Cubs

Love it or hate it, Cubs creating their own identity

junior-lake-0604.png

Love it or hate it, Cubs creating their own identity

WASHINGTON — The Loveable Losers are slowly morphing into The Hateable Winners.

Well, the Cubs haven’t actually won anything yet, heading into Nationals Park on Thursday night only three games above .500, slipping to third place in the National League Central. But you could see the fireworks coming with a brash young team that’s trying to create an identity.

“Well, I don’t want us to have the identity of hitting home runs and flipping the bat and doing cartwheels around the bases,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Absolutely not. Act like you’re going to do it again.”

No, this isn’t what Professor Maddon had in mind when he got a $25 million tenure position at The Cub University: Junior Lake pimping it at home plate, shushing Miami’s dugout rounding third base and sparking a bench-clearing incident during Wednesday night’s 7-3 loss at Marlins Park.

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon doesn’t like Junior Lake’s ‘punk’ move]

But there was an inevitable sense that stuff like this would happen with Maddon’s liberal-arts approach and anti-rules philosophy. If you want players to be themselves, to show their emotions and not be afraid to make mistakes, then you can’t be surprised when they get carried away in the moment.

“Poor behavior is not part of what we’re looking for,” Maddon said. “There’s not even any correlation between the two at all.

“The risk is if you let them get away with it. That’s the risk for the first time. And if you don’t put a lid on it, then, of course, it can become something more complicated.”

This isn’t picking on Lake, who realized what he did wrong, took full responsibility for his actions and wanted to apologize to Miami pitcher Dan Haren, the rest of the Marlins and the kids who might be watching at home on TV.

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez Watch is heating up]

It’s just that it’s probably too late to put a lid on all this, because it’s bigger than any one moment or individual personality. It’s the “We Are Good” T-shirts and the Bloomberg Businessweek cover story trumpeting the “sports empire” now “in bloom.”

It’s all the battles with City Hall, the rooftop owners and their Lakeview neighbors in launching the $600 million Wrigleyville development.

It’s the six months it took the Red Sox to finalize compensation after chairman Tom Ricketts and president of business operations Crane Kenney hired Theo Epstein away from Boston to run the baseball side after the 2011 season.

It’s Major League Baseball getting involved again in the Maddon tampering case, with the Rays forcing an investigation that finally cleared the Cubs six months after they fired Rick Renteria and grabbed the star manager out of Tampa Bay.

It’s Anthony Rizzo predicting the Cubs will win the division in January. It’s the natural excitement after five consecutive fifth-place finishes — and what should be the pushback in a pennant race.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs lineup will miss a big presence with Jorge Soler on DL]

“We have no reason to get under people’s skin,” Rizzo said. “We should all be running the ball out hard, like we do, and hustling, like we do. We’re just playing the game hard.”

To be clear, the Cubs will need that edge and a sense of swagger to end this century-and-counting drought. Even Jon Lester — who owns two World Series rings and comes across as all business — seems to understand the postgame dance parties in the clubhouse.  

“You go back to being with the Red Sox and everything is so regimented and serious all the time,” Lester said. “You’re expected to win. And when you do win, there’s really no celebration. It’s just on to the next day. It’s nice to take (the) two minutes out of our day and really enjoy what we just did on the field.

“I haven’t been around these guys for the past couple years and seen how they take losses. But to walk in the clubhouse and see how these guys handle losses is also good. They’re pissed off. They care. That’s obviously a step in the right direction.

“Winning in the big leagues is tough. (But) once those two minutes are over, then it’s on to the next one. And these guys have done a great job of that.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs could change the equation with Kris Bryant in left field]

The Cubs are also running the risk of retaliation if baseball’s fun police doesn’t like Lake’s act or Starlin Castro’s 30-second home-run trot showing up on “SportsCenter.”

“There’s no comparison between what Castro did and what Junior did,” Maddon said. “One is absolutely, demonstratively unacceptable. And the other one is just a slow stroll around the bases. I don’t see that one as being necessarily upsetting to the other team.”

Jake Arrieta got that question after the Cubs gave Kris Bryant the silent treatment, emptying the dugout in the middle of a game against the Brewers and celebrating his first big-league homer inside Miller Park’s visiting clubhouse.

“None of us here would disrespect the game,” Arrieta said. “Don’t do things that you feel would be disrespectful to teammates (or) to the other team. And we would never do that. But at the same time, you got to have fun.

“(If) we got our ass kicked yesterday, (then) we have to come in the next day with the same mentality. Stay loose (and) confident.

“The looser you stay in the clubhouse, and off the field as a team, the easier it is to kind of turn the page and come back with no apprehension or tentativeness the next day. (You) just come out and play the game.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Would you rather see your team making enemies or remaining afterthoughts?

“(As for the) baseball purists,” Arrieta said, “the game’s going to change a little bit and you have to expect that. There are 19-, 20-, 21-year-old kids in the big leagues and the millennial fans like that stuff. It creates a little excitement.

“If there is a line and there are boundaries, then we won’t cross those. But we’re still going to have fun.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

andre_dawson.jpg
USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.