally a lot of hitters wouldn’t see—a third pitch or possibly even a fourth.”

Richard continued to use all of his pitches out of the ’pen, but in a much different ratio. Last season, throwing in relief for the first time, he used his fastball at an 81.3 percent rate, according to Fangraphs. That’s nearly a 20 percent increase over the previous season when he was a starter. He also gained a little velocity on his heater, as most pitchers do going from throwing multiple innings to a single frame.

“You’re a little more fresh,” Richard said. “The workload isn’t as heavy as a reliever, so naturally your intensity is able to kick up because you’re not throwing the sheer quantity of pitches. I think that’s where the velocity comes from is just having a rested arm.

“I’ve always leaned on my fastball pretty heavily. It may have been a little bit more this past year making that transition into the bullpen, making sure they’re seeing my best pitch, kind of feeling out, ‘Well, I don’t want to get beat with my third- or fourth-best pitch when I’m only facing one hitter.’”

Warren throws a fastball, slider, curveball and change-up, and he’ll use them all in about the same ratio whether he’s starting or relieving. For him, it’s more a matter of strategy. As a starter, he might hold a pitch back the first turn or two through the order, so he has something new to go to later in the game. As a reliever, he’s using all four pitches immediately because he likely won’t see batters a second time.

“I’ve always had a good feel for all my pitches,” Warren said. “I feel like that builds my strength because most hitters are used to seeing a reliever with two or maybe three pitches, but never really four. Most relievers usually have a really good fastball or a really good slider or breaking ball. I don’t have a put-away pitch, but I can use all my pitches to keep hitters off balance. I feel like it gives me an advantage if I can throw them all.

“Now, there might be one day where maybe I’m casting my curveball or something, so for one inning, I might get rid of my curveball and stick with fastball, slider, change-up. That happens, but the hitters don’t know that.”

The other thing pitchers moving from the rotation to the bullpen need to prepare for is the hike in adrenaline. Starters get a chance to ease into games and aren’t necessarily pitching in high-leverage situations all the time. Coming out of the bullpen, anything can happen. You might be called on to start a clean inning, but you also have to be ready to come in with the bases loaded and the game on the line.

In Game 3 of last season’s NLDS versus the Cardinals, the Cubs took a 5-2 lead into the sixth inning with the series knotted at 1-1. Arrieta quickly gave up two runs on a Jason Heyward homer and then struck out two Cardinals hitters before plunking Brandon Moss. Maddon called to the bullpen for Richard, who quickly induced Kolton Wong to ground out on a 93-mph fastball to end the threat and maintain the Cubs’ lead.

Richard was followed by Cahill and Wood, who combined for a scoreless seventh inning before turning the game over to Strop and Rondon.

“I kind of like not knowing because you’re always on your toes,” Cahill said. “You’re always into the game because you just don’t know.”

Of course, there are some drawbacks to coming out of the bullpen, especially for a well-rounded player like Wood.

“I do miss hitting quite a bit,” said Wood, who hit .215 with seven home runs and 22 RBI in his first three Cubs seasons as a starter. “I don’t get the same opportunities to come in and pinch-hit. I don’t get the at-bats on starting days, so that was a big thing. I do miss it. I still enjoy it, so I work on it. I don’t want to let it slip away. I keep it toned in case it’s needed.”

If the Royals proved anything with their World Series title run in 2015 it was that the postseason is all about powerful bullpen arms. Last year, they had the ability to shorten games with their dominant back-end pitching. While the Cubs ’pen is constructed differently, it could be similarly effective. One thing is certain: Few teams, if any, can match the depth and versatility the North Siders have in their relief corps. And for a manager who loves to get creative with the way he utilizes his players, it could be a perfect match.

“It’s got to be great for Joe having those tools to be able to use in different situations,” Richard said. “When you’re only able to do one thing, it really makes decisions a little bit more difficult for your manager. If you look through the pitchers, we have so many guys who are talented on so many levels and that can be used in different situations, it’s got to help.”

