Archive for the ‘ Profiles ’ Category

From the Pages of Vine Line: Jason Hammel is making his dreams come true

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

Cubs starter Jason Hammel is enjoying his first season on the North Side. The 31-year-old is 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA in six starts. He’s also enjoying his opportunity to pitch at Wrigley Field, something the veteran hurler had never done prior to this season. The following can be found in the May issue of Vine Line.

Everyone has a wish list—places they want to see, things they want to do. For pitcher Jason Hammel, that list has always included pitching at Wrigley Field. That’s part of the reason the veteran free agent wanted to sign with the Cubs this offseason.

Remarkably, in eight previous major league campaigns, including three with the Colorado Rockies, Hammel made only 21 starts against NL Central opponents and never threw a pitch at the Friendly Confines. Now, he hopes he gets the chance to throw a lot of them.

“I love the fact that it’s a stadium in the middle of a highly residential area,” Hammel said. “I’ve never been to Lambeau Field [home of the Green Bay Packers], but I’ve heard so many things about it. That’s why they have such a great following, because it’s so accessible. Wrigley’s the same. It’s a neighborhood.

“The Cubs have so much history in their own franchise, going way back. There are so many stories about so many big names and Hall of Famers who have come out of this franchise, it’s a bucket list [item] for players. You want to go there at some point. Now I get to go there, and it’s a dream come true.”

The right-hander, who signed a one-year, $6 million contract in February, knows there’s a chance he could be traded this season. He also knows Cubs history doesn’t include many World Series championships. But that doesn’t concern him. His goal is to help turn the franchise around and have a long, successful run on the North Side.

“Obviously, we haven’t won in a long time,” he said. “But we’re going to change that.”

Hammel brings some much-needed experience to a relatively green starting staff. He joined Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva in the Cubs Opening Day rotation, and, at 31, he’s the oldest of the bunch.

“And I’m longer off the tee than all of them,” he said, laughing.

Over the years, golf has been a good way for Hammel, now with his fourth major league club, to get to know his teammates.

“All the teams I’ve played on before, all the guys say, ‘Oh, I love golf, we’ll play,’” Hammel said. “You come into the season and go on the road, and most of the guys sleep. I’m getting to that stage in my life where I need to get up and get moving, go do something to get the body moving, and it’s always been golf.

“All the guys—Jeff, Woody, [James Russell]—play a little. It’s fun having guys around with the same common interest and also goes to the baseball side of it. They’re all pushing in the same direction. They want to win. We want to continue to get better. Winning seasons are based on starting pitching.”

Though he’s the newest member of the rotation, Hammel has worked hard to forge a bond with his fellow starters.

“It’s a new team for him, and, as the new guy, he wants to get to know everyone. A lot of times that’s what the conversation is about,” Samardzija said of their talk on the golf course. “Ham’s great. He’s a great dude.

“He enjoys talking baseball, which is always an important attribute for a ballplayer. You learn so much more from talking than playing sometimes.”

So who’s the best golfer? According to Hammel, it’s Russell.

“He just bangs it out there,” Hammel said of the lefty reliever. “He’s really good with his irons.”

WINNING WAYS
The Cubs are hoping Hammel can provide the kind of veteran leadership the club has been lacking since the departures of players like Ryan Dempster and David DeJesus. And Hammel knows a thing or two about winning. He was on the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 when they reached the World Series (though he didn’t pitch), and was part of the 2012 Baltimore Orioles team that shocked the baseball world by winning 93 games and reaching the American League Division Series.

A 10th-round pick in the 2002 draft by Tampa Bay, Hammel was traded to the Rockies in April 2009 for Aneury Rodriguez, and then traded to the Orioles in February 2012 along with Matt Lindstrom for Jeremy Guthrie.

“I’ve always wanted to be a one-team guy—that’s everybody’s dream,” Hammel said. “I’ve learned about the business side of baseball through [my transactions]. As much as it’s tough and sad, it’s also more opportunity. Every team I’ve gone to, I’ve had a better experience than the last.”

He’s also gotten the opportunity to learn from different pitching coaches and players, and discovered new things about himself and how to be a big leaguer. Now, he’s taking that accumulated knowledge and using it to mentor the Cubs’ young players.

“His first year with us in Baltimore was 2012,” said Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, who was Hammel’s teammate with the Orioles. “My first impression was that he was turning into that veteran-type guy, a guy who really understood himself. He understood what it takes to be successful at a high level on a consistent basis and [was] a guy who exuded a lot of confidence. I really liked that and respected that and those aspects about the way he carried himself. It really showed, especially in 2012.

“I think he’d agree that he had a down year [last year] and wasn’t happy with it,” Arrieta said of Hammel’s 7-8 record and 4.97 ERA with Baltimore. “In 2012, we got a good look at what type of guy he really can be. It was fun to watch. He brings a lot to the table. He’s got a lot of insight and knowledge that a lot of guys in the clubhouse can utilize. I think he’ll have a good year for us.”

