Cubs

The spotlight shouldn't blind Yu Darvish

614032.png

The spotlight shouldn't blind Yu Darvish

Being the center of attention is the default setting for Yu Darvish.

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters traveled commercial, and thats supposed to be standard in Japan. Getting out of the plane and moving through the concourse, Micah Hoffpauir and Bobby Scales watched the paparazzi snap pictures. Fans swarmed their famous teammate to ask for autographs at the airport.

As Scales put it: Could you imagine the Cubs walking through OHare every road trip?

The Cubs are among the teams that submitted a blind bid before Wednesdays deadline. This is for the right to negotiate with Darvish, even if the sense is that it could just be due diligence, like checking in on Albert Pujols and not completely ruling out Prince Fielder.

Word could leak out earlier, but the Fighters have four business days to consider the highest bid. The final answer is due by Dec. 20.

If the final bill is close to the more than 100 million it cost the Boston Red Sox to import Daisuke Matsuzaka five years ago, then Darvish automatically becomes one of the games most intriguing players, a marketing and promotional force.

The Japanese media had Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan pinned against an elevator bank at Milwaukees Pfister Hotel during the ownergeneral manager meetings last month. They needed something on Darvish.

Foreign reporters surrounded Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos last week at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas. There was curiosity and gossip about Darvish in the lobby at the winter meetings.

Whenever Darvish arrives on American (or Canadian) soil, he may not be in for total cultural shock, but the 25-year-old pitcher will face a series of adjustments.

Hoffpauir who spent nearly a decade in the Cubs organization before heading to Japan last season described a style of play that almost sounded like soccer.

The No. 1 difference (between) American (and) Japanese baseball, Hoffpauir said, is (that) Japanese baseball is very, very concerned about scoring one run. Theyve got to get that first run on the board and I (had) never in my life seen (that before).

If our leadoff hitter gets on in the top of the first inning, our two-hole hitter nine out of 10 times is bunting and everybody in the stadium knows it and its not even a question. Thats just the way it is. If we have the opportunity to get (him) into scoring position and take two shots at it with our No. 3 and 4 guys, then were going to do that every time.

If Darvish doesnt live up to the hype, he will have to deal with a backlash that may seem jarring. Scales who got called up to Wrigley Field in 2009 and 2010 described Japanese culture as very reserved, very respectful.

People drink in the stadiums in Japan, Hoffpauir said, but you dont have the constant heckling. You dont have people being booed and stuff like that. It seems to be more of a positive-type atmosphere. The fans everywhere are great.

Hoffpauir had been there only a few weeks when he felt the Tokyo Dome Hotel shaking. A tsunami and earthquake would devastate the country last March. Still, overall he enjoyed the experience and picked up his option to return to Japan next year.

Hoffpauir was joined by his wife Tiffany and their daughter Addyson, whos now three years old. They ate more McDonalds than they probably wanted, but that was a place where you could point at what you wanted.

The Fighters had two interpreters for their four American players. Scales a midseason replacement brought over from Triple-A Iowa used a Slingbox to watch University of Michigan football games. But with the time difference, he was usually falling asleep in his hotel room by the time his school started the second half.

Off the field, these are the little things that Darvish will have to get used to in a new country, all while learning the game new league, new teammates, deeper lineups at the highest level. Even professional athletes cant stay always stay in the bubble.

Hoffpauir is convinced that Darvish will approximate a No. 2 major-league starter as soon as he reports to spring training. The Japanese ace has strung together five consecutive seasons with an ERA below 1.89. What else is left to prove there?

At least Darvish whos reportedly in the process of divorcing his wife, a high-profile actress shouldnt be blinded by the flashbulbs and TV lights. He performed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2009 World Baseball Classic. This is his world.

He will have no problem with the media, Hoffpauir said. Hes dealt with that all of his career.

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.