(Photo by Stephen Green)
Wednesday, May 8, was a beautiful afternoon at the Friendly Confines. The game time temperature was 60 degrees, the wind was blowing gently in from right field, and the sun was shining brightly as the division rival Cardinals were in town for a two-game set with the homestanding Cubs.
Though the bullpen would ultimately let a well-pitched game by Carlos Villanueva slip away in the late innings, things were looking good in the bottom of the fourth. After Luis Valbuena walked and Anthony Rizzo singled off starter Jake Westbrook to lead off the inning, Nate Schierholtz cracked a sharp line drive to right field to drive in two. Groundouts by Ryan Sweeney and Dioner Navarro would plate one more to give the Cubs momentum and a 4-2 lead.
Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts, standing just to the fair side of the right-field pole near the entrance to the bleachers, stopped for a minute to catch his breath and cheer on his team. He appreciated the chance to see this momentary offensive outburst because, despite being the team’s owner, he often misses such things.
“Generally, if there’s any great action in a home game about the fourth or fifth inning, I probably don’t see it,” Ricketts said.
That’s because Ricketts does the same thing during the middle innings of every game—something that’s all but unprecedented in the world of fabulously rich, highly inaccessible professional sports owners—he talks to fans.
And he doesn’t summon them to the owner’s suite like a king calling his subjects. Nor is he chaperoned by a phalanx of security guards as he makes his way to the upper deck or the bleachers. He just pulls on his Cubs fleece, slings a bag full of baseballs (each inscribed with that day’s date and opponent) over his shoulder and heads out into the stands like a common fan. Even though he embarks from the owner’s suite, he actually mingles, shakes hands and poses for pictures—even with Cardinals fans. It’s downright strange behavior for a man of his stature.
“As Opening Day was coming up in 2010, my first year with the team, I was like, ‘What am I going to do, just stay up in the box behind the plexiglass?’” Ricketts said. “That just wouldn’t feel right. I decided if I do that, every time I start walking around the concourse, it will be a big deal, and I didn’t want that to be the case. I just want to be part of the scenery. So I basically just built it into the routine to be around.”
In an era in which professional sports owners tend to make news for all the wrong reasons (see: Loria, Jeffrey) or are faceless corporations that acquired their team as an asset in a larger deal (see: Liberty Media), Ricketts is something of a throwback. He has always seemed more like a fan than a high-powered, cold-hearted executive. Perhaps that’s why he relates to Cubs fans so strongly.
The stories of Ricketts’ ties to the team have been repeated ad infinitum since his family acquired the Cubs in 2009 from the Tribune Company for $845 million. By now, most Cubs fans know the Omaha, Neb., native first moved to Chicago at age 18 to attend the University of Chicago—just in time for the Cubs’ 1984 playoff run; that he and his brother Pete lived above the Sports Corner bar across from Wrigley Field; and that he met his wife, Cecelia, in the bleachers.
Though the organization is owned by the Ricketts family and all four siblings sit on the board, Tom is the chairman and the public face of the franchise. Before he and his family acquired the keys to the kingdom, he attended hundreds of games at Wrigley Field, so he understands what it means to be a fan. Of course, it’s one thing to relate to the fan base and share in their collective ups and downs; it’s quite another to be responsible for the fate of the franchise and the happiness of millions of fans worldwide.
“I feel a ton of pressure,” Ricketts said. “I literally wake up at three in the morning and feel like 15 million fans are standing on my chest. I feel a lot of responsibility. But we know what we’re doing is very important to a lot of people, and we have to get it done right. Any time you’re sitting in that kind of situation, you feel the pressure.”
THE MAN IN CHARGE
When Sam Zell and the Tribune Company announced their intention to sell the Cubs in 2007, Ricketts, whose father founded the investment company TD Ameritrade and is worth upwards of $1 billion, couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
The family officially acquired the team in 2009, just one year removed from an NL-best 97-win season. but the organization’s shaky foundation was beginning to crumble. The old baseball ops department had mortgaged the future in an attempt to “win now,” and Wrigley Field was in need of structural and cosmetic repairs.
