Cubs to host 10th Annual Race to Wrigley run

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

Ready, set, go! The Cubs will host the 10th Annual Race to Wrigley Charity Run on Saturday, April 25, outside Wrigley Field. In recognition of the Race to Wrigley’s 10th anniversary, the Cubs will introduce an additional race, the “Let’s Run Two” 10K.

Registration for the races is open now through April 24. Participants can register at racetowrigley.com.

The Race to Wrigley 5K begins at 8 a.m. and the 10K will start at 8:20 a.m. The course routes will allow race participants to run through the streets of the scenic Lakeview neighborhood before returning to the Friendly Confines.

Proceeds from this year’s race will benefit Cubs Charities, which provides increased access to sports opportunities and targets improvements in health, fitness and education for those at risk. Cubs Charities will once again donate all proceeds from personal fundraising to support critical care needs for pediatric patients in Chicago. The top fundraising team will receive tickets to the April 29 Cubs game against the Pirates and be recognized during a pregame ceremony on the field. The top overall individual fundraiser will receive an autographed Cubs jersey and be recognized on the field prior to a Cubs home game. Runners who raise more than $1,000 will receive all of the prizes from each fundraising level as well as the opportunity to run a post-race victory lap with their names displayed on the new video board.

ATI Physical Therapy, the Official Physical Therapy Provider of the Chicago Cubs, will provide post-race massages and lead the group in a pre-race stretch.

“The Race to Wrigley 5K has become a tradition in the Lakeview community attracting runners from Chicago and beyond. We are excited to celebrate 10 years of promoting fitness and raising money for deserving causes in our community,” said Cubs Charities Vice President of Development Connie Falcone. “We especially look forward to growing the race with the introduction of the first ever 10K at Wrigley Field.”

The registration fee for the 5K fun run is $40 and the chip-timed 5K is $45. The chip-timed 10K fee is $55. Packet pickup will be available at the Cubs Store and a downtown Sports Authority location. Registrants will receive details closer to the event.

All participants will receive a race shirt, refreshments and one beverage (Budweiser, Bud Light or Pepsi product) courtesy of Anheuser-Busch and Pepsi at the post-race celebration, and the opportunity to purchase discounted tickets to the April 29 game at Wrigley Field.

2015 Under Armour All-America Baseball Game returns to Wrigley Field

The 2013 Under Armour All-America squad (Photo by Stephen Green)

Under Armour announced early Thursday that that the 8th-Annual Under Armour All-America Baseball Game will be played at Wrigley Field on Aug. 15. Additionally, Baseball Factory announced the first thirteen players selected to the roster for the game, which will air nationally and showcase 40 of the nation’s elite high school baseball players.

The showcase is the culmination of a four-day premier baseball experience, highlighted by a formal workout for major league scouts and a home run derby, all while under the tutelage of some of the game’s best players and coaches. The players are selected by a committee of Baseball Factory scouts.

“The Under Armour All-America Baseball Game provides the world’s best high school baseball players with a premier opportunity to compete alongside tomorrow’s superstars in a major league environment,” said Jim Bel Bruno, senior category director of baseball at Under Armour. “Now in its eighth year, the Under Armour All-America Baseball Game is a prime example of Under Armour’s commitment to the growth of the game and the empowerment of athletes at every level, from grassroots to the Major Leagues.”

All thirteen selected players will be 2016 high school graduates, including OF Seth Beer and RHP Anthony Molina, who participated in the 2014 showcase and now join a small, elite group of two-time Under Armour All-Americans. Over the past weekend, six of the thirteen selected players participated in the Under Armour All-America Pre-Season Tournament at the Cubs’ Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona. The following is the roster of the first thirteen players who have committed to compete in the 2015 Under Armour All-America Game:

Seth Beer – OF, 6’3, 195, Lambert High School, GA
Austin Bergner – RHP/IF, 6’4, 180, Windermere Prep High School, FL
Bo Bichette – SS, 5’11, 200, Lakewood High School, FL
Garrett Gooden – RHP/IF, 6’4, 205, St. Pius X High School, GA
Herbert Iser – C, 6’3, 207, Killian High School, FL
Austin James – IF, 6’1, 180, Bloomingdale High School, FL
Carter Kieboom – 3B, 6’2, 180, Walton High School, GA
Anthony Molina – RHP, 6’5, 180, West Broward High School, FL
Riley Pint – RHP, 6’4, 190, St. Thomas Aquinas High School, Lenexa, KS
Cole Ragans – LHP, 6’4, 190, North Florida Christian High School, FL
Blake Rutherford – OF, 6’2, 185, Chaminade High School, CA
Alex Speas – RHP, 6’3, 185, McEachern High School, GA
Graeme Stinson – LHP, 6’5, 245, Norcross High School, GA

“We are thrilled to announce the first group of players selected to this year’s Under Armour All-America Game,” said Steve Bernhardt, executive VP at Baseball Factory and chairman of the Under Armour All-America Game selection committee. “Every year we scout worldwide to find high school players to represent Under Armour and Baseball Factory. A talented group, we expect this class to continue the tradition of greatness that Under Armour All-Americans have demonstrated in previous years.”

