Results tagged ‘ From the Pages of Vine Line ’

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Chicago Bears at Wrigley Field

Bears

The following can be found in the August issue of Vine Line.

Playing football at Wrigley Field always presented its fair share of challenges. First, there were the shorter-than-regulation end zones and the wooden boards covering the Cubs’ dugout entrances. Add in the tilted field, mercilessly beaten-up turf, tiny locker rooms and other quirks, and the gameday experience was far from perfect.

But that didn’t stop the Chicago Bears, one of the most storied franchises in football history, from calling the Friendly Confines home for a half century. Legendary players, from Dick Butkus to Mike Ditka to Gale Sayers, all graced the field, and the Bears brought the beloved stadium its most recent championship in 1963. If anything, the now-100-year-old ballpark’s quirks only added to the lore.

Of course, the substandard field conditions didn’t faze Butkus. The rough and rugged Hall of Fame linebacker said he enjoyed playing at Wrigley Field more than at Soldier Field, where the Bears moved on a permanent basis in 1971, during the latter stages of his career.
The Bears legend recalled an episode during his rookie season in which he was sitting in the crowded clubhouse awaiting instructions on the next day’s opponent, but couldn’t hear a word coach George Halas was saying.

“I don’t know what the deal was, but all the veterans would bring their dogs to practice and have them in the room there,” Butkus said. “The old man’s trying to talk, and the dogs are barking, and I’m thinking, ‘Jesus.’ One had a pit bull. [Ed O’Bradovich] had a Great Dane. But to me, that was the pros.”

Welcome to football at Wrigley Field. It might not have been the ideal situation, but it was never dull.

* * * *
Back when football was first played at Weeghman Park—as the stadium on Clark and Addison was known at the time—it wasn’t really done with the fans in mind. Getting spectators into the stadium was obviously a priority, but the new sport was primarily concerned with finding its footing in the muddy ground of expansionism. Football games were played at Weeghman simply because teams needed a venue, and the park’s owners felt it would be a good way to make a little extra cash. The stadium was sitting dormant for half the year anyway.

But the baseball-first facility presented a number of challenges when it came to laying out a 100-yard football pitch without risking player safety—especially after the renovation that added an outfield wall and reshaped the bleachers in 1937.

The field ran north and south from left field to behind home plate. The north end zone ended just 18 inches in front of the solid brick left-field wall, while the southeast corner of the south end zone extended into the first-base dugout. To even out the surface, the grounds crew filled the dugout steps with sand. This also meant that corner of the end zone was smaller than the regulation 10 yards.

These hazards might sound ridiculous given the way the modern game is played, but according to Cubs historian Ed Hartig, there were hardly gifted wide receivers, let alone fade routes leading players into the corners of the end zones, during that era.

“Back then, it was supposed to be a running game,” Hartig said. “You didn’t run to the back of the end zone to make a catch. This is a time when the goalposts were still on the goal line.”

* * * *
In the ballpark’s early football days, it mainly drew high school, military and semipro squads. Sometimes as many as four games per day were scheduled on the field. Starting in 1919, independent teams like the Hammond All-Star Football Club, which signed a six-game lease, wanted to test the sport’s popularity in the city.

With a roster that included players like Olympic great Jim Thorpe and Northwestern standout Paddy Driscoll, the Hammond squad managed to draw upward of 10,000 fans at some games that season. The potential of the new sport sparked the interest of a few more Chicago-based teams and quickly led the Decatur Staleys to the city’s North Side.

In 1920, former University of Illinois standout George Halas was put in charge of a company football team funded by food starch conglomerate owner A.E. Staley. In his inaugural season at the helm, Halas came up from Decatur to play a few neutral-site games and then led his Staleys to a de facto championship game at Cubs Park, where the team battled the Akron Steel to a 0-0 tie in front of 12,000 fans.
Halas believed the game might have an audience in Chicago, and, coincidentally, Staley was looking for an out.

“After a couple years, Mr. Staley said, ‘We’re a starch company. We’re not a sports team,’” Hartig said. “‘I can’t keep supporting [the team]. I will for one more year, if you can get an opportunity to find your own supporters.’”

With the temporary backing of Staley, Halas took the team from central Illinois to the big city in 1921 and quickly found a home—albeit one with a field that fell a few yards shy of regulation. Halas reached out to Cubs President and Treasurer Bill Veeck Sr. about using Cubs Park.
The two sides reached a handshake one-year agreement in just minutes. The Cubs received 15 percent of the gate (20 percent when the receipts exceeded $10,000) and the concessions, while the Staleys retained all rights to the game programs. According to the coach’s autobiography, Halas by Halas, the deal would remain unchanged for the remainder of the partnership.

“The deal they got at Wrigley in terms of concessions and that type of stuff was very, very favorable to the team,” Hartig said. “The Wrigleys weren’t looking to make a big amount of money off the Bears.”

