Archive for the ‘ Profiles ’ Category

Hot Off the Presses: The August edition of Vine Line with Travis Wood

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Like most Cubs fans of a certain age, I remember exactly where I was on Aug. 8, 1988.

My family had recently moved to the Dallas area. But despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Braves man (or kid, more accurately) and living in Rangers country at the time, I—along with most of the baseball-loving universe—was glued to WGN’s national broadcast of the Cubs-Phillies game at Wrigley Field.

There wasn’t really much to recommend the series—the North Siders were just 53-66, sitting a distant 13.5 games back of the NL East-leading Metropolitans, and the Phillies were even worse at 48-62. But there was at least one good reason to tune in that night.

At 6:06 p.m., 91-year-old Harry Grossman, a Cubs fan since 1905, flipped a switch, and the brand new Wrigley Field lights flickered to life for the first time. It was a momentous evening. The stadium was packed, a then-record 556 media credentials were issued, the broadcast crew wore tuxedos, and Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Billy Williams were on hand to throw out the first pitch. Even Morganna the Kissing Bandit made an appearance.

Mind you, night baseball didn’t start off that well for the Cubs. After being nearly blinded by the simultaneous popping of about 40,000 flashbulbs, Cubs starter Rick Sutcliffe gave up a long home run over the left-field bleachers on his fourth pitch to Phillies leadoff man Phil Bradley. But in the bottom of the inning, after Cubs outfielder Mitch Webster led off with a single, Ryne Sandberg clubbed a two-run home run off Kevin Gross to give the Cubs the lead.

The night seemed to have everything—except, of course, an ending. Midway through the fourth inning, just as the lights were taking hold at about 8:15 p.m., the game was stopped due to a powerful storm. After a two-hour-and-10-minute delay, home plate umpire Eric Gregg officially called it. As far as the record books are concerned, the first official night game at the Friendly Confines was the Cubs’ 6-4 victory over the Mets the following night.

I’ve mentioned in this space before that the first time I ever visited Wrigley was in 1984, and that I was immediately enthralled. I grew up watching and loving baseball, and had been to my share of ballparks by then—most, unfortunately, of the multi-use, 70s-era, cookie-cutter vintage—but visiting Wrigley Field was like stepping back in time. It seemed shocking, almost quaint, that in the ultra-modern, go-go 1980s, a professional sports venue could still lack an artificial lighting system.

Putting the lights on Wrigley Field was a fascinating journey that took decades to accomplish, and the 25th anniversary seems like the perfect time to revisit it—especially given the Cubs are again working to modernize the soon-to-be 100-year-old park. In the August issue of Vine Line, we take you back to that illuminating evening to examine what the lighting of Wrigley Field meant to the park, the team and the future of the franchise.

We also talk to a significant piece of that future, Cubs lefty Travis Wood, who is having a breakout season in 2013. When Wood was acquired along with Dave Sappelt and Ronald Torreyes (since shipped to the Astros) in December 2011 for set-up man extraordinaire Sean Marshall, it looked like a steal for the Reds. Marshall had a great season in 2012, while Wood bounced between Chicago and Triple-A Iowa. But this season, Wood has solidified his position as one of the best young left-handers in the game, and he doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon.

Finally, we check in with the voice of the franchise, Cubs radio announcer Pat Hughes, now in his 18th season as the play-by-play man for WGN Radio. Hughes has led a charmed professional life, sharing a booth with such broadcasting luminaries as Al McGuire, Bob Uecker and the beloved Ron Santo. He talked to us about his storied career, making the inevitable on-air mistakes and preparing calls for the biggest moments.

If you’re looking for a little illumination, we shine a light on the Cubs organization from the lowest levels of the minor leagues to the Wrigley Field broadcast booth every month. Subscribe to Vine Line, contact us at vineline@cubs.com or follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.

From the Page of Vine Line: WAR All-Stars—Right Field

All month, we’ve be unveiling the best single seasons by a Cubs player at each position in the team’s more than 100-year history, using the advanced statistic Wins Above Replacement (WAR). We conclude our WAR All-Star team in right field, where one of the Cubs’ most polarizing players covers the corner outfield spot. Bill Nicholson manned the tricky right field corner at a high level in the ’40s, and Andre Dawson racked up his MVP award at the position, but Sammy Sosa’s 2001 campaign was tops in franchise history.

Here’s how we chose our team.

What WAR essentially does is aggregate everything an individual contributes—offensively and defensively—into one definitive number that conveys his value, typically ranging from -1 to 10. The purpose of the formula is to quantify how much a team would lose if a player was swapped for an average replacement player.

