(Photo by Stephen Green)
If you watched baseball in the 1980s, the name Rob Deer definitely means something to you: gigantic swings, titanic home runs and a whole lot of strikeouts. The 52-year-old Deer spent 11 seasons in the big leagues, several as the teammate of Cubs manager Dale Sveum in Milwaukee, before becoming the Cubs first-ever assistant hitting coach. So how does a noted free swinger who led the NL in strikeouts four times in his career preach patience and a good approach to Cubs hitters? It’s about doing what he says, not what he did. For the June issue of Vine Line, we talked to the new hitting coach about coming to Chicago, hitting home runs and teaching young hitters the right way to do things.
THE BEGINNING I had a couple of opportunities with some other major league clubs. It just so happens Robin Yount and I were hanging out one day, and I tried to get one of the managers’ numbers because there was word that another team wanted to interview me. So we called Dale [Sveum] and asked if he had the number for the other manager. Dale got it for me and asked what I was doing … and he just said, “Well, I didn’t know you were looking to do that, because we’re thinking of hiring a second assistant coach.”
SECOND IN COMMAND If you’re doing this by yourself, you’re there at 11 or 12 o’clock in the afternoon [for a night game] going over scouting reports, just doing all the things you have to do. Then you’re having drills on the ﬁeld, having drills in the cages. There are 12 guys who have to get work in every day. It’s going to help alleviate the workload and the time. I’m surprised more teams haven’t done it. I think they will in time.
DO AS I SAY People ask me, “How does a big swing-and-miss guy, who hit home runs and didn’t hit for a high average, teach hitting?” But I say, “Do as I say, not as I did.” I would never talk about the way I hit. I was a free-swinger. They paid me to hit the ball over the fence, so I made my living doing that. I talk about a two-strike approach, I talk about hitting the ball to all ﬁelds, and I never, ever mention hitting home runs. That’s just a result of something that happens that’s perfect. Everything comes together. You can’t go up there looking to hit home runs.
REWARD SYSTEM The greatest reward is being able to give a player knowledge that turns his career, or his season, or his day, around. That, to me, is way more gratifying than getting a hit in the big leagues or hitting a home run. When you can change somebody’s career or you can help somebody prolong their career by something that you [give them], it’s a great feeling.
FEELING AT HOME The ﬁrst day I got here, we took a cab and drove by the ballpark and took pictures. There’s something about what this city is about, what the fans are about. I’ve seen people walk down the streets with Cubs jackets and jerseys and shirts. [There are] billboards. The airports are full of stuff. If you can’t play anymore, you’d love to coach here or manage here. This is baseball. This is what it’s supposed to be like.
To read the complete interview with Deer, pick up the June issue of Vine Line, featuring an interview with Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts, available now at select Jewel-Osco, Walgreens, Meijer, Barnes & Noble, and other Chicago-area retailers. Or subscribe to Vine Line today.
Most people who throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field worry about just getting the ball to home plate. Former Scrubs star John C. McGinley worried about getting the proper movement on the pitch. The character actor and big-time sports fan has been gracing screens big and small for more than 20 years. He recently played iconic broadcaster Red Barber in the movie 42 and was on hand at the Friendly Confines for Jackie Robinson Day on April 16.
To read the entire interview, pick up the June issue of Vine Line.
In an era in which professional sports owners tend to make news for all the wrong reasons (see: Loria, Jeffrey) or are faceless corporations that acquired their team as an asset in a larger deal (see: Liberty Media), Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts is something of a throwback. He has always seemed more like a fan than a high-powered, cold-hearted executive. Perhaps that’s why he relates to Cubs fans so strongly. For the June issue of Vine Line, we spent a few days following Ricketts around the Friendly Confines to get a sense of what it’s like to be the Cubs owner for a day.
(Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)
Single-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee are two clubs in the organization that house some of the Cubs’ best prospects. A pair of those players recently received special mention for their solid play throughout the month of May.
Daytona Cubs infielder Dustin Geiger was named the organization’s Minor League Player of the Month while Smokies right-hander Kyle Hendricks was named the Minor League Pitcher of the Month.