In conjunction with the move, the team was renamed the Chicago Staleys. One year later, with the contractual obligation completed between Staley and Halas, the new owner changed the moniker to the Chicago Bears, noting that his football players were larger than the Cubs baseball players with whom they shared the stadium.

The Bears would call Wrigley Field home for the next 50 years, enjoying seven NFL titles, franchise-defining superstars and incredible individual performances. The field conditions were rarely pristine due to the team’s heavy practice load—the grass was usually gone so the team would paint the playing surface green—but some former players wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“Even though it was a baseball field, I just felt it was great playing there because that was the essence of being a pro,” said Butkus, who called Wrigley home from 1965-70. “A pro should be able to play at a prairie on the South Side if need be.”

Off the field, the locker rooms were also far from ideal. The Cubs clubhouse back then was a smaller version of the cramped quarters the North Siders call home today. But imagine that room with more people, bigger pads and larger human beings. Butkus joked the rooms were probably too small for a basketball team. Still, he believed it was a better situation than what the visiting teams had to deal with.

“I don’t think they were too happy with the field when they played here,” Butkus said. “I really don’t think the opposing team liked walking down from their locker room, with those screens there [and] with everybody yelling and throwing [stuff] at them.”
That’s home-field advantage at its Chicago best.

* * * *
Despite the stadium’s shortcomings, there was no shortage of great play on the field. One of the best individual performances in NFL history occurred at the Friendly Confines on Dec. 12, 1965, when Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers tied an NFL record with six touchdowns in a single game. All day long, he wove in and out of a hapless 49ers defense that had a difficult time keeping its footing in the heavy mud.

“It was my game, it’s as simple as that,” Sayers said. “I’ve always said, and I’ll continue to say, ‘God gave me a gift to go out there and run with the football,’ and that’s what I did. I probably could have scored 10 touchdowns that day, but, hey, the time ran out. It’s just a day that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Another notable performance on the Wrigley Field turf occurred in December 1963, when the Bears—led by quarterback Billy Wade and standout tight end Mike Ditka—wrapped up the NFL championship with a 14-10 win over the Giants. It marked the last time a Chicago team claimed a title at Wrigley Field.

Eventually, as the game grew, football became too big for the cozy confines of a baseball stadium. Attendance continued to soar, and the small ballpark was unable to expand to meet demand. In 1970, it was announced that the next fall’s season would be the last at the facility. While Wrigley Field generally held slightly less than 37,000 fans for baseball, the Bears drew at least 40,000 to each of their final 56 games there, a stretch that began on Dec. 16, 1962.

“There are a couple of reasons why they left,” Hartig explained. “The NFL wanted bigger stadiums, and the park just couldn’t do it. In addition, the NFL … got more into television coverage. They wanted cameras in the end zone, and there wasn’t really room for it [at Wrigley Field]. And the end zone was dangerous.”

On May 13, 1971, the Bears announced Soldier Field would become the organization’s new home. The bigger stadium held 52,000 fans—8,000 more than Wrigley held at capacity—and was much more prepared for the NFL’s massive growth. Despite the new venue, it wasn’t a hit with all the players.

“I really enjoyed playing [at Wrigley Field]. I thought it was better than going to Soldier Field the first couple years,” said Butkus, who spent three seasons at the Bears’ current home. “They put in the damn Astroturf, and in the locker room over there, you can see the beams holding up the stadium. It was ready to cave in at any moment, it looked like.”

The Bears have long had a reputation as a gritty, smashmouth football team. And while Soldier Field is packed with its own history, much of the dirt and grit that defined the organization’s early years first manifested at the corner of Clark and Addison.

“I enjoyed playing here at Wrigley Field,” Sayers said. “I’ve always said it was 50 yards wide and 100 yards long, and that’s all I needed.”

From the Pages of Vine Line: Cubs Rizzo showing power and patience

RIZZO_Feature

(Photo by Stephen Green)

The following story can be found in the August issue of Vine Line.

Of course Anthony Rizzo has seen the video. Like so many others who saw it happen live or viewed the highlight replay with mouths agape, Rizzo has watched the home run he hit off the Reds’ Alfredo Simon on June 23.

The blast (pictured on our August cover) was ridiculous—and nearly impossible. Simon threw Rizzo a high, hanging breaking ball that was so far off the plate the Cubs’ first baseman almost needed the proverbial 10-foot pole to reach it. But he did more than just reach it. He hit it well out over the left-field wall at Wrigley Field.

If Rizzo was impressed with himself, it wasn’t for the reasons you might think. Sure, it was a home run, but more important for the slugger, it was a piece of hitting that summed up how things have been going for him this season.

