Results tagged ‘ From the Pages of Vine Line ’
Photo by Stephen Green
At the season’s outset, many thought starter Kyle Hendricks wouldn’t last in the Cubs rotation. Now he might be the best pitcher in the National League. We break down the Cy Young contender’s rise from fifth starter to ERA leader. The following story can be found in the October issue of Vine Line.
By Gary Cohen
Baseball fans love fireworks. They pack stadiums to witness majestic moon shots and glove-popping 98-mph heaters; they line dugouts to get autographs from players like Kris Bryant and Jake Arrieta; and they study the stat sheets to divine the latest league leaders.
The numbers have always defined the game. It doesn’t take more than a mention of 755, .406 or 511 for most fans to know exactly who and what you’re talking about.
Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks is unlikely to excite this set. In many ways, he’s a Bizarro superstar—a hero hidden behind a mild-mannered exterior.
Hendricks is far from an intimidating physical presence on the mound. His fastball averages just 87.6 mph, 71st out of 78 qualified pitchers—and two of the guys behind him are knuckleballers. He was drafted in the 39th round by the Angels out of high school and in the eighth round by the Rangers out of college. On paper, not much about him is eye-popping. But, as the old saying goes, games are not played on paper.
Though the unflappable 26-year-old has quietly put up one of the best statistical seasons of any starting pitcher in baseball—orbiting the same stratosphere as names like Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Noah Syndergaard and Arrieta—many expected he would eventually get squeezed out of the Cubs rotation by new acquisition Adam Warren at the season’s outset, and few even recognized his efforts until the dog days of August. But consistently flying under the radar is nothing new for Hendricks.
“It’s something I’ve been dealing with my whole career, probably my whole life, growing up, being one of those guys who didn’t throw hard,” Hendricks said. “I don’t think it bothered me as much as maybe it would someone else, just because I’ve had that all the way coming up. I’ve always had the critics. ‘He didn’t throw hard enough, this and that.’ At the end of the day, I’ve always learned you just have to have confidence in yourself.”
And why wouldn’t Hendricks be brimming with confidence? The California native wrapped up the season leading Major League Baseball with both his 2.13 ERA and 188 ERA+, which takes standard ERA and normalizes it across the league, accounting for external factors like ballparks and opponents. A 100 ERA+ is league average. Hendricks’ 188 is 88 percent better than league average. His 0.98 WHIP ranked second in the NL, and his .207 batting average against ranked third.
So the big question is why do many around the game still view Hendricks as the Cubs’ fifth starter or talk about him as nothing more than a fringe Cy Young candidate? The answer—as unsatisfying as it is—is simple: He doesn’t look the part. He doesn’t snarl and glower on the mound like John Lackey. He doesn’t throw the kind of gas that makes fans swoon when the number appears on the left-field video board like Aroldis Chapman. Though he is 6-foot-3, he’s not a physical paragon like fellow Cy Young contender Arrieta. In fact, he looks every bit the Dartmouth-educated economics major he actually is.
But game by game, the cerebral hurler is proving you don’t need to bring the heat to put a chill into opposing offenses. You just need to be able to execute pitches and place them exactly where hitters least expect them to be.
It’s always darkest before the dawn. Though 2015 was an ascendant season for the Cubs organization, with the club notching its first postseason appearance since 2008 and winning its first playoff series since 2003, things never quite felt right for Hendricks from an individual standpoint. By the time the
Cubs had moved into the postseason, manager Joe Maddon had him on a short leash. In two playoff starts, one in the NLDS and one in the NLCS, the right-hander went 4 and 4.2 innings and put up a 5.19 ERA. But the problems started much earlier than that.
The 2016 model of Hendricks has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt you don’t need to throw 95 miles per hour to get batters out. But if you are one of the dying breed of non-knuckleballers who throws under 90, you certainly don’t have as much leeway to make mistakes. Hendricks admitted his mechanics didn’t feel right from Day 1 in 2015, and that created a ripple effect of problems that undercut his performance.
