Archive for the ‘ Profiles ’ Category

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

MadduxHOF

(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

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(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

Now Playing: The Lighter Side of the Cubs, Part Three

Everyone who has ever played baseball has had it happen—a misjudged pop fly that lands one foot behind you, a weak grounder that goes right through your legs or a moment of indecision on the basepaths that makes you look foolish. Major leaguers are no different.

In Part Three of our Lighter Side video series, we ask Travis Wood, Nate Schierholtz, Justin Grimm and others about their most embarrassing moments on a baseball field.

We’ll be posting videos and stories from Cubs Park throughout the spring, so watch the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline. Later this week, we’ll give you an inside look at the new Cubs Park facility in Mesa.

Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:

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

Now Playing: The Lighter Side of the Cubs, Part Two

Think you know everything about your favorite Cubs players?

While you may be able to talk OBP, WHIP and VORP with the best of them, did you know Jeff Samardzija is a big fan of birds or that Travis Wood might be trying to read your mind? Every spring, we get personal with Cubs personnel to dig up some facts that you can’t find anywhere else. In the second part of our Lighter Side series, we ask Cubs players which talent or superpower they wish they had.

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 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

Now Playing: Cubscast Mesa, Meet the New Guys

Every team comes into Spring Training riding a wave of optimism, and a lot of that positive energy comes from adding new pieces to the clubhouse mix.

Baseball president Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer spent the offseason strengthening the bullpen, adding depth to the rotation and finding good complementary pieces for the order. Vine Line got a chance to talk with some of the new blood, including starting pitcher Jason Hammel, catcher George Kottaras, outfielder Justin Ruggiano and new closer Jose Veras about what it means to them to be a Cub.

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 with Rick Renteria and the 2014 coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa with the top prospects
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part One

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with hitting coach Bill Mueller

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The following can be found in the Profile section of March’s edition of Vine Line.

Former American League batting champ Bill Mueller is back in Cubbie blue as the new big league hitting coach.

Born: 3/17/71 in Maryland Heights, Mo.
Resides: Mesa, Ariz.
Joined Cubs: 11/22/13
Position: Hitting Coach

COMING HOME  It’s a wonderful experience to be back in this city. Being a part of the team again is exciting. And being a part of an organization like this, with Theo [Epstein] and Jed [Hoyer] and everyone, I think it’s an exciting time to be in this organization. I’m looking forward to having a great year and enjoying this wonderful opportunity.

TOP DOG  [Rick Renteria] is as genuine as they come. And knowledgeable, very experienced. Basically, you know what you’re going to be getting. You know what you’re going to have in that [dugout] every single day. Same with the coaching staff. All of these guys are excellent, solid individuals with an enormous amount of experience.

FEELING GOOD  We all know the pressures of performance in what we do out there. With our [coaching staff’s] experience, it’s just a matter of working with each individual and working with where they are. It’s our job to figure that out and enhance all that and get them consistent. We’re all about enhancing their confidence and minimizing their insecurities.

IN THE SWING  You just want to be a good listener and listen to where they’re at, where they place value in their swing, how cognitive they are, what’s their approach, where do they see their role on the team. You’ve got to get these questions going, and then you can dissect it better if you want to take it in a certain direction—whether it’s a swing path or a lower half thing or an approach thing—and start interjecting things at the right time so they make an impact.

ME, MYSELF AND I  When we were in the minor leagues, a lot of us didn’t even have hitting coaches. You had to watch the good hitters in that league and figure things out. I wasn’t ultratalented, so you had to ask questions of other guys on your team, and you had to tinker around with things. You had to learn who you were, your strengths, your weaknesses, what made you tick, swing path, timing, rhythm and all that stuff. You started becoming your own coach.

ON THE FARM  It’s an enormous amount of talent [in the Cubs system]. On top of that, there’s an enormous amount of character. That’s what’s really special, because there’s a lot more growing mentally as well as physically for all these guys. No matter how talented you are, there’s always that big step of transitioning to get to the big leagues and stay in the big leagues. With that foundation of character and their work ethic and their talent, they’re fortified to really come up here and start having some success.

TOP MOMENT  The one that comes to mind first is my first at-bat in the big leagues. When you’re not really a prospect coming up and you’re not 6-foot-4, 225 pounds—not highly skilled where I’m pumping jacks just because—that moment was an unbelievable experience and an enormous accomplishment, to make it to that point and reach my dream that I had been dreaming about since I was 7 years old.