“The biggest thing is if I was trying to hit a home run there, I would have rolled over to the second baseman,” he said. “I just saw the pitch and went with it. That’s really all I need to do is just put a good swing on the ball. Good things have been happening. Fortunately enough, it was lifted in the air.

“I saw the ball well. I saw it up, out.”

At this point, bells should go off, heads should nod, and hallelujahs should be sung to the rafters, for therein lies the key to Rizzo’s success. Despite the fact that he is one of the Cubs’ veteran players, he just turned 25 years old this month, which means he’s still learning to be a major league hitter. And this season, it seems like he’s taken a big developmental step forward. Though he hasn’t necessarily altered his approach, the results have changed dramatically for the better.

As Monday’s 4-1 win over the Mets—one where he ripped a go-ahead home run—Rizzo’s on-base percentage was nearly 40 points above his career norm. His .376 OBP ranks ninth in the NL.

Through his first 122 games, Rizzo had a hitting line of .276/.376/.507 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 28 home runs, 67 RBI, 64 walks and 100 strikeouts. If you extrapolate those numbers over an entire season, they’re pretty darn good, which is why some are now grouping the 2014 All-Star in with the elite first basemen in the game.

But before you start talking about him having a bounceback season after “struggling” in 2013, know this: Anthony Rizzo carries a quiet defiance about the kind of season he had last year, when he hit .233/.323/.419 with 23 home runs and 80 RBI.

“I think last year was a good year,” he said. “I drove in a lot of runs. I walked a good amount (76 times). I had a lot of doubles (40). But the average obviously wasn’t there, and some people look at average. Some people don’t. In my opinion, it wasn’t a bad year. It wasn’t a great year, but it was kind of a baseline year.”

CORE IMPROVEMENT

That said, this year has felt completely different from last year for both Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, the spotlight has been laser focused on the Cubs’ young cornerstone players. If the team plans to contend soon, it needs both—each signed to team-friendly, long-term contracts—to show better than what they did last year.

To help that along, President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer hired new manager Rick Renteria to surround the Cubs’ young players with an aura of positivity and encouragement. Along with the new manager came a new hitting coach in Bill Mueller. While Renteria and Mueller knew all about Rizzo, they arrived with fresh perspectives and no preconceived notions.

“Coming in, you just go on what you’ve seen from video watching or from when they came in and played the Dodgers, seeing a glimpse,” said Mueller, who was with Los Angeles’ front office last year. “So there was nothing I had really built up until getting here and getting to know the guys personally and then seeing them before that relationship [started] to grow.

“He’s a very talented player, first off. I think with the new breath of fresh air with Ricky and the staff, that’s been a nice complement to come into the season. The whole staff has handled this group in a very positive way. That type of atmosphere has led some of these guys to have good starts.”

Renteria said he noticed the positive vibes emanating from Rizzo from the beginning of Spring Training. The new skipper also had time to visit with his first baseman during the Cubs Caravan and the Cubs Convention in January.

“He came into this season—to the spring, actually—with an idea that he wanted to improve on using a little bit more of the field, having better at-bats, not chasing pitches in off the plate,” Renteria said. “He’s done a really nice job of adjusting to doing that. I think he made a very big, conscious effort of working on his approach.

“When you have guys that are learning how to hit and have power, I think your approaches can pay big dividends because when you start squaring up the ball, the strength, in and of itself, gives you an opportunity to drive the ball out of the ballpark. That’s been really, really good. We’re really happy with the way he’s progressing, and hopefully it continues.”

THE PROCESS

Unlike the Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto—a player many compare Rizzo’s abilities to—who is willing to talk swing mechanics and hitting all day long, Rizzo is generally content to let others analyze his approach. In fact, he doesn’t really appear to like talking about himself when it comes to hitting.

“I kind of have the same mindset every year,” Rizzo said. “I work pretty hard in the offseason with my trainer. Really, it was no different this past year. [It was] the same things we’ve done the last five or six years in the offseason. It was getting ready for the season. At the same time, I didn’t hit more or less. I just stayed with it. I came to spring and wanted to get confident again.”

The comparisons between Rizzo’s combination of power and patience and Votto’s might be more apt than people realize. This winter, Rizzo was able to spend some quality batting-cage time with the 2010 NL MVP while the pair, along with Padres pitcher Casey Kelly, worked out together in Florida.

Like Rizzo, the Reds’ standout is a left-handed batter—and if there’s anyone a young player should want to emulate, it’s stat geek darling Votto, who gets on base at a dizzying rate. Given Major League Baseball’s grinding schedule and a rash of injuries, Votto hasn’t been able to watch much of Rizzo in 2014, but he likes what he has seen.

“I haven’t been able to see him enough, but I definitely see improvement in performance—more home runs, obviously, and a guy who seems to be walking a little bit more,” Votto said. “He’s a cool guy. He’s a nice guy. He’s a very, very easy guy to get along with. I can see why he’s having the type of success he’s having. He’s very talented.”