In that magical 2012 season for the Orioles, Hammel went 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 20 starts, including a one-hit shutout of the Braves on June 16. Though he struggled last year, Hammel certainly knows how to bounce back from adversity. In his first big league season in 2003, he was 0-6 with a 7.77 ERA in nine starts with the Rays.

He also knows what’s ahead of him in Chicago. He’s seen teams rebuild—and rebound—beginning with Tampa and then again with the 2012 Orioles.

“[The rebuilding] was something I was able to learn and go through, and it helped give me my personality in baseball,” he said. “You see a lot of that here with the Cubs—a lot of young guys finally starting to reach their peaks. They’ve got, from what I can see, the right amount of veteran leadership and the right amount of young guys who are really starting to pull their weight and getting an idea of how to be a big leaguer, and the guys in the middle who are doing well. There are a lot of positive things.”

During Spring Training, Hammel got a glimpse of the Cubs’ future watching top prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora make their mark on the Cactus League. Hammel said he would like to stay and see those players develop.
“Staying with the same group of guys, that builds winning teams,” Hammel said. “If you have guys coming in and out, it’s tough to gel and mesh and find that comfort zone with everybody around you.”

BUSINESS SENSE
Hammel is also well aware of what’s happened with the Cubs roster over the last two years at the trade deadline. In 2012 and again in 2013, the Cubs front office dealt two of their starting pitchers by July 31. One of those was Scott Feldman, who was traded to Baltimore for Arrieta and Pedro Strop.

“When he came over at the trade deadline last year, I immediately liked him, and we meshed well,” Hammel said of Feldman. “He said it was a great experience over here, and he had a lot of fun being part of the Cubs franchise. He said they treated him very well. It was very family oriented and just a bunch of great guys.”

Feldman gave Hammel a little advice when he became a free agent this past offseason.

“[Feldman] said, ‘Give [Chicago] a good thought, and I bet you’ll like it if you end up there,’” Hammel said.

Hammel listened, but he also understands he could be gone at the deadline, like many veteran pitchers before him. The Cubs are still trying to stockpile young talent in the minor leagues, and if a team is out of contention coming into the All-Star break, moving veteran players is one of the fastest ways to accomplish that task. Previous trades have yielded prospects like C.J. Edwards, Mike Olt and Arodys Vizcaino.

“Anybody can be flipped during the season, whether you have a long-term contract or you’re just a rookie,” Hammel said. “I’ve seen it all happen. It’s part of the game, but my job is to come over here and win baseball games, and it doesn’t matter what uniform I’m wearing. I’m excited to be here, and I want to win here. If further down the road, something happens, it happens. I can’t be thinking about that.”

Instead, he’s focused on finally pitching at Wrigley Field. Prior to the season, Hammel’s teams had come to the ballpark, but it was never his turn to pitch. He thought he’d be the starter for the home opener on April 4, but Travis Wood landed that assignment

Even before he threw his first pitch at Wrigley, Hammel already knew about the quirkiness of the wind. But he said it shouldn’t bother him too much because he’s a sinkerball pitcher.

“I want to get ground balls, so I’ll try to stay in the bottom of the zone,” he said. “Sometimes my four-seamer will end up [in the zone], but if you make good pitches, you should get the product of the pitch that you want. I’m not going to worry about what the wind is going to do. Yeah, the wind can dictate certain ways to pitch guys. It will tell you if you want to challenge a guy who’s a pull hitter, and he’s going to hit right into the teeth of the wind. That’s fine. Overall, it’s not going to change my game plan.”

Despite the fickle winds, Hammel knows his wife, Elissa, and 2-year-old son, Beckett, are excited to be in Chicago. Elissa was a social worker and was associated with an adoption agency when the couple was in Tampa. It’s something she wants to pursue again onceHammel’s baseball career is over. Right now, the couple is expecting their second child, a girl, around mid-September.

“Hopefully, she’s a playoff baby,” Jason said.

Fans can stay connected with Hammel through his blog, HammelTown, on cubs.com. He started it a year ago to promote some of his off-the-field activities and recently posted a photo from Opening Day at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

“It won’t be an everyday thing, but it’ll be something we’ll go in and out on,” he said.

While on the golf course, Hammel has talked to other Cubs pitchers about the direction the team is headed and what they want to accomplish this season. He sees a lot of similarities between his career and Samardzija’s, as both have moved between the rotation and the bullpen.

“He throws a lot harder than I do, but there are similarities,” Hammel said. “We talk. I’m not a guy who’s going to force myself on someone. I try to make that feeling for young guys that if they want to approach me, I’m there.”

Arrieta and Hammel became close through their wives, and both have sons about the same age.

