Results tagged ‘ Hot Off the Presses ’
By Gary Cohen
Make no mistake: These are not your grandfather’s Chicago Cubs. The franchise’s fans, like the fans of every team, are saddled with years of baggage and love to link the past with the present. But for the last two seasons, these Cubs have proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that 2003 and 1969 have nothing to do with the present.
“Nobody really cares in there about a curse or a goat or anything else. You know what I mean?” said Jon Lester prior to Game 4 of the National League Division Series. “It is what it is. It’s what you make of it. If we make a mistake, we’re not going to blame it on a curse or anything else like that. We’re going to blame it on ourselves and be accountable for it and move on to the next play or the next moment.
“Plus, I think we got too many young guys in there that don’t even know what that stuff is. You know what I mean? So it’s almost better to play naive and just go out and worry about us, worry about the Cubs and not anything else in the past or, like I said, any animals.”
Full disclosure: Because of the production schedule of this magazine, we went to press just days after the Cubs finished off the Giants in four games in the NLDS. So whatever happens after that will show up in the December issue.
When Cubs players gather on the field or in the clubhouse to celebrate wins, they often chant, “We never quit.” Along with favored Maddonisms like “embrace the target” and “respect 90,” never quitting is becoming the motto of this new iteration of the franchise. The club came into the 2016 campaign as heavy World Series favorites, but, as Maddon would say, they never let the pressure exceed the pleasure in their run to an NL Central title.
“Expectations is a good word because normally it means that you have something good attached to it at the other side,” Maddon said after the Cubs’ NLDS victory. “Pressure, expectations, I want our guys to thrive on those two words for the years to come. I want the organization to. In the end, that means there’s a lot expected of you. Good. There should be. We should all have a lot expected of us. And then it should manifest itself in the sense that it should bring out the best in you.”
Of course, past Chicago teams have struggled in October, and the postseason is decidedly random. The second you think you have things figured out, a virtual unknown like Conor Gillaspie steps up and becomes a fall hero twice over. But this version of the Cubs is different. No one expected much in 1984 or 2003. The current Cubs, on the other hand, are the very definition of president Theo Epstein’s model of sustained success, and, as of this writing, are sitting on the precipice of Game 7 of the World Series.
In the November issue, we break down a few reasons the 2016 Cubs were a juggernaut. We begin at the top with the starting pitching, which was not only good this season, but historically good. We also look at some of the amazing numbers the club posted and how they defined the campaign. Finally, we talk to former GM Jim Hendry about the organization’s last deep playoff run in 2003.
This season, we’re writing a new Cubs history. I don’t know how it will end yet. We don’t have much longer to wait. But I know we’re all enjoying the ride.
Let’s go. And above all, Fly the W.
When I started with Vine Line around Thanksgiving 2011, the last lineup the Cubs had fielded read: Starlin Castro, SS; Blake Dewitt, 2B; Aramis Ramirez, 3B; Jeff Baker, 1B; Reed Johnson, LF; Luis Montanez, RF; Tony Campana, CF; Koyie Hill, C; and Ryan Dempster, P. The team, under manager Mike Quade, had finished 71-91, in fifth place in the NL Central.
That all seems like eons ago now. I expect I no longer have to recount what happened in the intervening years: Theo, draft, trades, Maddon, etc.
In some ways, the 2016 regular season went so smoothly on the North Side of Chicago, it barely felt like baseball. By the time all was said and done, the Cubs had finished 161 of their 162 games with at least a share of the division lead. The last time they trailed—by a whole game!—was April 8 following a walk-off loss to the Diamondbacks. The last time they were even tied for the lead was April 10, the sixth day of the campaign.
By the end of April, they were 3.5 games up on the NL Central; by the end of May, 6.5 games; by the end of June, 11 games; by the end of July, 7.5 games; by the end of August, 15 games; and by the end of September, they were the NL Central champs for the first time since 2008.
Almost immediately after Epstein was hired, pundits pointed to 2016 as the inflection point—the moment the rebuilding Cubs would turn the corner and start competing. As it turns out, that about-face happened a year ahead of schedule. The Cubs not only made the postseason in 2015, they won the NL Wild Card on the road in Pittsburgh and then captured the NLDS over the Cardinals in four games.
This season, the Chicago National League Baseball Club has been a juggernaut, the odds-on favorite to win the World Series and a remarkably fun team to watch.
But even with those high expectations, fans were happy to poke holes in the Cubs balloon whenever they spied an opportunity. After breaking in four rookie regulars last year, several were certain to fall prey to the dreaded sophomore slump, right?