Current Cubs pitcher Jacob Turner competed in the 2008 game while prospects Addison Russell (2010), Billy McKinney (2012) and Dylan Cease (2013) have also participated. Since the game’s inception in 2008, 185 of the 208 draft eligible players from the Under Armour All-America Game were selected in the MLB Amateur Draft including 51 first round picks.

For more information on the event, please visit baseballfactory.com/AllAmerica.

Cubs 6- and 12-game packages on sale now

(Photo by Stephen Green)

On Wednesday, the Cubs announced an opportunity to purchase Cubs 6-Game Packs and Cubs 12-Game Flex Packs, allowing fans a chance to secure themed tickets throughout the season.

The multi-game packages feature tickets for Opening Night against the Cardinals, summer Friday games, weekend bobblehead promotional games and Family Sundays. These packages also include rivalry matchups with the White Sox and Cardinals, as well as Interleague matchups with rare visits from the Indians, Tigers and Royals.

The packages are on sale now at cubs.com/packs.

Cubs 6-Game Pack
The Cubs 6-Game Pack provides a choice of four different pre-selected, six-game plans, with each option tailored to different fan interests. Options include the “Summer Six Pack,” featuring six Friday games from late May to early September; the “Family Day Pack,” featuring Sunday home games with promotional giveaways and opportunities for kids 13-and-under to run the bases post-game; the “Rivals Pack,” featuring matchups with the White Sox and NL Central foes; and the “Bobblehead Pack,” featuring weekend bobblehead promotional games.

Cubs 6-Game Packs are available in the reserved seating bowl of Wrigley Field. Fans must order the same number of tickets for each of the six games in their package. Prices start at just $128 before service fees and City and County amusement taxes for either a “Rivals Pack” or “Family Day Pack” in the Upper Deck Reserved Outfield, with other prices varying based on plan and location.

Cubs 12-Game Flex Pack
Fans looking to customize their ticket package can choose the Cubs 12-Game Flex Pack. This package allows fans to select from two marquee games, such as Opening Night vs. the St. Louis Cardinals or summer weekend dates vs. the White Sox, plus 10 additional games from each month throughout the season. Overall, fans can select from 49 total games when purchasing the Cubs 12-Game Flex Pack.

“The Cubs and our fans have enjoyed an offseason full of exciting additions to the team, and we’re pleased to now offer Cubs 6-Game Packs and Cubs 12-Game Flex Packs for anyone looking to secure tickets to their must-see matchups before single game tickets go on sale March 6,” said Cubs Vice President of Sales and Partnerships Colin Faulkner. “We think fans will be excited about the quality of games and diversity of the plans available through these multi-game packs.”

Tickets may be purchased online through cubs.com/packs, by calling 1-800-THE-CUBS (1-800-843-2827) or by speaking with the Fan Services team at 773-388-8270.

Cubs Winter League Recap: 1/20/15

Willson Contreras came up big as a pinch-hitter to help his team earn a victory Tuesday. Here are some notes from yesterday’s action around the Caribbean:

Venezuela

  • PH-1B Willson Contreras replaced Wilson Ramos and recorded two hits, including a two-run homer in the fourth inning, to boost the Tigres de Aragua to a win over the Tiburones de La Guaira in the round robin portion of the Venezuelan postseason. However, with just two games remaining, the Tigres have been eliminated from postseason play. The top two teams advance to the final, and Aragua can finish no better than third.

Puerto Rico

  • SS Javier Baez went 0-for-4 as the Cangrejeros de Santurce fell to the Indios de Mayaguez in the first game of Puerto Rico’s championship series.

Dominican Republic

  • CF Junior Lake finished 0-for-4 in the Estrellas de Oriente’s 5-3 loss to the Gigantes del Cibao. The best-of-nine championship series is now tied at two games apiece.

