Results tagged ‘ From the Pages of Vine Line ’
(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
The 2016 Cubs are one of the deepest teams in baseball, but the thing that makes them so formidable is their versatility. And nowhere is that more evident than in the bullpen, where the Cubs have four swingmen capable of filling multiple roles. The following feature ran in the April issue of Vine Line.
Since the expansion of bullpen specialization in the 1950s and ’60s, most major-league relief corps have been constructed in a similar fashion. Teams tend to carry six or seven relievers, including a closer, an eighth-inning specialist, a seventh-inning specialist, a few set-up men and at least one long man. Often, that long man is a former starter no longer making the grade—the kind of arm teams feel most comfortable running out to the mound with a five-run lead or a five-run deficit.
But as Cubs fans discovered all throughout last season, the way manager Joe Maddon’s teams are put together is far from conventional.
The 2016 Cubs sprint into the regular season as one of the deepest and most formidable teams in baseball, with a unique mix of young stars at key positions and battle-tested veterans to help lead the way. But the thing that might make this group truly dangerous is its versatility up and down the roster—and that includes exceptional bullpen depth.
The Cubs do have an established closer in Hector Rondon and several talented set-up men with electric stuff, including Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm. But behind them, the club has a quartet of arms—Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren and Travis Wood—who can all start, relieve or do just about anything in between. All four pitchers came into professional baseball as starters, and they all have experienced success in that role. But each ended last season in the bullpen, and their versatility gives the Cubs a big weapon as the season wears on.
“It’s an unusual group in the most positive way possible in the bullpen, with the variety of multiple-inning guys that are also capable of closing games if you wanted them to and could also start games if you wanted them to,” Maddon said. “I think any manager would love to have those four guys to choose from, whether it be to fill the latter part of the rotation or to have at your disposal on a nightly basis. It’s all good stuff.”
Interest in versatility has been trending upward in baseball for years on the positional side. New Cubs acquisition Ben Zobrist became a legitimate major-league star by playing multiple positions and helped usher in the age of the super-utilityman. But until recently, there has still been a stigma associated with being a bullpen swingman. The typical narrative was that these pitchers couldn’t cut it as starters and didn’t have the stuff to be back-end relievers.
In recent years, big-league front offices have begun to see the value of versatility in the ’pen as well. Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Executive Vice President and General Manager Jed Hoyer have repeatedly spoken of needing eight or nine viable starters to feel comfortable heading into a season. Injuries and underperformance are almost inevitable, and teams need to protect themselves for those eventualities.
Now, in addition to an imposing starting five that includes 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, World Series champions Jon Lester and John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs have four pitchers who can easily slot into a starting role if necessary. And that doesn’t even include minor-league arms like Pierce Johnson, Dallas Beeler and others.
“If you look at this position just a couple of years ago, it had a totally different feel,” Richard said. “What people are starting to understand is that there’s value in the versatility. You see we signed Ben Zobrist, and people place so much value because he’s capable of doing so many things. That holds weight as a pitcher too, if you’re needed for a start or if you’re needed for multiple innings out of the bullpen or if you’re needed for a situational lefty with me or Woody. There’s value in that, and it’s neat to be a part of it.”
Plus, if the starter is shaky in a particular outing—and even Arrieta had an off day or two last season—the Cubs have several pitchers who can step in and provide long relief, without overtaxing the bullpen for the next day’s game.
The best example of this might have been the 2015 postseason. Going into the playoffs, both Hammel and Hendricks were struggling. The two pitchers made four combined starts between the NLDS and NLCS and didn’t last through five frames in any of them. Cahill, Richard and Wood all stepped up to log valuable innings and keep the Cubs’ hopes alive—and they were almost never used in the same situation twice.
“A team might be stacked and have the best rotation, and there’s always something that comes up, whether it’s a little nagging injury or a big injury,” Cahill said. “Depth helps out a lot. I think they figured out that starters can pitch out of the ’pen effectively. Me, Woody, Clayton, we’re all throwing harder out of the ’pen. It’s nice to have that versatility. I think we got more comfortable throwing in those later roles instead of just being a long guy when we first went to the bullpen. But if one of us is going well, you can just keep running us out there—one inning, two innings, three innings.”
Another major benefit of having so much versatility is that it offers Maddon more flexibility in how he can use his pitchers, which should reduce wear and tear on the starting rotation. The veteran skipper has always been cautious about overusing his arms, but with depth an issue last year and the team in position to make a deep postseason run, Maddon leaned more heavily on some of his guys than he might have liked.
In 2016, the Cubs should be able to go to the ’pen earlier if needed to preserve their starters and reduce the workload on some of their key high-leverage relievers, especially early in the season. As Maddon will be the first to tell you, he’s quite comfortable with any of his swing quartet closing a game or two in certain situations.
“We have a lot of talent, and that gives Joe a lot of flexibility with how he wants to use the bullpen,” Warren said. “He can say, ‘All right, I want to let this guy eat up three innings tonight,’ and we still have a long man the next night. You don’t have to make a move. It allows for that flexibility. You can throw just a matchup guy and then still have a long guy.
“I know in New York, we had a longer guy who pitched two or three innings. Once that guy pitched, it was almost like panic for the next day. ‘What if the starter goes down in the first? We’re screwed.’”
Pitching from the rotation and in relief are very different jobs that require different preparation. Just because someone has been a solid major-league starter doesn’t mean he’ll make an effective reliever, and a reliever who excels in one-inning bursts won’t necessarily remain effective in a second turn through an opposing lineup. To be able to do both well is an acquired, and impressive, skill.
“There are four days as a starter that you know you’re not going to pitch,” Warren said. “So you’re like, ‘OK, I got this. I’ve got running and lifting today. The next day I’ve got a bullpen.’ You have a set routine, whereas coming in from the bullpen, it’s ‘OK, I might have to pitch today, so I have to get up and have the same routine.’ You have to prepare yourself to pitch every day.”
You also can’t discount major-league egos. Most pitchers would rather start or throw in high-leverage, late-inning situations. That’s where the glamour—and, let’s be honest, the money—is. All four of the Cubs swingmen have spent most of their lives in a starting role.
In 2010, Cahill went 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA in 30 starts with the Athletics, earning a spot on the All-Star team. He’s logged six seasons as primarily a starter. Richard has two 14-win seasons under his belt in six years as a starter with the White Sox and Padres. Wood logged five seasons in the rotation with the Reds and Cubs and made the 2013 All-Star team before being moved to the ’pen in 2015.
Warren’s background is a bit different. He was a starter at the University of North Carolina and in the Yankees’ minor-league system, but pitched mainly in relief after getting his first real big-league shot in 2013. Injuries in New York forced Warren back into the rotation for parts of the 2015 campaign, and he made 17 starts, going 6-6 with a 3.66 ERA in the role.
When pressed, all of the Cubs swingmen say they prefer starting. But what makes them—and many other Cubs players—special is that their first priority is winning, and they’re willing to do whatever is asked of them in pursuit of the ultimate goal. Each took the move to the bullpen well, worked hard to master the new routine and came out firing.
“[Being willing to move around] goes with the background, the makeup on the individual,” said Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio. “That has a lot to do with the people we’re looking to pick up.”
Each pitcher also admitted to struggling a bit at first with moving back and forth and not being in a defined role, but that all comes down to personal preference. Cahill said going from a reliever to a starter is more difficult, while Warren said the exact opposite. Ultimately, it’s about mastering the different mentality needed for each job and making your pitches.
“Initially [going back and forth] can be difficult,” Richard said. “But you can’t think about it too much because when you do that, you put undue pressure on yourself. At the end of the day, it’s still executing pitches. If you’re going to be successful either as a starter or as a guy out of the bullpen, you have to execute pitches.”
Or, as Wood said: “It’s still 60 feet, 6 inches.”
MIXING IT UP
One thing that does—or can—change coming out of the bullpen is pitch mix. While most starters use three or four pitches to keep hitters off balance, top relievers really need only two plus pitches. One of the best closers in major-league history, Mariano Rivera, threw his cutter almost 90 percent of the time by the end of his career. Some relievers work with a larger repertoire, but most are fastball-slider guys.
This is one of the characteristics that makes the Cubs’ talented foursome unique.
“I think the advantage for us as a staff is that most of the guys who have been starters are three- or four-pitch guys,” Bosio said. “We’re bringing another pitch in there that normally a lot of hitters wouldn’t see—a third pitch or possibly even a fourth.”
Richard continued to use all of his pitches out of the ’pen, but in a much different ratio. Last season, throwing in relief for the first time, he used his fastball at an 81.3 percent rate, according to Fangraphs. That’s nearly a 20 percent increase over the previous season when he was a starter. He also gained a little velocity on his heater, as most pitchers do going from throwing multiple innings to a single frame.
“You’re a little more fresh,” Richard said. “The workload isn’t as heavy as a reliever, so naturally your intensity is able to kick up because you’re not throwing the sheer quantity of pitches. I think that’s where the velocity comes from is just having a rested arm.
“I’ve always leaned on my fastball pretty heavily. It may have been a little bit more this past year making that transition into the bullpen, making sure they’re seeing my best pitch, kind of feeling out, ‘Well, I don’t want to get beat with my third- or fourth-best pitch when I’m only facing one hitter.’”
Warren throws a fastball, slider, curveball and change-up, and he’ll use them all in about the same ratio whether he’s starting or relieving. For him, it’s more a matter of strategy. As a starter, he might hold a pitch back the first turn or two through the order, so he has something new to go to later in the game. As a reliever, he’s using all four pitches immediately because he likely won’t see batters a second time.
“I’ve always had a good feel for all my pitches,” Warren said. “I feel like that builds my strength because most hitters are used to seeing a reliever with two or maybe three pitches, but never really four. Most relievers usually have a really good fastball or a really good slider or breaking ball. I don’t have a put-away pitch, but I can use all my pitches to keep hitters off balance. I feel like it gives me an advantage if I can throw them all.
“Now, there might be one day where maybe I’m casting my curveball or something, so for one inning, I might get rid of my curveball and stick with fastball, slider, change-up. That happens, but the hitters don’t know that.”
The other thing pitchers moving from the rotation to the bullpen need to prepare for is the hike in adrenaline. Starters get a chance to ease into games and aren’t necessarily pitching in high-leverage situations all the time. Coming out of the bullpen, anything can happen. You might be called on to start a clean inning, but you also have to be ready to come in with the bases loaded and the game on the line.
In Game 3 of last season’s NLDS versus the Cardinals, the Cubs took a 5-2 lead into the sixth inning with the series knotted at 1-1. Arrieta quickly gave up two runs on a Jason Heyward homer and then struck out two Cardinals hitters before plunking Brandon Moss. Maddon called to the bullpen for Richard, who quickly induced Kolton Wong to ground out on a 93-mph fastball to end the threat and maintain the Cubs’ lead.
Richard was followed by Cahill and Wood, who combined for a scoreless seventh inning before turning the game over to Strop and Rondon.
“I kind of like not knowing because you’re always on your toes,” Cahill said. “You’re always into the game because you just don’t know.”
Of course, there are some drawbacks to coming out of the bullpen, especially for a well-rounded player like Wood.