“He’s a good friend of mine,” Arrieta said. “I’m glad to call him a teammate again.”

And Hammel is glad to call Wrigley Field his home.

—Carrie Muskat, MLB.com

Hot Off the Presses: May 2014 issue featuring Jason Hammel

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It’s shockingly easy to overlook the familiar. I have two small children at home, and as far as I can tell, they never grow. That’s because I see them every day, so I don’t notice the incremental changes. In reality, they’re growing at an alarming rate. At least, they’re eating enough that I figure they must be.

I’m also fairly certain every time Bradley Cooper walks onto the Paramount Studios lot, he doesn’t think about how amazing the place is or bask in the eerie glow of the Psycho house. When you see something every day, the details run the risk of getting overlooked.

Yes, this is all a long, apologist’s way of saying I am occasionally guilty of taking Wrigley Field for granted.

I, of course, am aware of the beauty of the Friendly Confines and am extremely excited to celebrate this centennial season with legions of Cubs fans around the globe. But I work at the facility, so it’s easy to just think of it as my office. And, trust me, there are some unique challenges to sharing your office space with 40,000 people or trying to do interviews in a cramped clubhouse before an important game.

But occasionally I get a shock to the system that reminds me of where I am—and how lucky I am to be there. Sitting up in the small media cafeteria at the home opener and eavesdropping on Ernie Banks, Randy Hundley, Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams reminiscing about the game at the table next to mine was one of those moments. Talking to Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts on the field about the upcoming season was another.

Ultimately, the thing that really reminded me how special it is to work at Wrigley Field was reading Carrie Muskat’s article on Jason Hammel in this month’s issue. The 31-year-old right-hander, who signed a one-year deal with the team this offseason, talked to Vine Line about how excited he is to finally get a chance to pitch at Wrigley Field.

Amazingly, in eight previous seasons—including three in the National League with the Rockies—Hammel had never pitched at the Friendly Confines prior to signing with the club. It’s easy to believe major league ballplayers are unfazed by such things, but Hammel called pitching in front of the ivy a “dream come true.” Hearing his excitement about the storied ballpark reminded me to value all the little moments—cramped clubhouse or no.

We also time travel back to the 1930s this month to examine the impact of longtime—and somewhat reluctant—Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley. Though Wrigley ran the team for more than 40 years following the death of his father, William Wrigley Jr., even he’d admit he never fit the mold of the typical baseball executive. During his tenure, he had many ups and downs with the team, but through moves like beautifying Wrigley Field and televising games, the understated owner had an outsized impact on modern Cubs history.

Finally, starting this month, our minor league coverage gets a boost. We begin by bringing back the Minor League Notebooks, in which we keep tabs on all the Cubs’ full-season minor league affiliates. We also delve into perhaps the next frontier of scouting—the mental game. Now that most teams are using advanced statistics and data to influence decision making, everyone is looking for new ways to gain an advantage on the competition. The more organizations can understand about what makes a player tick, the better decisions they’ll make in the draft and the international market.

If you’re looking for a psychological edge, make sure to check us out on Twitter at @cubsvineline. We cover all the action, from Low-A to Wrigley Field.

And we promise to take nothing for granted.

—Gary Cohen

Now Playing: In the Dugout with Rick Renteria, May

Rick Renteria definitely hit the ground running in the first month of the season. The rookie major league manager was the first to use expanded instant replay and the first to be ejected from a game in 2014. He’s also shown a propensity for playing the matchups and an unfailingly positive disposition. For the May issue of Vine Line, we talked with Renteria about playing at Wrigley Field, using platoons and fighting for the name on the front of the jersey—not the one on the back.

To read the full interview, pick up the May 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.

From the Pages of Vine Line: April In the Dugout with Rick Renteria

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The following Q&A appears in the April edition of Vine Line magazine.

Cubs manager Rick Renteria has certainly paid his dues. After 30 years in professional baseball, he’ll feel like a rookie again this season as he takes the managerial reins for the first time. Though the 51-year-old is unfailingly positive, he’s also tough, and he hopes to bring a new attitude to a Cubs franchise that is brimming with young talent. We sat down with Renteria during Spring Training to ask about running his first big league team and his expectations for the season.

 Vine Line: You’ve had a long coaching career, but you’re a first-time major league manager. What was your opening message to the team?

RR: That we should place high expectations upon ourselves to compete and to win. We shouldn’t be afraid to raise the bar and expect ourselves to attain that bar. If we go about doing our business with the fear that we won’t attain it—and thereby not set expectations—what’s the goal? We need to have goals, and I think they’re going about their business a certain way right now. I’m very excited about the club.

VL: Is it nice to finally get your eyes on some of the top prospects like Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant?

