Cubs

Cubs year in review: We stinks to Theo-mania

578516.png

Cubs year in review: We stinks to Theo-mania

Carlos Zambrano towered over the reporters surrounding his locker inside Dodger Stadium. The postgame interview was just about over when a local blogger who had scored credentials wanted to know what Zambrano was like as a kid in Venezuela.

Have you always been this emotional?

Where you been the last nine years? Zambrano wondered.

Everyone started laughing on May 4 after the Cubs won a getaway game in Los Angeles. Less than 48 hours earlier, Curb Your Enthusiasm star Jeff Garlin had stood outside the clubhouse grumbling about the state of his team, calling it a big bowl of nothing.

Perhaps youve been too busy playing winter ball in Venezuela. Or maybe you stopped listening near the end of spring training, like Carlos Silva (blah, blah, blah).

Really, there wasnt much reason to pay attention. The season was essentially over by the first week of April, when 40 percent of the rotation (Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner) went on the disabled list. But that was only the most obvious and convenient excuse.

The Cubs had already made the wrong bets on big contracts. Ownership instability had forced the front office to cut corners in the draft and player development. There would be a natural regression for an aging core of players.

There would be consequences for the Win one for the Tribune! mentality that came out of the Tower years ago.

Chairman Tom Ricketts fired general manager Jim Hendry and gave Theo Epstein the keys to the kingdom. Epstein fired manager Mike Quade, hired Dale Sveum and told the industry the Cubs were open for business. No player in the clubhouse could feel all that safe anymore.

Where you been? Hopefully, you got that (Bleep) the goat T-shirt you wanted for Christmas. What follows is a look back on a year that may (or may not) change the franchise forever.

We stinks

Zambrano reported to spring training in Arizona and joked that he was cured after anger-management therapy: I got approval from the psychologist that I can be by myself.

Zambrano had no other choice after cleaning out his locker and walking out on his teammates. The Atlanta Braves had planned Aug. 12 to be a night for Bobby Cox, their beloved former manager, but all that was overshadowed once Zambrano got lit up and threw at Chipper Jones.

Zambrano left Turner Field during the middle of the game and headed toward the teams downtown hotel. He was texting and telling people that he felt like he was stealing money and thinking about retirement. The Cubs called his bluff.

Epstein knows this history and has publicly allowed for the possibility of Zambrano earning his way back onto the team. But privately people on both sides would admit that he could use a change of scenery.

With good friend Ozzie Guillen now running the Miami Marlins show, it makes sense for Zambrano to take his talents to South Beach.

You cant fight change

Hendry must have been going through the stages of grief when he suspended Zambrano. Ricketts had already fired his general manager on July 22, leading to what Hendry would later call one of the best-kept secrets in Cubs history.

By the time Zambrano blew up, Hendry was approaching acceptance. In the days leading up to the Aug. 19 announcement, Hendry was holding court at Houstons Minute Maid Park, telling all the old stories and spitting out rapid-fire expletives and one-liners.

Hendry was the guy with the loudest laugh in the dugout. He got his start coaching baseball and teaching English at Columbus High, a Catholic school in Miami. He rose to become the first general manager in franchise history to see the Cubs make the postseason three times during his tenure.

In one role or another, Hendry lasted almost 17 seasons in the Cubs front office. His big personality inspired a tremendous amount of loyalty among the people who worked for him. At the end of the news conference announcing his firing, he stood up inside the Wrigley Field dungeoninterview room.

Hours before first pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals, Hendry jokingly asked the beat writers to deliver a message to interim general manager Randy Bush: Tell Bushie to go hug Albert for me.
Theo-mania

Pujols wasnt going to embrace the Cubs, though that didnt stop the national media and a new front office from feeding the perception that they were in on all the big-ticket items this winter (Prince Fielder? Yu Darvish?).

This came 12 months after the Cubs had to spread Carlos Penas one-year pillow contract across three fiscal years. Ricketts made the splash when he lured Epstein from the Boston Red Sox with a bigger job and a better title.

Ricketts, who had already sat through two forgettable seasons, knew his family had to make a game-changing hire and send a message to a skeptical fan base that was tired of hearing about bison dogs and urinal troughs.

