Focused on winning big with Cubs, John Lackey doesn’t care what you think

Focused on winning big with Cubs, John Lackey doesn’t care what you think

In the middle of a sit-down interview near the end of spring training, Theo Epstein noticed John Lackey and called out: “I’m just saying nice things about you.”

“Oh Jesus,” Lackey said, stopping for a moment in between the Cubs clubhouse and the weight room at the team’s Arizona complex. 

Epstein kept talking: “You don’t give a f--- what people think. And that’s why…”

“That’s a good point,” Lackey said with a smile. “That’s a fact.”

Epstein laughed and turned back to the reporter sitting at a patio table: “Ask any clubhouse he’s ever been in — he’s beloved by the other 24 guys.”

The last time he pitched at Wrigley Field, a raucous crowd chanted “LACK-EY! LACK-EY!” after he gave up a thunderous three-run homer to Javier Baez in the National League divisional round, the Cubs eliminating the St. Louis Cardinals in their first-ever playoff matchup in a rivalry that stretches all the way back to 1892.

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Lackey should get a warmer reception on Wednesday night when he faces the Cincinnati Reds and makes his first start in a Cubs uniform at Clark and Addison. If not, hey, he’s not angling for a media gig in his post-playing career or worrying if the bleacher bums will boo him.

“I just think it’s irrelevant,” Lackey said. “Who cares? As long as the guys in here feel a certain way about me, I’m good.”

The Cubs wanted an edgier personality to push their pitching staff and enhance their clubhouse chemistry. Lackey called Chicago his favorite city as a visiting player and knew enough people inside the organization that he didn’t even string his free-agent decision out to the winter meetings.

As president of baseball operations, Epstein has autonomy over scouting, player development and the big-league product, the aura that comes from the two World Series teams he helped build for the Boston Red Sox and the expectation that he will soon become the highest-paid personnel executive in the game. 

In Chicago, seemingly every waiver claim, trade throw-in and faded Red Sox prospect became a chance to look at the roster churn and find deeper meaning in The Plan. Like the T-shirts said after he arrived in October 2011: “In Theo We Trust.”

That made the mixed reactions to the Lackey signing on Twitter so interesting. Even Epstein noticed the hot takes on social media after closing a two-year, $32 million deal that looked very reasonable in an overheated pitching market.

“He’s someone who doesn’t spend any time whatsoever trying to manicure his reputation anywhere besides inside the clubhouse,” said Epstein, who had put together a five-year, $82.5 million contract for Lackey in Boston. “He doesn’t care what the media thinks. He doesn’t care what the fans think. 

[MORE: Before and after: What a difference for red-hot Cubs at Wrigley Field]

“So that combined with his intense demeanor on the mound, I think he’s perceived — as someone from the outside looking in — as like this big brute who must be a tough guy to get along with. 

“And the reality is — ask anyone who’s ever played with him — he’s beloved inside the clubhouse.”

Lackey pitched Game 4 for the Cardinals on short rest last October, and teammates appreciate how he always wants to take the ball. It’s the way he made 28 starts and accounted for 160 innings with the Red Sox in 2011 — and then had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.    

Manager Joe Maddon — the Anaheim Angels bench coach when Lackey beat Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series — compared the 6-foot-6 Texan to John Wayne. 

“He’s a fun guy to have around, actually,” veteran catcher Miguel Montero said. “He’s a guy that you hate when you played against him. I never thought he was a nice guy. The way he is, I mean, I never thought he was a really good guy. I didn’t really like him. And (I find out) he’s a great teammate.”

Some of this is inevitable when you pitch almost 2,500 innings in The Show, perform in 15 playoff series (8-5, 3.11 ERA) and have that snarling demeanor on the mound. 

Just ask Jon Lester, Lackey’s close friend through the turbulence in Boston who also helped the 2013 Red Sox go worst-to-first and win a World Series title.

[RELATED: Joe Maddon doesn't think new Wrigley clubhouse will turn Cubs soft] 

“Lack sometimes gets a bad rap,” Lester said. “I would imagine I’m not liked too much on the other side. I think when you compete against guys — and he’s been around a long, long time — you just end up getting that kind of stigma.

“Listen, when we’re pitching, we’re grinding. We’re yelling and spitting and screaming and hollering. Just like in life, you have different personalities when it comes (to) playing (the game). 

“Jake (Arrieta) doesn’t show emotion. You never see him show emotion. I actually envy guys like that. Their face never changes and it’s just hard for guys like me and (Lackey). We wear our emotions on the sleeve.”

The Angels drafted Lackey with the 68th overall pick in 1999 — or five years after shortstop Addison Russell was born. Lackey made his big-league debut in June 2002 — against a Texas Rangers lineup that featured Alex Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro.

“When you’re on the other side – especially when somebody’s good — you want to beat them,” Lester said. “When somebody has a name and they’ve established themselves, you always watch them a little bit more.

“Once you have a name and (some success), guys start nitpicking at things that stand out and bother them. But I would put money on it: There’s not one person that he’s ever played with that would have a bad thing to say about him.”

If Lackey doesn’t obsess over his legacy at the age of 37, he’s still aware of how he will be remembered if he’s part of the Cubs team that finally wins the World Series for the first time since 1908.  

“Coming here was a chance to make history,” Lackey said. “Choosing to do something special was a factor, for sure. It’s something I thought about. Hopefully, we get it done.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans


Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: