Cubs

Cubs: Jon Lester buys into Joe Maddon’s magical gimmicks

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Cubs: Jon Lester buys into Joe Maddon’s magical gimmicks

NEW YORK – Jon Lester seems like the last guy who would believe in magic tricks or want to play dress-up on road trips.

Lester is a serious person and – at the age of 31 – not exactly a young kid on this particular Cubs team led by ringmaster Joe Maddon.

“Thanks,” Lester said with a laugh late Wednesday night at Citi Field. “Thanks for putting that lightly.”

So Lester doesn’t have his game face on all the time, and image isn’t everything when it comes to his perception of Maddon’s management style, which developed while they were on opposite sides of an American League East rivalry, the Tampa Bay Rays trying to topple the Boston Red Sox.

[SHOP: Buy a Jon Lester jersey shirt]

“You never know how to take it,” Lester said. “You don’t really know: Is it unprofessional?

“But being around him, he’s great. It’s great – especially for these guys that are young that haven’t done this – to keep it light, to keep it entertaining.”

That’s what Maddon had in mind after leaving Busch Stadium, the St. Louis Cardinals giving his team a reality check with that three-game sweep last weekend. Enter Simon the Magician, who did his act in the clubhouse on Tuesday before what would become a three-game sweep of the New York Mets.

“This game is so hard to stay attentive to for the whole season,” Lester said. “When you have things like that, it kind of like rejuvenates guys a little bit. You have something fun and interesting at the field. You just don’t see that.

“It kind of breaks people’s concentrations for a little bit and lets them reboot. And then (you) go back out there and play baseball.”

[MORE: The power dynamic between Epstein and Maddon]

Sweeping the Mets certainly isn’t a cause-and-effect situation, but Maddon’s look-at-me swagger and Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra” blasting on the clubhouse sound system gives some insight into the team’s chemistry.     

Lester will still send out all-business vibes, going off into his own little world on the day he pitches and rarely hanging around his locker staring at his phone or goofing off with teammates.

But someone who has pressed while trying to make a good first impression – and felt the weight of that $155 million contract – understands what Maddon is trying to do here as a mad scientist.  

“All this stuff is great,” Lester said. “It’s not tacky. It’s not in your face. It’s nothing that goes overboard with anything. It’s all in good fun. (It’s) enjoying playing baseball and winning baseball games.” 

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.”