—Gary Cohen

From the Pages of Vine Line: John Lackey brings fire and intensity to the Cubs

Lackey(Photo by Christian Petersen)

From 2008-09, veteran pitcher John Lackey faced off against Jon Lester three times in close American League Division Series matchups between the Angels and Red Sox. Lester took two out of those three contests.

When you pit two intense, highly competitive pitchers against each other in the pressure-filled cauldron that is postseason baseball, it’s safe to say emotions can run high. To put it mildly, there was no love lost between the two hurlers.

“I’ll be the first one to tell you nobody in that dugout liked him,” Lester said of Lackey. “Just because of how competitive he is and all the emotions he has on the field.”

In 2010, Lackey and Lester suddenly found themselves together in the Red Sox rotation. Would the two bitter rivals be able to put that animosity behind them and function effectively as teammates?

“Easy,” Lackey said. “Once you get on the same team wearing the same colors, it’s time to go to work together.”

That’s certainly good news for Cubs fans, as Lackey spent last season with the division rival Cardinals before signing a two-year contract with the Cubs in December. As it turns out, Lackey and Lester did much more than tolerate each other in Boston; the two avowed country boys became close friends and are now nearly inseparable, on and off the baseball field. When Lackey found out he’d be facing Lester again in the National League Division Series last October, the two pitchers shrugged off any special meaning to the game. Their friendship meant more to them.

“When I was in Boston, we faced Lackey almost every year in the playoffs, and he was always an incredible competitor,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We always admired him from afar. He’s one of those guys who takes the ball, and he wants to control that day when he pitches. That’s something that happens less and less in our game. That day for him is his. He brought that kind of fire to the field all the time, and we really admired that from afar in Boston.”

MOUND MENACE
This season, Cubs fans will get to see firsthand just how competitive Lackey truly is. Jason Heyward, who played with the pitcher last year in St. Louis, is extremely happy to have Lackey as a teammate again, especially because it means he won’t have to face him from the batter’s box.

“When he’s on the mound, he’s a bully,” Heyward said. “He wants you to swing the bat. It’s ‘You’re going to get a hit or I’m going to get you out, but let’s make this happen quickly.’ His stuff is just heavy. He’s got heavy stuff, but he has the kind of experience with that mindset. It’s a good combination for him to have success at this stage of his career.

“He’s a bulldog. He competes like no other when he’s on the mound. It’s fun to watch. He likes to work quick. Playing behind him, that helps you out. It’s somebody you want to play behind, and you appreciate what he does when he goes to the mound.”

This season, Cubs players will no doubt appreciate the simple fact that when Lackey goes to the mound, he’ll be doing it in Cubbie blue instead of Cardinal red. In three starts (21.2 innings) against the North Siders last season, he went 2-0 with a 1.25 ERA and 19 strikeouts versus only five walks. Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant logged two hits and five strikeouts in nine at-bats against Lackey in 2015. One of the first things Bryant told the right-hander was that he was glad he didn’t have to face him anymore.

“He’s a really good guy to have on your team,” Bryant said. “He doesn’t care what you think between the lines.”

One thing that surprised Bryant is how different Lackey is as a teammate versus the way he’s generally perceived from the opposing dugout. He may be fierce on the mound, but that doesn’t carry over into the clubhouse—at least not on non-pitching days.

“From the moment I met him, I was like, ‘This guy is awesome,’” Bryant said. “Obviously, you have opinions of players, and you hate facing certain guys. He was one of those guys for me. I struggled against him. I haven’t had many at-bats against him, but I struggled.”

As far as Lackey is concerned, he’s just fine with most big leaguers thinking he’s difficult. No pitcher wants to be a hitter’s favorite opponent.

“I don’t want a hitter to want to face me,” Lackey said. “Obviously, I compete on the field and I get after it, and I know how that can be perceived sometimes. I think people find out I’m a lot different than [they think] I am, which is fine. In between the lines, I don’t care what the other team thinks about me. I’m there to win.”

In 2016, the Cubs’ young hitters should learn a thing or two from the pitcher who schooled them last season. And don’t think they won’t ask him how he got them out.