In order to qualify for our team, each player had to spend the majority of his time at a single position during the season being measured. And because the team wasn’t officially christened the Chicago Cubs until 1903, players who represented the Orphans, Colts and White Stockings were excluded.

For more information or the entire team, be sure to pick up a copy of July’s issue of Vine Line.

Part 1: WAR All-Stars – Pitcher

Part 2: WAR All-Stars – Catcher

Part 3: WAR All-Stars – First Base

Part 4: WAR All-Stars – Second Base

Part 5: WAR All-Stars – Third Base

Part 6: WAR All-Stars – Shortstop

Part 7: WAR All-Stars – Left Field

Part 8: WAR All-Stars – Center Field

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Right Field: Sammy Sosa, 2001—9.9 WAR
Say what you will about Sammy Sosa. He certainly had some indiscretions and didn’t exactly leave the game in the Hall-of-Fame manner people expected circa 1998. But he undeniably put up some of the most statistically exciting, video game-like seasons in Cubs history. And if you were a North Side fan between 1992-2004, you likely loved No. 21. Though he’s probably best remembered for his magical two-step with Mark McGwire during the 1998 season—a season that ultimately netted him the NL MVP award—his 2001 campaign was actually better. His home runs and RBI were comparable, but he had 14 more doubles, five more triples, 43 more walks and 18 fewer strikeouts. This all led to a significantly higher OPS. The statistic OPS+ takes OPS and normalizes for outlying variables such as park effects. A 100 OPS+ is considered league average. In 2001, Sosa’s OPS+ was an astronomical 203.

Rob Neyer’s Take:
“The third season in which Sosa hit 60-some home runs … and somehow didn’t lead the National League in homers in any of those seasons. In ’01, though, he did lead the league in both runs and runs batted in.”

Other Notable Seasons:
Bill Nicholson—7.3 WAR (1943)
Sammy Sosa—7.1 WAR (1998)

From the Pages of Vine Line: WAR All-Stars—Third Base

All month, we’ll be unveiling the best single seasons by a Cubs player at each position in the team’s more than 100-year history, using the advanced statistic Wins Above Replacement (WAR). For the fifth installment of our WAR All-Star team, we turn to third base. Unlike at some of the other positions, the representative at the hot corner comes as no surprise. Ron Santo’s 1967 season was one of the best individual seasons for a third baseman in the game’s history.

Here’s how we chose our team.

What WAR essentially does is aggregate everything an individual contributes—offensively and defensively—into one definitive number that conveys his value, typically ranging from -1 to 10. The purpose of the formula is to quantify how much a team would lose if a player was swapped for an average replacement player.

In order to qualify for our team, each player had to spend the majority of his time at a single position during the season being measured. And because the team wasn’t officially christened the Chicago Cubs until 1903, players who represented the Orphans, Colts and White Stockings were excluded (apologies to Bill Hutchison and his 10.6 WAR in 1892).

For more information or the entire team, be sure to pick up a copy of July’s issue of Vine Line. And watch the blog in the coming weeks for the rest of the roster.

Part 1: WAR All-Stars – Pitcher

Part 2: WAR All-Stars – Catcher

Part 3: WAR All-Stars – First Base

Part 4: WAR All-Stars – Second Base

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Third Baseman: Ron Santo, 1967—9.4 WAR
Ron Santo has always been considered the gold standard for Chicago third basemen. Statistically speaking, his 1967 campaign was not only the greatest for a third baseman in Cubs history, it was also a top five all-time WAR total at the position. Advanced statistics show it was his finest year defensively, with 391 assists at the hot corner, but he was just as tough at the plate. Santo was third in the NL in home runs, sixth in on-base percentage and seventh in RBI. He also displayed his customary patience at the dish, leading the league with 96 walks, tied for the highest total of his career. He didn’t get an All-Star nod that season, but he did come in fourth in MVP voting and claimed his fourth of five Gold Gloves. While the younger generation of Cubs fans probably remembers Santo for his work on WGN Radio, his stats in 1967 put into relief just how talented No. 10 was with the bat and the glove.

Rob Neyer’s Take:
“In a pitcher’s year, Santo batted .300 with power and led the National League in walks. He also won his fourth Gold Glove at third base and finished fourth in the MVP balloting.”

Other Notable Seasons:
Ron Santo – 8.6 WAR (1964)
Ron Santo – 8.4 WAR (1968)

From the Pages of Vine Line: WAR All-Stars—First Base

All month, we’ll be unveiling the best single seasons by a Cubs player at each position in the team’s more than 100-year history, using the advanced statistic Wins Above Replacement (WAR). The third installment of our WAR All-Star team, first base, is where one of the Cubs’ biggest legends—both on the field and in the dugout—resides.