In his introductory press conference, the new chairman announced three goals for his family’s stewardship of the franchise: win a World Series, preserve and improve Wrigley Field, and be good neighbors in the Chicago community. Though they have made good progress on the latter objective—in each of the Ricketts family’s three years of ownership, the Cubs have increased charitable donations—the first two have proven complex. But Ricketts is undeterred.
“He’s a very earnest person,” said longtime Cubs television broadcaster Len Kasper. “I think there’s a lot of trust in what he’s told people. Everything he’s talked about since the day he bought this team, he’s followed through on. That’s really, really important for not only the public trust but also for morale within the organization.”
Ricketts has spent much of his time in the last year locked in a very public debate with rooftop owners and city politicians over his proposed restoration of Wrigley Field, which would include improved player facilities, a 6,000-square-foot scoreboard in left field, new signage around the park and additional community development. The goal is to bring in more revenue for the team and improve player facilities that are woefully below league standards. Wrigley will turn 100 years old next year—the next-oldest stadium in the NL Central was built in 2001.
“The fact is it doesn’t matter who bought the team three years ago, someone had to solve these problems and fix them,” Ricketts said. “The can has been kicked down the road for 60 years. So it’s time to make sure we address all the structural issues and make sure that it’s going to be there for the next generation of fans.”
Though the team might still be far from winning a World Series, Ricketts has accomplished a lot in his short time with the club, from hiring proven baseball men like Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to getting a new Spring Training facility built in Mesa, Ariz. And though things are just starting to develop at the major league level, the minor league system has made great strides. In 2009, ESPN’s organizational expert Keith Law ranked the Cubs farm system 27th out of 30 teams. In 2013, he had the team ranked fifth.
“In general, I think the fans really do understand that what we’re trying to do is build an organization that has a strong foundation and is going to be consistently successful at some point,” Ricketts said. “Hopefully soon, but the point is not to take shortcuts, but to do things the right way.”
When the Cubs are at home, Ricketts has a standard routine for every game. He usually spends his mornings working on the business side of things. That could mean meeting with a sponsor, checking in with the ticket office or doing work in the community. These days, his mornings are generally spent facilitating the Wrigley restoration, which has necessarily pushed him out into the spotlight. But Ricketts, who comes across as every bit the Midwesterner, would rather not be the one generating headlines.
“You want the focus to be on the players, what’s happening on the field,” he said. “I think it’s a function of our circumstances. We have to do a lot to get this organization caught up to where other organizations are, and that means being out in front. Getting a new Spring Training facility, getting down to the Dominican to build a new facility there, doing what we can to get Wrigley where it has to be, I think those things push the owner out a little bit to the forward. Hopefully, over the next couple of years, all those stories are behind us, and we can be much lower profile.”
Sometimes Ricketts will get to the game early to meet special groups—on May 8, it was breast cancer survivors on hand for the Cubs’ “Pink Out” in the bleachers—but he’ll always try to be up in his suite for the first pitch. Once there, he grabs a bite to eat, makes a phone call or two, and watches the beginning of the game.
By about the second inning, he grabs his bag of baseballs and maybe a few extra front-row tickets, and heads out for his daily constitutional.
During the Cardinals game, things started out slowly. As he moved down from the suite level, a few people recognized him and asked to shake his hand. Others, seeing the commotion, tried to figure out who he was. Absent a security detail or any other telltale status giveaways, Ricketts truly could be just another fan.
As he worked his way down through Section 208, heading toward the bleachers, he spotted kids in the stands and handed out baseballs. The kids, just happy to have a ball to play with, had no idea they had just interacted with the Cubs’ owner. The parents invariably whispered conspiratorially and pulled out their cell phones to take a quick photograph.
Eventually, Ricketts got waylaid talking with a young mother of two, Jessica McCall, who was sitting under the grandstand with her two sons, Dylan, 6, and Sawyer, 3. May 8 was one of those chameleonic spring days at Wrigley Field where it feels like it’s 80 degrees in the bleacher sunshine but is relatively chilly high up in the shade. The family, thinking their seats were going to be in the sun, was underdressed in shorts and T-shirts.
“Hold on,” Ricketts said, as he moved quickly away to talk to a Wrigley Ambassador down in the outfield club boxes. “I need to move these kids into the sun. They’re freezing up there.”