It can be difficult at times for left-handed hitters to hit left-handed pitchers, but that’s been another marked improvement for Rizzo this year. After going .189/.282/.342 with just seven of his 23 homers against left-handed pitchers a year ago, Rizzo put up a .302/.407/.516 with eight homers against lefties.

“For me, it’s just seeing the ball,” he said. “It’s never comfortable facing left-handers, especially the relievers who are just nasty. I just focus on seeing the ball. I feel if I see it, my hands will be good enough to put the bat on it.”

Generally, when left-handed hitters have success against left-handed pitchers, it’s because they try to go with the pitch, and by doing so, they “see” it longer on its path to the plate. But for a hitter as naturally gifted as Rizzo, it also has a lot to do with confidence.

“The general key might be that you have a lot of confidence in yourself right against left, and when you have things in your mind that you can attach your confidence to when you get in that box, those things sometimes translate,” Mueller said. “I think that’s what’s happening to Riz. He’s very confident in spots, and those translations are happening whether it’s a lefty or a righty, whether it’s a starter or a reliever. He’s putting together some really good approaches and some good at-bats. Sometimes when things are really starting off on the right foot, that carries over a little bit. You can gain some momentum with that.”

Given the preponderance of advanced stats and information available these days to even the casual fan, it’s easy to analyze—and overanalyze—a player’s performance. Whether or not you think Rizzo had a down year last year, whether or not you think his new approach is here to stay, whether or not you think he’s on pace to become a perennial All-Star, it’s important to remember failure is a big part of the sport, and the best players are able to learn from their struggles. Ultimately, baseball is a game, and it should be fun.

“I always tell myself, even now when I struggle, that it’s a process,” Rizzo said. “You look at guys throughout the year who have progressed every year and have gotten better, and that’s all you really want to do is just get better every year. The more at-bats you get, the more you feel like you’re going to learn in this league. It’s just a process.

“It was fun last year. It was. What’s fun about it is you put all this work in and when you do get results, it’s nice and rewarding. But it’s still fun. It sounds weird, but when you struggle, you appreciate the game too because it’s so hard. You have to have fun here. It’s too long of a season not to have fun whether you’re going good or bad. It’s about staying even-keeled whether you’re going good or bad. You have to come in and be the same person.”

—Bruce Miles, Daily Herald

From the Pages of Vine Line: Don Zimmer lived a baseball life

Zimmer

(Getty Images)

For the August issue of Vine Line, we took a look back at the inimitable career of former Cubs player, coach and manager Don Zimmer.

On July 17, 1990, manager Don Zimmer’s struggling Cubs squad was in the midst of a modest three-game winning streak. But what the team really needed was to get its slumping ace, Greg Maddux, back on track. Following a comfortable 7-2 win over the Padres, Zimmer was asked about the next day’s game and was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying:

“Hopefully, tomorrow, [Maddux] can go out and pitch well enough to get a W. If he does, who knows? He might win four, five, six games.”

And then the coup de grâce.

“I’d swim Lake Michigan if Maddux could win tomorrow.”

Though, at first glance, it would seem like a bad idea to bet against a future Hall of Famer and eventual 355-game winner, Maddux was in the midst of a rare rough patch. He had gone 0-8 in his last 13 starts with a 6.15 ERA and hadn’t won since May 5. He was also just 24 years old, and his shelves were not yet lined with Cy Young Awards, so a successful rebound wasn’t a certainty.

Apparently just as eager to see Zimmer jump in a lake as the press corps, The Professor responded by twirling seven solid innings in a Cubs 4-2 win and picking up his 50th career victory to propel the team to a three-game sweep of the Friars.

Following the game, Zimmer showed up at his press conference wearing sunglasses, an orange life jacket and an inflatable inner tube around his rather sizable waist. As for the 60-mile swim, the fun-loving Zim demurred, saying he swam “like a rock.”

“Sometimes you make statements,” he explained. “I just wanted the kid to win a ballgame.”

And that, in essence, was former Cubs player, coach and manager Don Zimmer, who died on June 4 in Dunedin, Florida, at the age of 83. He was passionate, comical and, above all, a dedicated baseball man who would do anything to motivate his players and pick up a win. Zimmer spent his life learning and trying to understand baseball, and he had a special gift for passing on his acquired knowledge in a friendly, accessible way.

“He was like a psychologist,” said Cubs Hall of Famer and former teammate Ernie Banks. “He understood things real well. A lot of people look at the world as backward. But he did not. He looked at [baseball] as a business you could learn. You can learn playing this game. You can learn how to play it. You can learn how to manage it.”