Here’s how we chose our team.

What WAR essentially does is aggregate everything an individual contributes—offensively and defensively—into one definitive number that conveys his value, typically ranging from -1 to 10. The purpose of the formula is to quantify how much a team would lose if a player was swapped for an average replacement player.

In order to qualify for our team, each player had to spend the majority of his time at a single position during the season being measured. And because the team wasn’t officially christened the Chicago Cubs until 1903, players who represented the Orphans, Colts and White Stockings were excluded (apologies to Bill Hutchison and his 10.6 WAR in 1892).

For more information or the entire team, be sure to pick up a copy of July’s issue of Vine Line. And watch the blog in the coming weeks for the rest of the roster.

Part 1: WAR All-Stars – Pitcher

Part 2: WAR All-Stars – Catcher

First Baseman: Frank Chance, 1906—7.7 WAR

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Probably better remembered for his Tinker to Evers to Chance defensive exploits, Frank Chance could do it all on a baseball field. He not only managed the 1906 team to the World Series, he also led the league with 103 runs and 57 stolen bases in 136 regular season games that season. How many everyday first basemen can do that? As a matter of fact, none. Only one first baseman since 1914 has swiped as many as 45 bases in a year: Gregg Jefferies with 46 in 1993. It’s safe to say the game has changed a bit since the turn of the last century—Prince Fielder and Joey Votto aren’t going to do that much running—but Chance’s 1906 season still holds up as one of the best of all time for a first baseman. All three components of his slash line were good for top five in the NL, and you could argue that his WAR should be higher for what he accomplished as a manager.

Rob Neyer’s Take:
“Chance makes the list because of his accomplishments as a player, but ‘The Peerless Leader’ obviously deserves a big dollop of extra credit for managing the Cubs to 116 wins and the best winning percentage in modern major league history.”

Other Notable Seasons:
Derrek Lee – 6.9 WAR (2005)
Phil Cavarretta – 6.4 WAR (1945)

From the Pages of Vine Line: WAR All-Stars—Catcher

All month, we’ll be unveiling the best single seasons by a Cubs player at each position in the team’s more than 100-year history, using the advanced statistic Wins Above Replacement (WAR). The second installment of our WAR All-Star team, catcher, is probably the biggest shocker on the list.

Here’s how we chose our team.

What WAR essentially does is aggregate everything an individual contributes—offensively and defensively—into one definitive number that conveys his value, typically ranging from -1 to 10. The purpose of the formula is to quantify how much a team would lose if a player was swapped for an average replacement player.

In order to qualify for our team, each player had to spend the majority of his time at a single position during the season being measured. And because the team wasn’t officially christened the Chicago Cubs until 1903, players who represented the Orphans, Colts and White Stockings were excluded (apologies to Bill Hutchison and his 10.6 WAR in 1892).

For more information or the entire team, be sure to pick up a copy of July’s issue of Vine Line. And watch the blog in the coming weeks for the rest of the roster.

Part 1: WAR All-Stars – Pitcher

Catcher: Rick Wilkins, 1993—6.6 WAR

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Gabby Hartnett, Jody Davis and Randy Hundley all had fabulous careers donning the tools of ignorance for the Cubs, but no catcher in the organization’s history had a better individual season than … wait for it … Rick Wilkins in 1993. Though his .330 batting average on balls in play might indicate he got a little lucky, his stats were among baseball’s best by any measure. His home runs, batting average and slugging percentage all ranked in the top 10 in the NL (though he recorded only 500 plate appearances, two short of qualifying for a batting title), and his 30 round-trippers were the most from a Cubs catcher since Hartnett’s 37 bombs in 1930. Defensively, not many people ran on him, but that might be because he threw out an impressive 46 percent of base stealers. Wilkins likely isn’t the first Cub who comes to mind as the organization’s best backstop, but in 1993, he was about as good as it got.

Rob Neyer’s Take:
“[This] probably ranks as one of the great fluke seasons, as Wilkins hit 30 homers in ’93 but never hit more than 14 in another season—and not more than eight with the Cubs.”

Other Notable Seasons:
Gabby Hartnett – 5.6 WAR (1930)
Gabby Hartnett – 5.1 WAR (1935)

From the Pages of Vine Line: WAR All-Stars—Pitcher

Imagine a roster with Banks, Fergie, Santo and Sosa—all in their primes.