In 27 May contests, the 21-year-old Geiger batted .307 in 101 at-bats with three homers, eight doubles and 23 RBI. He also accumulated a .368 on-base percentage largely due to his 11 walks while slugging .495. He was named the Florida State League’s Player of the Week from May 13-19. On the year, the 2010 24th round pick has a .310/.368/.495 batting line (AVG/OBP/SLG) with six home runs, 15 doubles, 21 walks and 47 RBI (second in the FSL). He’s committed just one error in 45 games at first base.
The 23-year-old Hendricks went 4-1 with a 1.95 ERA in five May starts for Tennessee, fanning 25 batters in 32.1 innings. His 1.02 WHIP was tied for fifth in the league during that stretch. On the year, Hendricks is 5-2 with a 2.47 ERA with 48 strikeouts in 58.1 innings. The right-hander came over from Texas in the July 31 Ryan Dempster deal. He’s gone 13-12 with a 2.72 ERA in 56 career minor league games.
What would you do if you owned the Chicago Cubs?
Think about that for a second. The Cubs are yours. Wrigley Field is yours. You even own part of Comcast SportsNet, one of the networks that broadcasts the games. So what would you do with all that power?
Would you fade into the woodwork and quietly spend your money like Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, or would you be a Mark Cuban/George Steinbrenner-type boss, who fancies himself part of the team and is constantly making waves?
On its face, it sounds like a dream job. Obviously, you’d be fabulously wealthy, enormously powerful, and could stage a fully televised, 3 a.m. Wiffle Ball tournament with all your friends at the Friendly Confines if you felt like it.
I recently got close enough to sniff what it might really be like to own the team for a day. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not about to reveal the unspeakable horrors of owning a professional ballclub. But it’s one thing to be a fan, love the team and offer a snarky Twitter suggestion every once in awhile about what the Cubs should do with Carlos Marmol. It’s entirely another to be responsible for the fate of the franchise and the happiness of millions of fans around the globe.
“I feel a ton of pressure,” said Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts. “I literally wake up at three in the morning and feel like 15 million fans are standing on my chest. I feel a lot of responsibility. But we know what we’re doing is very important to a lot of people, and we have to get it done right.”
Almost every Cubs fan has an opinion about the Ricketts family and how they have managed the team since they took over in 2009. And we all know the three stated goals for their stewardship: bring a World Series championship to the organization, restore Wrigley Field, and be a good neighbor in the Wrigleyville community. But most people can’t really conceptualize what it would be like to walk in Tom Ricketts’ shoes.
For the June issue of Vine Line, I got the opportunity to hang out with the Cubs’ owner for a few days during the St. Louis series in mid-May. Now, this may surprise you, but I don’t get to hobnob with baseball owners all that often. Needless to say, it was an eye-opening experience.
In the interest of full disclosure, Vine Line is owned by the Cubs (and it therefore behooves me not to anger the man who signs the checks), but I still came away from my time with Ricketts impressed. He’s surprisingly relatable and a pretty fun guy to watch a game with (and that’s not just because we could go anywhere in Wrigley Field we wanted).
While Ricketts doesn’t exactly relish the attention he receives—“hopefully, once we get through the restorations, the stories have nothing to do with the owners,” he said—he does take time during every home game to walk the stadium and talk with the fans. What other owner does that, in any sport?
This month, we try to give you a sense of what it’s like to be the Cubs’ chairman for a day, and look at some of the things Ricketts has accomplished—and is still working to accomplish—with the Cubs.
One thing he has done is facilitate the hiring of an energetic new coaching staff that is committed to bringing a winner to the North Side sooner rather than later. We sat down with Cubs hitting coach James Rowson to talk about the team’s early offensive struggles and what he’s trying to do to help the hitters improve in his second year on staff.
We also look at versatile, new Cubs swingman Carlos Villanueva and what he brings to the team. In a profession in which ego often runs unchecked and hyperbole is the norm, the right-handed pitcher is disarmingly honest about his abilities and what he can—and can’t—do on a baseball field.
If you want to learn more about every aspect of the Cubs, from the rookie leagues to the owner’s suite, subscribe to Vine Line and follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.