Now Playing: An inside look a the 30th annual Cubs Convention

Over the weekend, the Cubs hosted the 30th annual Cubs Convention, a sold-out event at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers in downtown Chicago. Thousands of fans got the opportunity to mingle with current, former and future North Siders, in addition to getting autographs and taking in a wide variety of informative panels. Vine Line was there for all the action, from the opening ceremonies, to Cubs Bingo, to Friday Night with Ryan Dempster.

And in case you were unable to attend the three-day spectacle, catch up on what you missed with our panel recaps:

2015 Cubs Convention Panel Recaps:

Ricketts Family Forum
Joe Maddon and His Coaching Staff
#Cubs Social
Down on the Farm
30 Years of Cubs Convention Memories
Cubs Business Operations Update
Meet Cubs Baseball Management
Friday Night with Ryan Dempster

From the Pages of Vine Line: Checking in on the new minor league affiliates

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South Bend Cubs players will be able to relax here before and after games. (Photo courtesy of the South Bend Cubs)

At the conclusion of the minor league season, the dance begins. Player development contracts between major and minor league teams expire, often resulting in a frantic search for new partners.

This fall, the Cubs were the belle of the ball with three openings, all at the Single-A level. And it’s easy to see why, as the organization has one of the most widespread and devoted fan bases in all of sports.

“With the Cubs on WGN for all those years, every TV in America was able to pick up Cubs games,” said Director of Player Development Jaron Madison. “In almost every area of the country, you’ll find Cubs fans.”

The team chose two of its new affiliates for the usual reason: they offered better facilities. After striking a deal with the Short-Season Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs will now assign newly drafted players and young prospects to a state-of-the-art complex on the University of Oregon campus.

The Emeralds share PK Park with the school, which reinstated its baseball program in 2010. Set in the shadow of the Ducks’ football facility, Autzen Stadium, PK Park has all the latest training and clubhouse facilities big league organizations need.

“One area we don’t mess around with is player development,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “Our success will be impacted in large part by how we develop our young players and get them ready for the big league level.”

One of the tougher decisions the Cubs faced was moving the Low-A affiliate from Kane County, located just 40 miles down the road from Wrigley Field, to South Bend, Indiana. Madison said the organization was satisfied with the Kane County partnership and was ready to re-up, but South Bend impressed Cubs executives with a list of improvements, including upgrades to the turf, video room and clubhouse at Four Winds Field, and the construction of a new strength-and-conditioning facility. The team even rebranded itself, changing its name from the South Bend Silver Hawks to the Cubs.

“The owner there was committed to wowing the Cubs and really making us a part of their community,” Madison said. “They went all out with the presentation [and] with all the upgrades they were willing to make.”

As for the change to High-A Myrtle Beach, the organization wasn’t necessarily swayed by facilities. It was more about the weather. Cubs fans who have climbed atop the third-base bleachers at Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach, Florida, know they can get a great view of the marina and downtown area. They also get a good look at advancing storm fronts blowing in.

In the last three seasons, the Daytona Cubs have suffered 33 rainouts, second most in the Florida State League to Lakeland’s 34.

“It puts a lot of strain on the players to have to play rescheduled games on their days off and back-to-back doubleheaders,” Madison said. “It’s no fault of anyone in Daytona. When Myrtle Beach became available, we knew we’d get more consistency with the weather and more getting our games in on time.”

The decision to move ended a fruitful 22-year relationship with Daytona that culminated in back-to-back years of record attendance at Jackie Robinson Ballpark. It was easily one of the longest affiliations in professional baseball.

But player development isn’t about looking back. It’s about the future, and Madison likes where his prospects will be headed for at least the next several years.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Celebrating 30 years of the Cubs Convention

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The 30th Cubs Convention is in the books. In the January issue of Vine Line, we looked back at how the convention got started and some of the event’s highlights from the last three decades. Check out our recaps of the 2015 panels here on the blog. 

Have you ever been to bingo?” asked Jim Oboikowitch, laughing. “You will think it is insanity. It is so fun. It is so packed.”

Out of context, you’d be hard-pressed to find many 30-somethings who would refer to a retirement center game-night staple as insanity. But Oboikowitch, manager of game and event production for the Cubs, has a very different take on things. His job puts him in charge of the most entertaining weekend of the offseason for North Side fans—the annual Cubs Convention—and one of the event’s centerpieces is always Cubs Bingo.

So while matching numbers and letters might sound a little tame or old-fashioned on the surface, the reality is Cubs fans will do just about anything to grab a game card and get in on the action. And the man in charge has a front-row seat for all the excitement generated by one of the convention’s most popular events.