“Last year when I was out of it, I didn’t feel confident,” he said. “I didn’t feel I could put the ball where I wanted to, and as a command guy, that’s the No. 1 problem. My stuff isn’t going to beat you, so I have to have command. I have to be able to put the ball where I want to. When I’m not doing that, confidence is tough to come by. So when I was in those situations, I was going to my sinker and change-up, things I could rely more heavily on.”
Pitchers like Hendricks count on keeping hitters off balance, and, as he said, opposing offenses could comfortably sit on the sinker or change-piece in key spots. Because he was working harder to get batters out and his rhythm was predictable, Hendricks seldom went deep into ballgames. His first time through an order, hitters posted a .228/.296/.355 line against him. By his third time facing the same hitters, they pounded Hendricks to a .329/.374/.520 mark, which explains why he lasted only 5.6 innings per start.
“Last year, I think he was a little bit too predictable,” said catcher Miguel Montero. “We talk about a lot last year, and I give him some advice here and there, but I don’t think he was ready. Actually, we talk about the same thing this year, and I say, ‘What you’re doing now, that’s what I was trying to tell you to do last year.’ We had talked about it, and he gave me the right answer. He said, ‘You know what? I don’t think I was ready last year to try it.’
“I wanted him to use his whole repertoire. I don’t want him to fall into a pattern using the same pitches over and over and over and over. You can see the first time through [the order], he was on cruise control last year. The second time through, he had a little bit of a tough time. And then when the third time through came up, he was out of the game.”
Even with all this working against him, Hendricks was still able to make 32 starts, strike out 167 hitters versus only 43 walks and post a 3.95 ERA. There are plenty of pitchers who would happily take that line in their first full professional season. But Hendricks definitely isn’t among that number.
“I think the standards of what we’re trying to do here [are very high],” he said. “Even with all the games we won last year, coming into this year, with what we’re trying to accomplish, there’s a very heightened sense of what you need to do.”
PAINTING THE BLACK
To say things have been different for Hendricks this season would be a vast understatement. He used his frustrating 2015 campaign as fodder to spur the next major step forward in his development, and his darting pitches have been baffling opponents since the spring.
“I kind of got out of my mechanics a little bit in the middle of last year,” Hendricks said. “When you go into those kinds of slumps, it helps you learn more about yourself coming out of it. So I had better cues, better checkpoints in my delivery, basically. I was able to kind of work those in at the end of the season last year, so going into the offseason, spring training, they just kind of followed from there.”
This year, Hendricks has quite simply been one of the best pitchers in baseball, he made organizational history for his efforts. He won the ERA title—his 2.13 mark was more than 30 points ahead of teammate Jon Lester, who took second in the National League. No Cubs pitcher has led the NL in ERA since “Big” Bill Lee in 1938 (2.66), and that includes Arrieta, who won the Cy Young Award in 2016 but still finished second in the ERA chase to Zack Greinke.
“He’s one of the most fun guys to watch pitch because he can dominate a lineup with 88-90 and a change-up,” Arrieta said. “A guy like myself can learn a lot from that, knowing we don’t have to try blowing 96 by guys or throw an amazing breaking ball to get a swing and miss. You’ve got to be good about changing speeds and changing eye level. He does that extremely well.”
Because Hendricks has been so much better this year, there’s a tendency to assume there was some dramatic change he made. The bottom line is: There really isn’t one. It all comes down to small adjustments and execution.
He used to throw a cutter, which he gave up on early last year, and he’s using his change-up, always his best pitch, a little more. Perhaps the biggest differences are that he’s frequently mixing in his four-seam fastball, with which he can touch 90 mph, and his curveball has become a plus offering. He’s not necessarily using it more, but it’s a much bigger weapon.
“That’s become a big pitch for him,” said Cubs bullpen coach Lester Strode. “Last year, it was more of a strike pitch. This year, he’s able to get guys out with it.”
