Cubs

Joe Maddon perfectly captures 'Little League' mindset with Cubs

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Joe Maddon perfectly captures 'Little League' mindset with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. - Everybody knows Joe Maddon loves when his players are versatile - able to hit in any spot in the lineup and play all over the field.

But it's much harder to pin down why it works so well, producing a successful product between the white lines.

Baseball players are creatures of habit. They love their routine.

Yet Maddon's desire for flexibility is the opposite of "routine."

The way Maddon manages, players never truly know where they're playing or where they're hitting in the lineup until they get to the ballpark that day.

Sort of like...Little League.

"I think that's a perfect way to describe it," Kris Bryant said. "When you think back to when you started playing baseball, it was always so much more fun in Little League.

"And now it's kinda like Little League in the big leagues."

[SHOP: Gear up for the 2016 season, Cubs fans!]

Less than a week after Bryant was called up to the majors last season, Maddon already had the rookie out of his natural position of third base, playing center field with Dexter Fowler banged up.

Bryant had some experience in the outfield in college and took some reps out there in spring training, but he had never played anywhere but third base in his professional career until that moment in Pittsburgh...in his sixth MLB game.

Bryant said he's ready for anything now, which is kind of like Little League, when kids aren't pigeonholed into one spot and play six or seven different positions in one game.

Maddon spent Tuesday talking about the possibility of Bryant winning a Gold Glove at third base, a statement that would have been considered a longshot when Bryant was coming up through the minors with his defense at the hot corner as his biggest question mark.

Yet even after Bryant has proved his worth with his glove and arm at third base, he insists he wants to keep playing the outfield, too.

"I think it's good to move around," he said. "It gets you so you're not complacent. That's what I like. I don't like going to the field and seeing, 'Oh, I'm batting third or fourth or fifth and playing third every day.'

"It's kinda cool to see, 'Oh, I'm batting second today and playing left field.' It's like, you're more ready. It's fun.

"I guess that just comes from me growing up - I played all over the place and didn't really expect anything. I never knew exactly where I was going to play and I enjoy it. That's the fun of the game."

Addison Russell is clearly the Cubs' best defensive option at shortstop, yet he wants to stay ready and flexibile at second base, too.

Chris Coghlan hadn't played infield for years (and hardly at all in the big leagues) before Maddon moved him to third base, then second base and then even first base last season.

Kyle Schwarber is getting in work at both catcher and left field.

[RELATED - As legend of Schwarber grows, Cubs slugger plans to stay true to himself]

Javier Baez is learning center field and can already play all over the infield.

Ben Zobrist is the king of versatility, playing solid defense at four, five or even six defensive positions.

Jason Heyward has mastered right field and now is being moved to a more demanding position in center.

Maddon thinks the players being ready for anything can actually benefit them.

"I like the idea that they're out here just playing," Maddon said. "... When our guys come to the ballpark, they have to get ready to do a lot of different things. So their mind just can't be drawn or focused on one thing - whether I'm hitting or not.

"I think that's what gets guys in trouble more than anything is where they're at on the hitting spectrum right now and their day depends on that. I'd rather their day depend on us just winning and what they can do to help us win.

"We have so many guys that [are versatile] and I don't feel like we're losing anything in regards to catching the ball and maintaining a solid defense."

Maddon joked with the Little League mindset, the Cubs need to find somebody to bring the juice boxes.

And on a team with a bunch of guys who are barely old enough to drink, that Little League style fits in perfectly.

"I think that's one of the things that makes Joe such an unbelievable manager is that you never know what you're gonna do," Bryant said. "You never know what to expect in the clubhouse and I think more guys should be like that."

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

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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.”