With a lot of help from stats website Fangraphs.com, and a little insider information from author and SB Nation National Baseball Editor Rob Neyer, we’ve compiled the all-time greatest single seasons from a Cubs player at each position. Because there’s so much that goes into the game of baseball, and numbers are by nature open to interpretation, compiling this kind of roster can be fairly subjective and lead to lengthy debates. We opted to take as much conflict as possible out of the equation and simply utilized the advanced statistic wins above replacement (WAR).

We won’t bore you with an extensive breakdown of the formula, but what WAR essentially does is aggregate everything an individual contributes—offensively and defensively—into one definitive number that conveys his value, typically ranging from -1 to 10. The purpose of the formula is to quantify how much a team would lose if a player was swapped for an average replacement player.

In order to qualify for our team, each player had to spend the majority of his time at a single position during the season being measured. And because the team wasn’t officially christened the Chicago Cubs until 1903, players who represented the Orphans, Colts and White Stockings were excluded (apologies to Bill Hutchison and his 10.6 WAR in 1892). It wasn’t necessary to win an MVP or even go to the All-Star Game. These are simply the best WAR seasons for a Cubs player at each spot on the diamond.

For Friday’s installment, we unveil the greatest single season for a pitcher in Cubs history. For more information or the entire roster, be sure to pick up a copy of July’s issue of Vine Line. And watch the blog in the coming weeks for the rest of the roster.

Pitcher: Fergie Jenkins, 1970—10.5 WAR

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If you’re looking for an example of how fickle wins above replacement can be, look no further than Cubs great Fergie Jenkins. His 1971 season was phenomenal. He won 24 games behind a 2.77 ERA and was awarded the NL Cy Young for his efforts. It was the previous season, however, the one without an All-Star appearance—much less the Cy Young hardware—in which he compiled the best-ever WAR for a Cubs pitcher. Though the first half of his 1970 season got off to a rocky start, Jenkins rallied in the second half, posting a 2.75 ERA and holding opposing batters to a .197 average after the All-Star break. To the credit of manager Leo Durocher, much of the team’s success that season came from letting Jenkins take the ball deep into outings. In 39 starts, he tossed 24 complete games. Much of the right-hander’s success came from his 4.57 K/BB ratio, the third-best mark of the decade.

Rob Neyer’s Take:
“[This was] the middle of a brilliant six-year run in which Jenkins averaged 21 wins, 39 starts and 306 innings per season. It seems we’ll never see the likes of him again.”

Other Notable Seasons (Pitcher):
Fergie Jenkins – 10.3 WAR (1971)
Fergie Jenkins – 9.1 WAR (1969)

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with Dioner Navarro

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

Cubs backup catcher Dioner Navarro has been in the big leagues for 10 years, has gone to the postseason twice and was selected to the 2008 All-Star Game, but it’s unlikely he ever experienced a game like the one he played on May 25. The veteran backstop went 3-for-4 with three home runs, six RBI and a walk to lead the Cubs to a 9-3 win over the crosstown White Sox. Navarro has already blasted eight home runs this season—his career high is nine—and has taken on a valuable leadership role mentoring young Cubs catcher Welington Castillo. For the July issue of Vine Line, we talked to the 29-year-old Venezuelan about making the 2008 All-Star team, being a leader on the field and his growing menagerie.

ALL-STAR ACTION
 I think the All-Star Game is a goal for every individual player in the league. It doesn’t get any better than that. Once I realized I was surrounded with players like Manny Ramirez and Joe Mauer [in the 2008 game], I felt like part of a special group. It was really great for me. Watching Josh Hamilton [set a Home Run Derby record] and being part of a winning rally—I got a base hit off Brad Lidge to keep the 15th inning alive—was just amazing. It was a lot we had to go through in two or three days, but the end was well, well worth it. I had a blast. I took my son with me, so we both had a lot of fun.

BACKSTOP LEADER  As a catcher, I have the opportunity to communicate with a lot of different players. My No. 1 goal is to communicate with the pitcher and get on the same page—but still communicate with all the infielders. What I love about this position is that I get to hang out with guys of different cultures from all over the world. I try to get on a level [of trust] with everybody and keep everyone together as a family. In order for us to achieve our goals, there has to be a trust level between us. Once we are trusting of what we do, read and think, we’re going to be just fine.

FAMILY FIRST  My wife almost died in my hands [after having an aneurysm in 2003], and my son had his kidney removed when he was only 1. When all that happened, baseball came second in my life. I take the game a lot easier now, but I still respect it. Once the game is over, I know I get to go home and spend time with my family and then get ready for the next day.

MAN’S BEST FRIENDS  It all started with my wife. We went to the pet store to get my dog’s regular food, and she fell in love with a chameleon. From a chameleon, we went to a snake. From a snake, we went to Argentine tegu. Now we’ve got chinchillas, cats, dogs—we’ve got them all. I love animals, and my kids get to enjoy them too. It’s definitely a lot of fun during the offseason.

