Cubs

Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and how Cubs can help a 'tired' sport

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Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and how Cubs can help a 'tired' sport

MESA, Ariz. — Kris Bryant had forgotten about the nickname Bryce Harper gave him as a kid until the Washington Nationals superstar reminded reporters at Wrigley Field last season: "Silk."

Where Bryant can be so smooth, Harper has some rougher edges to his game, that run-into-the-wall intensity, a say-whatever's-on-your-mind approach to the media and — above all — Cooperstown-level talent.

Even if he would never say it quite like this, Bryant understands where Harper is coming from when he tells ESPN The Magazine that baseball is a "tired" sport, sparking reaction stories from across the country.

Bryant is stationed at Camp Maddon, where Huey Lewis showed up at the Sloan Park complex over the weekend and took batting practice after the sound system blasted "I Want a New Drug," "The Heart of Rock & Roll" and "The Power of Love" during the team stretch. On Easter Sunday, the players and coaches dressed in tight shorts and knee-high socks, like they were auditioning for a "Dazed and Confused" sequel.

"Some of the stuff we do doesn't have to be backflips (or) showing anybody up," Bryant said. "I just think what fans see is really genuine from us. We're just out there having fun. A lot of it comes from Joe, too.

"There's a good combination of personalities here. Everybody brings something different to the table. And I think that's kind of what attracts some of the fans that we have."

[SHOP: Buy a Kris Bryant jersey]

Bryant and Harper both grew up in Las Vegas and signed on with Boras Corp. Together, they hosted an offseason charity golf tournament in Nevada on behalf of the Major League Baseball Players Association. They also bumped into each other in January during an epic blizzard that blanketed Manhattan, picking up their Rookie of the Year and MVP hardware from the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

They aren't particularly close and don't train together during the winter. Bryant isn't quite in Harper's stratosphere, either, even as an All-Star third baseman coming off a 26-homer, 99-RBI season.

But Bryant is building his own marketing portfolio at a time when Harper wonders why baseball players don't have the same style and crossover appeal as NBA stars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

"It's just fun," Bryant said. "You get these opportunities where I want to make memories for myself that I can look back on. Obviously, you make a lot of them on the field. But you can do stuff off the field, too, to kind of show your personality a little bit more and get the fans involved and give them something."

[MORE: Where things stand with Javier Baez and Cubs roster]

For a recent Red Bull spot, Bryant pretended to be a European transfer student at Mesa Community College and started crushing balls during batting practice. The Bryant disguise worked better last year while posing as an undercover Lyft driver in Chicago.

Bryant is now a "brand ambassador" for Express men's clothing and affiliated with Stouffer's frozen foods and a new baseball video-game app. You should also see the "Bryzzo" campaign — an MLB promotion shot with All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo — in the rotation around Opening Day.

"We're like a souvenir company selling home-run balls to fans," Bryant said. "Kind of like those used-car commercials on TV and they're super-cheesy — that was us."

Before it became a T-shirt this spring, Bryant embraced the target. Adidas put up that "WORTH THE WAIT" billboard on Addison Street before his big-league debut. He hung out with a goat and shot that "Down on the Farm" commercial for Red Bull during his service-time sentence with Triple-A Iowa.

Where Wrigley Field used to be a place for overhyped prospects to fade away, the Cubs are now selling legitimate stars.

"It was really good for a lot of young guys to come up all at once," Bryant said. "It was easy for us to adjust to it, just because there was more attention spread out amongst us rather than just one person.

"We've embraced it. I've definitely had a lot of fun with it — both on and off the field — in terms of the opportunities that I've been getting. And there's a lot of guys here who could be doing (the same things)."

If the Cubs might irritate the old-school crowd with some of their antics, then it's also entirely possible that this loose group could help attract the younger generation that baseball has so much trouble reaching now.

"Everybody talks about us and how they like our players," Maddon said. "There's a lot of youth involvement. And even the guys that aren't as young are still really engaging, charismatic kind of players.

"The city itself, the fan base, the ballpark, the year that we had last year - all the needles are going to be pointing in our direction."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”