Cubs

Tom Ricketts explains why Cubs decided to give Steve Bartman a World Series ring

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AP

Tom Ricketts explains why Cubs decided to give Steve Bartman a World Series ring

Steve Bartman's name will live in infamy forever, but at least he has something only a couple thousand people can say: A Cubs 2016 World Series ring.

Bartman was one of the most head-scratching choices to receive one of the 1,908 rings the Cubs handed out last year. The most notorious fan in Cubs history obviously didn't do anything to aid the 2016 Cubs in their pursuit to reverse the curse and win a championship.

So why give him a ring? 

At the time, the Cubs called it goodwill, hoping to bury the ugly incidents throughout the 108 years of World Series futility.

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts was actually against giving Bartman a ring initially.

"I give credit to [Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney]," Ricketts said Saturday at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. "He came to me and said, 'You know, we should give Steve a ring to acknowledge what we've been through.'

"At first, I was like, our whole thing is to not look back. Stop worrying about what happened and worry about moving forward and the future. But Crane made a good case and the logistics side for us to add some closure."

So Ricketts, Kenney and Theo Epstein sat down to hash out the details.

"I think it was a good moment for the organization," Ricketts said. "I mean, the poor guy. True diehard fan. Reguarlarly attended games, coached baseball. Hopefully now he can feel like he's back in the family."

That "family" characteristic is one that Ricketts holds dear, classifying all Cubs fans as part of the "family." Ricketts also said Saturday Ronnie Woo Woo is part of the Cubs "family" despite a dispute between Woo Woo and the Cubs last year that involved the unofficial mascot getting kicked out of Wrigley Field for not having a ticket.

Ricketts hopes Bartman can get back into baseball now and not have to remain in hiding. As the Cubs owner pointed out, Bartman wasn't the only fan who reached his hand out for that 2003 foul ball, but was the only one unfortunate enough to make contact.

Ricketts added a mic-drop one-liner about how Alex Gonzalez botched a routine ground ball immediately after Bartman's accidental gaffe:

"Of course, he didn't fail to turn the double play three minutes later."

As Cubs search for rhythm, hold the declarations on this season for a while

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USA TODAY

As Cubs search for rhythm, hold the declarations on this season for a while

Jed Hoyer is right: You can't make any claims about these Cubs one way or the other.

It's too early and the weather/schedule has been far too wacky for any strong statements about who, exactly, the 2018 Cubs are. 

"I don't think you can really evaluate much so far," Hoyer said. "There's no rhythm to the season yet. The game's been played in terrible condition for the most part.

"Positively or negatively, I don't think you can draw big conclusions based on what's happened. ... There's a lot of games to be played. We'll forget this time quickly and remember what it's like to be in [Wrigley] when it's not freezing. It's been a little choppy and hard to evaluate, for sure."

You can shout "SMALL SAMPLE SIZE" from the Wrigleyville rooftops all you'd like, but that's not even why it's impossible to draw conclusions about the identity of this team.

The 8-8 Cubs have already had five postponements due to weather to start the 2018 season, including four on the recent homestand (and a makeup game on Thursday, which was originally scheduled as a travel day). The last time this franchise had five games in April called on account of weather was back in 1967 and there are still another 10 days left in the month for the weather to possibly mess with. 

This will surely go down as one of the oddest starts to a season in Cubs history, with a 17-inning game played on the second day of the year, followed by a 10-inning game the next day. The Cubs were supposed to start the campaign with six straight games, but the last contest in Cincinnati was postponed, so they got an impromptu two-day break, which was good at the time for Anthony Rizzo to rest his ailing back and the bullpen to catch their breath.

After a four-game series in Milwaukee's domed stadium in which the Cubs finally looked to be showing some rhythm, the weather reared its ugly head again.

The 11-day homestand featured four postponed games, maybe the worst weather game in Wrigley Field history (Saturday) and yet another impromptu two-day break. This week alone, the Cubs played two games in a five-day span.

All of that has led to an inconsistent product.

One day, the Cubs look like an offensive juggernaut, going 5-for-9 with runners in scoring position, chasing an opposing starter before the fifth inning and scoring in bunches, as they showed Thursday in the 8-5 win over the Cardinals.

But in half the games this year, they can't seem to buy a hit against pitchers most Cubs fans haven't even heard of.

One day, the starting rotation flashes its elite potential, only to get battered around the next night.

"We haven't pitched very well," said Jon Lester, who allowed only an unearned run across six innings Thursday. "I'm not gonna speak for hitters; I don't like to cross that line by any means. But I feel like we've had some really good offensive games and our pitching staff as a whole hasn't stepped up.

"I think things will get better if we can get some games in. You got pitchers that are going on 6, 7, 8 days rest all the time. It's hard to get in that rhythm, especially when it's cold out. It's hard to find the ball; it's hard to find that release point."

Lester isn't one for making excuses and the Cubs aren't doing that. Every team in baseball has to go through these head-scratching weather issues, but it's impossible to point to the team's starting pitching inconsistency without including the schedule caveat. 

Baseball players — and starting pitchers, in specific — are creatures of habit and yet everybody is trying to navigate this new terrain.