“I do miss hitting quite a bit,” said Wood, who hit .215 with seven home runs and 22 RBI in his first three Cubs seasons as a starter. “I don’t get the same opportunities to come in and pinch-hit. I don’t get the at-bats on starting days, so that was a big thing. I do miss it. I still enjoy it, so I work on it. I don’t want to let it slip away. I keep it toned in case it’s needed.”
If the Royals proved anything with their World Series title run in 2015 it was that the postseason is all about powerful bullpen arms. Last year, they had the ability to shorten games with their dominant back-end pitching. While the Cubs ’pen is constructed differently, it could be similarly effective. One thing is certain: Few teams, if any, can match the depth and versatility the North Siders have in their relief corps. And for a manager who loves to get creative with the way he utilizes his players, it could be a perfect match.
“It’s got to be great for Joe having those tools to be able to use in different situations,” Richard said. “When you’re only able to do one thing, it really makes decisions a little bit more difficult for your manager. If you look through the pitchers, we have so many guys who are talented on so many levels and that can be used in different situations, it’s got to help.”
Photo by Stephen Green
Joe Maddon and his players are clicking as the Cubs have won 10 of their last 11 games. Part of the reason for that success is that Maddon and the front office have been on the same page since he was hired in November. The following can be found in the August issue of Vine Line.
Too often, the marriage between field manager and front office goes from bliss to blisters before the honeymoon cruise returns to port. With both sides intent on stressing their points, everyone stresses out, creating irreconcilable differences not even a championship can cure.
But you don’t need a marriage counselor to certify the relationship between first-year Cubs skipper Joe Maddon and his bosses, President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Executive Vice President and General Manager Jed Hoyer, is built to last.
“We all understand no one person has all the answers,” Maddon said. “The most important thing is that nobody has to be right. It’s just about getting it right.”
Epstein and Hoyer, both 40 when they hired Maddon last fall, felt secure enough to bring in a manager 20 years their senior. And Maddon, who was 60 at the time, welcomed the opportunity to work with and learn from aggressive, young leaders, as he had in Tampa Bay with Andrew Friedman.
“They’re all way beyond me when it comes to [intellect],” said the typically self-deprecating Maddon. “But I really like being pushed and expanded.”
The Cubs skipper may know what to say, but a yes-man he is not.
Consider the Spring Training dialogue over the future of 22-year-old prospect Javier Baez. Maddon felt the struggling young hitter could continue to develop in the major leagues under the tutelage of the Cubs coaching staff. Epstein and Hoyer advocated more Triple-A seasoning. The latter view ultimately prevailed, but the two sides moved on together as a unified front.
“Our talks are always wide open,” Maddon said. “No one is worried about someone else’s feelings. Nobody worries about whose idea something is.”
Such is the case when mutual respect reigns. Maddon signed on knowing Epstein and Hoyer captured World Series titles with Boston in 2004 and 2007. For his part, Maddon managed low-budget Tampa Bay to four playoff berths in nine years, including a losing World Series appearance against Philadelphia in 2008. In that season’s ALCS against Boston, Maddon left tire tracks on Epstein and Hoyer as his resilient Rays eliminated the BoSox in seven games.
Before the 2004 season, the front-office pair nearly hired Maddon—then Mike Scioscia’s bench coach with the Angels—to manage their Boston squad. Instead, they tapped Terry Francona, and Maddon didn’t get his managerial shot until 2006 with Tampa Bay.
Still, Epstein and Hoyer never lost sight of the man with the black horn-rimmed glasses. When a contractual exit clause made Maddon a free agent last fall, the astute Cubs executives snatched him up.
Maddon’s passion for helping develop talent is well documented, but he also thrives on partnering with young, modern-thinking executives. Former Rays GM Friedman was just two days past his 29th birthday when he gave himself a present and hired Maddon to manage a team that had averaged 97 losses in its first eight years of existence.
Maddon recognizes in Epstein and Hoyer the same qualities he appreciated in Friedman.
“These guys are cut from the same intellectual cloth,” Maddon said. “Conversations with them cover everything. I might be way out here on a subject, and they bring me back with a thought I hadn’t even considered yet. And sometimes I do the same for them. We have a common goal.”
Epstein and Hoyer, after employing two less-accomplished field generals in their first three Cubs seasons, appreciate Maddon all the more. Secure in his leadership skills, they’re free to tackle issues like player procurement and international markets while leaving day-to-day communications with players and the media to the manager. Moreover, they no longer feel obliged to micromanage the use of young pitchers as a means of protecting their assets.
“Their questions are really good, and I enjoy well-thought-out questions,” Maddon said. “But they do respect what I’ve done in the past, and that includes, to a large extent, the developing of young players.”
Epstein praises Maddon’s ability to meld talent of varying backgrounds and experience. As for bedside manner, even the manager’s toughest messages are delivered with positive prefaces and epilogues.
“We’ve made the usual young mistakes and mental mistakes all developing clubs make,” Epstein said. “It’s a credit to Joe and his staff that it’s usually cleaned up within a day. He doesn’t get bogged down in mistakes or let them bother him or the atmosphere around the club.”
Suffice it to say Cubs management trusts Maddon with the organization’s crown jewels.
“Any time you can improve from within, it’s the most efficient way to get better,” Epstein said. “Joe and his staff help our players relax and get better. When we bring in a player, we know he’ll be attended to in the proper way. We’re thrilled with the way players have grown, and the identity of the team has been an obvious strength.
“We haven’t accomplished anything yet, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t proud of the team and having a lot of fun.”
May the honeymoon never end.
—By Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo participated in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati. The 25-year-old has become the leader both on and off the field and is doing so with a relaxed and positive attitude. The following story can be found in the July issue of Vine Line.
He has been seen with an empty bubblegum bucket on his head as a rally cap and does a “bear dance” in the dugout after home runs. But he’s also the first to reprimand one of his Cubs teammates whenever it’s necessary and has become the captain of the infield. In his youthful, exuberant way, Anthony Rizzo is already the leader of the Cubs at just 25 years old, and his teammates are taking notice.
“He sets the example of how we want to play baseball on an everyday basis,” Cubs veteran catcher David Ross said of Rizzo. “For me, he’s obviously the most valuable player on our team, bar none. He’s the center of our lineup, and he jokes around out there and has fun. He’s learned how to be ‘the guy,’ and I think it’s been nice for him to have some veteran presence around him so he sees what professionals are.”
Ross is new to the Cubs this year, but he’s heard how Rizzo stepped up in the second half of last season.
“Whether that’s maturity or just finding your stride in the game, he’s done it,” Ross said. “He may be one of the most unappreciated guys, in my mind, not knowing how good a player he was. He is a very, very good player—and young still.”
But the fact that Rizzo is a leader certainly doesn’t mean he’s boring. The Florida native, who has been near the top of NL leaderboards in on-base percentage and on-base plus slugging all season, likes to have fun and is often the ringleader when it comes to postgame celebrations or picking music for batting practice. So what’s different for Rizzo this season?
“It’s the comfort of being here in this organization,” he said. “I feel like I’m really here. This is my home. This is kind of all I know now, the Cubs, the city of Chicago. I’m all in. I’m invested all in, from top to bottom.”
The investment he’s made goes beyond spending six months playing at Wrigley Field every year or having his Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation host events in Chicago. He thought he would stay with the Red Sox when they drafted him in 2007. Then, he figured he’d call San Diego home after he was traded there. But now he has a long-term contract that could keep him in Chicago through the 2021 season, which means he can settle down as much as an eager-to-win young athlete can.
“It’s just loving the situation, being comfortable with where we’re at, having Joe [Maddon], having the front office, and really being in the same place for three, four years—there’s that comfort,” Rizzo said.
Doing his homework
Rizzo and Maddon first met at the manager’s Italian restaurant, Ava, in Tampa last December, when Rizzo and a friend, pitcher Casey Kelly, had dinner there. Maddon kept bringing platters of food and bottles of wine as he got to know his All-Star first baseman.
“The conversation was a lot about philosophically what I think and how I like to do things,” Maddon said. “He listened a lot. From him to me, I got that he was pretty mature for his age and a guy who understands his role within this organization and within the game of baseball.
“I think he understands the bigger picture too. He wants to win, and he’s a guy who embraces a more free-spirited approach to life and the game. We’re on board with the same thing there.”
In parts of five big league seasons, Rizzo has earned a reputation as someone who will do anything he can to improve his game. And that includes much more than just taking extra cuts in the batting cage and studying video of opposing pitchers.
“I constantly pick guys’ brains. I’m constantly talking to [Jon] Lester about the playoffs and David Ross and [Jason] Motte,” Rizzo said. “My big thing is when people who are older than you and have been there and done it and tell you something more than once—and you hear from different sources all the time—it’s usually right. I try to take all that information and process it, and try to pass it along now.”
And the veterans learn from Rizzo too. On the road, Rizzo, Ross and strength coach Tim Buss have a daily routine in which they go to a gym to work out and then grab breakfast. Who started it?
“I’m jumping on his program,” Ross said. “That’s the kind of example he sets. He’s fun to be around. He’s easy to talk to. He asks good baseball questions. I enjoy talking baseball with him—and we talk about everything. He genuinely wants to learn and make himself better for the betterment of the group, not just himself. That’s fun for me. It’s fun for me to be a part of and talk about and give some of the lessons I’ve learned over my career.”
Give Rizzo’s parents, John and Laurie, credit for the player’s positive, life-affirming attitude.
“You’ve got to have fun,” Rizzo said. “That comes from my parents, living it up. We play a game of baseball, but it’s a lot of fun. We’re going to make this as fun as we can possibly make it. We only have a short window to play this game. Everyone in here has fun, and that’s what the game is all about. It’s just like when we were kids.”
That youthful enthusiasm has likely helped Rizzo relate to rookies Kris Bryant and Addison Russell in a way some of his older teammates, like the 38-year-old Ross, cannot.
“That’s what you need to do as a leader is relate to all of your teammates,” Ross said. “[Rizzo] does a very good job of that. He can be silly, fun and young, and he also can be mature and professional.”
Rizzo makes an effort to reach out to everyone on the team. This offseason, he called Starlin Castro a few times to check up on the shortstop when he was in the Dominican Republic. On off days during the season, Rizzo and Castro often eat together. And if something needs to be said to one of the Latin players, Rizzo will do that too.
“He’s not afraid to say anything to anybody,” Castro said. “I tell him, ‘If you see me do something wrong, tell me.’ I’ll do the same thing.
“When he’s a little bit struggling at the plate, he’ll tell me, ‘I can’t hit right now.’ In San Diego, he went 0-for-4 in the last game [of a late-May series], and he said, ‘Man, I can’t hit right now.’ I said, ‘Don’t tell me that. You’re the best hitter here.’ I said, ‘If you tell me that again, I’ll get mad at you.’ We wake up every day with one goal—to come here and have fun and help the team. We know that together we can do some special things with this team.”
Rizzo and Castro dismiss the idea that their importance to the club is somehow based on the contract extensions they both received in 2013.
“It’s more the comfort. I feel this is my home,” Rizzo said. “It feels good. It feels good to be part of something where you feel they’re committed to me, and I’m committed to the team and the city.”