They put up THEOLOGY and In Theo We Trust T-shirts in the storefront windows on Clark Street. The president of baseball operations has already waved goodbye to veterans Aramis Ramirez and Sean Marshall, and shipped out Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu, two homegrown players who were supposed to be part of the youth movement.

A new collective bargaining agreement will limit what the Cubs can spend in the draft and internationally, and you wonder if they found religion too late. Epstein had already begun pooling intellectual capital by bringing his boys Jed Hoyer (general manager) and Jason McLeod (senior vice president) into an expanding front office.

The Red Sox were ahead of the curve almost a decade ago, but the baseball world is now essentially flat. The entire industry is accessing most of the same data and looking at the game through similar prisms. Ricketts has to hope hes paying for future results and not past performance.

Epstein has built up a reservoir of goodwill that should last until the first three-game losing streak. Guillen put it this way: In two years, I hope the fans in Chicago love Theo the way they do now.

Im not a lunatic

Quade was dealt a bad hand after waiting his entire professional life for this chance. No one was going to win big with this roster.

Quade rode the El. He could walk through Wrigleyville with a hat pulled down over his bald head and no one would notice. He was a Chicago guy who could talk about Da Bears. But as the season wore on, he seemed to become an increasingly isolated figure.

The players who once lobbied for their interim manager to keep the job didnt say much near the end. Just before the All-Star break, the television cameras captured a shouting match with Ryan Dempster inside Pittsburghs PNC Park dugout. That was a revealing look behind the curtain.

This was a group that had to separate Silva and Ramirez in the dugout after the first inning of the fourth game in spring training.

Sveum rides motorcycles and has tattoos all over his skin, which will stand out inside the corporate culture at Clark and Addison. The Milwaukee Brewers made him their interim manager for 12 games late in the 2008 season and won the wild card.

Thats the extent of Sveums experience managing at this level, but he has several advantages over Quade: The instant credibility that comes after playing 12 seasons in the big leagues; a stronger voice in assembling his coaching staff; and a secure, stable front office that expects him to grow into the job.

It is what it is, man

For Matt Garza, the year ends exactly where it began, trying to ignore all the trade rumors.

Garza remains under club control for two more seasons and what Epstein does with the 28-year-old pitcher trade or contract extension figures to be a bellwether for this franchise. It could reveal just how long they think this rebuilding process will take.

Garza has already made his bones in the playoffs (and been traded twice). He has electric stuff (and a 52-54 career record). The centerpiece to last winters eight-player deal with Tampa Bay made a strong overall impression during his first season on the North Side.

Teammates appreciated Garzas energy, work ethic and competitiveness (and loved wolfing down Popeyes fried chicken in the clubhouse before his starts).

The two building blocks for the future are Garza and Starlin Castro, a 21-year-old All-Star shortstop who led the National League with 207 hits. But if Epsteins blown away by an offer, he wont hesitate to trade Garza for multiple young players to surround Castro in 2014 and beyond.

We dared to dream

People who never met Ron Santo felt like they knew him just by listening to him on the radio. There was laughter and groaning and none of it was phony. His emotions were always extreme. It was either joy or agony.

One year after his death, his family learned that Santo was voted into the Hall of Fame by a Golden Era veterans committee led by old friend Billy Williams. It was a measure of the man both on and off the field.

It was a bittersweet feeling for Cubs people, who still crack up and double over in laughter telling the same Santo stories.

It was the final chapter for a year in which the players wore No. 10 uniform patches and the organization celebrated his legacy. Fans gathered to see the unveiling of a magnificent Santo statue at the corner of Addison and Sheffield.

Santos widow Vicki found a lesson in the waiting for Cooperstown. It spoke to a fearless style of play and the lives impacted by a rainmaker for juvenile diabetes research.

It should resonate with the romantics who follow this team and the cold-blooded analytical types charged with rewiring this franchise: You cant give up.

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

0218-tom-ricketts-joe-maddon.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.

Anthony Rizzo declines role as an activist, says trip to Florida 'was the hardest thing I've ever had to do'

Anthony Rizzo declines role as an activist, says trip to Florida 'was the hardest thing I've ever had to do'

MESA, Ariz. — Anthony Rizzo’s gone above and beyond for his community in the wake of one of the worst mass shootings in United States history, when 17 people lost their lives last week at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, Rizzo’s alma mater.