HOME TURF  I was born and raised in St. Louis. [Before playing in the 2004 World Series with the Red Sox], the last World Series game I was ever at was in 1982 with my dad in the nosebleeds—[the Brewers’] Cecil Cooper hit a home run up there. The next moment, I’m part of a World Series, and I’m winning it at Busch Stadium with my mom and dad in the stands and friends and family. So it was an exciting time, breaking a curse of 86 years and winning a World Series on my home soil.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with LHP Zac Rosscup

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

After five minor league seasons, left-handed pitcher Zac Rosscup made his major league debut out of the Cubs bullpen in September 2013. The Oregon native was drafted in the 28th round of the 2009 amateur draft by the Tamps bay Rays and came to the Cubs in the 2011 trade for Matt Garza. We sat down with the 25-year-old as last season was coming to a close. The following can be found in the Profile section of February’s Vine Line.

MAJOR DEBUT  That was intense. Knees shaking a little bit. I was nervous. After you warm up and you take a deep breath, you realize it’s the same game you’ve been playing your whole life—just a little bit better talent on the field. It’s great. There’s not a whole lot you can say about it. It’s one of those feelings that you just have to do it to know the feel.

THE CALL-UP  When you picture it in your mind and growing up and stuff, [you think] when you get here, “I’m going to be perfect.” But that’s not realistic. It’s been really nice. It’s definitely given me a taste of what it’s like, and I’m going to work hard in the offseason to get back here next year for sure.

GETTING TRADED  Obviously, you don’t expect it, just being in Low-A rookie ball with the Rays. When it happens, it just kind of hits you. You’re like, “Oh, I guess I’m on a new team now.” You don’t really know what to expect coming into that next spring, because it was in the offseason. Both organizations are really good—good to their players and great for developing players—and it’s been a fun experience and a fun ride so far. I look forward to spending many years here.

THE NEW GUYS  Justin Grimm [came] over and those guys from the Rangers, Kyle Hendricks. [There are] a few guys I’ve met that came over from a few different organizations. It’s really not that different. You come into a locker room, and there are a bunch of guys getting ready to play a game. It’s not like you’re going to go haze them or not talk to them. They’re a part of the team now, they’re part of the organization, and they’re here to help the team win. So you’ve got to treat it as, “We’re all working together to be a part of something that will grow into wins.”

REALIZING POTENTIAL  You work hard at any level, and you just hope to be seen. [My opportunity] happened by chance. I started pitching and gaining some velocity by working out at [Chemeketa Community College in Oregon], and that really helped me along the way. I wasn’t ever really serious about it until that first scout card from the Astros’ regional scout out there. I called my mom and told her, “This thing could turn out to be a real goal for me.” After that, it was just putting my head toward the right things and working hard to make it to pro ball.

SAFETY FIRST  I played football until eighth grade. At the time, I hadn’t quite hit the growth spurt. I hadn’t hit puberty. I was just kind of in an awkward stage in my life, and I didn’t know how I was going to be in high school. So I called it quits and stuck to baseball, where size doesn’t matter too much and I wasn’t going to get thrown around.

From the Pages of Vine Line: 2014 Minor League Prospectus, Ready to Break Out

Duane-Underwood

Duane Underwood has one of the highest ceilings of all the Cubs arms. (Photo by Scott McDaniel)

For many Chicagoans, February means cold weather. At Vine Line, it’s all about the Cubs minor league prospectus. In the February issue, fans can check out frequent contributor Sahadev Sharma’s player breakdowns for more than 45 of the organization’s top prospects, from teenagers like Eloy Jimenez to elite talents like Javier Baez. This is our final online installment. For more information, pick up the February issue of Vine Line.

Also from the Series:
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – The Elite
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – Close to Big Leagues
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – International Impact
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – Pitching Depth

READY TO BREAK OUT

Not every name in the Cubs system sits atop prospect lists like Javier Baez and Kris Bryant. But the best organizations not only have top talent and balance, they also have players not everyone has heard of who have a chance to blossom into very good major leaguers.

Whether they’re lacking the flashy tool that garners headlines or are just a little raw and haven’t yet put everything together, there are definitely names worth watching in the Cubs system. And many of these prospects could become much more familiar to fans over the next nine months.

STEPHEN BRUNO
DOB: 11/17/1990
POSITION: 2B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: .362/.436/.478 (19 GAMES)

There’s no two ways about it, this kid can flat-out hit. With a front-to-back stroke, Bruno uses the whole field, attacks the fastball and has the ability to stay on the breaking ball. Unfortunately, his season ended early with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. If not for that, it wouldn’t have been a surprise for Bruno to hit his way up to Double-A.

He likely won’t be ready by Spring Training, but the hope is he’ll be able to get on the field early in the minor league season. When he does, expect him to once again hit line drives all over the field.

ROCK SHOULDERS
DOB: 9/26/1991
POSITION: 1B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: KANE COUNTY
2013 STATS: .258/.352/.445 (117 GAMES)

The man with the best name in the system mashed at a tough park for hitters in Kane County early on, earning organizational Player of the Month honors in April. A full-figured kid, Shoulders is more athletic than many realize. He played third base as an amateur, and there are those in the Cubs organization who believe he could have some value in the outfield.