Over six professional decades, Zimmer made All-Star teams as a player and coach, collected six World Series rings, won a Manager of the Year Award and left an indelible mark on the game by influencing generations of players, from Cubs greats Ryne Sandberg and Mark Grace to modern superstars like Evan Longoria and Derek Jeter (who used to rub Zim’s head for luck before at-bats).

“[He was] iconic, jolly,” said Cubs outfielder Justin Ruggiano, who was with Tampa Bay when Zimmer was a senior advisor there. “He was a voice of influence—a man with so much history in the game you couldn’t help but engage with him in conversation about baseball, stories about baseball, advice about things you could do differently to help improve your game.”

THE LIFER

During his years on the diamond, the jowly, ebullient baseball lifer earned a reputation as a character. He was a phenomenal storyteller who was quick with a joke—especially if it was directed at himself.

Modern fans probably best remember Zimmer as the bench coach for Joe Torre’s championship New York Yankees teams, on which he collected four World Series rings between 1996-2003. In classic Zimmer style, he liked to downplay his impact on those dominant Yankees squads—even though Torre was always quick to admit he ran everything by his second in command, who managed more than 1,700 of his own major league games.

“People say, ‘What is the job of a bench coach?’” said Zimmer in a 2001 interview with Esquire. “Very simple—I sit next to Torre on the bench. When he plays hit-and-run that works, I say, ‘Nice goin’, Skipper,’ and if it doesn’t work, I go down to the other end of the bench, get a drink and get out of his way. We only got one manager. I don’t want no credit for doin’ anything.”
When most fans picture Zimmer, they probably see him wearing a green army helmet emblazoned with the Yankees logo one day after being struck on the side of his face by a foul ball during a 1999 playoff game against Texas. Or charging at, and being thrown to the ground by, then-Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez in the 2003 ALCS at 72 years old.

But lost in these remembrances is what a dedicated, intelligent, forward-thinking baseball man he actually was. Truly, there’s almost nothing Zimmer didn’t do in his years on a baseball field.

He married his high school sweetheart, Jean (nicknamed Soot), at home plate in Class-A Elmira, New York, in 1951, with his teammates holding a canopy of bats over their heads; he met Babe Ruth; he played alongside Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers; he helped move baseball westward on the inaugural Los Angeles Dodgers team; he was an original New York Met; he played in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Japan; he coached, he managed, he advised; he won World Series championships as a player and coach; and he taught legions of players what it means to be a major leaguer.

But Zimmer was also a survivor. He was fired from four managerial jobs; he was Boston’s manager when Bucky (Effin’) Dent hit his fateful, wind-aided home run over the Green Monster in the 1978 AL East tiebreaker game; and he had more than his fair share of run-ins with management.

But that was hardly the worst of it. During his playing career, he fought his way back from two near-fatal beanings—the first in 1953 and the second in ’56. The initial one, which happened when he was still in Triple-A, fractured his skull and left him unconscious for almost two weeks, requiring doctors to drill four holes in his head to relieve the pressure and swelling. The second, a fastball from Reds pitcher Hal Jeff-coat, crushed his cheekbone and almost cost him an eye. Though he was never really the same player after that, he still found ways to contribute to the game he loved and hung on to play until 1965.

“What you lack in talent can be made up with desire, hustle and giving 110 percent all the time,” Zimmer once told the Chicago Tribune.

Through it all, he never lost his passion for the game and never once considered any other career.

“I can’t say it enough about how much he still loved the game,” said former Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel, who met Zimmer during his time with the Rays. “To be in something for 60-plus years, you’ve got to really have a passion for it.”

CHICAGO LEGACY

Despite his success in New York, perhaps no stretch in Zimmer’s career was as wild and as colorful as his time with the Cubs. The squat, muscular infielder—his forearms were so large, Dodgers teammate Roy Campanella nicknamed him Popeye—made the lone All-Star appearance of his 12-year playing career as a Cubs second baseman in 1961. That season, he hit .252/.291/.403 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 13 home runs in 128 games.

Zimmer began his big league baseball career in 1954 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he won a World Series title as a reserve infielder in 1955 and then made the move westward to Los Angeles in 1958. In April 1960, with Maury Wills ready to take over the Dodgers shortstop job, Zimmer was traded to the Cubs for Ron Perranoski, Johnny Goryl, Lee Handley and $25,000.

But Zimmer’s first go-round in Chicago would be short-lived. In 1961, he played for the Cubs during the initial season of the College of Coaches. With the team forgoing a single manager and constantly changing leadership, owner Philip K. Wrigley and General Manager John Holland named Zim captain, calling upon his “veteran presence.”

But he ruffled a few feathers when WGN Radio broadcaster Lou Boudreau interviewed him midseason about the coaching experiment. Zimmer, as usual, spoke his mind and told the listening audience about the system’s faults—coaches playing favorites, guys not knowing who would be starting, one coach wanting things one way while another wanted things a different way, etc. The coaches had the radio on in the clubhouse and heard the interview. Afterward, one of them told Zimmer he wouldn’t have to worry about it for too much longer because he’d be gone before the start of the next season.