His actions and words have carried plenty of weight in the last week, but Rizzo’s comments upon returning to Arizona were more focused on the general need for change rather than specific actions related to the issue of gun violence in America.

The Cubs’ first baseman, who returned to spring training on Monday after spending several days being with his community in Florida, repeatedly voiced the opinion — though it’s ridiculous to think there’s a counter argument that could actually qualify as someone’s opinion — that these mass shootings need to stop happening with such an incomprehensible amount of frequency.

But he stopped short of taking a full step into the national debate on the issue, clarifying that his comments made on Twitter the day of the shooting were not referencing gun control or that specific debate at all.

“Obviously, there needs to be change,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know what that is, I don’t get paid to make those decisions. I can sit back and give opinions, but you just hope somewhere up the line of command, people are thinking are thinking the same things that a lot of innocent kids are thinking: ‘Why? Why am I scared to go to school? Why am I scared to say goodbye to my son or daughter?’ God forbid someone was in an argument with someone they loved that day, how bad — it’s a bad time right now in the country with what’s going on with all these shootings.

“My opinion is my opinion. I don’t think it’s fair to my teammates and everyone else if I come out and start going one way or the other. I think, my focus is on baseball. My focus is definitely on Parkland and the community there and supporting them and whatever direction that they go. But for me it’s hard enough to hit a baseball, and it’s definitely going to be hard enough to try to be a baseball player and a politician at the same time.”

Rizzo has no more of an obligation to be a spokesman on this issue than any other American does, and his presence at his old school last week, his words at a vigil for the victims of this tragedy were powerful. Rizzo has established himself as a remarkable member of his community in Chicago, and he won the Roberto Clemente Award last season for his charitable efforts off the field. His willingness to leave Arizona and be with members of his community was reflective of the type of person Cubs fans and Chicagoans have gotten to know.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Just going back, you don’t what to say. There’s nothing you can say,” Rizzo said. “When people get shot, you’re grateful that they’re alive. When they pass away, you’re grateful that you knew them, to look at the bright side of things if you can. But just to see how real it is, it’s sad.

“The more I just sat and thought about it, I felt helpless here. That’s where I grew up, in Parkland. I got in trouble there, I succeeded there, I learned how to be who I am because of Parkland, because of Stoneman Douglas. So to be across the country and not be there and then to find out some very close people have lost loved ones, to be there to help them and support them was very important to me.”

Rizzo repeatedly said how proud he is of the students of Stoneman Douglas, who have been outspoken on social media, directing their comments toward the president and other members of the government and sharing their opinions that gun control is necessary for the violence to stop.

But Rizzo refrained from wading into that debate and even chastised those who mischaracterized his Twitter comments as a call for gun regulation.

“To be very clear I did not say the word ‘gun’ one time,” he said. “Anyone out there who wrote gun control, saying I called for gun control, I think is very irresponsible and I did not say that once.

“I don’t know what needs to be done, I don’t know. I don’t know enough about it. I know there are a lot of shootings. I know they are done with a specific make, but I don’t know what needs to be done. But something, some type of change needs to happen for the better because I’m sure people in here have kids. No one right now feels very comfortable on a daily basis sending their kid to school and not knowing if they’re going to see them again.”

That kind of message might not be as declarative as some would have hoped. But it remained a powerful one, showing that even if he wasn’t ready or willing to declare himself an activist, Rizzo shares the feelings of many Americans who are simultaneously numb to the news of these shootings and completely and entirely fed up with their frequency and the lack of action taken to stop them.

“As a human being, probably everyone in here when they first the initial (reports of a) shooter, I took my next golf swing, because that’s how numb this country is to it,” Rizzo said. “Until something crazy happens, when you hear ‘open shooter’ nowadays, it’s like, ‘OK,’ take your next breath and keep going. Then I found out it was at Douglas, you get a little more concerned, ‘OK, what’s going on.’ At first it’s a few people injured, then you found out it was what it was, and it’s just — it’s gut-wrenching. You just go numb.

“I stand behind my community, and I’m really proud of how everyone’s coming together. Obviously I said there needs to be change, I don’t know what the change needs to be. I’m just really proud of those kids and how they’re coming together and becoming one in Parkland. It’s really inspiring to see, and it makes me proud.”