He also feels much stronger heading into the most important games of the Cubs campaign. He’s worked hard to keep his body in shape and has even started practicing yoga. Unlike many pitchers, Hendricks likes to throw off the mound twice between starts, and he’s been doing a lot more long toss, a preferred workout of his, all season.
“I basically throw two shorter bullpens,” Hendricks said. “I’ve noticed it just helps me touching the mound more and getting more reps. I think because I’m that command-type guy. It just helps me stay sharper, and I don’t really fatigue too much from it.”
And the results bear that out. From June to September, Hendricks went 13-4 with a 1.80 ERA in 134.2 innings pitched. Besides his season finale on Oct. 2, he hadn’t given up more than three earned runs in a game since May 17, his seventh start of the season.
While his velocity dropped as last year wore on, it has actually increased this year. After starting the 2015 season throwing his fastball at 89.2 mph, according to Brooks Baseball, he was at his lowest velocity of 87.1 in October. This season, he was averaging 87.4 in April but had jumped to 89.2 by August.
When Hendricks came up to the big leagues with the Cubs in 2014, not much was expected of him, but he opened eyes around the league by putting up a 7-2 record and a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts for an improving team. He threw five pitches, all with movement, and had excellent command. His most effective weapon was probably his change-up, but he also had a sinking fastball that helped limit hard contact and keep the ball on the ground.
At first, the comparisons were inevitable, if not grandly premature. In the modern era, Hendricks is a far cry from flame-throwing behemoths like Syndergaard, Max Scherzer and Arrieta. Immediately, people started comparing him—though often a bit sheepishly—to Hall of Famer and four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux. The two even share a nickname: The Professor.
These days, that comparison is looking a bit more apt. Hendricks has become a true pitcher, someone who methodically studies, game plans and breaks down hitters’ tendencies. He knows what works for him, and understands how to exploit an opposing offense’s weaknesses.
“I was sitting in the bullpen the other day, and I was watching Kyle pitch, and one guy popped in my mind right away, and that’s Greg Maddux,” Strode said. “I said, ‘This guy is pitching just like Greg Maddux did.’ He’s not trying to overpower anybody. He’s making his pitches, locating pitches, changing speeds when he needs to change speeds on guys. He’s doing the exact same thing Greg did.”
Plus, Hendricks has the pitch mix and command to hit every quadrant of the zone. In other words, if you have a weakness, he can attack it. With his newfound confidence this year, he’s doing just that.
“Every time he’s pitching and we go over the scouting report, he’s locked in on it,” Montero said. “On every hitter, every pitch, he’s pretty locked in. You can see other pitchers, you go over the scouting report, and they got a little doubt here and there. He’s a guy who doesn’t have any doubts. He tell you what he wants to do and what the hitters’ weaknesses are and strengths. It’s pretty good. Obviously, you need to execute regardless, but he knows if he’s going to go fastball in, he’s got fastball in on this guy. He knows he can execute it, and he knows he’s got that pitch.”
In 2016, Hendricks has generated soft contact 25.1 percent of the time, more than any other pitcher in the game. Plus, he’s getting ground balls at a nearly 50 percent rate and limiting home runs, a problem for him last season. That’s a lethal combination that’s left even his more seasoned Cubs teammates awestruck.
“It’s kind of hard to believe now, realistically, you have a guy who throws 88, 89, touches 90, dominating the way he’s dominating,” Montero said. “But that’s the art of pitching. Pitching is not just throwing as hard as you can. Pitching is just having the art to actually change the speeds, change eye levels, move the batter, things like that. And he’s pitching. He’s not just throwing the ball. He’s actually pitching, and he’s a full-package pitcher.”
The unassuming Hendricks finds the comparisons flattering, obviously, but understands that Maddux became Maddux only by delivering consistent excellence over a 23-year career. You don’t win 355 games if you can’t sustain your stuff and deliver clean, repeatable mechanics.