And the coaches were true to their word. On Oct. 10, 1961, Zimmer was selected by the New York Mets from the Cubs in the expansion draft. After that, he spent brief stints with the Reds, Dodgers and Senators, where he played his final major league game in 1965. He toiled one last year in Japan in 1966 and then moved into coaching, eventually becoming the manager of the San Diego Padres (1972-73), Boston Red Sox (1976-80) and Texas Rangers (1981-82).

He wouldn’t rejoin the Cubs until 1984, as the team’s third base coach under longtime friend and manager Jim Frey. Though that 1984 Cubs team ultimately won the NL East title, both Zimmer and Frey would lose their jobs in June 1986, with the club languishing 16.5 games out of first.

He spent the intervening years with the Yankees and Giants, but rejoined the North Siders as manager in 1988, when Frey was hired as GM following Dallas Green’s resignation.

After a below-.500 season in 1988, Zimmer had the finest managerial campaign of his career in 1989, when he led the “Boys of Zimmer” to a surprising NL East crown. His popularity on the North Side skyrocketed, as he used aggressive strategies no one had ever seen before—or since—to help Sandberg, Grace, Maddux, Andre Dawson, Rick Sutcliffe, Mitch Williams and the rest win 93 games.

“This guy was an amazing person,” Banks said. “He was like a genius to me. He could do things that were so special in this game. It was like the game was built for him. When he came in to manage the Cubs, the things that he was doing, nobody could understand it. Bases loaded—a bunt. You’d say, ‘Why is he doing that?’ He knew everything there is. He was one of the smartest guys I ever met in the game.

“He understood the fans here. He understood the players here. He understood everything about the park. The wind blowing out to right, the wind blowing to left field, the foul lines. I mean, he just knew everything about this park that I don’t think anybody knew about. He had great instincts for the game.”

Zimmer’s colorful personality and wild strategies grabbed the attention of the baseball world. Though the Cubs ultimately fell to the Giants in five games in the NLCS, he was awarded Manager of the Year for his efforts—and a permanent place in the hearts of Cubs fans everywhere.

“I’ve been in a lot of great cities and known a lot of great fans, but I’ve never seen so many fans of one team in so many different places,” Zimmer said during that 1989 season. “I was with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and there were a lot of Brooklyn fans everywhere, but I’ve never seen as many fans around the country as Cub fans.”

PAY IT FORWARD

In his last professional stop, Zimmer joined the Rays as a senior advisor in 2004 and remained there until his death. With Tampa Bay, the man who gave his life to the game was able to spend his later years dispensing knowledge and helping younger players develop.

“I always loved to go to the clubhouse early for lunch and just sit down, and he’d be in there, and he’d just be telling stories,” Ruggiano said of his days with the Rays. “I just feel like, as a player, you get a real feel for the history of baseball from older veteran guys’ stories, and he was one of the best at it. He could tell story after story. I didn’t want to leave, but I had to go work.”

Hammel, who was with the Rays during their shocking 2008 run to the World Series, credits Zim with helping turn that moribund franchise around after a decade in the AL East cellar.

“For him to come over and all of a sudden completely change the dynamic that he was surrounded with—[the Yankees had] a lot of veterans and a team that knew only winning,” Hammel said. “Then to come to Tampa, and it’s just a bunch of young guys who didn’t know winning. I really do believe he was part of the turnaround there.”

I guess, after 66 years on a baseball diamond, you learn a thing or two.

“The guy went through everything,” Ruggiano said. “You can imagine in 60 years of baseball, he’d been through everything that any player nowadays who plays the game for five or 10 years can go through. And then all the different things he did in the game—coaching, managing, playing. He had seen it all. He had so much information for younger guys that helped us all out.”

Zimmer is survived by his wife of 62 years; his son, Thomas; his daughter, Donna; and four grandchildren. He also leaves behind an unmatched baseball legacy and an unforgettable mark on Cubs history.

—Gary Cohen

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 2000s—Carlos Zambrano

Carlos_Zambrano

(Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images)

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the final installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, we look at the eccentric and exciting Carlos Zambrano. Though it might come as a surprise to some to see Big Z on the list, he had very solid numbers throughout the 2000s.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman
1940s – Bill Nicholson
1950 – Ernie Banks
1960s – Ron Santo
1970s – Rick Reuschel
1980s – Ryne Sandberg
1990s – Mark Grace

2000s – Carlos Zambrano, 26.5 WAR

Seasons: 2001-09
W-L: 105-68
G-GS: 259-238
IP: 1,549.0
K: 1,324
K/9: 7.70
ERA: 3.51

Say what you will about Carlos Zambrano’s time on the North Side. Sure, some of his most memorable moments in a Cubs uniform occurred inside the dugout, including a scuffle with teammate Michael Barrett in 2007 and a few notable run-ins with the beleaguered Gatorade dispenser.