Soon, he made his way back up to McCall and asked the family if they wanted to move down, which, of course, they did. The joke was, McCall’s husband, Rick, had gone into the concourse to get food for the family, so Ricketts and the group moved down by the tunnel to intercept him when he came back up.
“My 6-year-old asked if we could go move in the sun, so we were standing in the sun for a while,” McCall said. “[What Ricketts did] was really awesome. I was so shocked. It’s funny because I’m so clueless, and Rick is a huge Cubs fan. I called him and said, ‘Some guy named Tom is trying to move our seats.’”
As Ricketts patiently waited with McCall in plain view of the Wrigley faithful, he began to get swarmed—individual fans, families, even a high school group on a senior trip all stopped by to take pictures, shake his hand and ask him to sign something. Finally Rick arrived, said a sheepish hello, and the whole group moved en masse down to their new (infinitely better) seats.
What’s surprising, especially given the recent media scrutiny of the Wrigley restoration, is how overwhelmingly positive the reactions to the owner are. Of course, there’s a snide remark here and there (“Down in front, Ricketts, I paid good money for these seats”), but those are drowned out by a sea of “God bless you’s” and “I really appreciate what you’re doing around here’s.”
“I think we’re getting stuff done,” Ricketts said. “I feel really good about the direction of the team. We’ve accomplished a lot in a few years, and we’re really kind of taking all the issues head-on. I’m looking forward to getting through this part of our discussions on what happens at the park, but I think we’re really building the foundation for a great future here.”
Ricketts, for his part, is patient, talkative and genuinely seems to enjoy interacting with fans. He often remembers the names of regulars and can tell you where specific die-hards sit. He’s game to sign autographs (no body parts, please), pose with large groups or simply talk Cubs baseball.
“Getting out and talking to people just reminds me what it means to be a Cubs fan,” Ricketts said. “Honestly, in three years of walking around almost every single home game, I’ve only met great people. There have been only a couple of instances where I think anyone has said anything inappropriate. Everyone generally is supportive and engaged as a fan.
“There are days where it’s cold and wet and I’m sitting up there in the box, and I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t it be a great day to just turn on the space heaters and watch the game.’ But I don’t do it because once you get out and start talking to people, that’s the good part of the day for me. It’s fun.”
But what Ricketts and his family are trying to do is about more than fun. He’s trying to revitalize a franchise and do something no Cubs owner has done in more than a century. When asked what he wants his legacy with the team to be, he doesn’t miss a beat.
“First and foremost, it comes down to winning,” Ricketts said. “I think that’s what this organization needs more than anything else. There are a lot of great things you can do, like the Wrigleys—P.K. and William—they made this park beautiful with a lot of the changes they put in in the ’20s and ’30s. That’s a nice legacy, and that’s something I think is great. But, in the end, it will come down to were we able to do it on the field. And that’s still No. 1.”
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. The unmistakable sound of maple meeting cork, string and leather reverberates around the empty, cavernous Wrigley Field grounds.
Hours before the Cubs are slated to take on San Diego in an early-May tilt, the position players are jumping in and out of the massive, blue-padded hitting cage and spraying white projectiles along the outfield grass. Each player gets a dozen or so pitches from third base coach David Bell, who is standing about 40 feet away.
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
Watching and analyzing it all, arms resting on the chest-high bar that stretches around the back of the cage, is hitting coach James Rowson. The 36-year-old seems to have a perpetual grin on his face as he watches the hitters take their cuts and chats with other coaches, upper management and players. In fact, he looks surprisingly comfortable and relaxed, especially considering the inconsistent Cubs attack and the myriad pressures baseball can heap on a coach.
But that apparent ease belies the countless hours of work Rowson has already put in watching video, working with players individually and formulating a game plan with the coaches. Like every member of the Cubs staff, Rowson is a baseball rat. He loves the game and loves the art of hitting—even if it can keep the most optimistic of baseball men up at night.
Pounding baseballs didn’t come as easily for Rowson as it did for the players he works with on a daily basis. The Mount Vernon, N.Y., native was a career .204 hitter in three minor league seasons and one year of independent league ball. On the advice of some notable baseball figures, including slugger Ken Griffey Sr., Rowson decided to make the move into coaching when his brief playing career was over.