“[In 2013] at the Sheraton … one door kind of cracked open, and people just started pouring through,” Oboikowitch said. “[Manager of Broadcast Relations] Joe [Rios] was about to get tackled by about 1,000 people. They come running in, looking for a table and grabbing the bingo card. There’s not a seat to be had. They’re sitting in the aisleways.”

For nearly 30 winters, masses of Cubs fans from all over the country have congregated at a downtown Chicago hotel to take part in a weekend’s worth of activities centered around the team they spend their summers supporting. Where else can fans and players share an elevator ride and spark up a conversation? How often do young players get the opportunity to receive instruction from major league talent in the batting cages? And is there any other place you can ask Cubs owner Tom Ricketts a question and snag Gary “The Sarge” Matthews’ autograph in the same day?

While attendance at modern conventions generally nears five digits, there was a time when the club was unsure of what to expect turnout-wise, so they intentionally limited admittance to roughly the number of people who can fit in today’s bingo hall. But that was almost 30 years ago, when the Cubs became the first professional sports team to ever attempt a fanfest and well before the event became an annual institution. Now it’s safe to say they probably underestimated themselves—and the passion of their Cubs-crazed fan base—in those early days.

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The Cubs were hot. In the offseason following their magical playoff run of 1984—the same campaign that snapped a 39-year postseason drought—John McDonough was looking for a way to grow the brand. The then-Cubs sales, promotion and community services director, now the president and CEO of the Chicago Blackhawks, wanted to capitalize on the new wave of fandom that had swept over the club and made its players the talk of the city.

“McDonough’s idea was ‘Hey, this is a great brand. It’s something everyone knows, but we’re only being seen six months out of the year,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig.

One of McDonough’s first orders of business was to gather a large group of die-hard fans willing to share their ideas for how the organization could grow. They met at the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Illinois, and there McDonough collected opinions on how the Cubs could maintain relevance, even in the winter months. This led to the idea of a convention celebrating Cubs fandom.

Sports memorabilia shows were at their peak during the 1980s, which gave McDonough a solid framework for his own concept. After more than a year of brainstorming, the initial Die-Hard Cubs Fan Club Convention opened its doors from Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 1986, at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. The event was the first of its kind—no other professional sports team had ever dedicated an offseason weekend to celebrating its fans.

“At this time, card shows, autograph shows, those were pretty common,” Hartig said. “But the idea of actually having people mingle with the players and [offering] hitting clinics, that was all new.”

McDonough had no idea what to expect and kept event promotion to a minimum. One of the few places the convention was marketed was in the small “Odds and Ends” section of the Chicago Tribune. The blurb, which was published nearly a year before the event took place, stated what the weekend would entail, when it would take place and where it would be held.

“The only thing they told [fans] was that this wasn’t going to be a card show. This was not going to be an autograph show. This was going to be interactive,” Hartig said. “You’re going to see the players walking out of the hotel. You’re going to see them in the elevator. You’re going to see them at the restaurants. … It was going to be all-access. You were going to be with the players all weekend.”

Nearly 3,000 fans—roughly 1,000 more than expected—packed into the Hyatt in late January 1986 to witness something totally revolutionary. Ryne Sandberg and Rick Sutcliffe hosted hitting and pitching clinics, panels included the coaching staff discussing topics like Spring Training and injury recovery, and President and General Manager Dallas Green was made available for a Q&A session with fans. This was all in addition to memorabilia auctions, raffles, vendor booths and autograph opportunities.

The convention’s special guests included most of the 1985 team and Hall of Famers like Ernie Banks. For many of the players, showing up to that first event was a no-brainer. They understood the work McDonough had put in and immediately grasped what this could mean to the organization in the long haul.

“When [McDonough] created that … as a player I remember, quite honestly, we were open arms because we trusted him,” said former Cubs outfielder Bobby Dernier. “The idea is ‘Look, it’s good for the team, it’s good for the organization, and it’s good for the former players—on top of being good for the current players. So, really, it’s good for everyone.’”

Though Cubs regulars probably enjoy more interaction with their fan base than most other professional athletes—just ask the outfielders about their relationship with the Bleacher Bums—it’s still unusual for them to spend a lot of one-on-one time together. But the athletes quickly learned that the interaction with fans was one of the most enjoyable parts of the weekend.

“Most players would feel that it’s more flattering than nerve-racking,” said former Cubs outfielder Gary Matthews Sr. of the constant flock of supporters. “You’ve got to understand the Cubs fans.”