RR: It’s extremely exciting to see all the young guys that are in camp, with Almora, Baez and all the guys that are here. It’s important that we put our eyes on them to see where they end up ultimately fitting into the scheme of things. I think the skill sets are very high. Experience has to continue to play into it while they’re developing and playing in the minor leagues, so we make sure that once they get here, it’s not overwhelming.

Some guys may not make the splash that everybody expects, but that’s OK. You can work through those things. Some guys will make a big splash, and that’s great. But the reality is you’ve got to stay even keel, and that’s where we as a coaching staff and as an organization have to make sure these guys feel comfortable.

VL: You were aggressive with stealing bases, bunts, etc. in the spring. Is that an indication of how you expect the team to play?

RR: I think every skill set the players bring has to be taken into account when you’re determining what you’re going to do with them. But we do expect these guys to be able to do many things—to be able to steal a base, be able to hit and run, be able to sac bunt, be able to squeeze. If we lay the foundation right now in the spring that those are the expectations we have for them, anything is possible.

Once the season starts, the bell rings, you’ve got 40,000 people in the stands, and the lights are on, we expect that the transition to the regular season shouldn’t be as hard for us because we’re expecting to do a lot of things, and we’re doing them from Day One.

VL: You’ve talked about your coaching staff and the players sharing a family feeling. Why is that important?

RR: I think being a family-like team is extremely important. You feel like you have each other’s back. You’re willing to go out and fight for your teammate. You’re willing to defend anything that they do. You may be in the clubhouse, and you may be getting on each other, but nobody else can come in and say the same thing that you can as a teammate. That’s the family feel, you know? I grew up in a large family of nine, and maybe we could get on each other, but if somebody else came in from the outside and wanted to do the same thing, “Hey, not going to happen.”

VL: A lot of people are saying this team can’t compete this year. What do you say to that?

RR: We can compete this year. I think we have the ability to go out there and play the game. Anybody can do whatever it is they choose to do. The question is: Who do we choose to believe we are? Do we choose to believe what everybody else says—the naysayers, the doubters, whatever the case might be? Do they have a reason? Sure, but that’s not our reason. Our reason to go out here is to perform, to do well and expect to do well.

VL: There’s a new wrinkle this year with expanded instant replay. Do you have a system in place for how you’ll handle that?

RR: If my eyes tell me I should challenge something, I’m going to challenge. It’s not necessarily like I’m going to take every opportunity to go ahead and challenge every single play just because I can. … I don’t want to do it just for the sake of doing it. I think there should be a purpose. I should develop my skill set, and the bench coach and all of us on the bench should develop our skill sets.

Now Playing: Cubscast Mesa, The Definition of Success

After nearly two months of preparation, Cubs spring camp is coming to a close, and the team is getting ready to head north to Pittsburgh for the season opener.

In the final installation of our Cubscast Mesa video series, we asked Cubs players to state their definition of success for 2014. Though most pundits don’t expect much from the team, the players are definitely setting their sights high.

Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:

Cubscast Mesa: Positive Energy in Cubs Camp
Cubscast Mesa: Inside Cubs Park
Cubscast Mesa with Rick Renteria and the 2014 coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa with the top prospects
Cubscast Mesa: Meet the new guys
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part One
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Two
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Three
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Four
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Five

Now Playing: Cubscast Mesa, The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Five

Playing professional baseball is a dream job, but it’s not the most likely career choice. So what would your favorite players be doing if their big league dreams hadn’t come true? We talked to Cubs personnel about some other possible career choices.

We’ll be posting videos and stories from Cubs Park throughout the spring, so watch the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline.

Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:

Cubscast Mesa: Positive Energy in Cubs Camp
Cubscast Mesa: Inside Cubs Park
Cubscast Mesa with Rick Renteria and the 2014 coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa with the top prospects
Cubscast Mesa: Meet the new guys
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part One
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Two
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Three
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Four

From the Pages of Vine Line: Maddux at the head of the class

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(Getty Images)

By Carrie Muskat, The following can be found in the March issue of Vine Line.

I covered Greg Maddux in 1987, his first full season with the Cubs. I remember his great 15-3 first half in ’88, his 19-win season in ’89 (capped by a victory in Montreal to clinch the division) and his first Cy Young season in ’92. I was there for his strange return to Wrigley Field in a Braves uniform and for his Chicago reunion in 2004.

Last December, it was with great pleasure that I could finally check Maddux’s name on my Hall of Fame ballot. He’s the smartest pitcher I’ve ever seen.

On Jan. 8, the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced Maddux was headed to Cooperstown, after receiving 555 votes out of a possible 571 (97.2 percent) in his first year of eligibility. Players need 75 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to be elected. Mark your calendars: The ceremony will be held on July 27 in upstate New York, and Cubs fans have no excuse for not showing up.

