Cubs

Cubs vs. Nationals: Joe Maddon digs Bryce Harper’s style

Cubs vs. Nationals: Joe Maddon digs Bryce Harper’s style

PITTSBURGH – Joe Maddon and Bryce Harper are on the same side of baseball’s culture war, even as the Cubs and Washington Nationals appear to be on a collision course toward October.   

The National League’s two best teams so far will face off on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, where Harper will be a focus throughout a four-game series overflowing with storylines.

That’s how Harper wants it, and that’s what Major League Baseball needs now, larger-than-life personalities who aren’t afraid to show some emotions and say what they actually think and try to wake up such a “tired sport.”

Harper’s line to ESPN The Magazine went viral in spring training, and it echoes when Maddon brainstorms another wacky themed road trip, trolls the St. Louis Cardinals and invites zoo animals to Wrigleyville.

So if Harper blasts a home run onto Sheffield Avenue and flips his bat in celebration, Maddon won’t have an issue with the league’s reigning MVP. The smirking Cubs manager knows it when he sees it. 

“It depends on who’s doing the bat-flipping,” Maddon said. “If you’ve played for like two weeks and you’re flipping bats, that’s how you’re going to get yourself hurt.”

Maddon rarely criticizes his own players in front of the media, but he called it a “punk move” last year when Junior Lake almost started a bench-clearing brawl at Marlins Park, flipping his bat, admiring his shot from home plate and shushing Miami’s dugout while rounding third base.   

“I just think when you’re brand new – just understand your place a little bit,” Maddon said. “That’s why I got on Junior that time. There are a lot of things that don’t bother me, (but) that was so obvious to me. He did it right in front of our dugout and he had not been playing that much. That’s why it bummed me out.

“But for the most part, I have no problem with most anything. As long as the guy plays hard, works hard, is sincere about his effort, I’m OK.”

By all accounts, that’s Harper, who’s still only 23 years old and gets similarity scores comparable to these players on his Baseball-Reference page: Frank Robinson; Mickey Mantle; Miguel Cabrera; Mike Trout; Hank Aaron; and Ken Griffey Jr.

“When he first came up, I remember watching him and he stole home on a double steal,” Maddon said. “He just ran the bases really well and hard – that was my first impression of him. I know he can hit. I know he’s got power. I know he’s got all that stuff. But I just liked the way he played.

“I have no problem with a guy enjoying playing the game. He’s got a lot of respect for the game and his place in the game. But any time a guy plays it hard, you always appreciate that. And that’s what I see with him.”

Maddon flashed back to the way Dennis Eckersley used to pump his fist after getting a big out – and his own personal history as a baby boomer raised in the 1960s and 1970s and listening to loud music and partying at his old Lafayette College fraternity house.

That’s what makes Maddon able to relate to Harper’s individual expressions, even though “Baseball’s Chosen One” was born in 1992.

“That’s the thing that we forget,” Maddon said. “That’s what’s so disappointing sometimes, growing up in the era that I did, and then you see people that are quote-unquote ‘in charge,’ and they forgot what it was like when we were a bunch of…goofballs, for lack of a better term.

“You’d like to believe that there’s a certain evolution of thinking as it moves forward. The long hair back in the day, the high stirrups, the tight uniforms, everybody has their own little shtick. So what? So what? It’s just a tendency to forget what it was like when we were growing up sometimes. I promise you I’ve not forgotten.”

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.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.