Granted, Kyle Schwarber injured his knee on a freak outfield play in the season’s second game, and Jorge Soler missed two months with a hamstring injury.
But after putting up a 3.0 WAR in 2015, Addison Russell accumulated a 4.0 WAR in 2016. And Kris Bryant upped his WAR from an already MVP-worthy 6.6 in 2015 to an otherworldly 8.4.
In fact, Bryant has a legitimate shot to become the first man ever to win the Golden Spikes Award (given to the best amateur player in the nation), the Minor League Player of the Year Award, the NL Rookie of the Year Award and the NL MVP Award in four consecutive seasons.
If there was a slump somewhere in there, I missed it.
So what about the pitching staff? Was there enough depth?
Well, Jake Arrieta hasn’t been quite as dominant as he was in 2015, but he’s still a likely top five finisher for the Cy Young Award; Jon Lester has looked like the ace the Cubs expected they were getting in the 2015 offseason; Jason Hammel won 15 games; John Lackey has been his usual stalwart self; and Kyle Hendricks—the man many figured would get pushed out of the rotation in the early going—was no less than the best pitcher in baseball.
In the October issue, we examine how the unassuming, Ivy league-educated right-hander has gone from under the radar to the top of the leaderboards. We also break down the new-look bullpen—another area many pointed to as a weakness at midseason—and explain how it could be the key to a deep postseason run this year. Finally, we harken back to the last real Chicago world-beater, the consecutive championship teams of 1907-08.
Ever since the Cubs ran off and hid from the rest of the pack in April, we’ve been waiting for this moment. It’s finally October. It’s time to see if the Cubs can make history. We’ll be there for every moment in print, online and on Twitter at @cubsvineline.
I have to admit: The first time I encountered John Baker, I didn’t know what to make of him. Or exactly who he was, for that matter.
The journeyman backup catcher, who spent parts of seven seasons in the major leagues, was in camp with the Cubs during Spring Training in 2014. I was only in Arizona for a few days, and the organization had just unveiled its new Sloan Park facility, so I spent the majority of my time exploring the flashy new digs and tracking down established players like Jake Arrieta, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Jeff Samardzija.
Still, it was hard to miss Baker. The floppy-haired, good-natured veteran seemed to be in the middle of any clubhouse antics and deftly bridged the gaps between player cliques—whether he was strumming his guitar or passing out Chicago skyline socks to the team (which, frankly, I’ve always regretted not purchasing at the time). Once I finally figured out who he was, and despite the fact that he seemed like an interesting fellow, I figured, “Well, everyone carries extra catchers in the spring to handle the workload. He’ll never break camp with the club.”
Of course, the then-33-year-old went on to spend the entire season with the Cubs, becoming a leader in the clubhouse and a folk hero in these parts for his one-man rain delay concerts and that remarkable late-July game, which he recounts for us in this issue. He’s now moved into the Cubs front office, but he’ll never forget what the marathon contest, in which he pitched one inning and scored the winning run in the longest game in Wrigley Field history, meant to his career.
The 2014 season, in hindsight, was also the turning point for a rapidly improving franchise. After dropping 96 games in 2013, the club improved in 2014, going 33-35 in the second half. These weren’t optimal results, but you could feel the tide shifting. This was before the organization made splashy free-agent moves to pick up players like Jon Lester, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist; before mastermind Joe Maddon graced the dugout steps; and before top draft picks like Albert Almora, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber progressed to Wrigley Field.
But there was something different about that team. They were tired of losing, they were oddly confident, and they were—for the first time in years—having fun. Much of this was due to a series of shrewd acquisitions most people don’t talk about anymore. Baker was certainly one of them. It helps backup catchers find and retain employment if they can both motivate young players and keep things light off the field. Baker had those qualities in spades, and he became part of a changing clubhouse culture in Chicago.
In addition, some of the Cubs’ foundational players were coming into focus. Rizzo was developing into a bona fide star, Arrieta was starting to prove he was something special, Kyle Hendricks was turning heads with his stellar second-half work, and a little-known Rule 5 pick out of Cleveland named Hector Rondon was morphing into a workhorse power reliever.
This month, we examine the development of Rondon, the former top starting prospect, turned Indians castoff, turned Cubs diamond-in-the-rough, turned dominant back-end reliever. It’s unusual for a Rule 5 pick to pan out at all—he has to stick on the major-league roster of the team that selected him for a full season or be returned to his previous club—much less turn into an impact player on a playoff-caliber team.