And, for the record, the owner’s suite is quite comfortable.
(Photo courtesy Vanderbilt Athletics)
Pitching guru Derek Johnson has spent years working with talented pitchers at various levels of the collegiate game. This offseason, the 41-year-old signed on to be the Cubs’ minor league pitching coordinator, which means he is ultimately in charge of all the arms in the organization from Triple-A on down. For the May issue of Vine Line, we talked to Johnson about coaching the college game, adapting to the professional ranks and cutting through communication issues with international prospects.
It’s no secret there has been some serious turnover in the Cubs organization since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer left the Red Sox and Padres, respectively. A year into the Chicago job, one of their most important—though unheralded—new hires is minor league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson.
Johnson’s experience working with young pitching talent stretches back almost 20 years to the end of his career on the mound as a college pitcher. Johnson, 41, won All-Mid-Continent Conference honors at Eastern Illinois University before moving into coaching at the school in 1994. He followed that up with three seasons at Southern Illinois and four at Stetson before taking over the pitching program at Vanderbilt in 2002. There, he won pitching coach of the year in 2004 and national assistant coach of the year in 2010.
After a long, introductory spring with the Cubs in Arizona, Johnson took a little time off before diving back in with the minor league affiliates.
“The first week after Spring Training, I got to go home and recover,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot of fun now [that the season has started], because I’m going to see some things I didn’t get to see in Spring Training and interact with players some more—and coaches too. That’s probably more my style, and more what I was hoping to do when I took the job.”
His role with the organization is a marked departure from his coaching career at Vanderbilt, where he oversaw the development of Rays ace David Price, Braves lefty Mike Minor and four other eventual first-round picks. As a coach, it was easy to be hands-on, working directly with every pitcher in his care. As the farm system’s pitching coordinator, numbers and geography dictate he doesn’t get to see every hurler every day. Plus, he’s not just working with the players, but also with the coaches at every level.
“I spend a lot of time with video. I’m not used to it yet,” Johnson said. “I spent a really long time having my hands on everything [as a coach], and now I have to adjust to that—trust the pitching coaches that are at the different affiliates, trust their judgment and get an idea of what they’re seeing to put that together with my thoughts to come up with some sort of a plan. It’s a very different kind of challenge.”
He’s also working with a more diverse collection of talent than in college, including pitchers from Asia and Latin America, and communication can be difficult. But Johnson is excited about the challenge.
“There can be a communication gap, so it can be a challenge to get your point across,” he said. “At the same time, it’s easy, because you get great young men from all different walks of life, backgrounds, speaking different languages, with different maturity levels. … I challenge myself to communicate better, to put things more simply to help communicate to players the direction we want to go.”
With so many pitchers under his care, Johnson has to deal with an inevitable bottom-line question: Who is he most excited about in the system? A week into the minor league season, Johnson refused to pick favorites.
“I saw them all in Spring Training, and I saw them all on video before that,” he said. “I like our nucleus. We have some guys who are a little bit under the radar, where things could really happen for them. At the same time, it’s a little bit hard to tell that without first being at the affiliate, watching them play, watching how they go through the season, how they fight through adversity. So it’s early to say, but I think we’ve got a lot of guys in the system who can turn the corner.”
This spring, manager Dale Sveum talked at length about the newfound depth in the Cubs system. That depth was tested early when the team suffered a rash of injuries and endured some early bullpen struggles. But the addition of players like Carlos Villanueva and Nate Schierholtz—and the emergence of Welington Castillo and Dave Sappelt—has made the Cubs a much more versatile team. During the first homestand of the season, Vine Line managing editor Gary Cohen talked to the skipper about dealing with injuries, platooning in the outfield and restoring Wrigley Field.