Maddux won a Cy Young Award with the Cubs and three more with the Braves, where he also claimed a World Series title in ’95. He pitched 10 seasons in two stints with Chicago and 11 seasons in Atlanta. Though he had his best years with a tomahawk on his chest, he has chosen to go into the Hall of Fame with no logo on his plaque in a tip of the cap to his original organization.

“My wife, Kathy, and I grew up in baseball in Chicago, and then we had just an amazing experience in Atlanta with the Braves,” Maddux said in a statement. “It’s impossible for me to choose one of those teams for my Hall of Fame plaque, as the fans of both clubs in each of those cities were so wonderful.

“I can’t think of having my Hall of Fame induction without the support of both of those fan bases, so, for that reason, the cap on my Hall of Fame plaque will not feature a logo.”
I told you he was smart.

GREAT START
A little trivia: Maddux made his first appearance on Sept. 3, 1986, not as a pitcher but as a pinch-runner in the 17th inning of a game that had been suspended the previous evening after 15 innings because of darkness. Remember, Wrigley Field didn’t have lights until 1988. Nolan Ryan started for the Astros that day against the Cubs’ Jamie Moyer.

Maddux stayed in to pitch the 18th, but he served up a one-out home run to Houston’s Billy Hatcher to take the loss. In what would become classic Maddux fashion, he shrugged it off. Four days later, on Sept. 7, Maddux picked up his first win, an 11-3, complete-game gem against the Reds at Riverfront Stadium—the first of 109 complete games he would toss in his 23-year career.

Maddux didn’t intimidate hitters with velocity, but he dominated the NL with tremendous movement on his pitches and his vast understanding of the game. Still, it took a winter in Venezuela with pitching coach Dick Pole to convince the young right-hander not to throw as hard as he could. So what made Maddux change his approach?

“The hitters make it click with you,” Maddux said. “When you start throwing it, and they start whacking it, that’s what makes it click.”

Pole had some influence on Maddux’s decision as well. After the pitcher’s brief big league call-up in ’86, Cubs General Manager Dallas Green wanted Maddux, Pole and catcher Damon Berryhill to spend part of the winter in Venezuela to fine-tune some things. Apparently, it worked.

“I kind of understood the importance of, being at the big league level, that I needed to be able to throw my fastball to both sides of the plate, not just for a strike,” Maddux told author Alan Solomon, who wrote A Century of Wrigley Field. “I think that was the reason for the big turnaround. That and my first year, I was able to understand the importance of locating my fastball and, even more so, pitch slow. I didn’t pitch slow very good at all my first year. Then, after that, once I retaught myself how to throw my change-up with the help of Dick, things got better for me.”

Better might be an understatement. From 1988-2004, Maddux won at least 15 games in 17 consecutive seasons en route to 355 career victories.

“I knew he was going to be good when I saw him when he was young, but I didn’t know how good he was going to be,” Pole said. “If you want to find the definition of pitcher, it’s going to be Greg Maddux. It’s not stuff with him. It’s location, pitch selection, changing speeds.”

STUDENT AND TEACHER
Maddux stressed that lesson to young pitchers as well. After his playing days ended in 2008, he returned to the Cubs as a special assistant to General Manager Jim Hendry in 2010. In this position, he visited the minor league teams, often sitting on the bench with players.

On one of those days, Cubs pitcher Chris Rusin found himself next to Maddux in the dugout and asked how the future Hall of Famer got the same two-seam movement on both sides of the plate. Rusin applied Maddux’s advice in a start last July against the Giants, in which he threw seven shutout innings without any of his pitches topping 90 mph.

“[Maddux] relied on movement, and he obviously has way more movement than I do,” Rusin said. “But he could locate everything on both sides of the plate.”

It was The Professor’s cerebral approach to the game and the way he emphasized team first that earned him the respect of everyone around him.

“To me, the most amazing thing about Greg Maddux is that he’s the best student of pitching I’ve ever met,” said former teammate and current Yankees manager Joe Girardi in 2004. “He never missed a hitter on the bench. He paid more attention than other pitchers, and I think that’s what has made him so great.”

Maddux honed his baseball acumen by spending time with position players and hitting coaches to better understand how they approach pitchers. There are countless stories about how he would call pitches from the dugout during a game or warn a teammate about a foul ball that would soon be heading his way.

In 2004, MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy and I combined to write a story about Maddux and his older brother, Mike, who was the Brewers’ pitching coach at the time.

“I would say it’s the same book, different covers,” Mike said of his relationship with his brother. “You might think he’s more serious than me, but get to know both of us, and we’re a lot alike. Maybe I’m more extroverted than he is.”

Said Greg of his big brother: “He’s a little bit further out there than I am. We have a lot in common—hobbies, beliefs, sense of humor, stuff like that.”