We also look at the other factor that has turned the once-moribund Cubs into a powerhouse—the MLB First-Year Player Draft. The 2016 event, however, was much different from the previous years’, with the Cubs not making their first selection until the third round. We talk to Senior Vice President of Player Development and Amateur Scouting Jason McLeod about this year’s draft and the development of the organization since he came aboard.
All the fruits of the Cubs’ labors have been on display this season. We’re there for every draft pick, trade, win and loss. Find us in print, here and on Twitter at @cubsvineline.
I had one guiding concept in mind when I set out to report the cover feature on Cubs star Kris Bryant for this month: Do not write a hagiography. There are plenty of St. Kristopher stories out there. I figured the world didn’t need another one.
I’d certainly talked to Bryant before—several times, in fact, from his initial signing through the final days of last season. And, cards on the table, I like the guy. But I’d never done anything in-depth with him. My goal as a writer was to stay impartial, impassive and honest. Yes, I work for the Cubs, but I still wanted to let the story tell itself without bias.
Soooo … that was my goal.
But here’s the rub: Kris Bryant is an excellent baseball player. Sure there are a few knocks on his game. He struck out a lot last season and likely will always pile up the K’s. His defense is still evolving, although he finished strong last season. And I suppose he got stuck on 99 RBI for a while. Anything else is nitpicking.
But the reason it’s so difficult to avoid writing a puff piece about him is that he’s also a genuinely nice fellow. I had only a short window to interview him at Spring Training in March, so I checked in with him on my first full day there—a Monday. He was literally dressed and walking out of the clubhouse, but he politely said he couldn’t do anything substantive until that Friday because he was booked solid with photo shoots, commercial shoots, interviews and, well, baseball.
For many players, “Try me tomorrow” is the sporting equivalent of saying, “It was fun; I’ll give you a call sometime,” after a bad date. Still, we checked in with each other throughout the week, and he held firm on Friday. I told him that was fine with me, but in reality I was nearly panicked because Friday was my second-to-last day there. No Bryant, no story.
But once that day arrived, I didn’t have to track him down (or beg, which I was prepared to do). He walked straight over to me, shook my hand, apologized for making me wait and then asked if I wanted to get out of the clubhouse so we could avoid the inevitable media scrum that surrounds him. That kind of behavior is not unheard of, but it definitely stands out enough that you notice. After a very respectful and engaging 20 minutes, I had what I needed and made my peace with what kind of story this was going to be.
What I really wanted to uncover was how Bryant handled the titanic expectations that were heaped upon him last year and what kind of an impact that would have on his sophomore campaign.
One of the first people I talked to for some insight was Cubs assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske, a two-time World Series champion with his own Rookie of the Year trophy, from 2002. I figured if anyone can relate to what Bryant will be going through this season, it’s him. When asked what the 24-year-old is like as a student, Hinske, who pretty much saw it all over his 12-year major-league career, seemed a bit flustered.
“Honestly, he’s far along in the process,” Hinske said. “He really doesn’t have to be a pupil that much. It’s more of just maintaining his swing. He’s so mechanically right. He’s a bright kid, a good character guy. He takes instruction well if he needs it, and he’s just a pleasure to work with every day.”
Our feature paints a picture of a very talented, grounded and decent human being—one who is likely to terrorize opposing pitchers for the next decade-plus. In the May issue, we also talk to hitting coach John Mallee about his expectations for the season and the work he’s doing with an incredibly potent offensive group. Finally, we look back at one of the most memorable games ever pitched at the Friendly Confines, even if there might not be a person alive who actually remembers seeing it—the remarkable dual no-hitter spun by Hippo Vaughn and Fred Toney in 1917.
For more insight into the players and team you love all season long, subscribe to Vine Line at cubs.com/vineline.
First things first: I am not a huge fan of the offseason. Though I love tracking player movement and watching teams rebuild on the fly—A.J. Preller and Jerry DiPoto have single-handedly kept each of the last two hot stove seasons simmering—give me June temperatures and the crack of the bat any day of the week.
But I will say the baseball offseason is by far the best offseason in sports. I don’t play fantasy baseball or football, but I imagine my winter obsession with personnel swaps, team payrolls and front-office maneuverings must rival a full-blown DraftKings addiction. I spend most of the down months glued to Twitter scanning for action and talking to people in the know to get a sense of which way the winds are blowing throughout the league.
That’s why I always look forward to the winter issues of Vine Line. Sure, I miss baseball and interacting with the players—honestly, I start jonesing for Spring Training by about mid-November—but by the first months of each new year, most teams have made a big move or two, and fans have a sense of which direction their favorite organization is heading.