“Sometimes I don’t think a lot of it, and sometimes it’s humbling,” Hendricks said. “Just to have it over and over, to hear it multiple times, I guess makes it the humbling part. But on the other hand, the things he’s done in this game are just unbelievable. So the comparisons as far as pitcher type, that kind of thing, maybe I’ll take. Beyond that, there’s not much I can really accept from that. He’s one of the best in the game, one of the best of all time, and I’ve got a long way to go.”
Because Hendricks looks like a regular human specimen on the mound and seldom breaks 90 on the radar gun, it’s easy to assume he’s the classic “comfortable 0-for-4” pitcher. In other words, hitters see him well, but somehow still can’t make hard contact. Cubs teammates dispute that theory.
“I don’t think it’s a comfortable at-bat just because you don’t know what you’re going to get,” said Lester, a fellow Cy Young contender. “That change-up, I think, is in the back of everybody’s mind, and now he’s started throwing his curveball a little bit more. A lot of guys who throw sinkers can’t throw four-seamers, and he throws that four-seamer. I think guys go up there with six different pitches in six different locations in mind, so I wouldn’t think it would be a comfortable at-bat.”
GUNNING FOR GREATNESS
Given Hendricks’ inscrutable mien, it’s ironic his favorite pitchers growing up were Pedro Martinez and Jake Peavy, notorious bulldogs who were unafraid to wear their emotions on their sleeve. Though he’s extremely well-liked in the clubhouse, Hendricks is notably quiet and generally keeps to himself. His teammates joke that they never know he’s arrived until they look over and actually see him sitting at his locker.
But don’t take Hendricks’ calm disposition to mean he’s not competitive. He’s a black belt in karate, and he’s determined to excel at whatever he sets his mind to.
“Everybody goes out there in a different mindset,” Lester said. “Some guys have to calm themselves down. Some guys have to act like nothing bothers them. Other guys pitch with their emotions on their sleeve. No one way is right. I don’t think you can dog a person because they don’t show emotion. That doesn’t mean they don’t care. I think when you’re around him, and you see every day what he does to prepare—for me that’s when you know somebody cares is the prep work and how much that day means to them.”
As a young pitcher, Hendricks has leaned on veteran catchers Montero and David Ross to help him understand how to execute a game plan, and he watches his fellow starting pitchers—by far the best unit in the game this season—to see how they attack hitters and keep their bodies healthy over the 162-plus-game haul.
“I have my own routine, I’m my own pitcher, I do my own type of things,” Hendricks said. “But watching the consistency and the dedication they put into their craft each and every five days, you know just how hard they work to get ready for the next start. There’s never a day off. They’ve never taken it easy. They know how to get their body ready to endure this long season and the playoffs. I take a lot of tips about those kinds of things.”
Despite all the Cy Young chatter this year, Hendricks said his life hasn’t changed all that much. The team is certainly more high profile, but he tries not to be. He lives close to Wrigley Field and occasionally still walks to games. Surprisingly, he said he seldom gets recognized.
“It’s once in a blue moon almost,” he said. “I just keep my head down. With my body type, people aren’t really going to recognize me. Which, the way my personality is, I’m fine with that.”
Hendricks admitted he’s humbled by being in the awards mix, but his 4.1 WAR, eighth in the NL, certainly justifies his inclusion. Still, the Cubs have their sights set on much bigger goals this season. Personal accolades, though nice, are nothing compared to what they’re shooting for.
“At the end of the day, those are just individual honors,” Hendricks said. “We have such higher hopes here of what we’re trying to do, so there’s a lot more to it. Trying to keep your body healthy. Do what you need to do to get through the end of the year and really make sure you’re hot and ready to go for the playoffs.”
In just his third professional season, Hendricks has become one of the elite arms in the game—whether fans and pundits realize it or not. Even on a team of aces, he’s far from a fifth starter anymore. He’s been the steadiest, most consistent performer all season long, and has had a unique knack for giving the team exactly what it needs.