The pitching pair grew up in Madrid, Spain, where their father was stationed at a U.S. Air Force base. All the TV shows were in Spanish, so the boys would go outside and play baseball instead—and both were incredibly competitive. When the Maddux brothers played golf, they didn’t wager money on each round. Instead, the winner would give the loser a wedgie.

Another reason Maddux’s teammates respected him? He was excellent, efficient and almost always in control on the mound. On July 17, 2004, back with the Cubs for a second turn, Maddux threw a six-hit, complete-game shutout to beat the Brewers, 5-0, and 17 of the 27 outs came on ground balls.

“I’ve battled against him before, and it’s just not fair,” Milwaukee’s Dave Burba said after the game. “He has movement on everything that is unreal. Shoot, if I had stuff like that, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I’d probably have to retire.”

“Or go to the Hall of Fame,” the Brewers’ Matt Kinney chimed in.

It was a classic Maddux performance. His take on the game? That also was vintage.

“As far as days to pitch on, this was as easy as it gets,” he said. “It was cool, the wind was blowing in, and the mistakes were hit at people.”

Reporters usually got better comments about Maddux from the opposition than from the unassuming pitcher himself. He didn’t like being the center of attention, especially as he approached his 300th win in 2004.

“For me, personally, I’d rather win 15 games and have a chance at the postseason,” he said. “That means more to me than winning 300. … It’s hard to say it’s just another game, but it is. We’ve got more important things to worry about than one guy reaching a goal. It’s not about me. It’s about us.”

Flashback to July 7, 1987, when San Diego’s Eric Show hit Andre Dawson in the face with a pitch in the third inning. Dawson had homered off Show in the first.

Maddux started that day, and Rick Sutcliffe warned the young pitcher not to retaliate. The Cubs were thinking about sending Maddux back to the minors for some seasoning, and he desperately needed the win. Instead, Maddux struck out the first two batters he faced in the fourth, then plunked the Padres’ Benito Santiago with a pitch and was ejected.

“He hit him as hard as a man can,” Sutcliffe said, retelling the story. “That tells you what that kid was made of. When he came back up [from the minors], Dawson and [Ryne] Sandberg made sure they never took a day off when he pitched.”

THE LIGHTER SIDE
Maddux was also known in the clubhouse for his pranks. Cubs fans saw his playful side when the first night game at Wrigley Field, on Aug. 8, 1988, was postponed because of rain. Al Nipper, Les Lancaster, Jody Davis and Maddux made the most of the delay and delighted rain-soaked fans by sliding on the tarp.

“I don’t know who instigated it, but I’m glad I did it,” Maddux said in his interview for the Wrigley book. “It was fun, and 20 years later, people are still talking about it.

“You know, being the first night game and everything, it started raining, and we were just kind of hanging out in the dugout, kind of enjoying the thunderstorm and the rain and all that,” Maddux said.

“You sit there long enough, I guess you start talking about some stupid things to do—and we came up with that, and we ended up doing it.”

In the offseason, even after Maddux and Pole were no longer together with the club, the pitcher would check in on his former coach or call with some obscure, off-the-wall question. Pole remembered the time when Todd Walker got his 1,000th hit, and someone threw the ball into the dugout for safekeeping.

“Why doesn’t anyone save balls from low points in their careers?” Maddux deadpanned to Pole.
The next day, Pole found a ball in his locker that was signed by Maddux, commemorating the 300th home run the pitcher had given up. Maddux also signed a ball to commemorate his 200th loss. Pole still has both of those souvenirs.

In my office, I have a black Wilson glove with Maddux’s name and “No. 300” stitched in gold. Maddux had the gloves made for teammates, coaches, friends and family after he won his 300th game on Aug. 7, 2004, in San Francisco. The Wilson rep knew I’d followed Maddux since his beginning with the Cubs, and made sure I got one too.

Before the Hall of Fame announcement in January, I checked in with Pole. He’d already sent Maddux a text to congratulate his former pupil. Maddux’s response was, “Thanks, Coach Pole, for all the tips.”
My favorite Maddux moments weren’t actually his games. When he rejoined the Cubs in 2004, he and his son, Chase, who was 10, would be in the Wrigley Field bullpen early in the morning. The ballpark was quiet, except for the grounds crew mowing the grass, and father and son would become teacher and pupil.

The day after the Hall vote was revealed, Maddux took part in a news conference in New York with Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas, who will be joining No. 31 in Cooperstown. Later, Maddux tweeted: “Pretty cool last 48 hrs!! Glad I shared it with Glav and the Big Hurt. The baseball world is awesome.”

Thanks, Greg Maddux. So are you.

 

Now Playing: Cubscast Mesa, Positive Energy in Cubs Camp

Spring is a time for hope, optimism and new beginnings. This season, the Cubs are welcoming a new manager, several new coaches and a host of new players to the fold.

We talked to Cubs personnel, new and old, about the feeling in camp this year and how things are different under skipper Rick Renteria.