After more than 11 seasons as a minor league hitting coach with the Angels and Yankees, Rowson became the Cubs’ minor league hitting coordinator at the start of the 2012 season. He was named interim major league hitting coach on June 12, 2012, when the North Siders dismissed noted swing guru Rudy Jaramillo, and had the interim tag removed prior to the 2013 season.
Vine Line caught up with Rowson as the weather was starting to heat up to discuss the pressures of professional baseball, the advantages of having an assistant for the first time, and what the restoration of Wrigley Field will mean to him and the team.
Vine Line: A lot of people don’t understand what goes into being a professional hitting coach. What does your daily routine look like?
James Rowson: [There’s] a lot of preparation. You’re starting early in the morning before the series starts, you’re watching video on players, you’re watching video on opposing pitchers. And [I’m] breaking down some of the numerical stats, things that might be important to help you win the game. The goal is to have your players prepared in every way possible.
VL: What made you want to move into coaching after your playing days were over?
JR: It was the love of the game and understanding how difficult this game is. As a player, I struggled offensively, struggled to figure out how it all worked. But I was fortunate to be around good organizations and good players and good teachers. I just had a knack to want to learn how to make this game work. … Ultimately, that turned into coaching and being able to now help players figure out some of the things I couldn’t figure out as a player.
VL: The organization removed the interim tag from your title in the offseason. What did that mean to you heading into 2013?
JR: What it does is it gives you the ability to pick up where you left off last year. That’s the way I look at it. It doesn’t change a whole lot because what we came in doing last year is the same thing we’re going to preach. And obviously as the players get more comfortable doing it and more comfortable with me, hopefully we can speed up that progression.
VL: Did having a full offseason versus jumping into the position midstream like last year add any more pressure to the job?
JR: No, it’s about winning. It’s about creating a winning atmosphere. So from Day One last year, it was about winning, and from Day One this year, it’s about getting to that ultimate goal of winning a World Series. I think if you don’t feel pressure, something’s wrong. This is a “win” business.
VL: Did the success the rotation had early in the season make the offensive struggles harder to deal with?
JR: No, because what you do is stay with the process. As an offense, you’re really trying to get those guys [wins]. That’s our goal. When [the starters] leave the game, hopefully we have the lead, and they have a chance to win a ballgame. But at the end of the day, it’s about the team winning, and you want your offense to understand we’re going to play 27 outs. At the end of those 27, we want to have more runs than they have. We want to manufacture more runs, we want to get big hits with runners in scoring position, however they come.
VL: This season, the Cubs made Rob Deer the first assistant hitting coach in club history. How does that impact the way you go about your job?
JR: I always say having more eyes on someone is good. The more eyes, the better. Sometimes you’ll get locked into one thing, and you may not see something else—something that may be critical to helping that guy that night. Rob’s great with helping guys out with [opposing] bullpen guys coming into the game. Maybe a reliever is coming in, and he’s watching some video downstairs during the game, preparing those guys to come out for pinch-hit at-bats and things of that nature.
We’ll split some things up, but he has his own ideas, and we try to keep it as a team. The same way a team would work together, our goal is to work together and just kind of do our own homework, do our own research and find out at the end of the day when we put everything together if he came up with something a little different than me or if I came up with something a little different. It’s a team effort.
VL: You’ve said in the past that swings are very personal. How conscious are you of that when tinkering with a player’s approach?
JR: You have to work with [hitters] as individuals. You do have to find out what they are comfortable doing, and you work from there. These guys have had success to get to this level, so it’s usually not wholesale changes. But every once in a while, you’re going to have to make some changes. The biggest thing is you keep the player in the loop as to what you’re trying to do, and you let him know what you’re searching for. You allow him to have input into what’s going on with his swing. It’s definitely a two-way street when it comes to making adjustments.
VL: Why is it so important to allow players to have input into swing adjustments?
JR: At the end of the day when they’re facing that pitcher, they have to believe in what they’re going up to the plate with. So if I’m telling them something and they have any doubts or it doesn’t feel good or something’s funny, it’s hard to believe in that with a 96 mph fastball coming at you. At the end of the day, it’s a combination of both [me and the player], and they understand that.