But at the beginning of Big Z’s career, he was an animal on the bump as well. The hard-throwing Venezuelan made his debut in August 2001 and became a workhorse soon after, logging five consecutive seasons with 200-plus innings from 2003-07. During that time, he made three All-Star teams, finished in the top five in Cy Young voting three times, led the NL in wins in 2006 and earned MVP votes in 2004.

The right-hander was the only NL pitcher to win 13 or more games each year from 2003-08, and he served as the Cubs’ Opening Day starter from 2005-10.

Zambrano’s finest effort in a Cubs uniform came on Sept. 14, 2008, when he tossed the club’s first no-hitter in 36 years, striking out 10 batters and walking one in 110 pitches against the Astros. By the end of the 2000s, his numbers had slipped dramatically, and he was out of the game at age 31.

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 1990s—Mark Grace

Grace

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the ninth installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, we look at first baseman Mark Grace, one of the biggest fan favorites ever to play on the North Side. He’s also grossly underrated and essentially dominated the 1990s.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman
1940s – Bill Nicholson
1950 – Ernie Banks
1960s – Ron Santo
1970s – Rick Reuschel
1980s – Ryne Sandberg

1990s—Mark Grace, 36.2 WAR

Seasons: 1990-99
AVG/OBP/SLG: .310/.385/.449
PA: 6,467
HR: 117
R: 843
RBI: 786
SB: 49

Given Mark Grace’s enduring popularity on the North Side, it’s hard to believe how much the beloved first baseman flew under the radar on a national scale.

Throughout the 1990s, Grace’s WAR total ranks eighth of all NL position players. It’s also a well-known fact that he and Pete Rose are the only two players in major league history to lead the league in hits for a decade without being elected to the Hall of Fame. While those chances quickly faded—Grace received just 4.1 percent of the vote on his first Hall of Fame ballot in 2009, removing his name from future consideration—there’s a good reason Gracie has always been a fan favorite.

He had a solid debut in 1988, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting, before becoming a legitimate star in the 1990s. Not only did he lead the decade in hits, he also had the most doubles, went to three All-Star Games (1993, 1995 and 1997), and helped the Cubs to a postseason berth in 1998. For the decade, he hit .310/.385/.449 with 711 walks versus 448 strikeouts.

Grace was also one of the better defensive first basemen of his era, picking up four Gold Gloves, all in the 1990s. He would go on to win a World Series title with the Diamondbacks in 2001.

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 1980s—Ryne Sandberg

SandbergRyne

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the eighth installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, we look at second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who was not only the best Cubs player of the 1980s, but also one of the best in the game.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman
1940s – Bill Nicholson
1950 – Ernie Banks
1960s – Ron Santo
1970s – Rick Reuschel

1980s – Ryne Sandberg, 33.7 WAR

Seasons: 1982-89
AVG/OBP/SLG: .285/.341/.439
PA: 5,379
HR: 139
R: 754
RBI: 549
SB: 250

In January 1982, the Phillies were interested in acquiring the services of Cubs shortstop Ivan De Jesus. In exchange, Philly shipped the aging Larry Bowa to the North Side, along with a lightly regarded infield prospect named Ryne Sandberg. Little did the Philadelphia organization know it had just given up the most productive second baseman of the 1980s.

Sandberg went on to a remarkable 16-year career in Chicago and quickly became the face of the franchise. From his start with the Cubs in 1982 through the end of the decade, he won an MVP Award (1984), six Silver Slugger Awards and seven Gold Gloves. He also went to six All-Star Games.

While 1984’s “Sandberg Game”—a nationally televised affair in which he hit a game-tying home run in the ninth inning off Bruce Sutter and then another off the Hall of Famer in the 10th—was likely his most memorable performance, he also managed to lead his club to two postseason berths. In 10 playoff games, Ryno hit .385/.457/.641 with five doubles and six RBI.

He continued to produce at a high level into the early 1990s and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2005.

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 1970s—Rick Reuschel

Reuschel

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the seventh installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, we look at towering right-hander Rick Reuschel, who was a consistent workhorse throughout the 1970s.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman
1940s – Bill Nicholson
1950 – Ernie Banks
1960s – Ron Santo

1970s – Rick Reuschel, 41.3 WAR

Seasons: 1972-79
AVG/OBP/SLG: 114-101
W-L: 284-274
G-GS: 284-274
IP: 1834.1
K: 1122
K/9: 5.50
ERA: 3.43

Unlike some of the other players on this list, Rick Reuschel’s numbers don’t jump off the page. He even led the league in losses in 1975 with 17, albeit with a 3.73 ERA. But while he didn’t earn a lot of attention for his efforts, Reuschel was definitely the standout performer for the Cubs during a down decade—a stretch that saw the team win between 75 and 85 games nine times.