To read the full interview, pick up the May issue of Vine Line, on sale at select Chicago-area retailers. Or subscribe to Vine Line, the official magazine of the Chicago Cubs, for just $29.95.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
When Nate Schierholtz pulled on a Phillies uniform in mid-2012, it was the first time in his career he played for an organization other than the Giants. The third baseman turned outfielder appeared mostly as a pinch-hitter or late-inning defensive replacement in San Francisco before earning some regular playing time in 2010 and 2011. The 29-year-old veteran, who has six seasons and a World Series ring under his belt, came to Chicago in hopes of finding a more regular role in Wrigley Field’s right-field corner. If he keeps up his current pace, he should be just fine. In 23 games with the Cubs, Schierholtz has hit .284/.338/.527 (AVG/OBP/SLG) and played stellar defense. For the May issue of Vine Line, we talked to the first-year Cub about what it was like leaving the Giants, how he spends his free time and winning the big one.
GIANT CHANGE It was a little bit of a shock putting on a new uniform for the ﬁrst time [after getting traded from the Giants to the Phillies last season]. But after that, it’s still the same game, and you make new friends and settle in. I feel more comfortable this year than I did when I was traded last year. It’s a different situation, and I have a better plan than in the past. I’m looking forward to getting a better opportunity.
COMING TO CHICAGO It started with talking to Dale [Sveum] about my situation and the opportunity to play more than I have in the past. There were a lot of factors that went into it. I loved coming to Chicago. It was always a city I looked forward to coming to. I loved playing at Wrigley. There’s a lot of history behind it, and I know [the Cubs] have great fans. I just couldn’t say no.
TEAM MORALE [Sveum] basically told me the Cubs are turning things around. [He said] they had a lot of good starting pitchers, and it sounded like they were as motivated as ever to win. That’s what makes baseball fun, so I wanted to come here and help the team win.
GAME ON During the offseason, I have a lot of hobbies—ﬁshing, hiking, a lot of outdoors stuff. I also like to work on cars. But during the season, I spend most of my time with my wife. She’s kind of a video gamer, so sometimes we play video games, and we like going to movies. She actually beats me, so I probably have to spend a little bit of my spare time practicing.
IN IT TO WIN IT Winning the World Series gave me a lot of experience in high-pressure situations. Once you get there, you realize how hard and special it is to be there. What I took away was a need to get back. Even in the playoffs, the atmosphere is so different, and it’s so much fun. That’s why we play the game. Once you are there, it’s something you are dying to get back to.
To read the complete interview with Schierholtz, pick up the May issue of Vine Line, featuring the Cubs core, available now at select Jewel-Osco, Walgreens, Meijer, Barnes & Noble, and other Chicago-area retailers. Or subscribe to Vine Line today.
Please don’t judge me, but …
I grew up an Atlanta Braves fan. Look, there wasn’t much I could do about it. I moved a lot when I was younger and lived in Atlanta in the early ’80s. With each subsequent move, I was able to follow the Braves because of TBS.
Here’s what I remember about the Braves from my younger days—1981 was a miserable, strike-shortened year; 1982 was a blast until the postseason (a phenomenon I didn’t realize would repeat itself throughout my adulthood); 1983 was solid; and then depression set in.
The Braves were 80-82 in 1984, and that was by far the best it would get until the franchise began its unprecedented run of regular-season success in 1991. The late ’ 80s saw a wretched slide that reached its nadir in 1988, when the team went 54-106.
So why am I recounting this sad chapter from my childhood? I see a lot of similarities between what the Braves were doing in the late ’80s/early ’90s and what the Cubs are doing now.
In 1990, the Braves went 65-97, good for last place in the NL West, 26 games behind the Reds. In 1991, they shocked the baseball world by winning 94 games and getting all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. Since then, they’ve been one of the most stable and consistently excellent teams in pro sports.
But the Braves’ worst-to-first run didn’t come out of the blue. In fact, the team probably wasn’t as bad as its record in 1990. If you look back at the roster, it included names like Steve Avery, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Mike Stanton, Ron Gant and David Justice. All those players had some important things in common—they were young, untested, and between the ages of 20 and 25.
When we talked to Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein for our January issue, something he said resonated with me.
“There are two ways to really improve your team in a hurry from one year to the next,” Epstein said. “One is sign impact players or bring in impact players from outside the organization. The other is to have a wave of young talent that’s approaching their prime years at the same time.”