A lot of times, we’ll go through two or three things and say, “Hey, how does this feel?” If that one doesn’t feel so good, we’ll find another way. Executing the job is being able to make adjustments. We ask players to make adjustments, so as coaches we have to make adjustments as well.
VL: It seems like teams are using defensive shifts more than ever before. Should a player’s approach change depending on the defensive positioning?
JR: It’s important that [a hitter] maintains his approach. Sometimes you see the visual shift, and you try to do something that you don’t normally do. You were successful getting here being yourself, so you don’t want to play into a shift because now you’re trying to be successful being someone you’re not, which is pretty hard to do at this level. [Managers] played a lot of shifts against Barry Bonds, and he played pretty good against them.
VL: Anthony Rizzo looks like a guy who is constantly tinkering with his swing. Is that something that gets talked about, or is he just improvising by feel?
JR: I think it’s a feel. Rizzo is a loose guy, so he likes to feel nice and loose at the plate. Sometimes you may see the bat waggle a little bit—that’s a feel for him. I’m always watching those things just to make sure he stays in timing, he stays in rhythm—that those things don’t throw him out of whack. But you would never change those things because that’s part of his feel and his rhythm, which allows him to hit.
VL: There has been a lot of talk this season about the Wrigley Field restoration, which will include new batting tunnels off the clubhouse. How grateful will you be for the added resources?
JR: It’s going to be awesome. We’re going to love it. We won’t take that walk out to right field [to the current batting cages] anymore. We’ll have everything in the clubhouse. So that will be a great added plus for us. It will make it a lot easier for players to get down there. It can only help.
VL: Do you think not having those resources has been detrimental to the team?
JR: I think it’s tough, honestly. Obviously we’re working right now with what we’re given and what we have to do. But I think sometimes we’re at a little bit of a disadvantage, just because there are some other things available, and other teams have them available to them. So it will be really nice when the new facilities are built to feel like it’s an even playing field.
VL: You are in charge of something a lot of people think is the hardest thing to do in sports. It has to be moderately frustrating, right?
JR: It’s funny. It’s the job I chose to do, so it’s exciting. There’s nothing more rewarding than when a guy who works really hard comes through … in a ballgame. So for all the times that are tough and all the times you grind, it’s always rewarding when you see a guy realize what he was trying to do or what that purpose was. When it comes down to it, it’s more rewarding than it is tough.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
If you watched baseball in the 1980s, the name Rob Deer definitely means something to you: gigantic swings, titanic home runs and a whole lot of strikeouts. The 52-year-old Deer spent 11 seasons in the big leagues, several as the teammate of Cubs manager Dale Sveum in Milwaukee, before becoming the Cubs first-ever assistant hitting coach. So how does a noted free swinger who led the NL in strikeouts four times in his career preach patience and a good approach to Cubs hitters? It’s about doing what he says, not what he did. For the June issue of Vine Line, we talked to the new hitting coach about coming to Chicago, hitting home runs and teaching young hitters the right way to do things.
THE BEGINNING I had a couple of opportunities with some other major league clubs. It just so happens Robin Yount and I were hanging out one day, and I tried to get one of the managers’ numbers because there was word that another team wanted to interview me. So we called Dale [Sveum] and asked if he had the number for the other manager. Dale got it for me and asked what I was doing … and he just said, “Well, I didn’t know you were looking to do that, because we’re thinking of hiring a second assistant coach.”
SECOND IN COMMAND If you’re doing this by yourself, you’re there at 11 or 12 o’clock in the afternoon [for a night game] going over scouting reports, just doing all the things you have to do. Then you’re having drills on the ﬁeld, having drills in the cages. There are 12 guys who have to get work in every day. It’s going to help alleviate the workload and the time. I’m surprised more teams haven’t done it. I think they will in time.
DO AS I SAY People ask me, “How does a big swing-and-miss guy, who hit home runs and didn’t hit for a high average, teach hitting?” But I say, “Do as I say, not as I did.” I would never talk about the way I hit. I was a free-swinger. They paid me to hit the ball over the fence, so I made my living doing that. I talk about a two-strike approach, I talk about hitting the ball to all ﬁelds, and I never, ever mention hitting home runs. That’s just a result of something that happens that’s perfect. Everything comes together. You can’t go up there looking to hit home runs.