And for players who didn’t already understand Cubs fans, the convention served as quite the introduction. Former Cubs catcher Michael Barrett came to the team in December 2003 after spending his previous six years playing in the fan-starved Montreal Expos organization. Rios, who was in charge of the convention prior to Oboikowitch, still remembers the backstop’s reaction to the reception he received at his first opening ceremony.

“[Players] get quite a rush from the applause they get from the fans, especially the new ones,” Rios said. “I think of Michael Barrett, who played in Montreal, who played in front of [so few fans], and to come to the convention and have that many or more, and be sweating when they announce it—he was freaked out, and that’s still kind of cool to see.”

Mingling with the fans quickly became one of Dernier’s favorite parts of the weekend. The former center fielder said he’s missed only three of the 29 previous conventions, which puts him “in the 95th percentile” in terms of attendance.

“To be quite honest, I’ve gotten a lot of endearing experiences because I did take the time,” Dernier said. “Whether I sat with a bunch of 13-year-olds at the lobby there or I sat at the bar and had a cocktail with a dozen Cubs fans ready to watch the Bears at the playoff game that afternoon, they were enjoyable experiences.

“Whatever position I’ve been in, to get to come, it’s not a hard arm twist because all it is is just a giant hug waiting to happen.”

For the people in charge of the convention, knowing the players—the de facto entertainment—have an open mind about the event makes their jobs easier and allows a weekend with a high potential for chaos to run a little more smoothly.

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Though the Convention spans only three days in January, it takes a lot longer than that to plan and organize the festivities. Oboikowitch said even during the baseball season, the convention is in the back of his mind. As the 162-game campaign is winding down, he’s in meetings and throwing ideas against the wall for what the next fan weekend will have in store.

“We’re always talking with fans throughout the season and through the offseason about what they might want to see, who they want to see, what activities they want to take part in,” Oboikowitch said. “We start putting together a road map of how we want to program Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”

This road map is a jigsaw puzzle of panels, events, autograph signings and meet-and-greets. When it all comes together, it looks like a work of art, but getting things to that point is a painstaking process.

The staff has to juggle player and personnel arrivals (many attendees come from out of town), make sure individuals aren’t accidentaly booked in two spots at one time, and provide fans the opportunity to attend must-see events like the opening ceremony and the Ricketts panel. Despite doing their best not to overschedule the program, Rios said forcing fans to make tough decisions is all part of the plan.

“One thing that fans should realize is we want to make it difficult for them to decide what to do,” Rios said. “Every hour of the convention, day or evening, has something going on. You can be getting five or six different autographs, you can be getting a photo of somebody, you can be in the interactive room learning about pitching, you can be in a seminar with one of our business teams talking about The 1060 Project. … You have to decide what’s important to you.”

But amidst all the commotion, while fans are making those red pill-blue pill decisions, one thing they seldom see is just how busy the players really are. They are constantly moving into private rooms for one-on-one interviews or doing special autograph signings for Cubs Charities.

“We do a lot of behind-the-scenes interviews with players that our broadcast partners will use during the season,” Oboikowitch said. “That’s where you get some of that footage for rain delays and for different pieces when you want to hear a player talk about Jake Arrieta’s season preview. So we do a lot of filming in that time.”

Perhaps the best indication that McDonough hit the ball out of the park on the first try is how little the convention’s format has changed over the last three decades. Certain panels have come and gone, venues have switched (the Hyatt from 1986-90, the Hilton Chicago from 1991-2012, the Sheraton Hotel and Towers from 2013-present), and there are fewer vendors today than in years past. But fans still get the chance to interact with their favorite players through seminars, clinics, autograph sessions and meet-and-greets, just like they did in 1986.

“I think what the fans really like, that I’ve learned from them, is that they just really like having that experience where they get to actually sit down in that little floor lobby with Anthony Rizzo, and he’s signing autographs for the kids,” Dernier said.

Of course, the planning committee is constantly learning from fans, and they fine-tune things every year. In 2015, the Cubs will add a second interactive instructional field with hitting tees and batting cages. They will also pay tribute to the 2007-08 NL Central champion teams with a panel featuring Ryan Dempster, Mark DeRosa, Bob Howry, Jacque Jones and others. Another panel will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the convention and will include regulars like Dernier and Matthews.

The goal is to improve the weekend every year, while still offering the panels and events fans have come to know and love. In other words, rest assured, Cubs Bingo isn’t going away anytime soon.