Is the team a contender/acquirer or an also-ran/seller? Rebuilding or reloading? Spendthrift or miserly?
My first winter with the magazine in early 2012 was a little bit of an outlier. At that time, the organization was still transitioning, dumping unwieldy contracts and working on developing the farm system. But by the beginning of 2013, things were coming into focus.
In January 2013, we featured President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein on the cover, and wrote about the Scott Feldman and Scott Baker signings. Though it was impossible to know it at the time, that was a big moment. Feldman would turn out to be one of the most astute and significant acquisitions of Epstein’s tenure, as the veteran right-hander was eventually (and amazingly) traded in a deal for newly minted Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.
“There are two ways to really improve your team in a hurry from one year to the next,” Epstein said in that 2013 issue. “One is sign impact players or bring in impact players from outside the organization. The other is to have a wave of young talent that’s approaching their prime years at the same time. … At some point in the future, if we have a bunch of those players who are entering their prime and improving together and we supplement that with some impact signings from outside the organization, we could really see a lot of improvement in a hurry.”
Our January 2014 cover showcased Rick Renteria, who helped forge the foundations of a winning culture at Wrigley Field before being replaced by Joe Maddon, and February 2014 featured new draftee Kris Bryant. Maddon was our December 2014 cover model, and he was followed in January by major free-agent signee Jon Lester.
If you track these moves—and these issues—year by year, you can see the formidable current Cubs core being constructed and Epstein’s words from 2013 proving prophetic. Last season, the Cubs delivered a young wave of talent to Wrigley Field in the form of Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler. And that talented quartet complemented the young veteran group of Arrieta, Anthony Rizzo and others that was already in place. Add Maddon and Lester from outside the organization, and it all equaled 97 regular-season wins—an impressive 24-win improvement over the previous year’s 73-89 mark.
This offseason, the evolution of the Cubs has continued with the acquisitions of free agents Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist, the re-signing of last year’s bullpen stalwart Trevor Cahill, and the trade of Starlin Castro for Adam Warren. In the January issue, we discuss these moves and what they mean for the Cubs’ immediate future. We also celebrate the organization’s near-clean sweep of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America awards, talk to players about coping with the constant demand for autographs and look back at the Cubs’ move to Wrigley Field a century ago.
Of course, the offseason activity is far from over. Keep track of all the hot stove action on Twitter at @cubsvineline. And subscribe to Vine Line at cubs.com/vineline.
Also, visit us next weekend at the Cubs Convention, where you can subscribe at a great rate, win autographed memorabilia and more.
Even though I’m certain the best is yet to come for this young, talented Cubs squad, in some respects, I still hate to see the 2015 season come to an end. It was just such a fun ride.
In recent days, I’ve been asked the same question over and over: How do I feel about the way the campaign ended? Even though the Cubs fell to the Mets in four uncharacteristic games in the NLCS, it was hard for me to really be upset or frustrated with the result. Sure, I would have loved to see the boys in blue win it all. But a club most figured to be at least one year away from true contention finished the season in the NLCS. They were one of the last four teams standing. And this was after winning 97 regular-season games and two postseason series. Anyone who saw that coming in 2015, please raise your hand.
Every year, before the first pitch of the regular season, we at Vine Line place a little wager on what we think the club’s final record will be. I predicted 85 wins—and I still contend that would have been a solid season. Anything above .500 typically keeps a team in the Wild Card hunt until the final weeks.
But the Cubs exceeded expectations on almost every front this year. When different members of the same team factor significantly in voting for the MVP, Cy Young, Manager of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards, something has definitely gone right.
After the final out of the season, Cubs baseball president Theo Epstein talked to the media, and he said something during his press conference that stuck with me.
“If you think back to where we were on Opening Day, many members of this team were in the minor leagues in Double-A and Triple-A,” Epstein said. “If you looked out in the bleachers, we had plywood covering all the stands out there. We lost to the Cardinals on a cold and dreary night. Then you fast forward seven months later and look where we were with a young, dynamic, magical team at the big league level. The bleachers were filled with fans going crazy and supporting the team, and [then] beating the Cardinals in a playoff series. It’s just amazing how far the organization came this year.”
The team’s progress between November 2014, when manager Joe Maddon was hired, and the end of the 2015 season was truly remarkable. For this month’s issue, we relive the year’s best moments, and there were plenty to choose from. The team played so well—especially from July on—it’s easy to lose sight of where it all began.