REWARD SYSTEM The greatest reward is being able to give a player knowledge that turns his career, or his season, or his day, around. That, to me, is way more gratifying than getting a hit in the big leagues or hitting a home run. When you can change somebody’s career or you can help somebody prolong their career by something that you [give them], it’s a great feeling.
FEELING AT HOME The ﬁrst day I got here, we took a cab and drove by the ballpark and took pictures. There’s something about what this city is about, what the fans are about. I’ve seen people walk down the streets with Cubs jackets and jerseys and shirts. [There are] billboards. The airports are full of stuff. If you can’t play anymore, you’d love to coach here or manage here. This is baseball. This is what it’s supposed to be like.
To read the complete interview with Deer, pick up the June issue of Vine Line, featuring an interview with Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts, available now at select Jewel-Osco, Walgreens, Meijer, Barnes & Noble, and other Chicago-area retailers. Or subscribe to Vine Line today.
Most people who throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field worry about just getting the ball to home plate. Former Scrubs star John C. McGinley worried about getting the proper movement on the pitch. The character actor and big-time sports fan has been gracing screens big and small for more than 20 years. He recently played iconic broadcaster Red Barber in the movie 42 and was on hand at the Friendly Confines for Jackie Robinson Day on April 16.
To read the entire interview, pick up the June issue of Vine Line.
In an era in which professional sports owners tend to make news for all the wrong reasons (see: Loria, Jeffrey) or are faceless corporations that acquired their team as an asset in a larger deal (see: Liberty Media), Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts is something of a throwback. He has always seemed more like a fan than a high-powered, cold-hearted executive. Perhaps that’s why he relates to Cubs fans so strongly. For the June issue of Vine Line, we spent a few days following Ricketts around the Friendly Confines to get a sense of what it’s like to be the Cubs owner for a day.
(Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)
Single-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee are two clubs in the organization that house some of the Cubs’ best prospects. A pair of those players recently received special mention for their solid play throughout the month of May.
Daytona Cubs infielder Dustin Geiger was named the organization’s Minor League Player of the Month while Smokies right-hander Kyle Hendricks was named the Minor League Pitcher of the Month.
In 27 May contests, the 21-year-old Geiger batted .307 in 101 at-bats with three homers, eight doubles and 23 RBI. He also accumulated a .368 on-base percentage largely due to his 11 walks while slugging .495. He was named the Florida State League’s Player of the Week from May 13-19. On the year, the 2010 24th round pick has a .310/.368/.495 batting line (AVG/OBP/SLG) with six home runs, 15 doubles, 21 walks and 47 RBI (second in the FSL). He’s committed just one error in 45 games at first base.
The 23-year-old Hendricks went 4-1 with a 1.95 ERA in five May starts for Tennessee, fanning 25 batters in 32.1 innings. His 1.02 WHIP was tied for fifth in the league during that stretch. On the year, Hendricks is 5-2 with a 2.47 ERA with 48 strikeouts in 58.1 innings. The right-hander came over from Texas in the July 31 Ryan Dempster deal. He’s gone 13-12 with a 2.72 ERA in 56 career minor league games.
What would you do if you owned the Chicago Cubs?
Think about that for a second. The Cubs are yours. Wrigley Field is yours. You even own part of Comcast SportsNet, one of the networks that broadcasts the games. So what would you do with all that power?
Would you fade into the woodwork and quietly spend your money like Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, or would you be a Mark Cuban/George Steinbrenner-type boss, who fancies himself part of the team and is constantly making waves?
On its face, it sounds like a dream job. Obviously, you’d be fabulously wealthy, enormously powerful, and could stage a fully televised, 3 a.m. Wiffle Ball tournament with all your friends at the Friendly Confines if you felt like it.
I recently got close enough to sniff what it might really be like to own the team for a day. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not about to reveal the unspeakable horrors of owning a professional ballclub. But it’s one thing to be a fan, love the team and offer a snarky Twitter suggestion every once in awhile about what the Cubs should do with Carlos Marmol. It’s entirely another to be responsible for the fate of the franchise and the happiness of millions of fans around the globe.
“I feel a ton of pressure,” said Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts. “I literally wake up at three in the morning and feel like 15 million fans are standing on my chest. I feel a lot of responsibility. But we know what we’re doing is very important to a lot of people, and we have to get it done right.”