FOOTBALL FIEND  I’m a huge soccer fan—huge. I love it. In Venezuela, they play a lot of Spanish League, called “La Liga.” I grew up seeing Barcelona play, and ever since then I’ve just loved Barcelona. My brother had an opportunity to move to Spain, and he would bring back Barcelona gear to my little brother and me. I think my collection of jerseys spans about 50 years of soccer now. It’s a brilliant game, and I have a lot of respect for those guys.

To read the complete interview with Navarro, pick up the July All-Star issue of Vine Line, featuring the best seasons by a Cubs player at each position, available now at select Jewel-Osco, Walgreens, Meijer, Barnes & Noble, and other Chicago-area retailers. Or subscribe to Vine Line today.

Hot Off the Presses: The July All-Star Issue of Vine Line

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Quick … which catcher had the greatest statistical season in Cubs history?

I’ll give you a second to think about it.

What about Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett? He went to six All-Star Games, won the 1935 NL MVP and was generally considered the best catcher in NL history until Johnny Bench came along.

Maybe Randy Hundley. He went to an All-Star Game, won a Gold Glove and threw out a remarkable 50 percent of base stealers four times in his career.

Jody Davis? Johnny Kling? Keith Moreland even played some catcher.

What would you say if I told you it was Rick Wilkins? Yes, the same Rick Wilkins who was a 23rd-round pick out of Furman University. The same Rick Wilkins who played for eight different teams in his 11 big league seasons. The same Rick Wilkins who put up a career .244/.332/.410 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line. Not exactly the stuff of legend.

But then there was 1993—a year in which the peripatetic Cubs backstop hit .303 (he never again hit better than .270), slammed 30 home runs (he never again hit more than 14) and drove in 73 runs (he never again plated more than 59). That season, he compiled 6.6 wins above replacement (WAR), an advanced statistic meant to summarize a player’s value to his team in a single, all-encompassing number.

According to stats website Fangraphs, the source of these figures, anything above a 6.0 is considered an MVP-caliber season. The best Hartnett ever managed was a 5.6. Mind you, Hartnett’s career WAR was 53.4; Wilkins’ was only 14.0 (and, remember, almost half of that came from one season).

There’s no better way to get baseball fans riled up than starting a good, old-fashioned intergenerational debate. Stats geeks and old-school fans alike can spend countless hours arguing the merits of Aramis Ramirez over Ron Santo or Ryne Sandberg over Rogers Hornsby.

For our July All-Star issue, we set out to find the best-ever single season by a Cubs player at each position in the team’s more than 100-year history. Of course, it seems obvious Mark Grace would have had the best first-base season (he didn’t) or that Billy Williams was the top left fielder (he wasn’t).

There are a million ways to go about a task like this, and they’re all incredibly subjective. So we turned to a single advanced metric to help us figure things out. WAR is an all-inclusive stat that takes into account offense, defense and baserunning to determine how many wins a player is worth over a league-average replacement player.

We’re not saying the men on our list are necessarily the best players in Cubs history. Some of them are. Several of them decidedly are not. But they all had at least one spectacular season that set them apart statistically and can truly be considered the best ever by a Cub at their respective positions (as measured by this one metric).

We also take time this month to look down the chain at some of the other All-Star athletes throughout the organization. The Cubs are building a winner from the bottom up, and fans need to know which players are on the rise. That includes everyone from this year’s first-round draft pick (second overall) Kris Bryant to minor league mashers like Dustin Geiger and Rock Shoulders (whose name we try to work into every issue if we can).

Finally, to ensure the pipeline of young talent remains strong, the Cubs are investing heavily in their international scouting and player development. Outside of the U.S., more major league players hail from the Dominican Republic than from any other country. The Cubs crop includes big leaguers such as Starlin Castro and top minor league prospects like Junior Lake. While the restoration of Wrigley Field is getting the headlines on the facilities front, the Cubs recently opened a 50-acre baseball academy in the Dominican to find more top talent and diamonds in the rough. We give you a look inside the state-of-the-art facility.

We’ll be releasing our WAR All-Stars position by position here on the blog in the coming weeks. If you want to weigh in with your own opinions, email us at vineline@cubs.com or talk to us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.

Let the debate begin.

—Gary Cohen

From the Pages of Vine Line: Tom Ricketts, Man of the People

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(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.”

CROWDSOURCING
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.”

—Gary Cohen

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with hitting coach James Rowson

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(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.

—Phil Barnes

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