Learning on the fly
Years ago, when Lester was coming up with the Red Sox, he would shadow older players and talk to them about preparation. That’s where he learned about the ups and downs of the game.
“Then, when you get put in situations where you’re depended on, whether it’s leading or performance or whatever, you know who you are as a man, you know who you are as a baseball player,” Lester said. “It makes those things easier.”
During his first few years in Chicago, Rizzo didn’t have many proven veteran players to lean on. Now, the first baseman finds young players looking to him as a leader on an upstart Cubs team.
“[Rizzo and Castro] didn’t have anybody [to guide them], and, at the same time, there’s a lot of expectations,” Lester said. “I definitely wouldn’t want to have been in their shoes, but saying that, they’ve done a great job. Riz has done a great job of commanding the respect, commanding everybody’s attention as far as what he does on a day-to-day basis.”
Lester first met Rizzo shortly after the first baseman was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008. Rizzo, the Red Sox’s sixth-round pick in 2007, was playing for Single-A Greenville at the time and was in Boston to be examined. But Lester said that meeting didn’t give him a clear impression of who the youngster really was.
“Just the little I’ve seen and the little I saw back then, there’s a huge jump,” Lester said of Rizzo’s growth as a player and as a person. “It was one of those deals where you either swim or you sink. I know we’re talking about Riz, but I go back to [Castro] too, because they are kind of in the same boat. There was no, ‘Help me, help me.’ It was, ‘I’ve got to figure this out, or I’m going to go home.’
“Riz has done a great job, and to see where he’s at now as far as being the central figure in this clubhouse, that’s a lot for a 25-year-old. He’s done a great job with it, and he continues to do a great job with it.”
While even the veteran players view Rizzo as a leader, he laughs at the idea that Ross could have anything to learn from him.
“Anything he learns from me, it’s one-fifth of what I’m learning from him,” Rizzo said. “I constantly ask him stuff and pick his brain. He holds me responsible for the infield, and I take that responsibility. It’s little things that no one notices, like turning routine double plays.”
Maddon has said some of the Cubs’ mistakes are a product of youth. Look at the infield—Rizzo, Russell, Castro and Bryant are all 25 years old or younger. But no Cubs player, Rizzo included, is willing to use that as an excuse.
“The cool thing about our game is when we’re not playing, we can talk about age, but when you get on the field, nobody really cares,” Lester said. “It’s all about performance. It’s all about numbers. You look at Mike Trout. He’s 21, 22, and back-to-back runner-up [Most Valuable Player] and then wins an MVP. Age doesn’t define you as a player.
“I think Riz has learned a lot over the last couple years playing here. You can see it. It’s fun to see guys mature on their own. As they mature, they get plans and they believe in their plan, whether it works or not. They’ll still have that plan the next time. It’s not a superstition. It’s not all these weird baseball quirks. It’s his plan and what he wants to do and what he thinks is right.”
Rizzo does have a daily routine. He’s not eating chicken before every contest à la Wade Boggs, but he will work out in the morning prior to night games. He calls the sessions “therapeutic” and said they help him “get the blood flowing.” He also plays a little game at first base during batting practice with coach Mike Borzello that helps him work on his throws. And Wrigley Field fans know Rizzo always ducks into the batting cage less than two hours before game time so he can take some late swings.
Those things help him stay on track for the physical part of the game, but what Lester and others really praise is his mental maturity.
“You can see his confidence,” Lester said. “Obviously, when you have Addison and [Bryant] coming up and a lot of hype on this team, now he gets to be one of those guys who gets to go play. It doesn’t seem like he has the everyday pressure like Kris and Addy do. I think that’s nice for him, and he gets a little break.”
Rizzo is still learning, which means he has plenty of room to grow. For example, watch when Maddon goes to the mound to make a pitching change. Rizzo does.
“When Joe comes out—and I’ve noticed this—he’s so calm,” Rizzo said. “He comes out, [it’s] no big deal, even if we’re in a tough jam. He comes out, says we’re going to do this and this and get the win. It’s comforting to see how he handles it.”
There was an early-May game in St. Louis in which Ross was catching. In the late innings, the Busch Stadium fans were roaring and the music was blaring, and Rizzo noticed Ross happily bouncing and bobbing to the tune.
“That made me feel loose, and I tried to feed that to Addy,” Rizzo said.
If there is one thing the Cubs don’t always agree on, it’s music. Rizzo seems to favor house music before games, and he’s involved in creating the batting practice mix. But he’ll also put on some mellow Motown hits on Sunday mornings.
“I’m a fan of all music,” Lester said. “I like [Rizzo’s picks] occasionally, and we’ll leave it at that. He’ll say the same thing about mine. He’s not the biggest country fan. Every once in a while, he’ll listen to some.”
Remember, Rizzo is still young and learning. He can only get better.
Photo by Stephen Green
Thirty-one years ago today, Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg had arguably the most memorable game of his career. “The Sandberg Game” not only put the second baseman on the baseball map, it gave the 1984 Cubs the spark they needed to reach the postseason.
Impressive single-game performances by unproven players should generally be taken with a grain of salt. Over a long season, even the most below-average hitter or spottiest of spot starters occasionally has his day. Mario Mendoza, whose name is synonymous with offensive mediocrity, had one four-hit game in his major league career.
Sometimes, though, there is a perfect storm of circumstances that make a single-game performance stand out above the 162-game grind—a performance that launches a Hall of Fame career and helps define a player’s legacy.
On June 23, 1984, Ryne Sandberg had such a performance. His 5-for-6, seven-RBI outburst certainly looks impressive on paper, but his day was about much more than the stat sheet.
Start with the fact that he took the game’s elite closer deep twice, tying the game in both the ninth and 10th innings. Throw in the setting (a beautiful Saturday at Wrigley Field) and the matchup (an afternoon showdown against the NL East rival Cardinals). Consider the game’s viewership as NBC’s nationally televised Game of the Week. Finally, pile on the fame it brought Sandberg, the playoff boost it gave a struggling organization, and the sustained steady bump in attendance at Wrigley Field, and the Sandberg Game was a seminal moment in both his career and in the enduring popularity of the Chicago Cubs.
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“While the performance was great, the reason it resonates was that the context was so different,” said broadcaster Bob Costas, who was in his third year on NBC’s baseball broadcast team when he called the Sandberg Game in 1984.
The broadcast landscape was dramatically different in the mid-1980s. Sports on TV were not the 24-hour, 365-day-a-year industry they are today, and cable had not yet taken hold, so most viewers had limited options when it came to what they watched. The National Game of the Week on NBC was a big deal to both baseball and its fans. Every Saturday, the network arranged a premier game to be broadcast in an afternoon time slot, which meant it was often the only matchup going, as most clubs played their weekend games at night.
“The Game of the Week really was the Game of the Week then,” said Costas, who admitted the Sandberg Game was his favorite regular season broadcast of his illustrious career. “No matter how well a game is telecast today, there’s no one game outside of the postseason that rivets everyone’s attention.”
This combination of factors lent Wrigley Field a Monday Night Football-type atmosphere, with a huge audience tuning in and ratings reaching as high as 10, a number today’s postseason games struggle to match. Even with the WGN Superstation broadcasting Cubs games to viewers across the country, there was still reason to get excited about the weekly NBC tilt.
“There’s only one National Game of the Week on Saturday,” said former Cubs catcher Jody Davis, who started behind the plate that day. “Of course, you didn’t get to play in many every year, so you’re lucky to get into one.”
Sandberg shared similar sentiments and said he relished the idea of the national spotlight shining on him and his teammates for an afternoon.
“Every game on television was a big deal to me,” Sandberg said. “I knew that everybody back home was watching. That really got me fired up to play every game. It brought the most out of my abilities.”
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This particular Saturday was one of those picturesque afternoons that happen only a few times a summer. With temperatures in the low 80s and a slight breeze off the lake, Wrigley Field was made-for-TV perfection.
A series of roster moves—including the addition of right-hander Rick Sutcliffe just 10 days prior—was doing wonders for a team that hadn’t exactly lit up the decade. On the morning of June 23, 1984, the Cubs sat 1.5 games out of first place and were in striking distance of their first postseason berth in 39 years, further raising expectations for the 38,000 fans in attendance and the millions of people tuning in across the nation. It didn’t hurt that the rival Cardinals, the 1982 world champs, were in town.
Steve Trout toed the rubber for the Cubs, but it wasn’t one of his better outings. The right-hander lasted just 1.1 innings and was on the hook for seven earned runs, spotting St. Louis an early six-run lead.
“You mean to tell me that because of me, [Sandberg] became [a key] in one of the most famous games ever,” Trout said with a laugh, reflecting on his start that afternoon.
Momentum temporarily shifted when the Cubs got two runs in the bottom of the fifth, but they promptly gave them both back in the top of the sixth. Trailing 9-3 entering the bottom of the inning, the North Siders injected some much-needed excitement into the stadium when they plated five behind a run-scoring single from Richie Hebner, a two-run double from Bobby Dernier and a two-run single from Sandberg.
Leading 9-8 with two outs in the seventh, St. Louis called out the big guns, enlisting lockdown closer Bruce Sutter to carry them the rest of the way. The eventual Hall of Famer, who would amass 300 saves in his stellar career, was the elite back-end arm of his generation, earning a Cy Young Award for his efforts in 1979 as a member of the Cubs. Sutter relied heavily on a split-finger fastball, a devastating pitch that was still new to players at the time.
“It was just a pitch that nobody had seen before,” Davis said of the splitter. “He brought [it] out, and nobody knew what it did. And he was the best at it. It was just really tough facing him, and he was a true competitor.”
Sutter fanned Gary Matthews to wrap up the seventh and set the Cubs down 1-2-3 in the eighth, putting an apparent damper on any comeback hopes. The outcome seemed a foregone conclusion as Sandberg stepped into the box to start the bottom of the ninth inning with the first and third basemen guarding the lines and the infield shifted slightly to the left side.
Sandberg was having a great season in 1984 and was already 3-for-4 on the day with four RBI. After two-plus major league years, he was seen as a good player with a solid glove at second, having claimed his first Gold Glove Award in 1983, but few had him pegged as an eventual Hall of Famer.
“Though he had already emerged as a very good player, he was still early in his career,” Costas said. “That one just propelled him onto the national stage.”
The first pitch came in low and away for ball one. Sandberg took the second pitch on the outside corner for a strike. But the third pitch was on the inner third of the plate, and Sandberg didn’t miss it, sending the ball screaming into the last row of the left-center-field bleachers.
Tie game. Extra innings.
“I said, ‘You know what this is, Tony? It’s a telephone game,’” Costas said, referring to his broadcast partner, Tony Kubek. “It’s the kind of game where as a baseball fan, you pick up the phone and call your baseball buddy, and you go, ‘Are you watching this? Put on NBC.’”
Cards outfielder Willie McGee was having quite a day himself, with a homer, triple and single to his credit. He’d already compiled five RBI and two runs heading into extra innings. The eventual 1985 NL MVP would complete the cycle with a run-scoring double in the top of the 10th and score two batters later, giving the Cards a two-run lead and shifting momentum back into the visitors’ dugout.