“I told him that he dominated me,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “I’m happy to play behind him, pick his brain, [find out] why he got me out so much.”

TEAM FIRST
Though Lackey spends most of his time on the mound scowling, he actually smiled and laughed his way through much of his first spring camp with the Cubs. Anyone looking for him could usually find him with Lester. The pair regularly challenged each other at wind sprints, talked over strategy or simply drove around in Lester’s camouflage-colored buggy.

“It’s Siamese almost,” said catcher David Ross of the pair. “They’re attached at the hip. It’s a good thing. They both are similar in how they go about their business. That’s how Jon is. He’s so serious, and you’ll see the same thing with Lackey. He wants to win.”

Lester laughed when told that Ross said the two pitchers were as close as conjoined twins.

“That’s how we were over [in Boston],” Lester said. “We did everything. It makes you accountable because you have somebody going, ‘C’mon, let’s go do this.’ You’re not by yourself trying to get yourself motivated.

“The biggest thing is accountability. You’re sitting here thinking, ‘I don’t want to do my running,’ but you’ve got somebody sitting here going, ‘C’mon let’s go.’ That’s the way we’ve always been. I think it makes each other better because it makes you accountable. Those days—we all have them—when you don’t feel like doing anything. Now you have somebody who will push you.”

Ryan Dempster had a little fun at Lackey and Lester’s expense during his talk show at the Cubs Convention in January. When the two friends were on stage together being interviewed, Dempster brought out some Popeye’s chicken, saying he likes to make Red Sox pitchers feel at home. When Lackey and Lester were in Boston, they created a media firestorm by reportedly drinking beer and eating chicken in the Fenway Park clubhouse during a few games. Lackey didn’t know what Dempster was up to, but he did laugh at the joke—and eat the chicken.

“It’s Dempster—he’s my guy,” Lackey said.

Though Cubs hitters are certainly happy to call Lackey a teammate, his arrival in Chicago may benefit Lester more than anyone. Several members of the coaching staff have already told Lackey what a good influence he’s been on the veteran lefty.

“He’s my boy,” Lackey said of Lester. “Our wives are good friends. Our kids are friends. We’ve been hanging out, having cookouts and that kind of stuff. It’s been a lot of fun.”

There’s also a burgeoning Texas connection on the staff. Jake Arrieta will soon be Lackey’s neighbor in Austin. The Arrietas are planning to build a new home there, just down the street from the Lackeys’. The former division foes even played golf together a few times this offseason.

“Everything you hear about the guy is just positive, especially from guys who have played with him,” Arrieta said. “Conversations with him are natural. He’s a funny guy, always upbeat, joking around. He’s a personality you want to surround yourself with. I was fortunate to get to know him this offseason and start that transition for spring and throughout the season. I know he has a real close relationship to Lester and Ryan Dempster. It just shows you what kind of guy he is.”

PLAYOFF PAYOFF
Despite a deep postseason run for the Cubs in 2015, the team still lacked some depth in the rotation. Not only does Lackey create an imposing front three with Arrieta and Lester, he is also one of the more playoff-tested pitchers of his generation. Between stints with the Angels, Red Sox and Cardinals, Lackey has gone to the postseason eight different times (15 series), pitched in 23 playoff games (20 starts) and gone 8-5 with a 3.11 ERA in 127.1 October innings.

Lackey was the pitcher the Angels and Red Sox wanted on the mound when it mattered most, and he delivered in those pressure-packed situations. He is the first starting pitcher in major-league history to win two World Series-clinching games with two different teams, doing so as a rookie with the Angels in 2002 and again with the Red Sox in 2013.

And Lackey has always had that mental toughness. When he was a 20-year-old minor-league pitcher in the Angels organization, his manager, Tom Kotchman, once went to the mound to take him out of a game. Lackey, being Lackey, refused to leave, so Kotchman simply went back to the dugout and let him continue pitching. When the Angels picked the big Texan to start Game 7 of the World Series, Kotchman knew he could handle it.

“He ain’t a normal rookie,” Kotchman said at the time.