He may look like more like Clark Kent on the mound, but he’s been a genuine Superman for the 2016 Cubs.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
There’s a big divide between Kris Bryant the media creation and Kris Bryant the man. As an exercise, let’s separate these dueling Bryants into column A and column B.
In column A, you have the burgeoning celebrity. This is the young superstar who hit .275/.369/.488 with 26 home runs and 99 RBI in his All-Star rookie campaign. The 6-foot-5 matinee idol whose crystal blue eyes have spawned multiple Twitter accounts. The man who collected the Golden Spikes (given to the nation’s best amateur player), Minor League Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards in consecutive seasons. This is the Scott Boras client whose image was plastered across an enormous Adidas billboard staring down at Wrigley Field from Addison Street to start the 2015 season—before he had even cracked the 40-man roster. He’s the Sports Illustrated cover boy who has done viral videos for Lyft and Red Bull—posing as a taxi driver, swimming with sharks and masquerading as a European transfer player at Mesa Community College—and who was recently named the face of Express clothing.
It’s a compelling package, and, like with any celebrity, it’s easy to assume you know Bryant from this well-publicized and carefully groomed construction.
But the Bryant in column B is markedly different. This is the quiet, usually smiling gentleman teammates see in the clubhouse. This Bryant is confident and likes to have fun, but he’s also polite, respectful and hesitant to draw attention to himself. He works hard and listens to his coaches. He’s the humble player who calls his dad after most games and recently got engaged to his high school sweetheart.
So how did Bryant B, the flesh-and-blood human being who is still working to adjust to this rapidly expanding new life, learn to embrace Bryant A? The 24-year-old has the remarkable ability, rare in someone so young, to separate what he does on the field from what he does off the field. He has no problem saying no to the things he doesn’t want to do, but he embraces the opportunities that sound fun, confident in the belief that taking time away from the game to clear his head will ultimately make him a better player.
“I completely leave the game at the field—other than, I’ll probably call my dad after the game and talk to him about it,” Bryant said. “After that, I’m done. I watch Netflix. We go out to dinner a lot, especially in Chicago. The food is awesome. I play a little guitar too. I just tinker around with some things, video games, that kind of thing.
“But there is never much time off the field when you’re not playing. You have a couple of hours after the game to watch some TV, go to sleep, wake up, go right to the field. It’s a crazy lifestyle, but a lifestyle I want to live.”
Of course, the celebrity Bryant persona is still quite new and will take some getting used to. So for now, he’s moving forward one step at a time and trying to remain laser-focused on getting better at his day job.
Everything about Bryant’s career so far has had a whiff of inevitability to it. At times, he’s seemed like a man among boys—even when he was still a boy himself.
Bryant’s father, Mike, a former minor-league outfielder in the Red Sox organization and a disciple of Ted Williams, loves to tell of how his son still holds the Las Vegas Little League record for home runs in a season. As a senior at Bonanza High School, Bryant hit .489 with 22 home runs and 51 RBI en route to AFLAC, Baseball America and USA Today high school All-American honors. In his junior (and final) year at the University of San Diego, he mashed 31 home runs, which seems like a reasonable total for a man with his size, power and uppercut swing—until you realize Bryant hit more homers than 223 out of 298 Division I baseball programs by himself and led the NCAA in eight different offensive categories, including runs, slugging percentage, total bases and walks.
After the Cubs selected him second overall in the 2013 draft, he continued to punish baseballs. From his rookie-league debut until his major-league call-up on April 17, 2015, Bryant hit an absurd .327/.426/.667 with 55 bombs and 152 RBI in 181 minor-league games.
“If you just look at him, he looks the part,” said Cubs assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske, a 12-year major-league veteran who won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2002 with Toronto. “The guys that are the All-Stars and the Hall of Famers, they’re touched on the way out. He’s one of these guys who is just blessed with all the talent, and he’s got the right head on his shoulders. The sky is the limit, for sure.”