After two quick outs in the bottom of the 10th, Dernier took all six pitches he saw to record a full-count walk. As Costas and Kubek thanked the sponsors and crew for their day’s work, up stepped Ryno.
On the third pitch of the sequence, Costas bellowed: “He hits it to deep left-center. Look out! Do you believe it? It’s gone!”
With Sandberg’s bomb, Wrigley Field was up for grabs. The broadcast duo went silent for nearly a full minute to capture the jubilation of the ecstatic crowd.
“I’m sure there was a lengthy period where I called it as ‘gone,’ and we went quiet because the crowd and the pictures said everything,” Costas said. “We had just seen something that almost defied words. And I think the way the second home run was called, it was not just excitement, but amazement.”
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Just like that, Sandberg became a household name. Few remember that Dave Owen drove in the winning run an inning later on a bases-loaded single to complete the comeback and give the Cubs a 12-11 win.
“I went inside [the clubhouse], and I could barely get to my locker because there were so many people to talk to,” Sandberg said in the book Banks to Sandberg to Grace. “That was the start of my first experience with the media. It was pretty cool.”
With his talent on full display for the nation to see, Sandberg soon became a marquee attraction in Major League Baseball. The first example of his enhanced reputation came with the 1984 All-Star voting. In a matter of days, Ryno surpassed Steve Sax, who had been the leading vote-getter at the keystone position.
“That game really told me that I could do that,” Sandberg said. “It was really a different mind-set that game gave me, and it’s something I wanted to live up to—not only the rest of that year … but it also brought new standards for me each and every year, as far as winning a Gold Glove, a silver bat and an MVP.”
When the ’84 campaign came to a close, Sandberg was a nearly unanimous choice for National League MVP, capturing 22 of 24 first-place votes. According to FanGraphs, he compiled a Wins Above Replacement rating of 8.0, hitting .314/.367/.520 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 19 homers and a league-best 114 runs, all while playing a key middle-infield position at an elite level.
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The dramatic win didn’t benefit just the Cubs’ now-star second baseman. The team was showing signs of ending a 39-year postseason drought and used the comeback as a rallying cry for the season.
“That was kind of our exclamation point,” Davis said. “It was still early enough in the season. We were off to a good start, [and we were] in the pennant race, which fans weren’t too used to [us] being. The excitement was starting to build, and that day made all of the fans start to believe that we did have a chance.”
The team went 59-34 the rest of the way, including an 18-10 record in July and a 20-10 mark in August. They finished 31-24 in one-run ballgames and won 11 games in walk-off fashion en route to an NL-best 96 wins. The North Siders were fun to watch, and, for the first time in a long while, Wrigley Field became the hottest ticket in town, as more and more fans flocked to the North Side to see the miracle Cubs and their soon-to-be MVP second baseman.
“In ’84, the fans came alive, and you saw the first fans on the rooftops,” Sandberg said. “Just to see that whole transformation and see it be a tough ticket here for the rest of my career [was exciting].”
According to Baseball-Reference, the Cubs hit the 2 million mark in attendance for the first time ever that season. Individual game sales were up nearly 8,000 from the previous year and nearly 11,000 from 1982. At least 2 million people have attended games at Wrigley Field in all but three seasons since.
In that single game, a future Hall of Famer emerged from the shadows into full-fledged stardom, a dormant franchise was catapulted to its first postseason berth in nearly four decades, and the fan base was energized for decades to come.
When the long winter hit Huntley, Illinois, a quaint farm town about 50 miles northwest of Chicago, the Donahue kids would take to a nearby sledding hill. Margaret, the oldest of seven, was routinely elected to head down the hill first to test the run. She was, after all, the de facto leader and therefore the one tasked with carving that first swath through the snow so her kin could follow safely.
And what a fitting allegory that would turn out to be.
In 1919, not long after those sledding days were finished and with very little formal schooling under her belt, Donahue blazed a new trail into baseball history as a pioneer for women in professional sports.
“She was the first [female] executive who actually worked her way up into the position throughout all of Major League Baseball,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig.
Hired as a stenographer by then-team Vice President Bill Veeck Sr., Donahue was quickly elected club secretary by vote of the Cubs stockholders at a board of directors meeting. She held that role for a quarter century, until she was elevated to team vice president in 1950, becoming the first woman in the game to hold such a lofty position. But Donahue was much more than just a token female executive.
“The things she did helped change the way people appreciate baseball,” Hartig said.
Donahue is considered a vital part of the team’s storied history, gender notwithstanding. She is largely credited with championing the concept of season tickets, helping usher in record-setting attendance, and attracting generations of fans through her projects and promotions. Upon her retirement on Feb. 1, 1958, the Cubs board of directors gave her an ornately calligraphed farewell letter expressing, among other sentiments, that she “provided valuable service to the club as a capable and conscientious corporate officer, and as a nationally acknowledged authority on the intricacies of baseball rules and regulations.”
In June, a half-acre park in the Lakeview neighborhood, just a few blocks southwest of Wrigley Field, will be dedicated to Donahue’s memory, an honor her family, the Cubs and the city of Chicago worked together to bring to fruition.
“What a fitting tribute to a woman who was a great part of our history,” said Mike Lufrano, executive vice president of community affairs for the Cubs.
Donahue’s work and the elevated position she held, coupled with the era in which she held it, are incomparable, if not widely known. The Cubs won five National League pennants under her watch, and attendance hit the 1 million mark for the first time in any NL ballpark. Wrigley Field doubled in size, and the Cubs brand became synonymous with radio and television broadcasts.
Closing in on a century after she was first hired, women are still underrepresented in executive positions in sports. But Donahue more than did her part for gender equality.
In the tidy living room of a Victorian home a block away from small-town Huntley’s Main Street, three sisters spoke of their beloved, warmhearted, hat-loving aunt.
“Work did not scare her away,” said Barbara Ernesti, 87, the eldest of Mabel Donahue Emmer’s three daughters and Margaret Donahue’s only nieces. “She just got in there and did it.”
Ernesti was perched near her sisters, Mary Beth Manning, who turns 84 this month, and Margaret Manning, 77, (their husbands are unrelated) at the latter’s home on a warm mid-March day. Dozens of Donahue-related newspaper clippings, photos and mementos the sisters had collected over the years were spread atop the dining table.
“She was a great manager,” Mary Beth Manning said.
That talent, she surmised, may have been honed early in life.
Donahue was born on a Huntley farm on Dec. 13, 1892. Six other children swiftly followed. She had an older brother by one year, Daniel, but he died at age 7 when diphtheria swept through the town.
When Donahue was young, the family rented out the farm and moved into town so the kids would be closer to school. After graduating eighth grade, Donahue logged just one year of high school and a year at a business college in nearby Elgin, Illinois, before heading out into the workforce.
And that meant big-city Chicago.
Living with her aunt on the South Side, Donahue landed a job in 1919 at a chemical company that manufactured soap and laundry supplies. It was a brief employment, according to Margaret Manning, as Donahue lost her job to a veteran returning from the trenches of World War I.
She then decided to place an ad in the Chicago Tribune seeking a position as a secretary or stenographer. Bill Veeck, vice president and treasurer of the Chicago Cubs, spotted her ad and phoned her home while she was away at Sunday Mass. Her father took the call and told Veeck she’d be happy to meet with him.
But there was one problem: Donahue didn’t want the interview. She wanted a job in the Loop, where she had received other offers, not way out on the North Side. Her father persisted, and she met with Veeck on June 22, 1919. The following day, she reported to work at then-Cubs Park for the first time.
Donahue was a force of nature. She handled season tickets, press passes, stock transfers for the Cubs and all Wrigley Field events, Hartig said. She was the keeper of receipts and paid the players and umpires after the games, forking over cash out on the field before depositing the remainder in a downtown vault, her nieces said.
The only other woman in the small Cubs front office was the bookkeeper, who retired in 1920. Donahue assumed those duties too “temporarily” until they could hire someone new—which happened almost a decade later in 1929.
“Today you’d almost need a law degree to do all that,” Hartig said, adding that Donahue even advised her boss on the occasional trade.
Being an industrious sort (the office motto was “longevity, loyalty, versatility”), Donahue also took on some payroll duties for the Bears when they moved to Cubs Park in 1921. Two years later, she was promoted to Cubs assistant club secretary and would serve as acting secretary while John Seys, the man who held the position, was on the road. In late 1926, at the same board meeting that saw Cubs Park become Wrigley Field, she assumed Seys’ role as club secretary when he was advanced to second vice president of the team, according to Hartig.
“Baseball changed a lot in those 25 years she was secretary,” Hartig said. “It wasn’t the same job.”
In just a few short decades, the Cubs franchise experienced the advent of radio and television, integration, war, multiple World Series bids and the Great Depression, among other things.
What Donahue did would require the work of an entire office staff today. It seems almost any task fell within her domain, including the aforementioned handling of payroll and receipts, with which she was famously fastidious; drafting contracts and waivers; assisting injured players on the field; entertaining kids lost in the ballpark; and even washing the shirt of a fan who had an unfortunate run-in with some falling wet plaster.
“She was good at it,” Ernesti said. “She could keep her finger on a lot of things.”
Donahue is credited with popularizing and standardizing the practice of seat-specific season tickets, encouraging special pricing for children, and following through with the concept of Ladies Day, which had foundered at Wrigley Field and at other parks.
“For Margaret,” Hartig said, “it went gangbusters.”
The Cubs brass had a cautiously optimistic approach to Ladies Day, even though it hadn’t been successful in previous attempts. Before the Veeck-Seys-Donahue tenure, Cubs Park was a madhouse. Attendees were rowdy, often drunk and hardly polite—not the most hospitable environment for a mother and her children looking to have some wholesome fun. Veeck, who became team president shortly after Donahue was hired, spearheaded cleaning up the park, with uniformed ushers as well as improved concessions and trash pick-up. He then handed the weekly Ladies Day reins over to the executive secretary.
“She tried to make the games more family-oriented,” Ernesti said.
On Aug. 6, 1929, an otherwise unspectacular game against the Dodgers drew close to 50,000 fans, nearly 30,000 of whom were women looking to see the game for free. The Cubs had to turn roughly 10,000 people away at the gate.
The Cubs would continue with a Ladies Day promotion in some form until 1990, and eventually had to cap the number of free tickets at 20,000 per game due to its popularity. The team’s model under Donahue was considered the most effective promotion in Major League Baseball.
Of course, being a pioneering woman in professional sports did have its drawbacks. When Veeck died in 1933, Donahue supporters thought she could easily have been promoted, Mary Beth Manning said.
“If she had been a man,” Ernesti said, “she would have been the one to move up.”
Donahue made a healthy living, especially during the Great Depression, but she wasn’t without her detractors—some of whom were presumably uncomfortable taking orders from a woman.
“She had a couple of tough years,” Mary Beth Manning said, referring to occasional run-ins with management.
Upon her promotion to executive secretary, people were shocked, Hartig said. But the stockholders voted her in year after year, a feat her family called amazing.
A 1941 Chicago Tribune article about women executives in baseball titled “Men Beware! Women Prove They Can Run a Team” mentions Donahue as “helping run the club, in one capacity or another, since 1919.” Donahue was also a fan of the game and had played a bit as a teenager. She was a novelty back home, her nieces said, where she would hold conversational court with women and men at family gatherings.