Cubs acquire outfielder Dexter Fowler from Houston

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Dexter Fowler brings much-needed on-base skills to the Cubs lineup. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty)

The Chicago Cubs today acquired center fielder Dexter Fowler from the Houston Astros for infielder Luis Valbuena and right-handed pitcher Dan Straily.

Fowler, 28, is a switch-hitter with a career .271 batting average (726-for-2,682) and a .366 on-base percentage in all or part of seven major league seasons with the Colorado Rockies (2008-13) and Houston Astros (2014). Per 162 games, Fowler has averaged 29 doubles, 12 triples, 10 homers, 19 stolen bases, 81 walks and a .419 slugging to contribute to a career .786 OPS. He is a career .299 hitter with a .391 on-base percentage when batting from the right side of the plate and a career .259 hitter with a .356 on-base from the left side.

The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Fowler batted .276 with a .375 on-base percentage—99 points higher than his batting average—and a .399 slugging percentage in 116 games for the Astros last season, his lone season in Houston following his offseason trade from Colorado. He drew at least 65 walks for the fourth season in a row (66). This is also a chance for Fowler to reunite with former Astros hitting coach John Mallee in Chicago.

Fowler has exclusively played center field since his first full season in the big leagues in 2009, when he finished eighth in National League Rookie of the Year voting, and his 57 triples since 2009 lead all major leaguers covering the last six seasons. He set the Rockies record for triples in a single season in 2010 (14) and again in 2011 (15), when he also recorded a career-high 35 doubles. Fowler set career bests in many offensive categories in 2012, including batting average (.300), home runs (13), RBI (53), walks (68, tied), games played (143) and OPS (.863).

A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Fowler was originally selected by the Colorado Rockies in the 14th round of the 2004 Draft out of Milton (Ga.) High School.

Valbuena, 29, batted .249 (119-for-478) with 16 home runs and 51 RBI in 149 games with the Cubs last season.  He was originally claimed off waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays on April 4, 2012. Valbuena is a career .229 hitter with 45 homers and 173 RBI in 576 games covering all or part of seven big league seasons with the Seattle Mariners (2008), Cleveland Indians (2009-11) and the Cubs (2012-14).

Straily, 26, is 13-12 with a 4.54 ERA (123/243.2 IP) in 48 big league appearances covering parts of three big league seasons with the Oakland Athletics (2012-14) and Cubs (2014). He was acquired by the Cubs as part of the trade that sent pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland for infielder Addison Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney.

2015 Cubs Convention: Down on the Farm

The Cubs’ minor league system is viewed as a powerhouse, with many calling it the best in baseball. Several of the top prospects—including Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Kyle Hendricks—made their Wrigley Field debuts last season, but who is going to get the call this year? Accompanied by top prospects C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, Director of Player Development Jaron Madison, and Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod close out the convention by giving some insight into the Cubs farm system. This is always one of the better panels, and this year did not disappoint.

Mick Gillespie, broadcaster of the Double-A Tennessee Smokies, is helming the panel and gives a quick intro. He also does Spring Training games with Len Kasper. Gillespie touts how this entire panel will soon be in the big leagues. These are the guys you’re paying to see in the minor leagues.

McLeod talks about his early days with the Cubs. He’s only three drafts in, but still feels really good about the type of players they’ve brought in. But it did take some last place finishes and difficult trades to make the Cubs top-ranked system happen. Russell wouldn’t be here if not for the Jeff Samardzija trade. The goal is to keep the talent flow going. There are great players at the top levels now, but they have to keep that talent coming.

Madison talks about how the process Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have has already  been successful in Boston and San Diego. Now it’s successful here. They’re not just looking for good players. They’re looking for good people, and they all feel great about the caliber of young players the Cubs have.

Edwards talks about being a 48th-round pick. He was not phased by that because he knew what he could do on the mound. His dad instilled in him how to play the game. He says his love of the game is what got him to where he is now. That plus dedication and hard work.

Johnson grew up around the game. His dad worked for the Padres. His mom wanted him to do homework when he was younger, but he joked that he didn’t need to do it because he was going to be a pro ballplayer.

Schwarber talks about the choice between playing football and baseball. He only had three baseball offers for college. He had more than that for football. Though he had a chance to play both sports at Indiana, he decided to commit to baseball because he loved it and didn’t want his academics to suffer by playing two sports.

Russell talks about the differences between the A’s and Cubs fan bases. The fans here actually pull for you, and there are a lot more of them.