Almost every Cubs fan has an opinion about the Ricketts family and how they have managed the team since they took over in 2009. And we all know the three stated goals for their stewardship: bring a World Series championship to the organization, restore Wrigley Field, and be a good neighbor in the Wrigleyville community. But most people can’t really conceptualize what it would be like to walk in Tom Ricketts’ shoes.
For the June issue of Vine Line, I got the opportunity to hang out with the Cubs’ owner for a few days during the St. Louis series in mid-May. Now, this may surprise you, but I don’t get to hobnob with baseball owners all that often. Needless to say, it was an eye-opening experience.
In the interest of full disclosure, Vine Line is owned by the Cubs (and it therefore behooves me not to anger the man who signs the checks), but I still came away from my time with Ricketts impressed. He’s surprisingly relatable and a pretty fun guy to watch a game with (and that’s not just because we could go anywhere in Wrigley Field we wanted).
While Ricketts doesn’t exactly relish the attention he receives—“hopefully, once we get through the restorations, the stories have nothing to do with the owners,” he said—he does take time during every home game to walk the stadium and talk with the fans. What other owner does that, in any sport?
This month, we try to give you a sense of what it’s like to be the Cubs’ chairman for a day, and look at some of the things Ricketts has accomplished—and is still working to accomplish—with the Cubs.
One thing he has done is facilitate the hiring of an energetic new coaching staff that is committed to bringing a winner to the North Side sooner rather than later. We sat down with Cubs hitting coach James Rowson to talk about the team’s early offensive struggles and what he’s trying to do to help the hitters improve in his second year on staff.
We also look at versatile, new Cubs swingman Carlos Villanueva and what he brings to the team. In a profession in which ego often runs unchecked and hyperbole is the norm, the right-handed pitcher is disarmingly honest about his abilities and what he can—and can’t—do on a baseball field.
If you want to learn more about every aspect of the Cubs, from the rookie leagues to the owner’s suite, subscribe to Vine Line and follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.
And, for the record, the owner’s suite is quite comfortable.
(Photo courtesy Vanderbilt Athletics)
Pitching guru Derek Johnson has spent years working with talented pitchers at various levels of the collegiate game. This offseason, the 41-year-old signed on to be the Cubs’ minor league pitching coordinator, which means he is ultimately in charge of all the arms in the organization from Triple-A on down. For the May issue of Vine Line, we talked to Johnson about coaching the college game, adapting to the professional ranks and cutting through communication issues with international prospects.
It’s no secret there has been some serious turnover in the Cubs organization since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer left the Red Sox and Padres, respectively. A year into the Chicago job, one of their most important—though unheralded—new hires is minor league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson.
Johnson’s experience working with young pitching talent stretches back almost 20 years to the end of his career on the mound as a college pitcher. Johnson, 41, won All-Mid-Continent Conference honors at Eastern Illinois University before moving into coaching at the school in 1994. He followed that up with three seasons at Southern Illinois and four at Stetson before taking over the pitching program at Vanderbilt in 2002. There, he won pitching coach of the year in 2004 and national assistant coach of the year in 2010.
After a long, introductory spring with the Cubs in Arizona, Johnson took a little time off before diving back in with the minor league affiliates.
“The first week after Spring Training, I got to go home and recover,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot of fun now [that the season has started], because I’m going to see some things I didn’t get to see in Spring Training and interact with players some more—and coaches too. That’s probably more my style, and more what I was hoping to do when I took the job.”
His role with the organization is a marked departure from his coaching career at Vanderbilt, where he oversaw the development of Rays ace David Price, Braves lefty Mike Minor and four other eventual first-round picks. As a coach, it was easy to be hands-on, working directly with every pitcher in his care. As the farm system’s pitching coordinator, numbers and geography dictate he doesn’t get to see every hurler every day. Plus, he’s not just working with the players, but also with the coaches at every level.
“I spend a lot of time with video. I’m not used to it yet,” Johnson said. “I spent a really long time having my hands on everything [as a coach], and now I have to adjust to that—trust the pitching coaches that are at the different affiliates, trust their judgment and get an idea of what they’re seeing to put that together with my thoughts to come up with some sort of a plan. It’s a very different kind of challenge.”