The Cubs might not shock the world this year, but they’re building that wave of talent—players who can grow together, win together, lose together, and ultimately figure things out together as they move into their prime years.
One of these waves is at the major league level now in Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Jeff Samardzija and Edwin Jackson. Epstein calls these players the “Cubs core.” And the organization is developing another strong group in the low minor leagues with high-ceiling players like Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Pierce Johnson and Dillon Maples.
In the May issue of Vine Line, we talk to the Cubs core about what it means to them to play in Chicago and how they plan to turn potential into major league success. One thing is clear—no matter what the record said at the end of 2012 or what it says right now—these guys do not buy into the presumption that the Cubs are years away from winning.
We also check in on the new minor league affiliate that is helping develop the next wave of top talent. After eight years with the Peoria Chiefs, the Cubs switched their Midwest League affiliate to Kane County, located about 40 miles from Wrigley Field’s doorstep. There are huge benefits to having a farm team nearby, and the Cougars and Cubs both hope to take advantage of that in 2013 and beyond.
Finally, we look at the other side of the Cubs equation—the fan base. This season, the team has developed an advertising and marketing campaign based on the fierce dedication and undying passion of the best fans in the game. We talk to the stars of the new ads and the Cubs front office to find out how it all came together.
Here’s to a brighter future.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Other Pitching Profiles:
After several blown saves and countless squandered opportunities, it’s no secret that the Cubs bullpen has struggled to finish leads handed to them from the starters this season. In the first 20 games, the bullpen has recorded a 4.53 ERA. In comparison, the five starters boast a 2.97 ERA, which ranks third in MLB. With attention shifting to the late-game pitchers, the last of our pitching profiles highlight Michael Bowden and Hector Rondon, two young former prospects who earned a place in the 2013 ‘pen.
Drafted by the Red Sox in 2005, Michael Bowden stayed with the club until he was traded to the Cubs last April. The 26-year-old posted a 2.95 ERA last year, but has struggled this season, owning a 4.53 ERA in 10.1 IP this season. Though Bowden has shown some trouble on the mound, his current 1.16 WHIP is solid, even for a reliever, and the right-hander shows promise with mostly steady improvement since entering the majors.
Hector Rondon came to the Cubs via Cleveland as a Rule 5 Draft pick in December. Though injury issues and Tommy John surgery limited the 25-year-old’s appearances in the past, the Venezuelan native has proven to be a leader in the ‘pen since his April 3 debut. In 5.2 IP, Rondon has held his ERA to 1.59 with a 12.7 K/9. If recovery doesn’t interfere with his performance, Rondon could prove to be a major asset to Cubs relievers—especially after roster changes and injuries at the start of the season.
Bowden and Rondon are two of several pitchers profiled in Vine Line’s 2013 Pitching Preview, available in the April issue, on sale now.
2012 Stats: 39.2 IP, 19.4 K%, 9.7 UBB%, 1.24 WHIP, 2.95 ERA
Pitches: 4-Seam (92), Slider (83), Splitter (85)
Plan of Attack: Bowden, a Winfield, Ill., native and former top prospect, pitched effectively in 32 appearances between the Cubs and Red Sox last season. He is predominantly a fastball pitcher, but he can add or subtract a few mph when he needs it. He will also cut the pitch to get glove-side movement. His splitter is an effective weapon, but it was a take-or-whiff pitch last year. He uses his slider in all counts, particularly versus righties, and is an extreme fly ball pitcher, which could come into play when the wind is blowing out at Wrigley Field.
2012 Stats (AA/R): 7.0 IP, 9 K, 2 BB, 4 H, 1 ER
Pitches: Fastball (91), Cutter, Change (88), Slider (80)
Plan of Attack: Rondon is a former top prospect in the Indians system—he was their minor league pitcher of the year as recently as 2009—but he has had multiple elbow issues, including Tommy John surgery and a fractured elbow. He pitched well in Venezuela over the winter and has succeeded as high as Triple-A. Rondon has very good command of a four-pitch mix, including a fastball, cutter, change and short breaking ball. As a Rule 5 pick, he has to stay on the 25-man roster all season or be offered back to the Indians.