The Cubs hope whatever it is that drives Lackey rubs off on the rest of the team. Manager Joe Maddon has known the pitcher since those early days with the Angels and said Lackey has mellowed a bit—on certain days, at least.

“Four out of five days, I’m pretty laid back and having a good time,” Lackey said. “When you only get 30-some times to help your team, I take it pretty dang serious and go get after it.”

So does he need that edge to stay among the game’s elite arms at 37 years old?

“I think it’s helped, for sure,” Lackey said. “It’s not going anywhere. It’s just there. It’s what it is.”

Ultimately, Lackey’s image is immaterial, so long as he takes care of business when he’s on the mound. And, to a man, the Cubs pitchers all agree he’ll be a perfect addition to the staff.

“We all want to do our job,” Lester said. “We all have different ways of going about things. Jake is kind of the stoic one and doesn’t show emotion and stands up there and chucks the ball. I get a little more emotional, and so does Lack. With Kyle [Hendricks], I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kyle do anything except keep his mouth shut and go pitch.

“Everybody harnesses their deal their own way. [Lackey] is a little more vocal and outgoing with his emotions on the mound. The other four days, he’s a big ol’ teddy bear and cares about his teammates and wants his teammates to do well.”

WINNING EDGE
When told people were surprised to see him smiling so much with the Cubs, Lackey, as if on cue, smiled.

“When I’m competing, I’m there to win,” he said. “I’m not there to be your friend and hang out. On the other days, I’ll be cool and hang out. I love having fun as much as anybody. When it’s my day, it’s time to work.”

Lester, who was standing nearby, quickly interrupted.

“Don’t lie to Carrie,” Lester said. “You’re a [jerk] all five days.”

Only good friends can tease each other that way.

“He’s a terrific guy,” Hoyer said of Lackey. “He’s a leader. All the players love him, and he takes his day seriously. When he’s on the mound, he’s incredibly intense, incredibly focused. We feel the edge he does bring is great for our team. An April 20 game that might be midweek, people will be on alert the day he pitches because he takes it so seriously. I think that’s important. It’s a long season, and the team that executes game in and game out and can bring that intensity every day [usually wins]. A lot of times, it isn’t the most talented team, but the team that comes to play night in and night out. There’s no question the day he pitches, the team comes to play. They know how seriously he takes it.”

Ross, who caught Lackey when the two were together with the Red Sox, has seen that game face up close.

“I don’t understand when people get upset when people are emotional in a negative way,” Ross said. “They’re all excited about the good emotions that come out of this game, but sometimes there are bad emotions. John is an emotional player, and he goes out there and really feels strongly like, ‘Today’s my day for the boys. I don’t get to help out the other days. This is my day, and I try to compete and help the guys win.’ He takes that very seriously. I appreciate that.”

Ultimately, all Lackey wants to do is win, and that’s exactly the kind of player the Cubs were looking to add to their rotation this offseason.

“He’ll be really good for all these guys,” Ross said. “The emotion you’ll see the day he pitches, he doesn’t care about anything else but winning. He’s the nicest guy ever, but on the day he pitches, he’s pretty locked in. He’s no nonsense.”

Of course, Lackey also likes to have a good time, and Maddon has seen that side of him too.

“Johnny is straight up and straightforward,” Maddon said. “He likes to giggle and have fun, but when it comes down to his craft, he gets very serious.”

While it might be hard to imagine the 6-foot-6, 230-pound pitcher giggling, all you have to do is mention his new daughter, Kenzi, who was born in December, or play a round of golf with him to hear his easy laugh and see his softer side.

“He’s as polar opposite as you could possibly be [on the golf course],” Arrieta said. “He hasn’t been playing that long. He’s out there having a good time and doesn’t care how he scores. He’s like, ‘Whatever. Let’s move on, keep playing.’ He’s just out there having a good time. It’s a nice change-up from the mindset we’re in at the field.”

So before Lackey’s starts, put on your cowboy hat, play some country music and add a little swagger to your step. This good old boy is going to bring everything he has to the mound every fifth day.