“She would always be very much talked to by the men, about baseball and so forth,” Ernesti said.
While taking in a game for fun was a rarity—she usually gave her box seats away—Donahue worked a lot and was often the first one in and last one out of the office each day. She never married, but she shared a Rogers Park apartment with, at times, upward of three siblings. She also played hostess to two of her nieces for years. She sent money home to care for her parents and took one vacation per year every February, often inviting a relative to join her. Sundays were reserved for church.
In 1950, she was elected team vice president, a position she held while continuing as executive secretary. She retired in 1958 at age 65 with close to 40 years as part of the Cubs front office under her belt. At that point, she lived in Evanston with siblings but eventually moved back home to Huntley, where she died in 1978.
“It’s quite amazing what she did,” said Mary Beth Manning, her eyes falling to the table heaped with the archives of her aunt’s life and work. “It really is.”
Other than her gravesite, there is no public marker in Donahue’s hometown commemorating her achievements. But the city of Chicago, the Cubs and her nieces are seeing to it that her life will be remembered near the place where she lived so much of it.
The large public park in her name has been designed to attract folks across ages and interests in the hopes of beautifying the community as well as providing a teachable moment about its namesake.
“We realize that so many of our fans are women,” Lufrano said. “Margaret was a part of making that happen.”
(Photo by Stephen Green)
At just 29 years old, Dexter Fowler has already played parts of seven big league seasons and solidified himself as one of the better leadoff hitters in the game. But many still believe the best is yet to come for the talented center fielder. The following story can be found in the April issue of Vine Line.
Prototypical leadoff hitters are a dying breed in baseball. As speed has declined in value and the importance of power has spiked around the game, there are fewer and fewer players who are able to work the count, take walks, run well and get on base at a decent clip.
Since the turn of the century, the Cubs have had only four guys you could truly label leadoff men—and one of the best, Alfonso Soriano, probably would have been much better suited to the middle of the order. Prior to that, there was one year of Juan Pierre in 2006, a few fleeting moments in the mid-2000s when it looked like Corey Patterson might be a decent table-setter, and then you have to go all the way back to Eric Young in 2000-01.
Former manager Rick Renteria deployed seven different leadoff men in 2014, and they combined to hit just .253 with a .303 on-base percentage. In other words, like most major league teams, the Cubs have had a big hole in the leadoff spot for years.
Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Executive Vice President and General Manager Jed Hoyer hope they have solved that problem—and added a proven center fielder to boot—with the Jan. 19 trade that sent Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily to Houston in exchange for switch-hitter Dexter Fowler. At just 29 years old, Fowler has already played parts of seven big league seasons, and, despite floating around the Houston lineup last year, he has all the skills to be an old-school leadoff man.
“I see a lot of pitches,” Fowler said. “It’s a fact of knowing when to be aggressive and knowing when not to. Just being a leadoff hitter for my whole career, basically, it’s a job that I’ve become accustomed to. [Getting on base] is part of my game, and it’s been part of my game since early in my career, so it’s nothing new to me.”
After the Rockies made Fowler a 14th-round draft pick in 2004, he quickly worked his way up to the majors, making his big league debut in 2008 at the age of 22. He was a mainstay at Coors Field until December 2013, when he was traded to the Astros. During his career, the athletic outfielder has played all but one defensive inning in center field and has taken the majority of his cuts from the leadoff spot, a role he’s expected to fill in Chicago.
Despite relatively high strikeout totals—he’s averaged 115 K’s per year over his six seasons of regular playing time—he’s exactly what you want in a leadoff man. During that same six-year stretch, he hit .272 with a stellar .368 on-base percentage, averaging 65 walks and 16 stolen bases per season.
“He has a very good idea of his swing,” said Cubs hitting coach Jon Mallee, who worked with Fowler last season as Houston’s hitting coach. “His approach is second to none in the box, the way he recognizes pitches and the way he doesn’t expand out of the strike zone. He’s one of the best in baseball at just swinging at strikes.”
Though Fowler has always been an above-average big league player and has all the tools to be a star, injuries and inconsistency have thus far kept him from reaching his ceiling.
Between 2009-14, he averaged 128 games per year. But as he enters his age-29 season, the true prime of his career, many on the Cubs are expecting the 6-foot-5, 195-pound player to have a breakthrough campaign.
“This guy is probably on the verge of becoming really, really good,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon. “He’s at that age when things start making sense all the way around. He’s a young veteran. He’s had enough experience. So I’m really eager to watch this all unfold.”
For his part, Fowler is glad to be making a return to the National League, where he’s more familiar with the pitchers, and he is ecstatic to be reunited with Mallee in Chicago. He’s also spent several years watching what the Cubs have been building from afar. On a brief rehab assignment at Triple-A Oklahoma City last year, he matched up against the Cubs’ Iowa affiliate and came away impressed with what the organization has percolating.
“It’s an exciting lineup, with the guys coming in,” Fowler said. “We’re all pretty young, but we all have some time in the big leagues. There’s experience there and definitely a lot of talent. My role is just to get on base and just play my game—get on base any way I can, whether it’s hitting a line drive in the gap and running or taking a walk.”
And if Fowler takes his share of walks, that’s just fine with Maddon and the Cubs. The team’s major offensive weakness in recent years has been a low on-base percentage coupled with too many strikeouts. The Cubs ranked 28th in the game last season with a .300 team OBP and led all of baseball with 1,477 whiffs.
While most agree that patience at the plate is more innate than learned, the Cubs coaching staff is hoping Fowler’s pitch recognition and approach will rub off on some of the organization’s younger hitters. At the very least, having an experienced player at the top of the order who can grind at-bats will give the rest of the lineup a better chance to see what the starting pitcher’s stuff looks like on a given day.
“It does help to have a guy who has that [leadoff experience] because the younger players will see how he goes about his business, how he goes about his at-bat,” Mallee said. “It kind of sets the tone. And then he does a really good job of talking to the young guys and telling them, ‘Hey, in this situation, just try to look for something right here. If not, just take your walk.’ Coming from a coaching perspective, it’s nice to have players who have that experience to be able to help the younger guys.”
Few athletes are willing to dub themselves a “team leader,” especially when they’re new to an organization, and Fowler is no exception. But people who have played with him before rave about the intangibles he brings to the clubhouse. The charismatic Georgia native, who came through the famous East Cobb Little League program and was recruited in multiple sports by Dartmouth and Harvard before deferring to his big league dreams, is a cerebral hitter who studies pitchers and is happy to pass his knowledge along to others.
“He’s an awesome teammate,” said pitcher Jason Hammel, who played with Fowler in Colorado from 2009-11. “[He’s] a high-energy guy, always a positive guy. He fits the mold of what they’re trying to bring in here now. [He’s] obviously a guy who is ready to play, understands his duties. He’s prepared, and then he also knows how to have a good time.”
Throughout his career, Fowler has had many influences. He grew up idolizing Ken Griffey Jr., which is why he wears No. 24, but he also watched Andruw Jones patrol the outfield for his hometown Braves. One of his biggest mentors since he turned pro has been none other than all-time home run leader Barry Bonds. When Fowler was still in Colorado, he connected with Bonds through former Rockies coach Glenallen Hill. Fowler said Bonds preaches patience at the plate and the value of getting a good pitch to hit, lessons Fowler first learned from his father years ago.
Though Fowler fills another big need for the Cubs as a proven center fielder, one of the knocks on him throughout his career—at least as far as stat-heads are concerned—has been his defense. Long and lanky with a graceful stride, Fowler glides through the outfield, covering a ton of ground, and he’s blessed with a cannon for an arm. Yet, in 111 games in center field last season for the Astros, he had a -21.8 ultimate zone rating and -20 defensive runs saved, well below what you’d expect from an elite center fielder.
It basically comes down to the eye test versus advanced metrics. By the naked eye, Fowler more than looks the part and makes his share of outstanding plays. But the numbers seem to contradict what the eye is seeing. Fowler said all he cares about is what his pitchers think. And if Hammel is any indication, the Cubs’ hurlers will be more than happy to have Fowler prowling the Friendly Confines’ vast outfield.
“I want him out there,” Hammel said. “I couldn’t care less. I don’t even know what the hell all the new [analytics] things that you put together are—FIP and all that crap, whatever it is. I know when he has a glove on, he’s going to go run the ball down. Any time you get a guy in center field who can basically cover all three outfield positions from one, it’s going to help your team.”
Though Fowler has heard the questions about his defense before, he puts very little stock in the critique. And he is definitely not going to be cowed by playing defense at Wrigley Field, which is notoriously tough on outfielders. In his career so far, he’s manned center field in two of the game’s most expansive ballparks—Colorado’s Coors Field and Houston’s Minute Maid Park. He knows what he can do and is confident that Cubs fans will appreciate the effort he gives every day.
“Come watch me,” he said. “That’s the best answer for that. If you know the game, you can watch the game, and you’ll see me go get fly balls and do all that. Then I think you’ll be a fan. You ask pitchers, you ask coaches, ‘Who do you want in center field?’ See what they say. It doesn’t matter what the computer says. Ask the guys who are in the game and watching the game.”
SETTING THE TABLE
Fowler is smart enough to know he’s joining the Cubs at the right time. After several subpar years, the team had a big offseason, adding players like Jon Lester, Miguel Montero and Hammel to an already strong core. Though Fowler becomes a free agent after 2015, he’s most certainly not looking ahead to the offseason or focusing too much energy on putting up a great walk year. He’s too focused on what Epstein calls “the single greatest pursuit left in professional sports.”
“My expectations are to win a championship, as always,” Fowler said. “The excitement around the team right now is second to none. We just want to go and do it for Ernie [Banks].
“It’s awesome being here. You really see what the ‘C’ stands for when you look at the fans, and you look at the organization. To have that on your chest is definitely an honor. It’s a historic organization, and it’s very exciting.”
Many, including Mallee, believe the next step for Fowler is increased power at the plate. His career high is 13 home runs, which he hit with Colorado in 2012. Like most switch-hitters, his overall numbers are better from his natural, or right-hand, side. He didn’t pick up switch-hitting until he was drafted by Colorado in 2005, and he’s worked hard to even out his left-handed swing ever since.
“He’s got more power than he’s shown,” Mallee said. “He’s really an amazing right-handed hitter, and he’s a really good left-handed hitter that gets on base. I think he’s going to hit for more power this year left-handed than he has in the past.”
If the Cubs have, in fact, found a true leadoff hitter who can consistently get on base for the heart of the order, they’ll have a commodity that’s growing ever rarer in today’s game.
They’ll also have a perfect mentor and role model for a young offense still searching for its identity. And that might be just what the organization needs as it turns the corner and becomes a perennial contender in the NL Central.
“The experience is a huge thing,” Mallee said. “Plus, he’s a switch-hitter so it’s like having two guys—a righty leadoff hitter and a lefty leadoff hitter. … For what we’re trying to do to increase our on-base percentage and then get some guys on base in front of the big boys who can drive them in … having that guy set the tone, and leading off the game, and really putting an at-bat on the pitcher, and wearing him down, and seeing pitches and taking pitches for the other guys—that’s just great to have. I’m so excited that we got him.”