We’ll be posting videos and stories from Cubs Park throughout the spring, so watch the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline.

Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:

Cubscast Mesa, Inside Cubs Park
Cubscast Mesa with Rick Renteria and the 2014 coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa with the top prospects
Cubscast Mesa: Meet the new guys
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part One
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Two
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Three
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Four

Former Cubs president Bill Veeck Sr. changed the face of baseball

Veeck-Wm-Sr.-4095.76_HS_NBL

(National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Once upon a time, early in the 20th century, the Confines were not so friendly. Cubs games drew nattily dressed men to Weeghman Park’s sleepy Lakeview neighborhood by trolley or elevated train to cheer on the likes of Max Flack and Jigger Statz. Fans took to their seats, likely among the festering trash abandoned by the previous day’s crowd. They might lose a few bucks when a favorite pitcher “threw” a fixed game. Some may have had a box seat reserved only to find it occupied by a friend of one of the many unscrupulous ushers. They’d slam some beers, eat hot dogs, and not surprise a soul if they walked out with a black eye after an all-too-typical tussle.

You know, just your average day at the ballpark.

“It was kind of a rough crowd,” said Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field historian Ed Hartig, of the ballpark experience in the early 1900s. “It was not a place for families.”

This hardscrabble climate was a common feature of baseball parks at the time. The Cubs drew about 600,000 fans per season, and the crowds were primarily male and often intimidating.

“The team wasn’t complaining,” Hartig said. “That was fine.”

But it wasn’t enough, at least not for one man.

In 1918, a baseball writer was plucked off his beat and deposited into the Cubs front office, where his years of outsider observations and unbiased criticism of management were put to the test.

As the ’20s roared loud and proud at Wrigley Field, the rough-and-tumble tumult of gamedays gave way to memorable, safe and pleasant afternoons at the park. Home games were broadcast on the radio. Attendance records were set. The park grew. Women and children arrived in droves. And most of this can be traced directly to the efforts of then-Cubs President Bill Veeck Sr.

“He’s right up there at the top,” Hartig said of Veeck’s place in baseball history. “You go to a game [today], and 40 percent of the crowd is women, there are kids at games, the ballpark is clean.”

Veeck was an integral cog in the team’s front office, from his hiring in 1918 to his death in 1933 at the age of 56. During his time at the helm, he led the Cubs out of the Dark Ages and revolutionized the marketing of baseball. He had such a profound and lasting impact on the game that campaigns are underway to get him elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame at the next available opportunity, in December 2015.

“He was a pioneering executive who changed baseball from a cottage industry into an entertainment colossus,” said Dr. David Fletcher, president and founder of the Chicago Baseball Museum and one of those pushing for Veeck’s Cooperstown enshrinement. “It’s sad—most Cubs fans have never heard of him.”

* * * *
William Louis Veeck Sr.—not to be confused with his legendary, franchise-owning, promotional stuntman of a son (think exploding scoreboards and Disco Demolition)—was a by-the-book but out-of-the-box leader who rewarded loyalty and regularly took the long view. A baseball fan from a young age, Veeck was born in Indiana in 1877 and had his roots in journalism, not management. His first job was selling newspapers, and as a teenager he worked as a printer’s apprentice.

Veeck never attended college and eventually landed a job in the cutthroat world of Chicago newspapers. He bounced around among publications until gaining purchase at the Chicago Evening American, first reporting on the city desk and later on sports, where his lifelong love of baseball paid off. He wrote under the pen name “Bill Bailey,” and there was a quality to his work that went beyond simply posting gameday recaps and churning out stats.

He demonstrated a nuanced understanding of the game that caught the baseball world’s attention—so much so that when the Cubs began considering a new management direction, Veeck’s name was on the short list.

“[He] was more critic than critical,” Hartig said.

In 1918, then-Cubs President Charles Weeghman was underwater financially and had to choose between his baseball career and his restaurant business. The team had just won the National League pennant during a season abridged by World War I, but both his restaurant and his namesake Weeghman Park, where the Cubs played, were suffering from dismal attendance due to the aftereffects of the war and a worldwide influenza epidemic that caused the U.S. government to urge people to stay out of crowded places. To make matters worse, he had a German-sounding last name during the acrimonious postwar period. Ultimately, he stepped down from the team, and Cubs manager Fred Mitchell took over.

Veeck—somewhat improbably by today’s standards—was hired by the Cubs as vice president and treasurer. The following summer, the National League determined Mitchell could not serve as both manager and president. As he preferred to stay on the field, Veeck was bumped up to the big job.

“To hire a sportswriter with little or no business background,” Hartig said, “today you’d be like, ‘What are they thinking?’”

* * * *
But the Cubs had good reason for optimism. Almost immediately, Veeck began to combat the scourge of player gambling.