It’s easy to forget that the main topic of conversation when the season kicked off was not the team’s playoff chances but the Wrigley Field bleachers—or lack thereof. It’s easy to forget that the Opening Day roster did not include Kris Bryant, Addison Russell or Kyle Schwarber. It’s easy to forget that coming into the season, people still saw right-hander Jake Arrieta as something resembling a fallible, flesh-and-blood human being.
We dedicated this month’s issue to celebrating everything that went right in 2015. In our pages, you’ll find the best images of the year, a month-by-month season recap and highlights from Epstein’s post-NLCS presser. We’ll also give you a head start on your holiday shopping with our annual gift guide.
Honestly, the best part of this past year is knowing that it was only the beginning. The Cubs went into the 2014 offseason as a team on the rise, but one with serious question marks. They enter this offseason as an experienced, playoff-tested group with few holes and plenty of resources—in both talent and money—to fill those holes.
Another thing Epstein said that resonated with me was that the whole team was loath to see this season end, and that they all wished Opening Day was already here. I think most fans feel the same way.
While you can’t wish away the winter, you can keep track of all the offseason action, from the hot stove to the winter leagues, in the magazine and on Twitter at @cubsvineline. And keep an eye on Twitter for a special holiday offer on the magazine in the coming days.
Some teams just have a certain magic. It usually manifests in walk-off wins, unlikely heroes and other assorted frozen moments. Think the 2014 Royals or the 2008 Rays.
But not every good team has this ineffable spark. Some just plod along, winning more than they lose, and the only excitement they really produce is a matter of inertia. By the end of the season, they simply rack up enough by-the-book wins to qualify for the postseason.
That is certainly not the modus operandi of the 2015 Cubs.
For a future article, we recently started compiling the 10 most memorable moments from this season, and we realized it’s going to be nearly impossible to keep it to just 10. As soon as we settled on Jon Lester’s 14-strikeout game, Jake Arrieta threw a no-hitter and made us readjust. We wrote up Anthony Rizzo’s amazing over-the-tarp-and-into-the-stands grab, and Kris Bryant delivered another walk-off miracle.
It’s not that this team hasn’t experienced hardships, but the second you think the Cubs are down, and the fatalistic, knee-jerk, “they’re-finished” reaction sets in, they pick themselves up, dust themselves off and do something amazing.
In the first homestand following the All-Star break, the Cubs were swept by the last-place Phillies and no-hit by Cole Hamels—the first time the franchise had been held hitless since Sandy Koufax turned the trick in 1965. The offense had been struggling for about a month, and the Cubs looked ready to take a tumble. But the team responded by reeling off an incredible 16-2 run, highlighted by a four-game sweep of the Giants, the team directly behind them in the NL Wild Card chase.
So where does this resilience come from?
It all starts at the top with manager Joe Maddon. One of the true joys of covering the Cubs this season has been getting to see the veteran skipper work his magic up close. In interviews, sports figures can be dodgy, belligerent and downright unresponsive. But Maddon never has a false moment. He’s unfailingly honest, willing to discuss just about any topic and nearly impossible to rile.
As the leader of a franchise with a unique history, he is frequently asked about curses, goats and the pressure to deliver the big one to a long-suffering fan base. His typical response: “I just don’t vibrate on that frequency, man.”
He’s also a master at defusing tension and keeping things light. After two reporters got into a spat during a media scrum with GM Jed Hoyer, Maddon walked into his daily pregame presser wearing a catcher’s mask and carrying a bat because he “heard things got a little testy.”
Sometimes Maddon’s bag of tricks even includes actual magic. Following a late-June five-game skid against the Dodgers and Cardinals, he brought a magician into the Citi Field clubhouse in New York to perform an impromptu show for the team.
“I’m more concerned about just mental fatigue more than anything,” Maddon told reporters at the time. “When you have a couple bad days in a row, or a bad week, it can wear on some guys who have never really gone through it before.”
The skipper’s 30-minute rule—celebrate the win or bemoan the loss for a half-hour, and then move on—has resonated with his troops. And, boy, do they celebrate. By now, you’ve no doubt heard of the Cubs’ famous postgame victory bashes, complete with light shows and smoke machines, and themed pajama-party road trips.
In the October issue, we examine what Maddon has really meant to a young, talented Cubs team—not to spoil the story, but it’s a lot. We also look at some of the good work the organization has been doing off the field through its charitable foundations and initiatives. Finally, we travel back 100 years to when the Federal League’s Chicago Whales delivered Wrigley Field its first championship season.
This magical year is about to lead into a magical offseason. Don’t miss a minute of it. Subscribe to Vine Line at cubs.com/vineline and follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.