Next comes the question-and-answer session with fans:

  • An Indiana alum asks Schwarber about the challenges about playing on the IU field. The entire field is artificial turf, including the mound. Schwarber says everyone seemed to like it, but it was tough for opposing teams coming in. But with the cold weather in Indiana, they could practice in almost any conditions.
  • Schwarber talks about helping build the IU program. The team was .500 when he got there, but they knew they were better than that. Eventually they got to Omaha and the national championship series. He says he loved the challenge there.
  • The next question is about Russell’s reaction to his trade to the Cubs. Russell was in Arkansas. He says he missed a lot of time with a hamstring injury, and was just settling in with his teammates. Next thing he knew, he was traded. He didn’t know what to think. Did the A’s not want him? But he talked to a few people, and they assured him this was a good thing. Now he’s very happy to be a part of what the Cubs are building.
  • A question about the upcoming draft. The Cubs are picking ninth. McLeod says they are evaluating the talent pool. It’s a strong college pitching draft and a strong high school draft. College position players haven’t really separated themselves yet. You have to let the season play out, but he feels confident the Cubs will get an impactful player.
  • How do you know when to bring a guy up, especially a newer draft pick? Top college hitters like Schwarber tend to succeed pretty quickly at the lower levels, Madison says. But they look at each guy individually. They all have strengths and weaknesses. They talk to each player about these things. The Cubs lay out what they expect each player to work on. The players know themselves better than anyone. “When they show you they’re ready, that’s when you have to reassess the player plans,” Madison says.
  • A high school player asks what each guy did to get noticed. “I grew out my hair,” Johnson says. It’s really about working hard and getting better, they all agree. Johnson and Russell went to showcases. Schwarber didn’t do many, but he thinks that’s why he didn’t have many college offers. Madison says they start to really look at players around their senior year of high school. Occasionally you can notice younger players when scouting older guys.
  • There’s a question about Gleyber Torres and Armando Rivero. How do they assess these guys? McLeod likes them a lot. Rivero has a good mid-90s fastball, strong slider and has had nothing but success so far. He’ll be in big league camp this year and will challenge for a spot in the Cubs ‘pen. But he’s not on the roster yet, so that might factor in. Torres just turned 18. He was a high-profile guy when they signed him. He’s a long way away, but he’s good. He’ll probably start in South Bend.
  • Which position would Schwarber rather play: catcher or outfield? Schwarber wants to catch. He’s played there all his life. He’s self taught and was doing a lot of things wrong. He got a crash course at Kane County, and it really clicked in. He loves catching, but you have to really like the position to be there.
  • Who are some under-the-radar players to watch? Madison says they have a lot of good guys who don’t get noticed because of the talent they have in the system. Victor Caratini is due for a breakout year. Jeimer Candelario has all the tools to be an impact third baseman, and they expect a big year out of him. McLeod says he expects one or two people from the Kane County staff this year to become major leaguers. He also really likes Bijan Rademacher and what he can do.
  • McLeod talks about the wonderful problem of having too many talented shortstops. You can never have too many good middle infielders. They just let these guys go out and compete, and it will sort itself out. Players will force them to make decisions, and that’s a good thing. McLeod talks about meeting Schwarber in college and asking him if he thought he could really make it as a catcher. Schwarber looked at him stone-faced and said, “It really *** pisses me of when people think I can’t catch.” They loved his confidence and knew he was their guy. He was not intimidated in the least by talking to Epstein and McLeod.
  • What’s the difference between college and pro ball? Schwarber talks about the difference in the schedules. You get a lot more days off in college. If you’re struggling, you have days off to work on your swing and go figure it out. In pro ball, you have to fix things on the fly because there are really no days off.
  • Who is your mentor/hero? Russell says his favorite player was Barry Larkin, but his idol is his dad. Or Bruce Lee. Schwarber most looks up to his mom and dad. He was outside every day hitting, and they helped him every day. His dad coached him and came to almost every game in college. Whenever things are going bad, they are always there for him. Johnson also credits his parents. They supported him and brought him to practices and games. He still talks to his parents after every game. Edwards also talks about his parents and his dad. He says he started throwing a baseball at 3 years old. When he was growing up, he admired Pedro Martinez the most.
  • What was your favorite team when you were younger? Russell didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up. He played outside. But he’d have to say the Red Sox, even though he’s from Florida. He was actually more of a football fan. He wears 27 partly because of Edie George. He loved the Tennessee Titans. Schwarber grew up near Cincinnati so he rooted for the Reds. Johnson’s dad worked for the Padres, so he grew up rooting for them. Edwards was a Red Sox guy because of Pedro and Manny. Madison lived in New York so he started with the Mets, but he transitioned to the Yankees. McLeod grew up in San Diego, so he followed the Padres and Chargers.
  • A question about Kevonte Mitchell. McLeod says he’s very interesting. He was drafted last year out of southern Missouri. He was a basketball player and is a tremendous athlete. He had a great first season in rookie ball, but he’s still a long way away. Still, he has a great body and a lot of talent. They were surprised by how well he controlled the plate this year.
  • How is the pitch clock in the minor leagues going to change how the game works and your approach? Edwards was in the Arizona Fall League, where they used it. It wasn’t a big factor for him. He moves quick already, but he thought it was more of a factor for relievers. If you’re in a rhythm, you should be fine. When things go wrong, it could be trouble. Schwarber says it will only affect someone if they are really, really slow, so it’s probably a good thing to speed them up.
  • Any failures you’ve had to overcome? Russell says failure is good, especially early on. He really struggled coming out of high school. You dig deep and learn from failure, and it ends up being a good thing. Schwarber struggled to get better as a catcher in college. The things that frustrate you are the things that drive you to get better and better. How you rebound from struggles defines you as a player, he says. You just can’t let failure get the best of you. Johnson talks about the injuries he had to struggle through last year. Edwards struggled in extended Spring Training too. He started questioning whether he really wanted to play baseball. But he knew he didn’t come from the west coast to the east coast to fail, he’s still riding that wave.