With a winning combination of patience and power, the bat will always be enticing. Now it’s a matter of developing versatility on defense or finding one place to play and really focusing on it.

DUANE UNDERWOOD
DOB: 7/20/1994
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: BOISE
2013 STATS: 54.1, 4.97 ERA, 36 K, 27 BB (11 STARTS, 14 APPEARANCES)

Outside of C.J. Edwards and perhaps Pierce Johnson, Underwood may have the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the organization. Unfortunately, he came into Spring Training in less-than-ideal shape, which led to inconsistent performance throughout the season. The hope is that he learned his lesson and will prepare appropriately this offseason so he can come into the spring ready to take off.

As far as the stuff is concerned, when he’s on, the fastball is 92-96 mph, and he has a knee-buckling curve. But consistency is an issue, and he didn’t get as many whiffs as you’d expect from a guy with his stuff.

“He’ll come into next season as a 19-year-old, and we’re just waiting for the light to come on,” McLeod said. “His upside is as high as anybody we’ve got.”

CHRISTIAN VILLANUEVA
DOB: 6/19/1991
POSITION: 3B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: TENNESSEE
2013 STATS: .261/.317/469 (133 GAMES)

Already a big league-caliber defender at third, Villanueva showed some pop for the first time in his career in 2013, hitting 41 doubles and 19 home runs. There are some swing mechanics the Cubs will continue to work on with him, and they’d like to see him improve his plate discipline as far as controlling the strike zone. But Villanueva has the profile teams look for at third base, especially if the power output remains at the level he showed this season. Defensively, his hands and feet are as good as anyone’s.

DAN VOGELBACH
DOB: 12/17/1992
POSITION: 1B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: .284/.375/.449 (131 GAMES)

Vogelbach grew up playing baseball in the Florida sun, so the cold late spring in Kane County was a shock to his system this past season. Many balls that normally would have cleared the fence or fallen for doubles became easy outs. However, his struggles in a cold and rainy April helped him grow immensely as a player. By the end of the year, his numbers were solid, and he’d done enough to earn a promotion to Daytona.

The bat has always been a plus for Vogelbach, as he shows light-tower power and can drive the ball to all parts of the field. Of course, the biggest question will always be his body and whether it will keep him from sticking at first base. While he’ll never be mistaken for slender, there have been some positive signs of late.
“He was probably the best I’ve ever seen him look [in November for instructs] in Arizona,” McLeod said.

McLeod pointed to next season as being a huge year for Vogelbach. He’ll have to continue to stay in shape and prove his bat can carry him to the bigs.

GIOSKAR AMAYA (2B) – Amaya had an up-and-down 2013, but he has bat speed, power for a second baseman, solid plate discipline and the speed to steal a base here and there. He’s a very hard worker, but he can be too tough on himself from time to time. Still, he’s an intelligent ballplayer with tools and plus-makeup.

SHAWON DUNSTON JR. (OF) – Dunston grew up a lot in 2013 after struggling early in his professional career. He had a strong first half in Boise but fell off toward the end. He has all the tools, drew a lot of walks and can steal bases. The Cubs are working on his bat path, as Dunston tends to get a little pull-happy.

KEVIN ENCARNACION (OF) – Encarnacion hit for average and power, drew walks and stole bases in a strong year at Boise. He’s a switch-hitter with a corner-outfield profile. Though he was a little old for the Northwest League, his confidence improved this season after a strong performance. He shows a fluid swing with a very good idea of the strike zone.

DUSTIN GEIGER (1B) – This streaky, big-bodied power hitter mashes lefties and holds his own against righties. Geiger should move into a hitters’ park in Tennessee next year, so he needs to keep putting up offensive numbers and improving defensively.

JACOB HANNEMANN (OF) – Hannemann was a surprise third-round pick in last summer’s draft. He flew under the radar because he hadn’t played for a few years due to a Mormon mission and commitment to the BYU football team. He has a strong left-handed bat and a good feel for the strike zone. From a tools standpoint, he’s a dynamic guy with tremendous speed, a Jacoby Ellsbury-type body and athleticism. He’s raw because of limited playing time, but the Cubs are betting on his upside.

CARLOS PIMENTEL (RHP) – Recently named the Dominican Winter League Pitcher of the Year, this strong-armed reliever has proven to be a tough match-up. He’s a short-arm guy, and hitters often have a tough time picking up the ball. He has been up to 94 mph with the fastball, which he complements with a slider and a solid change-up. His command and control can waver, but he’s a pitcher who gives opponents an uncomfortable at-bat.

IVAN PINEYRO (RHP) – Acquired in a trade with the Nationals for Scott Hairston, Pineyro is a strike thrower with an impressive change-up. He’s not a stuff guy, but the belief is he can end up at the back end of a good major league rotation.

—Sahadev Sharma

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