—By Gary Cohen
As the Cubs embark on a new relationship with CBS Radio WBBM-AM 780 this season, we look back at the team’s unique role in baseball’s earliest broadcasts and how a few forward-thinking executives helped change the way the game reaches out to fans. The following can be found in the April issue of Vine Line.
A spin of the knob and a static-filled turn through the radio dial in 1920 didn’t offer much in the way of compelling entertainment. One might catch a farm report, the sounds of a pianist playing at Chicago’s Drake Hotel or some healthy-lunged soul reading the newspaper from cover to cover. Radio was largely staid, uneventful and untapped.
But in 1921, considered the year commercial radio was born, listeners could tune into something much more exciting for the first time—professional baseball.
The first crude broadcast trickled out of a Pittsburgh-based station to little fanfare, but just three years later, the power of baseball hit the airwaves in Chicago, where an intrepid ballclub owner and his savvy marketing counterparts used it to spur a revolution in sports. With owner William Wrigley Jr.’s foresight, the Cubs created a model of publicity, fandom and team ubiquity that reached people well beyond city limits. While many owners still feared airing games would be bad for the sport (and their bottom line), the Cubs became a pioneering force that helped revolutionize how the game has been consumed by the public ever since.
“It was definitely the Cubs who acknowledged this was a medium, a way, for not taking away from attendance, but for making better fans,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig. “[With radio], the Cubs went from the middle of the road to leading the National League in attendance year after year.”
In 2015, for the first time in nearly six decades, Cubs baseball will be broadcast exclusively on CBS affiliate WBBM-AM 780, after a much-talked-about changing of the guard from longtime partner WGN. Even with television’s high-definition visuals and the Internet vying for fans’ attention, radio remains a local media force, especially among serious fans hungry for information about their beloved club. While comparatively quaint, listening to a game on the radio can still be sublime.
“It’s a local jewel, an iconic brand,” said Rod Zimmerman, senior vice president at CBS Radio Chicago. “We believe in what they’re doing on the North Side.”
Implausibly, there once was baseball without broadcasts. No game calls, no player interviews, no commercials, no lucrative rights deals. At the turn of the 20th century, people who could afford to attend games were the only sure revenue stream upon which a team owner could rely, and fans were courted in now unfathomably low-tech ways.
“You became a baseball fan by playing it or by watching your local team contest against the adjoining community,” said John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian and the author of the Our Game blog. “And there were the sporting papers.”
Written accounts of major and minor league games courted baseball’s relatively small fan base, but actually attending a tilt in person was prohibitively expensive. A 50-cent ticket in the late 1800s was not far off, inflation-wise, from what seats fetch today. Plus, stadiums didn’t yet have lights. Mid-afternoon game times catered to bankers and brokers, and, of course, city dwellers who could easily access the ballpark, Thorn said.
In Chicago, the game crowd was often inebriated, always rowdy, and generally inhospitable to women and children. In short, it took some effort to be a fan.
But Harold Arlin, engineer for Pittsburgh’s KDKA, the first commercial radio station in the country, changed all that at an otherwise uneventful game between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on Aug. 5, 1921. As the teams battled it out on the field, Arlin rested his jury-rigged equipment and a homemade microphone on a wooden plank on the arms of his seat and, over the drone of the crowd and occasional equipment failures, broadcast the first radio game in Major League Baseball history.
While there is no recording of this initial broadcast, Hartig’s research found it was far from smooth. Arlin didn’t know much about baseball, and the frequent dead air and lifeless call made for some uninspiring listening. But the essential concept worked. The following fall KDKA became the first station to broadcast a World Series game and, later, a college football game.
Radio in those days was fledgling, and stations such as the newly established WGN in Chicago did not discriminate as to what they were willing to put on the air.
“They were sort of desperate for content,” Hartig said.
Airing the occasional big-ticket sporting event worked well enough that in 1924, WGN tapped A.W. Kaney to broadcast the opening game of the Cubs-White Sox City Series from the roof of what is now known as Wrigley Field.
“We go back 90 years with the Chicago Cubs on WGN,” said Jack Rosenberg, WGN sports editor from 1945-99. “To the very beginning of radio.”
Wrigley, team owner and head of a chewing gum empire, was a big—if not the biggest—player in creating the baseball-on-the-radio phenomenon. He and Cubs stockholder Albert Lasker, known as the “father of modern marketing,” recognized there was something to be gained from broadcasting games.
A handful of local stations, such as the Chicago Daily News-backed WMAQ and the Chicago Tribune’s WGN, began covering the Cubs with Wrigley’s encouragement. Typically WGN would air weekend and holiday games, while WMAQ carried midweek affairs. The head of WMAQ, Judith Waller, pressed Wrigley for exclusive rights to the games in 1925—a prescient move in those experimental times—but the Cubs owner, according to Hartig, figured more outlets would serve his club better, so he invited all local stations to cover the team.
“Back in the 1930s, research showed that at one point, there were as many as five stations airing Cubs baseball. Eventually, this created new fans,” Rosenberg said. “It was phenomenal. It changed the game.”
So did charismatic broadcasters such as WGN’s Quin Ryan, who opened the 1925 season with a pregame show before the Cubs hosted the Pirates. Ryan knew baseball and delivered the call with enthusiasm and insight. But owners outside of Chicago still saw this new on-air alternative as a potential scourge to the bottom line.
“Radio was slow to take hold in local markets because baseball owners thought it would cannibalize attendance,” Thorn said. “But my thoughts are radio never hurt anybody, anytime, anyhow.”
The conflict between radio backers and detractors divided largely on geographic lines. The rural expanse of the West allowed teams such as Chicago and St. Louis to draw from not only their big-city markets, but from far-distant regions as well.
“As you get from the early 1920s to the late 1920s, there’s essentially a split among owners,” said James R. Walker, author of Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio. “Those hinterland fans were given a taste of the Cubs on the radio. In the East, they were pretty much hemmed in.”
The Yankees’ fan base butted against that of the New York Giants, which tickled the edge of Philadelphia Athletics country, which essentially sat atop Pirates territory. The owners feared radio broadcasts would poach fans from across those already-tensile borders. Philadelphia, however, tended to embrace radio, Hartig said. Another exception was Boston, whose broadcasts could pull fans from western Massachusetts and northern New England, effectively leading to the establishment of what we now know as Red Sox Nation.
But owners still feared easily accessible baseball broadcasts and competition with nearby markets would depress attendance. World Series seats were coveted enough that broadcasting those games was of little concern. But a midsummer snoozer? That could be a problem. In the era of minimal rights fees, teams were making next to nothing on radio broadcasts. It simply wasn’t worth the gamble.
“They weren’t dimwitted. They weren’t Luddites,” Walker said. “They were trying to make a reasoned decision regarding the situation they were in.”
In 1926, American League President Ban Johnson even went so far as to forbid AL teams from broadcasting games, according to Hartig. New York clubs refused to air any games, home or away, until 1939, and the Cardinals were blacked out in 1934 (until attendance nosedived and management reconsidered). The teams that did embrace radio often broadcast only home games, seeing those as a good advertisement for a day at the ballpark.
Wrigley, on the other hand, believed radio was something more and that the Cubs could reach a new breed of fans who were unable to attend games—those at work, mothers at home with kids, etc. Radio would entice these listeners to want to experience the games for themselves and actually be a boon to attendance. Thanks to Wrigley’s well-informed hunch, Cubs business was booming. Attendance-wise, that is. The team itself struggled.
Chicago finished the 1925 season in last place with a 68-86 record. Yet over the next two years, attendance increased 86 percent from more than 620,000 in 1925 to nearly 1.2 million in 1927. Even during the Great Depression, as clubs saw their attendance drop off by up to 75 percent, the Cubs only suffered a 20 percent loss, Hartig said.
While these spikes in popularity were partly traceable to radio, the growth also coincided with team President Bill Veeck Sr.’s leadership and the sweeping improvements he made to the team’s ballpark, roster and marketing efforts. It was a good time to be affiliated with the Cubs, especially as the dismal seasons gave way to pennants in 1929, 1932, 1935 and 1938.
With multiple outlets covering the team, stations thrived on the backs of their broadcasters. WGN’s illustrious history alone includes Quin Ryan and Bob Elson, Jack Quinlan and Lou Boudreau, Harry Caray (briefly), Pat Hughes and Ron Santo, and the list of local legends goes on.
“The announcers, in effect, became part of the family,” Rosenberg said. “[Fans] knew they were going to be there.”
By 1949, Hartig said, 29 stations in 10 states were broadcasting Cubs games, and those broadcasts reached up to 2.7 million homes.
In 1948, the newly minted WGN-TV station broadcast its first Cubs game with future Hall of Famer Jack Brickhouse at the mic. While this didn’t displace radio, televised games changed the profile of the audience. Radio became the preferred option of purists and romantics, or those at work during games, driving in their cars or sitting outside in the yard. Television brought baseball to life, introducing fans to the sights in addition to the sounds of beautiful Wrigley Field. That had a seismic impact on how the action was conveyed and on the ways the league could make money.
But while TV and the Internet are huge drivers for Major League Baseball, anyone spinning the dial to WBBM this season will tell you that radio still matters.
“You use your imagination,” Walker said. “It becomes a much richer experience than watching a television program.”
Baseball on the radio is about nostalgia, simplicity and romance. And in any new relationship—the Cubs and WBBM’s included—it all starts with a little romance.
“It’s the idea of catching a ballgame while swatting away mosquitos and drinking a beer,” Thorn said. “And isn’t that great?”
—By Kerry Trotter
The following article appears in the March issue of Vine Line. (Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame)
Fly balls, sure. But the flying fish were a new one for Lennie Merullo, a born and bred Bostonian.
“It was unbelievable!” said the 97-year-old, the oldest living Chicago Cub and the last link to the team’s most recent World Series appearance in 1945.
The year was 1942, and the then-25-year-old shortstop watched the airborne sea creatures take flight and glide over the surface of the San Pedro Channel from the deck of a ferry. The boat was shuttling him and his Cubs teammates from Los Angeles to their rugged, idyllic post on Santa Catalina Island, where the team held Spring Training from 1922-42, and for a handful of years after that.
“That 26 miles felt like 2,600 miles,” Merullo said in a phone conversation from his Massachusetts home. “It took quite a while.”
The ferry could pitch and yaw over the chop, sending some landlubbing Cubs to the rails, while others shot pool, bowled or played cards below deck. For many, such as Merullo, it was the final leg of a journey that was thousands of miles long, and the payoff was six weeks of baseball in paradise.
“When you spotted the island from the boat, tears would come to your eyes,” Merullo recalled. “You’d think, ‘I finally made it!’ You wouldn’t believe what a beautiful island it was.”
The Cubs got to Catalina courtesy of their exceedingly wealthy and prescient owner, William Wrigley Jr., who purchased the island in 1919 as an investment and soon after, with cross-promotion in mind, decided to give his beloved team some sea legs out on the West Coast.
“He had lots of property,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig. “Early on, he understood the importance of real estate as an investment.”