That’s it for our 2015 Cubs Convention coverage. We’ll be posting a video recap early next week. Thanks for following. Next stop: Mesa.

2015 Cubs Convention: 30 Years of Cubs Convention Memories

This year, the organization is celebrating the 30th consecutive Chicago Cubs Convention, dating back to “The First Ever Die Hard Fan Club Convention” from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2, 1986. This panel gives fans a chance to visit with some of their favorite Cubs of the past as they tell 30 years worth of stories and talk about what it’s like to come back to Chicago each January. The panel, hosted by Wayne Messmer, is comprised of convention regulars Bobby Dernier, Gary Matthews, Lee Smith, Rick Sutcliffe and Billy Williams.

This panel was actually more about reminiscing with a host of Cubs favorites from the 1980s than celebrating the Convention, but it was enjoyable hearing players recount stories about everything from Harry Caray to Ryne Sandberg the prankster.

The event started with a thank you from the players for the fan support and some recollections from Cubs Conventions past.

One of the highlights included when Sutcliffe explained how being a Kansas City guy, his lifelong dream was to play for the Royals. But after his first half season with the Cubs in 1984, his mindset changed largely because of the fan base. Sutcliffe then said he was part of a video that was used in the recruiting of Jon Lester. After the two talked at the convention, the newly acquired free agent said Sutcliffe’s portion about Cubs fans sold him.

Sutcliffe recalls the first Cubs Convention. ‘The phone call came from John McDonough, and this was really John’s idea. This was before sports-talk radio, this was before autograph sessions. … He really wanted to break down the barrier between fan and player.”  He also talks about Harry Caray being the first honorary chairman of the convention.

“Something that’s so awesome for me is that everyone remembers me as a Cub,” Smith said.

The panelists start talking about Smith in his playing days. A favorite story from Sutcliffe: After Smith beaned an opposing Mets hitter after a brawl, Smith puts down his glove and offers a challenge to the Mets’ dugout, and they back down.

Sutcliffe talks about the Cubs Convention. The people are still here. “For me, you just get another little piece of what Cubs fans are all about. They keep calling him the big red head, but you take that cap off and there’s no red hair.”

“We’re always in first place at the Cubs Convention,” Messmer said.

All of the panelists agree that what makes playing for the Cubs special is the fan base, and that really came alive when they played in 1984. “I played for a couple of ballclubs, but when I came through here, I have so many fans I remember on a first-name basis,” Smith said.

Next comes the question-and-answer session with fans:

  • A fan thanks Dernier for spending time with her kids years ago in the lobby and talking for hours.
  • Dernier told a story about a time they were in Montreal and Harry Caray said to him: “Even when ya stink, you look like you’re trying.”
  • A fan asked about the panelists’ time with Don Zimmer, and Sutcliffe recounted a story about how Zimmer, who had a tough time as a manager in Boston, emotionally thanked the 1989 team for their efforts. He said he was so disliked in Boston he couldn’t go out to dinner with his family. In Chicago, he was loved because of those guys.

That’s it. Down on the Farm with the Cubs minor leaguers is next on the schedule, and that will close out the 2015 Cubs Convention.

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