“He basically saved baseball with his role in the Black Sox scandal,” Fletcher said. “He blew the whistle on his own team.”

With his swift punitive measures, the Cubs president set a league-wide standard for transparency. Yet Veeck’s cleanup efforts were only beginning.

In 1922, he insisted the team wear freshly laundered uniforms for each game. According to Veeck’s logic, a tidy team upped the park’s allure and would put more fans in the seats, as would the newly hired Andy Frain uniformed ushers.
Before Frain, the park’s ushers weren’t known for their courteous service, often giving otherwise reserved seats to friends or to those proffering bribes, resolving conflicts with fisticuffs, or generally ignoring the safety and comfort of their charges. Not so with the new fleet.

And then there was the mess. Ballparks typically only underwent a cleaning after every series, so fans were often sitting amid piles of days-old trash. Veeck upped the size of the grounds crew and instituted park-wide cleanup after every home game.

He also expanded concessions beyond the standard beer and hot dogs to include items such as lemonade, soda, candy and popcorn—all in the name of courting a new crop of fans.

But nothing did more to bring a different crowd to the ballpark than his championing of Ladies Day. With the help of team Vice President John Seys and club Secretary Margaret Donahue (who later served as VP), Veeck fought to welcome women to the newly christened Wrigley Field.

The league wasn’t wild about the idea of a regular day on which women didn’t have to surrender the buck or so to buy a ticket, as it would chip away at revenues. The promotion was actually first introduced in the 1880s, but the NL abolished it in 1909. When Weeghman took over the Cubs in 1916, he made his case for Ladies Day, but the NL again said no. Finally, in 1918 and ’19, the NL allowed the Cubs to attempt the concept on a trial basis.

It was the promotion of the event by Veeck, Seys and Donahue in the 1920s that convinced NL owners that offering Ladies Days would eventually lead to women attending other games. With that, the NL removed the restriction, and the Cubs turned it into a regular Friday event. By the mid-1920s, the team was drawing close to 10,000 women for a single Ladies Day game. In 1929, one August game drew 29,000 women, and the numbers only swelled from there, according to Hartig.

The Ladies Day promotion continued in some form until 1990.

* * * *
Veeck’s sweeping changes never would have been possible without the support of chewing gum magnate and team owner William Wrigley Jr.

“They understood marketing before the whole science of marketing was studied,” Hartig said of the Wrigley family, which boldly sent a pack of their eponymous gum to every telephone customer in the country—twice.

One of the harder sells Wrigley and Veeck teamed up on was the idea of broadcasting home games on the radio. Popular opinion decried such a practice as a deterrent to actual attendance. If a fan could hear games on the radio, why would he or she feel the need to hop on a train to see a game in person? But on Oct. 1, 1924, the Cubs made their successful radio debut, broadcasting a city series 10-7 win over the White Sox on WGN. In the 1925 season, the Cubs became the first major league franchise to broadcast all of their home games.

“The announcers are going, ‘It’s a beautiful day at the ballpark,’” Hartig said. “People want to go.”

And people did. While the Cubs ended the year well below .500, their attendance totaled 622,610, nearly 100,000 more than the National League average, according to the Baseball Research Journal.

Thanks to this surge in fandom, a second tier of grandstands was added to Wrigley Field in 1927. In 1929, manager Joe McCarthy, a Veeck hire, nabbed his first pennant. The team also won the NL in ’32, ’35 and ’38, due in large part to Veeck’s management. During this time, the team began drawing more than a million fans per season, becoming the first NL club to do so.

Veeck died of leukemia in 1933, shortly after championing interleague play as a way to combat the dismal Depression-era attendance. He also supported the creation of the All-Star Game. Veeck even helped negotiate a deal to bring a football team called the Decatur Staley’s to Chicago. They are better known these days as the Chicago Bears, a franchise that went on to play for 50 years at Wrigley Field.

While a Veeck bid for the Hall of Fame was unsuccessful in 2012, the effort is far from over. Fletcher is gearing up to take another shot in December 2015, more than 100 years after the president’s heyday.

“I think he’s the most unsung hero of Major League Baseball,” Fletcher said. “His footprints are significant.”
And they’re all over Wrigley Field.

Now Playing: Cubscast Mesa, The Lighter Side of the Cubs, Part Four

Professional baseball players live an odd life. They work late hours, face enormous pressures and spend half their year on the road—which means they have a lot of down time before they have to be at the park.

In Part Four of our Lighter Side video series, we ask Kris Bryant, Carlos Villanueva, Edwin Jackson and others about their favorite movies.

We’ll be posting videos and stories from Cubs Park throughout the spring, so watch the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline.

Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:

Cubscast Mesa, Inside Cubs Park
Cubscast Mesa with Rick Renteria and the 2014 coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa with the top prospects
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part One
Cubscast Mesa: Meet the new guys
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Two
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Three

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