In some ways, Bryant was biomechanically engineered to be a major-league slugger. His father, who gives private lessons in his backyard batting cage in Las Vegas, has admitted to treating his son like a big-league hitter since he was a preteen. From the age of 5, Bryant was getting daily swing lessons and learning the intricacies of Williams’ seminal opus, The Science of Hitting. The main lesson—and one the slugger has internalized well—was to hit the ball hard and put it in the air.
Mike Bryant worked tirelessly to fine-tune his son’s trademark uppercut swing, designed to loft the ball with sufficient drive and backspin to carry it out of most parks, short of Yellowstone. The problem with that extreme uppercut is that it also creates a lot of swing and miss. Despite spending the first few games of the 2015 season at Triple-A Iowa, Bryant still led the NL in strikeouts with 199. While the young slugger understands strikeouts are an inevitable byproduct of the way he swings the bat, he did notice last season that he was missing on too many pitches in the strike zone.
“He’s talked a lot about staying flatter in the zone with his bat path,” Hinske said. “He has a tendency to uppercut his swing a little bit, so he wants to keep that barrel in the zone longer. He’s worked a lot in the offseason doing that. He does a stop-the-bat drill where he just tries to stop that barrel in the zone using his lower half to get there. He works at his craft, man. He’s a pro, and he’s got an idea.”
Both hitting coach John Mallee and Hinske agree that Bryant is almost the perfect pupil. He takes coaching well, and his problems are easy to fix because he’s so mechanically correct.
“His aptitude is tremendous,” Mallee said. “He studies the opposing pitcher, he takes a lot of pride in his pregame preparation, and he develops his own plan when he gets up in the game. If he sticks to his plan, he’s as good as anybody.”
That’s high praise for a man who came into the 2016 season with only 650 major-league plate appearances. But hitting exploding fastballs and gravity-defying sliders from the best pitchers on the planet takes more than just the right chromosomal mix. As the old adage goes, even the best hitters fail seven out of 10 times, and no rookie gets through his initial tour of duty without hitting the skids for a few games.
Though Bryant famously didn’t log his first major-league home run until May 9 of last year, 21 games into his career, he actually still swung the bat well during that brief power outage. His season found its nadir between July 6 and Aug. 6, when he hit .168/.289/.295 with only two home runs and 38 strikeouts in 27 contests, dropping his season average 29 points in the process.
“He got in a little bit of a funk there, and the veterans picked him up and kind of showed him the way to get through it,” Mallee said. “When you have that much talent, if we can just not let him think of it as a big situation—[we want to] just let him go up there and see it and hit it and let his instincts take over.”
It would have been more than understandable if Bryant had started to press, as a young man trying to prove himself in the big leagues. But that’s what truly separates him from most of the other premier hitters around the league. He has an almost preternatural calm about him. Teammates rave about his ability to never get too high or too low, which allows him to easily shrug off the occasional 0 for 4.
“The mental game is huge in baseball, and he’s very strong-minded up there,” said teammate Kyle Schwarber. “It’s easy to get down on yourself when you’re going bad. Everyone gets to that point of second-guessing themselves at some point. A couple of bad games here and there, and you start thinking about it too much. But he does a really good job of turning that switch back on and getting right back to it.”
Bryant also has a unique ability to made adjustments quickly if things get out of whack. When most hitters are battling their swing, it can take weeks in the cage and/or video room to find the microscopic grain of sand in the machine. But Bryant has such a good feel for his mechanics and is such a student of hitting that he can sometimes make at-bat-to-at-bat adjustments. This is a skill even other major leaguers marvel at, and it’s anomalous in someone so young.
“[Making those adjustments] is hard,” Schwarber said. “I mean, you’re seeing the best pitching from around the world. These guys are getting paid a lot of money to get you out, and you have to make adjustments on the fly because they start picking up on what your weaknesses are pretty quick.”
When a player appears to be a perfectly tuned hitting machine, it can be easy to forget he’s also a human being. While Bryant was racking up accolades last year, he was also adjusting to a completely different life, both on and off the field. Almost every pitcher he faced last season was new to him, meaning he had very little intelligence on how they would attack him and what their pitches would look like in real time. And that doesn’t even factor in what it feels like to stand in the batter’s box at Dodger Stadium for the first time.