He’s also working with a more diverse collection of talent than in college, including pitchers from Asia and Latin America, and communication can be difficult. But Johnson is excited about the challenge.
“There can be a communication gap, so it can be a challenge to get your point across,” he said. “At the same time, it’s easy, because you get great young men from all different walks of life, backgrounds, speaking different languages, with different maturity levels. … I challenge myself to communicate better, to put things more simply to help communicate to players the direction we want to go.”
With so many pitchers under his care, Johnson has to deal with an inevitable bottom-line question: Who is he most excited about in the system? A week into the minor league season, Johnson refused to pick favorites.
“I saw them all in Spring Training, and I saw them all on video before that,” he said. “I like our nucleus. We have some guys who are a little bit under the radar, where things could really happen for them. At the same time, it’s a little bit hard to tell that without first being at the affiliate, watching them play, watching how they go through the season, how they fight through adversity. So it’s early to say, but I think we’ve got a lot of guys in the system who can turn the corner.”
This spring, manager Dale Sveum talked at length about the newfound depth in the Cubs system. That depth was tested early when the team suffered a rash of injuries and endured some early bullpen struggles. But the addition of players like Carlos Villanueva and Nate Schierholtz—and the emergence of Welington Castillo and Dave Sappelt—has made the Cubs a much more versatile team. During the first homestand of the season, Vine Line managing editor Gary Cohen talked to the skipper about dealing with injuries, platooning in the outfield and restoring Wrigley Field.
To read the full interview, pick up the May issue of Vine Line, on sale at select Chicago-area retailers. Or subscribe to Vine Line, the official magazine of the Chicago Cubs, for just $29.95.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
When Nate Schierholtz pulled on a Phillies uniform in mid-2012, it was the first time in his career he played for an organization other than the Giants. The third baseman turned outfielder appeared mostly as a pinch-hitter or late-inning defensive replacement in San Francisco before earning some regular playing time in 2010 and 2011. The 29-year-old veteran, who has six seasons and a World Series ring under his belt, came to Chicago in hopes of finding a more regular role in Wrigley Field’s right-field corner. If he keeps up his current pace, he should be just fine. In 23 games with the Cubs, Schierholtz has hit .284/.338/.527 (AVG/OBP/SLG) and played stellar defense. For the May issue of Vine Line, we talked to the first-year Cub about what it was like leaving the Giants, how he spends his free time and winning the big one.
GIANT CHANGE It was a little bit of a shock putting on a new uniform for the ﬁrst time [after getting traded from the Giants to the Phillies last season]. But after that, it’s still the same game, and you make new friends and settle in. I feel more comfortable this year than I did when I was traded last year. It’s a different situation, and I have a better plan than in the past. I’m looking forward to getting a better opportunity.
COMING TO CHICAGO It started with talking to Dale [Sveum] about my situation and the opportunity to play more than I have in the past. There were a lot of factors that went into it. I loved coming to Chicago. It was always a city I looked forward to coming to. I loved playing at Wrigley. There’s a lot of history behind it, and I know [the Cubs] have great fans. I just couldn’t say no.
TEAM MORALE [Sveum] basically told me the Cubs are turning things around. [He said] they had a lot of good starting pitchers, and it sounded like they were as motivated as ever to win. That’s what makes baseball fun, so I wanted to come here and help the team win.
GAME ON During the offseason, I have a lot of hobbies—ﬁshing, hiking, a lot of outdoors stuff. I also like to work on cars. But during the season, I spend most of my time with my wife. She’s kind of a video gamer, so sometimes we play video games, and we like going to movies. She actually beats me, so I probably have to spend a little bit of my spare time practicing.
IN IT TO WIN IT Winning the World Series gave me a lot of experience in high-pressure situations. Once you get there, you realize how hard and special it is to be there. What I took away was a need to get back. Even in the playoffs, the atmosphere is so different, and it’s so much fun. That’s why we play the game. Once you are there, it’s something you are dying to get back to.
To read the complete interview with Schierholtz, pick up the May issue of Vine Line, featuring the Cubs core, available now at select Jewel-Osco, Walgreens, Meijer, Barnes & Noble, and other Chicago-area retailers. Or subscribe to Vine Line today.