Wrigley, a chewing gum magnate and the principal owner of the Cubs from 1918 until his death in 1932, purchased the wild isle somewhat on a whim. The previous owners fell into debt following a fire in Catalina’s main village of Avalon. Wrigley and his wife, Ada, visited and were immediately smitten with the place. They snagged it for $3 million, according to Hartig. That would be about $41 million today.
“He was like Walt Disney before Disney,” said Jim Vitti, author of two books about the Cubs’ 20-plus years on Catalina. “Wrigley was a genius.”
A genius, and perhaps a clairvoyant.
“When Wrigley bought the island, it was a tourist destination, but on a much smaller scale,” said Gail Fornasiere, director of marketing for the Catalina Island Museum. “There’s a quote of his where he said he wanted it to be a playground for the rich and poor. He wanted it to be for everybody.”
Wrigley poured millions of dollars into making the 75-square-mile island into a world-class tourist attraction and a hub for local jobs. He spearheaded efforts to build new roads, dig wells and erect a power plant. The classy St. Catherine Hotel sprung up in Avalon, and it was soon surrounded by hundreds of new bungalows, an Art Deco casino, a golf course and a dance club that lured the biggest names from nearby Hollywood, including Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, Betty Grable and Olivia de Havilland. Wrigley even had an aviary that would grow to include 8,000 exotic birds.
“It’s a magic, amazing place,” Vitti said. “There’s nothing like it on earth.”
The inhabited, coastal parts of the island had a tropical, European quality, while the rugged interior—craggy and mountainous from ancient volcanic eruptions—was untamed. Wild boar and goats roamed the steep sagebrush-lined trails, and they were later flanked by bison, relics of an old movie production.
But Wrigley had more in mind.
In the 1920s, the concept of Spring Training was picking up steam, with teams generally hopping from city to city or barnstorming from a faraway destination toward home. The Cubs followed this model too, making stops in places as diverse as Hot Springs, Arkansas; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Galveston, Texas; Selma, Alabama; New Orleans; Tampa, Florida; and Pasadena, California, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.
In March 1920, while the Cubs were training in Pasadena, Wrigley and manager Fred Mitchell took the team to the island on a glass-bottomed boat, Hartig said. All parties were impressed, and Catalina officially became the Cubs’ spring home starting in 1922 under manager Johnny Evers.
During the frigid last days of winter in the east, Cubs rookies and veterans would say goodbye to their families and their offseason jobs and board a train for Chicago. There, Vitti said, they would usually receive a send-off from fans and the press before climbing onto another train bound for Los Angeles. From LA, they’d set brief, if bumpy, sail for the island, where they would receive a heroes’ welcome.
“The island loved that they came here and embraced them completely,” Fornasiere said.
Prior to the Catalina years, the team would most often retreat to Hot Springs, where the players would soak in steaming tubs to “boil the winter out,” Vitti said. But the Cubs’ decades-long relationship with Catalina set some precedents for other teams and has been unofficially credited with creating Spring Training as we know it today.
“It was a huge tourist draw,” Vitti said. “Wrigley leveraged it so much.”
While most games were played on the mainland, the island proved perfect for spring’s relatively light, four-hour training days. Players worked on the basics—batting practice, long tossing, pepper—as well as goofier drills, such as throwing around medicine balls and playing leapfrog, Hartig said. The team also ran the island hills, usually as punishment.
“We did everything we could to get our arms in shape, to get our legs in shape, for the regular season,” said Merullo, a Cubs infielder from 1941-47. “We always thought we were in good shape—until we got there and started working. You could feel every muscle in your body.”
Marcelino Saucedo, 79, a retired teacher and coach who grew up on Catalina, was a high school ballplayer when the Cubs were wrapping up their island years in the early 1950s. His teams shared the major league-caliber training field with the professional players.
“The [Cubs] were there from 9 o’clock to 1 o’clock, so we got on the field at 2 o’clock,” he said from his home in Surfside, California. “Several ballplayers stayed and helped us. They taught us how to slide and field balls, all the fundamentals.”
Saucedo remembered the jovial air about the place when the team arrived and how players would blend seamlessly into island life, even attending high school games to cheer on their mentees. One such Cub was Chuck Connors, a first baseman who also played in the NBA and eventually starred in TV’s The Rifleman.
“[He] told me he’d give me a quarter for every base hit,” Saucedo said. “I told him, ‘Chuck, you owe me 50 cents!’ He said, ‘I meant line drives, not bloopers.’ He still owes me money!”
Beyond its vacation-like feel, Catalina was a positive setting for the Cubs and hosted some of the franchise’s most successful teams. While training on the island, the club clinched the 1929, ’32, ’35 and ’38 pennants, a stretch of success not since repeated. The organization also won the National League title in 1945, but this coincided with a wartime break from the island.
Cubs personnel lived at the St. Catherine Hotel, or later at the Atwater Hotel in Avalon, while players with families stayed at the bungalows near the field. Merullo, who was joined by family members for a few years, remembered the stunning views from his hotel balcony and the morning commute to practice.
“It was a beautiful walk,” he said. “You’d look forward to it.”
Players fished, hunted, rode horses and hazed rookies.
“And there was a little bit of drinking going on,” Vitti said, chuckling.
Wrigley was known to invite the team to his harborside compound for barbecues. Later, his son and heir, Philip K. Wrigley, hosted rodeos.
Spring Training fell during the tourist offseason, so the team’s presence was appreciated by all. Players had a rapport with the locals, often visiting schools and dining in the homes of some of the island’s 5,000 or so residents.
To promote his little paradise in the Pacific Ocean, Wrigley courted reporters and photographers, whose beats markedly improved for a few weeks while documenting the Cubs’ goings-on for weather-weary Chicagoans. Players and writers rubbed shoulders—usually at the bar or over batting practice—in a way that rarely happens in the modern game.
“He gave a junket to every reporter,” Vitti said. “It exploded tourism on the island.”
World War II interrupted the Cubs’ West Coast training, as travel restrictions grounded the team’s preseason activities to French Lick, Indiana. Catalina became home to military stations and was closed to tourists. The island’s white steamships were painted battleship gray and used to transport troops. Though the Cubs returned after the war, enthusiasm for Catalina had begun to wane.
“Isolation had its plusses and minuses,” Hartig said. “After [they] had been there for a while, you started to hear some complaining.”
The press corps grew weary of the locale, the journey and the lack of decent opponents on the island. Their postwar articles often reflected the ennui.
“The current National League champions are returning to their Catalina Island base for the first time since 1942,” wrote the Chicago Daily Tribune’s Irving Vaughan in 1946. “But they won’t find it quite as comfortable as in the past.”
There had been rumblings for a decade about packing it up, but William’s heir, Philip K. Wrigley, wanted to stay. By the dawn of the 1950s, the team had decided to move on to dry, dependable, accessible Mesa, Arizona, eventually leading to the formation of the Cactus League.
Rumors swirled in the mid-1960s about a return to Catalina, but it never materialized. In 1975, Philip K. Wrigley deeded more than 42,000 acres—about 90 percent of the island—to his newly established Catalina Island Conservancy, which still operates today. Hartig said the again-robust tourist trade and other private entities now control the remaining portion of the island.
Catalina, which today welcomes up to 1 million visitors per year, still proudly promotes its Cubs connection, with William Wrigley’s stamp on architecture, infrastructure and history proving indelible. While the island’s Wrigley Field has largely been built over, a plaque demarcating the spot remains for baseball
pilgrims who make the trek.
And many still do. Others, however, are just waiting for the right moment.
“I haven’t been back,” Merullo mused. “But I’m looking forward to it.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
The following can be found in the March issue of Vine Line.
Whether because of too much rosé wine or too many pairs of rose-colored glasses, the annual Cubs Convention inevitably yields lofty predictions that rarely come to fruition. In 29 seasons since the advent of the winter fanfest, dreams of postseason play have materialized only five times, with the Cubs participating in the National League Championship Series just twice.
So why, in 2015, would first baseman Anthony Rizzo predict an NL Central title for the Cubs—a franchise that has won only five division championships in 45 years of divisional play and is coming off five consecutive losing seasons? This pitch to the populace was based on pitching, the ultimate measure of a playoff-bound club.
“I got to meet [Cubs Chairman Tom] Ricketts personally when I was hired,” said manager Joe Maddon. “He was totally committed to bidding for Jon Lester. It’s something we worked very hard at, so the credit goes to [President of Baseball Operations] Theo [Epstein] and [Executive Vice President and General Manager] Jed [Hoyer] and the entire front office staff. Getting Jon in the fold was pretty special.”
Last July 4, when the Cubs jettisoned Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland—where they were soon joined by Lester in Athletics GM Billy Beane’s ill-fated playoff push—it was difficult to imagine pitching would be a strong suit just five months later.
But the organization’s outlook changed dramatically when Epstein and company hired Maddon, put up $155 million over six years to land Lester and re-signed Hammel as a free agent. Acquiring All-Star catcher Miguel Montero and center fielder Dexter Fowler, a switch-hitting leadoff man, further fueled the optimism.
Not only did Lester echo the bold statements of Rizzo, the lefty took things to the next level, saying anything less than a World Series championship wouldn’t meet his goals—not this year or any year.
“It’s nice to have that anchor in the rotation,” Maddon said. “Here’s a guy who has pitched at a very high level and in very meaningful games. The rest of the staff, including the young guys, will look in his direction.
“I think Jon will be able to handle all this. That said, my request to Jon was ‘Do what’s comfortable for you.’ You don’t want to put too much in his lap. His primary role is to prepare and be ready to pitch every five days. After that, I told him if he has reserved energy—mental or physical—and wants to pass it along, go ahead. But he must take care of himself first.”
Lester and Hammel, along with emerging star Jake Arrieta, provide the foundation of a dominant rotation. Arrieta was as good as any NL pitcher at home last season, posting a 6-1 record and a 1.46 ERA at Wrigley Field. The 29-year-old right-hander took a no-hitter into the seventh inning or later three times, including in two consecutive starts. Still, he will defer to Lester for the Opening Day assignment in 2015.
“He’s well deserving,” Arrieta said. “He’s a leader and a guy all of us can look to for advice.”
Unlike the 31-year-old Lester, who has averaged 209 innings over eight years as a full-fledged starter, Arrieta has never pitched more than the 156.2 innings he logged last season.
“I don’t look at the innings as anything personally for me,” said Arrieta, who was 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA in 2014. “I want to be strong, healthy and durable. Those things will be there if I do things the right way in preparation.”
Though Hammel initially struggled after being dealt to Oakland, the righty was 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA in 17 Cubs starts last season. His excellent strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 4.5-to-1 was a major reason the team brought him back. Exactly where he fits in the rotation may depend on the performance of Kyle Hendricks and Travis Wood.
A right-handed finesse pitcher with pinpoint command, Hendricks, 25, was 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts as a rookie. Wood, 27, may have to battle veterans Felix Doubront and Tsuyoshi Wada for the second left-handed starter’s role. After posting a career-low 3.11 ERA and making the NL All-Star team in 2013, Wood saw his ERA jump almost two runs per game last season.
Personal issues, as well as failing to agree on a long-term deal offered in Spring Training, may have played a role.
“Maybe at the beginning of the year, the contract thing got to me,” he said. “At some point, I said, ‘Let it go,’ and just burrowed down and worked myself out of it.”
