Cubs

How Theo Epstein sees Cubs identity entering 2018

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USA TODAY

How Theo Epstein sees Cubs identity entering 2018

One year ago today, it finally happened.

The Cubs erased 108 championship-less years in its franchise history, battling through — and coming out on top — one of the greatest baseball games ever played.

2016's Game 7 was far more entertaining than 2017's iteration, even if this fall's World Series was undeniably epic in its own right.

Watching as the Houston Astros reveled in all their euphoria late Wednesday night, the Cubs and their fans obviously wished it was the boys in blue celebrating a second straight world championship.

The Cubs are no longer defending or reigning champs. But as 2017 gets further in the rearview mirror and the focus shifts to 2018 and beyond, Theo Epstein knows exactly what he's got in his team.

"I'm proud of the players because to me, now, the identity of the organization is: This is a team you can count on to play into October, you can count on them to play deep into October, you can count on them to play some epic games in October and you like their chances of winning those games," Epstein said on Oct. 20, the day after the Cubs' season ended.

"And that's a hard-fought identity that our players and a lot of guys behind the scenes have worked really hard to attain. I'm proud of them for that.

"And part of our job is to help create that identity and put them in position to achieve as many of those goals as they can."

Epstein's point about the Cubs' epic games is an interesting one.

Obviously the contest known simply as "Game 7" is up there, with the most famous rain delay in sports — and Chicago — history. 

But then there's Game 5 of the NLDS this fall, when the Cubs somehow outlasted the Washington Nationals in a winner-take-all game of epic proportions. 

There was a time not too long ago when it was even a question if the Cubs would put together three straight winning seasons, let alone three trips to the playoffs (done for the first time since 1906-08) or three straight years as one of the top two teams in the National League.

That task was much tougher in 2017, when the entire organization was nursing a World Series hangover that they know publicly admit was as real as the 108-year drought. And they were able to somehow play 10 postseason games despite a historically bad offensive showing.

The memories of 2003, 2007 and 2008 are in the distant past, with expectations now that this Cubs team challenge for the title each season.

"The identity of this organization has changed in a lot of ways that are meaningful and positive," Epstein said. "Looking around at those guys, any year in which we went to our third straight NLCS, if we're being honest — there was a tinge of disappointment, obviously.

"And to have disappointment in a year in which you reach the NLCS for the third straight year shows just how much the expectations have been raised around here and how high the bar is. That is a great thing.

"...We didn't reach our ultimate goal, but there's real value in getting back to October, to winning a series, to giving your fans thrilling baseball."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

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.”