The right-hander’s lofty WAR total can largely be attributed to a clean bill of health and a high level of consistency. He won at least 10 games from his big league debut in 1972 through the end of the decade. He also pitched no fewer than 234 innings a season from 1973-79, making at least 35 starts in each of those years. As a result, his WAR total ranks fifth among all pitchers in the 1970s.

The 1977 All-Star wasn’t one to strike out a ton of hitters—he averaged 5.1 K/9 for his career—but he used deception and a wide arsenal of pitches to get hitters out.

Big Daddy’s finest season came in 1977, when he went 20-10 with a 2.79 ERA, made his lone Cubs All-Star appearance and finished third in the Cy Young race. He ultimately pitched for 19 seasons and earned 214 major league victories.

 

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 1960s—Ron Santo

Ron_Santo

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the sixth installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, we look at No. 10, who dominated the 1960s. Hall of Famer Ron Santo was one of the greatest, and most well-liked, Cubs of all time.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman
1940s – Bill Nicholson
1950 – Ernie Banks

1960s – Ron Santo, 56.3 WAR

Seasons: 1960-69
AVG/OBP/SLG: .281/.366/.478
PA: 6,531
HR: 253
R: 816
RBI: 937
SB: 27

Let’s not beat around the bush—Ron Santo was Cubs baseball in the 1960s. There were other greats, including Billy Williams and Banks, but for most of the decade, the North Side was Ronnie’s World.

The only players who had a higher WAR total in Major League Baseball during the 10-year span were fellow Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente.

Offensively, Santo always found a way to reach base. During the 1960s, he led the league in bases on balls four times and finished with 86 walks or more seven times. It’s no surprise he led the league in on-base percentage twice.

Santo went to six All-Star Games in the decade and was a starter three times. He also received MVP votes seven times, including a fourth-place finish in 1967. Though his decade slash line of .281/.366/.478 isn’t historically impressive, from 1963-67, he was a .301 hitter, averaging 30 homers and 27 doubles. Always slick with the glove, Santo got it done on defense as well, claiming five straight Gold Glove awards from 1964-68.

After a long wait, Santo was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 2012.

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 1950s—Ernie Banks

Banks_10-10

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the fifth installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, it’s Mr. Cub Ernie Banks’ time in the spotlight. During the 1950s, he put together one of the best stretches for a shortstop ever.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman
1940s – Bill Nicholson

1950s – Ernie Banks, 39.6 WAR

Seasons: 1953-59
AVG/OBP/SLG: .295/.355/.558
PA: 3,954
HR: 228
R: 582
RBI: 661
SB: 35

Ernie Banks’ 1950s WAR total is the sixth best among NL offensive players for the decade. It’s even more impressive when you consider he was active for only six full seasons during that stretch.

With segregation still impacting professional baseball, Banks didn’t join the major leagues until September 1953, when he played 10 games with the Cubs just before the season ended.

But by the latter stages of the 1950s, Mr. Cub was striking fear into the hearts of NL pitchers. In 1958 and 1959, he put up two of the most productive seasons ever—no shortstop has put up a similar WAR total in a single season since.

In 1958, he claimed two-thirds of the Triple Crown, hitting 47 homers and driving in 129, all while batting a career-best .313. The following year he slammed 45 homers and had a league-leading 143 RBI. He claimed MVP awards in both years.

For the decade, Banks averaged 33 homers versus just 62 strikeouts per season—and this was at a time when very little offense was expected of middle infielders. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in 1954 and went to five All-Star Games in the 1950s, starting three.

Mr. Cub was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.

 

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 1940s—Bill Nicholson

Nicholson

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the fourth installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, Bill “Swish” Nicholson provided the team with some necessary pop in the 1940s, especially during the early part of the decade.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman

1940s – Bill Nicholson, 36.9 WAR

Seasons: 1940-48
AVG/OBP/SLG: .271/.369/.472
PA: 5,371
HR: 200
R: 701
RBI: 795
SB: 26

Bill Nicholson was at his best in 1943 and 1944, when he won both the home run and RBI titles. He hit 29 homers and knocked in 128 in 1943, and followed that with 33 bombs and 122 RBI in 1944, when he was runner-up in the MVP voting. The right fielder also led the league in runs scored that year. But power was Nicholson’s game, as his 211 home runs in the 1940s (200 coming with the Cubs from 1940-48) rank second in the decade among NL hitters. All four of his All-Star appearances were with the Cubs during the 1940s, and he made starts in 1941 and 1943. Despite earning the nickname Swish for his swing-and-miss tendencies, Nicholson managed to draw more walks than strikeouts in his nine seasons on the North Side.

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