Cubs

Cubs don’t worry about putting even bigger target on their backs

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Cubs don’t worry about putting even bigger target on their backs

MESA, Ariz. — One mime stood on a platform playing air guitar as the classic rock blasted from the sound system at the Sloan Park complex on Tuesday morning, Cubs players going through the motions of their pre-workout stretch.

The other mime performed in the middle of the field. Cubs strength-and-conditioning coach Tim Buss had his face painted white and black and wore white gloves, black yoga pants, a white tank top and a black beret turned backwards.

Joe Maddon Productions has already brought this camp Munenori Kawasaki karaoke, a 70s hippie van and a sledgehammer-swinging, cement-brick breaking motivational speaker.

The Cubs aren’t just “Embracing The Target.” In a game with too many unwritten rules, on the day Sports Illustrated released their baseball preview covers, and the morning after more Donald Trump nonsense, the World Series favorites seemed to be making that target bigger and bigger and bigger.

“If everybody’s (not) entertained, so be it, but that’s just our way to start the day,” Maddon said. “We did that last year without nearly as much attention. When I was with the Angels, ‘Scios’ (manager Mike Scioscia) did his own little gig on a daily basis inside. It’s just the way our venue sets up and the fact that we permit so much access. That’s the way everybody’s able to see it.

“If people misinterpret it, honestly, that’s their fault, because it’s really just about the esprit de corps of the day. It has nothing to do with your work, except that I think your work can be better because you get off to a good start.”

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The mime wasn’t actually Maddon’s idea. It was all “Bussy,” who’s wildly popular among players, almost tricking them into doing work with his energy and a sense of humor that has helped him hold onto this job since 2001. (Maddon did endorse the mime’s message to the team: “He was very loquacious with his hands.”)

But the manager almost always gets too much credit or too much blame. The Cubs aren’t an in-between team. It’s World Series or bust. It’s Maddon’s easy-going personality and laissez-faire attitude that sets the mood here.

“Who knows what’s going on in that mind storm?” pitcher Jason Hammel said. “(With) that tornado in his head, who knows what’s going on? So I’m sure he’ll come up with something else that’s going to blow the mime away, too.”

With all the extracurricular stuff going on, this Cactus League game felt even more like background noise than normal. But Hammel again looked sharp during a 9-6 win over the Cincinnati Reds, allowing one run across five innings at Goodyear Ballpark. For a team that has as much talent on paper as anyone in baseball, the optics don’t matter nearly as much as staying healthy and staying focused.

[MORE: Cubs won't get into a war of words with Donald Trump]

Hammel expects the gimmicks after being part of Maddon’s worst-to-first Tampa Bay Rays team that made it to the 2008 World Series.

“It takes a certain group of guys to be able to — not necessarily pull this off — but to have that type of environment,” Hammel said. “It starts with character. And that’s what these guys and this organization have prided themselves on — bringing in guys with good character that know how to understand this is just a different way of getting through a kind of mundane and sometimes boring part of the season.

“Obviously, I’m sure there’s some people out there that think we’re pretty weird. It doesn’t look like a normal spring training. But everybody’s allowed an opinion, right? We see it as fun.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.