“When we signed Lackey in the offseason,” Maddon said, “I thought he was one of the top free-agent signs of the winter—specifically for us and what we’re doing.”

by Carrie Muskat, MLB.com

Hot Off the Presses: October Vine Line featuring manager Joe Maddon

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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.

Hot Off the Presses: Sept. Vine Line featuring Cubs ace Jake Arrieta

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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.

Cubscast Mesa: No Average Joe, Impressions of Joe Maddon

This spring, we talked to Cubs players and personnel about everything from their goals for the season to the best prank they’ve ever pulled. With the official Cactus League season wrapping up Wednesday, we round out our spring video series by looking at what the Cubs are getting in new leader Joe Maddon. The 61-year-old skipper has a unique way of relating to players and keeping the clubhouse loose, from having a DJ play on the practice field to wearing old-school coaching shorts during workouts.

And make sure you check out all the other videos from our Spring Training series:

Cubscast Mesa: Spring sit-down with manager Joe Maddon
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, If I weren’t a ballplayer …
Cubscast Mesa: Checking in with the 2015 Cubs coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, If I could have one talent or superpower
Cubscast Mesa: The Cubs are setting a positive tone in camp
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, What the Cubs are watching on TV
Cubscast Mesa: The next wave of Cubs talent
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, The best thing I did this offseason
Cubscast Mesa: Goals for the 2015 season
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, The best clubhouse prank I’ve ever seen

Hot Off the Press: April issue featuring leadoff man Dexter Fowler

VL1504_Cover_NewstandCubs fans from all over the country are understandably excited about the 2015 season. We here at Vine Line feel the same way.

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.

—Gary Cohen

Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, The best clubhouse prank I’ve ever seen

One of the best things about hanging around the Cubs is you get to know the players off the field. While the team is serious and focused about 2015, there are also some great personalities, and they like to cut loose. During Spring Training, we asked the guys to recall the best prank they have ever pulled—or seen—during their careers.

We’ll be posting videos and stories from Sloan Park all spring, so make sure you’re watching the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline.

Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:

Cubscast Mesa: Spring sit-down with manager Joe Maddon
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, If I weren’t a ballplayer …
Cubscast Mesa: Checking in with the 2015 Cubs coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, If I could have one talent or superpower
Cubscast Mesa: The Cubs are setting a positive tone in camp
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, What the Cubs are watching on TV
Cubscast Mesa: The next wave of Cubs talent
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, The best thing I did this offseason
Cubscast Mesa: Goals for the 2015 season

Cubscast Mesa: Lighter Side, The best thing I did this offseason

Making it through an entire baseball season can take a toll on both mind and body. By the time the grind is over, the players and coaches need a break. This spring, we sat down with Cubs personnel to find out the best thing they did with their offseason time.

We’ll be posting videos and stories from Sloan Park all spring, so make sure you’re watching the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline.

Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:

Cubscast Mesa: Spring sit-down with manager Joe Maddon
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, If I weren’t a ballplayer …
Cubscast Mesa: Checking in with the 2015 Cubs coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, If I could have one talent or superpower
Cubscast Mesa: The Cubs are setting a positive tone in camp
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, What the Cubs are watching on TV
Cubscast Mesa: The next wave of Cubs talent

Cubscast Mesa: The next wave of Cubs talent

The Cubs enviable stockpile of young talent is no secret around the game. People started rumbling about the organization’s burgeoning system a few years ago. Now groups like ESPN, Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus all agree the Cubs have the top farm in baseball.

During Spring Training, Vine Line sat down with the Cubs next wave of talent—including Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell—to ask what they’ve gotten out of being in big league camp and what their goals are for the coming season.

We’ll be posting videos and stories from Sloan Park all spring, so make sure you’re watching the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline.

Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:

Cubscast Mesa: Spring sit-down with manager Joe Maddon
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, If I weren’t a ballplayer …
Cubscast Mesa: Checking in with the 2015 Cubs coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, If I could have one talent or superpower
Cubscast Mesa: The Cubs are setting a positive tone in camp
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, What the Cubs are watching on TV

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