Kyle Hendricks is still throwing a bunch on the side during all these rain/snow-outs, but most relievers are saving their bullets. Position players are still working out and getting their time in the cages, but that doesn't help everything.

The team that set records for their defensive prowess in 2016 has been inconsistent in the field this year, though their manager has an idea why.

"When you don't play consistently, the feel, the nuance, that escapes you," Joe Maddon said. 

The same issues that plagued the Cubs during their World Series "hangover" last year still seem to be around — not coming up with the timely hit, poor situational hitting overall, too many walks from the pitching staff.

But there are also reasons for optimism.

Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell are showing development offensively and the lineup has missed its anchor (Anthony Rizzo) for almost half the season (seven games). Carl Edwards Jr. is limiting his walks and the Cubs bullpen has been the team's saving grace for the first three weeks.

The starting rotation is still iffy, but with resumes like Lester's, Kyle Hendricks', Jose Quintana's and Yu Darvish's, that figures to even out over a larger sample size.

The Cubs haven't fallen too far back in the standings (3 games behind the NL Central-leading Pittsburgh Pirates) and more importantly than anything, they've been able to stay healthy, apart from minor back issues for Rizzo and Ben Zobrist.

The weather still doesn't look great in Colorado, Cleveland or back in Chicago next week, but eventually things will warm up and the sun will come out on a regular basis.

And eventually enough games will be played — and not postponed — where statements about who the 2018 Cubs are can be identified conclusively.

It's just not that time...yet.

The ascension of Javy Baez...into Manny Ramirez?

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USA TODAY

The ascension of Javy Baez...into Manny Ramirez?

Pedro Strop knows the score: He'll have a tough time accessing his locker at Wrigley Field often.

"That's what you get when you're right next to a superstar," Strop said, referencing his locker adjacent to Javy Baez's. 

"Javy being Javy" may have to start picking up steam as a slogan.

Baez has often been compared to Gary Sheffield for the lightning-quick batspeed, but the guy Joe Maddon keeps comparing Baez to is actually Manny Ramirez. (If you're keeping score at home, Baez has now been compared to Sheffield, Ramirez and Willie Mays — and that's just in the first month of the 2018 season.)

The Cubs manager believes the only thing that has kept Baez from being Ramirez at the plate is laying off pitches out of the zone, namely the slider low and away.

Ramirez was one of the game's best hitters for nearly two decades in the '90s and 2000s, a force in the middle of the Cleveland and Boston lineups during that time.

We may be witnessing a similar type of evolution for Baez right now, who hit .344 with 8 extra-base hits (including 5 homers), 12 RBI and 9 runs in 7 games on this homestand after Thursday's 8-5 win over the Cardinals

Baez also ranks third in baseball in barrels per plate appearance — trailing only Boston's J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts — and boasts a slugging percentage (.691) in the same neighborhood as Bryce Harper's (.712).

"You're seeing the ascension," Maddon said before Thursday's game. "I've talked about this for a bit — where the moment he starts laying off the down-and-away slider, he's Manny Ramirez.

"He's got that kind of abilities at the plate. It's just a matter of maturing as a hitter, which he will."

[PODCAST: Does Javy Baez have an MVP in his future?]

Ramirez has had a hand in helping Baez become the player he is now, as the former Red Sox great was hired by Theo Epstein as a hitting consultant with the Cubs and spent time in 2014 with Baez in Triple-A Iowa.

Baez is still just 25 years old and the maturation process has already started, as he is now looking to go the other way instead of trying to pull everything.

For a guy that's hit just 21.9 percent of his balls to right field in his career, Baez has seen a jump in 2018, with 28.9 percent of his balls in play going the other way, and that was before he lined a pair of 110 mph hits) to right to kick off Thursday's game.

He's locked in right now and it's still very early in the season, but everything Baez has shown thus far in 2018 has been encouraging.

"He's using the whole field — I can't emphasize that enough," Maddon said. "He might take that out-of-control swing, but then he comes right back to reality pretty quickly. Whereas that one [would] lead to the second one to the third one and then he comes walking back [to the dugout]. 

"So I think he's making in-at-bat adjustments. His approach has been entirely different. He's willing to use the other side."

Baez insists he's not consciously trying to hit the ball to right field, but he's seeing it really well right now.

"It started with Pittsburgh. I kinda put the ball where I wanted to," Baez said. "Now that I keep doing the same thing, I'm still hitting the ball good. I'm not actually trying to hit the ball that way, just trying to see the ball better."

Maddon and the Cubs have typically been slotting Baez in the eighth spot in the order this season, but as he's exploded offensively, he's seen a steady climb.

That culminated in a start in the 2-hole Thursday, the first time Baez has been there since 2016.

Maddon was looking for some "energy" from Baez atop the order and it worked to perfection as he tripled in the first inning and wound up scoring a few pitches later on Kris Bryant's single. Baez singled and scored in the second inning, too.

There will still be growing pains, like when Baez collided softly with Rizzo for a foul pop-up in the third inning Thursday, causing the ball to drop. And he still doesn't walk much and will be prone to the strikeout.

But Baez can help the Cubs win in a dozen different ways and it sure seems as if his bat is catching up to the rest of his game.