“It’s great to get to know the pitchers better,” Bryant said. “It’s not just me going up there and saying, ‘Oh man, it’s Max Scherzer. I saw him on TV. He was on my fantasy team a couple of years ago.’ You know? He’s just another guy in the big leagues, and you have to approach it that way. Every pitcher is a nameless, faceless opponent, and that will be easier this year.
“That’s the biggest thing when you get up there and you start facing guys who are household names. Playing against guys like that, it’s really hard to get over that hump and realize that it’s just another game of baseball, just at a different level, with cameras everywhere and a whole lot of fans in the stands.”
One factor that made last season even more complicated was the constant scrutiny he was under. Every time Bryant came to the plate in 2016, it was like Christmas morning for the media and fans. What will he do this time? Can he clear the new left-field video board? When will he detonate the next walk-off bomb?
While the hype may not dissipate given his rookie performance and the expectations saddling this 2016 Cubs squad, Bryant is more of a known commodity this year, and there are plenty of other stars around him to pull focus.
“The whole hype thing and the tuning in to every at-bat, it’s something as a player, I don’t know if you really want that,” Bryant said. “You just want to go out there and play your game. I think this year will be a little bit more of that. Just let me go out there and play and do what I do on the field and kind of keep all that other stuff a little bit more quiet, which will be nice for me and the team.”
In some ways, baseball has always come easy to Bryant. But it’s nearly impossible to prepare a person for the constant stream of demands and opportunities that accompanies celebrity. And Bryant is undeniably a celebrity.
Though he is surprisingly grounded and calm, he still leaned heavily on his clubhouse mates to ease him through the adjustment period. It helped that he was far from the only rookie sensation on the team, as he came up in the same season as Addison Russell, Schwarber and Jorge Soler. Another plus was that the team was in the hunt all season long. There was little time for clubhouse hazing and rookie initiations (though the rookies did have to put on princess dresses for the occasional flight) with the club fighting for a playoff spot down the stretch.
“It definitely was easier because we had so many young guys, but it wasn’t just because of all the young guys,” Schwarber said. “The veteran presences around us brought us in. It was, ‘You’re part of this team, and let’s go.’
“It definitely makes it easier when you have a group of guys up here who are so worried about winning, they don’t really have time to waste. It’s time to go, and when we get up here, they don’t treat us any differently. They treat us with respect, and we treat them with respect.”
Bryant’s true partner in crime on the Cubs is Anthony Rizzo. The two fun-loving former top prospects bonded almost immediately last year, spawning the Bryzzo phenomenon, which has since been immortalized in a commercial for MLB.com.
“We just have fun, we’re young,” Bryant said. “We just have a good time on the field and goofing around in the locker room. It really isn’t just us though. There are so many people here and different personalities who like to goof around. But he’s a really good guy. He does a lot for the community. He’s someone I look up to in terms of that. He does so much for people and treats everybody with respect. It’s good to see that out of a superstar.”
Bryant is a firm believer in working hard when it’s time to work and getting completely away from the game during his downtime. That philosophy is not altogether different from the way manager Joe Maddon handles things, and it may be the key to a healthy major-league lifestyle. Across every sport, there have been plenty of athletes who have lost their way when the “A-Rod” or “Johnny Football” or “Star-bury” alter egos overwhelmed their real lives.
While the offseason was busy for Bryant, he did manage a little rest and relaxation. Aside from getting engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Jessica Delp, he said the best thing he did this winter was travel to Hawaii. He spent some time on the islands watching the pro surfing tour and paddle boarding, but he also tapped into his inner adrenaline junkie by taking helicopter rides and, yes, swimming with sharks—a little escapade that set the Cubs Twitterverse aflutter. When Bryant initially posted a video of his underwater encounter to his Instagram account, it looked as if he was swimming freely with the man-eaters. Rest assured, he was safely ensconced in a protective cage.