Other than Lester and Wood, only Edwin Jackson, who is 14-33 in two years with the Cubs, has a 200-inning season under his belt. The 31-year-old is still owed $11 million in both 2015 and 2016, but he may land in the bullpen if he isn’t traded first.
“We have a strange sport where you need all people to pull in the same direction on the same rope,” Lester said. “That’s all we expect to do—mesh as a unit, bond and become brothers. Hopefully that takes us to the prize at the end of the year.”
With Lester and Maddon on board, the Cubs have raised the bar. Now let’s hope fans will finally be able to raise a toast in October.
—By Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig
(Photo by Stephen Green)
The Sloan Park facility has given the Cubs the best Spring Training home in the game, but it’s much more than that. The site is buzzing all year long with everything from player development activities to civic events. The following can be found in the March issue of Vine Line.
It didn’t take long for fans to feel right at home at the Cubs’ new training facility in Mesa, Arizona, on the ballpark’s inaugural Cactus League Opening Day. With the temperature hovering at a perfect 75 degrees on Feb. 27, 2014, under an infinitely sunny Arizona sky, then-Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija let the first pitch fly at 1:10 p.m. When he set the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks down with a pair of strikeouts to end the top of the first inning, all was right with the world.
In a matter of minutes, the record-setting crowd of 14,486 settled into the Cubs’ friendly new spring confines, surrounded by sights, sounds and scents reminiscent of the team’s 100-year-old cathedral back home in Chicago, Wrigley Field. By the time they played “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch, you almost expected to see Harry Caray or Ron Santo leaning out of the press box window (it was actually Hall of Fame hurler Fergie Jenkins who did the honors in front of the Cubs dugout).
Even though it was the first real game played at what was previously called Cubs Park—the Cubs signed a naming-rights agreement with new legacy partner Sloan Valve Company in January—the whole place felt comfortably familiar. Like Yogi Berra said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
While the Cubs’ Spring Training exploits might garner the most headlines, the Sloan Park facility isn’t in the spotlight for just two months every February and March. The mammoth 145-plus-acre, multipurpose complex at the center of Riverview Park is utilized by the organization and the city of Mesa all year long for Cubs player development, Arizona Fall League games, NCAA baseball tournaments, civic events and more. As the state-of-the-art facility reached its first anniversary, it had already become a thriving hub in the Valley of the Sun and an indispensable part of how the Cubs train and rehabilitate players.
Aside from providing a huge facilities upgrade to Cubs players and personnel, one of the primary goals of the new ballpark in Arizona was to create a sort of Wrigleyville west for fans to enjoy.
There are obvious touches that harken back to Wrigley Field, such as the familiar clock atop the scoreboard and the replica marquee on the concourse down the first-base line, where fans can take pictures with their names emblazoned in lights. Concessions include Taste of Chicago booths offering Vienna Beef hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches or individual deep-dish Chicago-style pizzas. There’s also the Eighteen/76 section beyond the left-field wall, where the view is similar to watching a game from one of Wrigleyville’s famous rooftops.
Of course, you can’t actually forget that you’re in Arizona, as the whole place is surrounded by majestic mountain vistas and desert terrain.
Sloan Park has the largest seating capacity of any major league Spring Training ballpark, but the Cubs still managed to sell out 12 of their 15 home games in 2014, shattering previous Cactus League attendance records in the process. They also surpassed the all-time major league Spring Training attendance mark, which includes Florida’s Grapefruit League, drawing 213,815 fans, with a 14,254 per-game average, including an all-time high of 15,276 against the Angels on March 25, 2014.
Given the modern amenities and the crowds, it was no surprise Sloan Park was selected by the Phoenix New Times weekly newspaper as “The Best Place to Watch Spring Training.”
“Spring Training was an overwhelming success from both a player development and a fan experience perspective,” said Justin Piper, Cubs general manager of Spring Training business operations. “We now have the top 12 attended Spring Training games ever. It blew away our expectations. We were very thrilled with how the fans enjoyed the ballpark. We were trying to create a dynamic experience that’s reminiscent of Wrigley Field and the Chicago Cubs brand with attributes unique to the Cactus League and Spring Training.”
While many of the Cactus League’s 10 Spring Training complexes are shared by two teams, including the other four facilities added since 2003, Sloan Park is completely devoted to the Cubs and their far-flung fan base, with many of the amenities designed to reflect a Chicago feel.
“It was exciting to see how fans responded to our twist on the Wrigley Field marquee, putting it on the concourse and letting fans pose with custom-tailored messages,” Piper said. “That experience was then shared on their Twitter and Facebook pages. As a single-team facility, fans were able to enjoy an authentic Cubs experience. You know it’s a Cubs game when you walk in the gate.”
On just about any given day, you can find members of the Cubs organization, from the low-minor league level to the big leagues, participating in official games, working on strength and conditioning, rehabilitating injuries, or simply practicing and refining their skills at the facility. And most, if not all, of these activities are open to the public.
Cubs Director of Player Development Jaron Madison, who spends a great deal of time at Sloan Park throughout the baseball season and in the offseason, said the new space has given the organization a central headquarters for the team’s player development program.
“It’s first class all the way,” said Madison, who previously worked in the scouting departments of the Padres, Cardinals and Pirates. “It’s the best Spring Training complex in all of baseball, and it really gives us the opportunity to provide our players with the resources and the tools to continue to develop. We do a lot of work with the mental side of the game. There’s a theater in there that we use for media presentations and movies and all types of things.
“Everything is centrally located. Whether we put the major league guys on one side and the minor league guys on the other, there’s a lot of synergy between the two sides of the complex, and it makes it easier when you have to run guys over to the big league games or vice versa. It just makes everything more convenient, and it flows well.”
For the past three and a half decades, the Cubs’ major and minor league Spring Training facilities were divided between Hohokam Park and the Fitch Park training facility in Mesa, which are located about a mile and a half apart. Though the distance wasn’t great, having two separate facilities created challenges for the player development team.
“Trying to do things with the major league and minor league sides, shuttling guys back and forth, and just the disconnect made it difficult a lot of times when we needed guys to run up to the big league games or get at-bats for the big leaguers in the minor league games,” Madison said. “It definitely posed a challenge for us, but fortunately now with everything being right there in one place, it’s amazing.”
Sloan Park provides all the amenities the organization needs in one location, with six practice fields, one infield practice diamond, 12 indoor batting cages, a two-story weight room and gym, four whirlpools and a hydrotherapy pool. Madison said the Sloan Park complex is in motion from January through December.
“In January, we conduct strength-and-conditioning camp for our minor leaguers, so we have about 40 players and staff out there working specifically on nutrition and strength training. But they’ll also do some on-field work. That runs through the end of the month, and big league Spring Training will open up shortly after that in the middle of February. We’ll have some board meetings out there that will run right into the big league reporting dates for pitchers and catchers. Minor league guys will show up first week of March and stay there until they break up for the minor league season, which will be the first week of April. Then we have extended Spring Training that runs all the way through the middle of June when the [rookie] Arizona League starts and runs through September. We give our guys about three weeks off, and then we have a group of about 75 select players that come in for our instructional camp, and those guys spend three weeks going through some intensive training, fundamental work, and a lot of mental work and presentations from our mental skills director.”
Sloan Park is also home to the Mesa Solar Sox of the Arizona Fall League, which kicks off just after the major league regular season ends in early October and runs through mid-November. The six-team league is comprised of top prospects from all 30 major league squads, with five different big league clubs represented on each team. Frequently, players chosen for the AFL find themselves on big league rosters within one year, so it’s a great place to see up-and-coming players before they hit the big time.
Although AFL games are not nearly as well-attended as Cactus League games—even in this high-powered league, the focus is generally on scouting and player development—Piper said the games were still a big hit for those who came.
“It’s a continuation of the player development programs at the facility,” Piper said. “And our guys get to be in their home facility while showcasing the facility to the other teams’ players.”
After the AFL slate ends, the Cubs hold another strength-and-conditioning camp during the first three weeks of November, and players on rehab assignments continue to use the facility through the middle of December.
“[The park] really only shuts down for the Christmas holiday through the New Year,” Madison said. “Right after the New Year, we start back up with that strength-and-conditioning camp again, so it’s an all-year operation. We’re really happy with the ability to be open and to be a resource for our guys.”
During its first year, the Sloan Park facility was an integral part of getting players to the next level, whether they were rehabbing from injuries, working on their skills or both. Outfielder Jorge Soler, the Cubs’ fourth-ranked prospect according to MLB.com, is a perfect example. Though he signed to great fanfare in 2012, Soler’s stock was slipping by the start of 2014 due to a rash of lower-body injuries that were keeping him off the field. After suffering another leg injury in his first game of the year at Double-A Tennessee, he returned to Mesa for a rehab assignment and spent about a month there.
“Our strength-and-conditioning guys came up with a program for him not only to rehab and get healthy, but also to change the mechanics of the way he runs to help him avoid some of those nagging injuries he’s had over the past couple of years,” Madison said. “Having that facility and all the space we needed from the strength and conditioning to the development standpoint and the biomechanical standpoint really allowed him to excel and hit the ground running as soon as he got back to Tennessee, Iowa and the big leagues.”
And once Soler was back on the field, the path from Double-A to Wrigley Field was a short one. The Cuban expat hit .292 with five home runs, 20 RBI and a .903 OPS after being called up to the Cubs on Aug. 27, kicking it all off with a monstrous, 400-foot home run to dead center field in his first big league at-bat off then-Reds starter Mat Latos.
Many of the team’s top prospects begin and end their baseball seasons at Sloan Park, some of them making frequent return visits. Athletic outfielder Jacob Hannemann, a two-sport star at BYU before signing with the Cubs in the third round of the 2013 draft, was part of a mini-camp at Sloan Park during the last two weeks of February 2014 and remained there all the way through Spring Training. When camp broke, he went to Kane County and was quickly promoted to Daytona. After the Florida State League playoffs, he came right back to Sloan Park for the instructional league and stayed there through the Arizona Fall League.
“He spent quite a bit of time [in Mesa],” Madison said. “A lot of our guys spent quite a bit of time, but it’s a place they don’t mind being because of all the facilities. The weight room is amazing. We have a Gatorade smoothie station that’s like a smaller version of a Jamba Juice in there. It’s a pretty good place to be.”
Though the Cubs organization keeps Sloan Park buzzing almost every day of the year, the facility is used for some non-Cubs activities as well. The park hosted everything from the NCAA’s Western Athletic Conference baseball championship, to a local, Chicago-style 16-inch softball tournament in which corporations played on the practice fields and held their championship game on the stadium field.
Sloan Park will also host the Walk to Cure Diabetes celebrating Ron Santo later this year, and the Great Arizona Beer Festival is scheduled to take place at the complex on April 18.
“We had some private rentals as well for festival-type events,” Piper said. “I think we’ll see more of that in the next year now that we’ve had a year to understand the facility.”
No matter what extracurricular activities the facility hosts, at its heart, Sloan Park bleeds Cubbie Blue. With its first year in the books, it definitely feels like home and has already made itself an integral part of how the Cubs do business, both on and off the field.
—By Charlie Vascellaro