“I was not free-swimming with sharks,” Bryant said, laughing. “I don’t even know if they’d let you do that. No way I’d ever do that. But it was cool. There was a little mystery behind it, but I was definitely in the cage. I didn’t mind doing it. I wasn’t scared at all. I knew we’d be in a cage. I was more worried about the boat ride out there because I get super seasick. I was just like, ‘Just get me in the water, let me see these sharks and then let’s go back.’”
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Despite his many successes in the game, Bryant is constantly and furiously driven to get better, which means he also spent plenty of time this offseason working on his swing. Though that trademark uppercut was good enough to deliver a unanimous Rookie of the Year Award, it wasn’t good enough for him. When asked to grade his first year in the bigs, Bryant was a stern evaluator.
“In terms of handling everything that came my way—the struggles, the tension, the craziness—I’d give myself an A+,” he said. “I was really able to kind of tune that out and just go out there and play my game and help the team win. I was pretty proud of myself for doing that.
“Overall, maybe a B+. I’m pretty hard on myself—like, a lot. There are areas last year where I can think back on not getting the runner in from third base or making a silly error, that kind of thing. I really want to get better at that. I think I’ll always give myself a B+ or a B. It’s just who I am. I just want to continue to get better and be the best I can be and not be complacent or settle for anything less.”
For many, the second year in the big leagues can be harder than the first. Even a player as heralded as Bryant essentially arrives in The Show as a mystery, but now pitchers have detailed scouting reports on him. Plus, they have faced Bryant mano a mano, so they know how he reacts to their arsenal.
To offset this, Bryant spends a lot of time in the video room studying opposing pitchers, but he said he doesn’t immerse himself in it because watching too much video can be detrimental to him. He just wants to know what each pitcher throws and how their pitches move. After that, he trusts his swing and his ability to make real-time adjustments.
“Once I figure something out that I did wrong and I make that adjustment, I’m so determined to fix it,” Bryant said. “I think that’s really what sets me apart in terms of my mentality is just that determination and the desire to change what’s not going good for me. That’s really what’s gotten me this far, and I hope I can continue to learn how to be even quicker at making adjustments so that my game can go to different levels.”
As far as the Cubs coaching staff is concerned, Bryant is already well ahead of the curve for a player of his age and experience level. Mallee said once the second-year phenom learns to relax from at-bat to at-bat and let the game come to him, the result could be scary for opposing pitchers.
“Kris’ ability to hit and recognize pitches and command the strike zone is outstanding,” Mallee said. “As a young hitter, he gets in trouble sometimes because he tries to do it all in this at-bat instead of being patient. When he’s patient, he walks a bunch.
“He’s going to become a better hitter, and he’s learning that with the lineup we have, he doesn’t have to get that hit. The next guy behind him has a chance to get the hit. He just has to look for a good pitch to hit, [and if] he doesn’t get it, [he’ll] just take his walk and let the next [guy come] up.”
So how does a man who has gone from relative anonymity to the owner of the second-best-selling jersey in the game in just three years’ time stay grounded, avoid the sophomore slump and manage the colossal expectations on his back after his spectacular freshman campaign? Somehow, he handles it all with the same steady hand that smoothed his transition into the upper echelon of baseball and instant celebrity.
“I have no problem with those expectations, because mine are way bigger than theirs—than anybody’s out there,” Bryant said. “My expectations are the sky. I’ve always had that mentality. I think if you don’t set your expectations high, if you don’t write your goals down and make them lofty or crazy or record-breaking goals, then you shouldn’t be playing this game. That’s what I do all the time. I write my goals down, what I want to do as an individual and as a team, and I look back on them at the end of the year. There are some I don’t get, but there are some where I’m like, ‘Wow, I did that. That’s pretty good. Let’s make it even higher next year.’”
Opposing pitchers beware.
(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.
* * * *
“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.”
* * * *
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.”
* * * *
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.
* * * *
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.