Cubs

Frankie O's Blog: A tradition unlike any other

Frankie O's Blog: A tradition unlike any other

Friday, April 8, 2011
Posted: 9:24 a.m.

By Frankie O
CSNChicago.com

Hello friends! This time of year always reminds me of the dreams of my childhood. Most of the other kids dreamed of being a fireman or astronaut, for me it was something different. I always wanted to grow up to be Jim Nantz. And since I still havent grown up, maybe theres still a chance! Think of it: This guy (No, not me, yet!) gets a front row seat for three weeks to two of the best sporting events and he does it every year! Although I have to admit, not having to sit courtside and watch the NCAA mens title game might have been a blessing, since while I watched it at home I kept falling asleep. That game took basketball back a few years. Maybe a few dozen.

As I laid in a dreamy daze, with the constant clank of the rim coming out in staccato bursts from my surround sound, drowning out my snoring, I wondered if all the one-and-done players had watered down the talent level of division 1 basketball so much, that this is what were left with. Dont get me wrong, the win or go home drama of the tournament make it must-see TV and the best reality show ever. The fact that all of the best players of college age are in the pros makes some of the college games hard to watch from a pure basketball standpoint. That is if you enjoy watching wide-open players actually making shots. The NCAA has some problems. Im not sure I would get a lot, or ANY, dispute on that. But as long as CBS throws gobs of money at them, and all of us fill out our (losing) brackets, I dont see the NCAA in any hurry to solve any issues. But maybe they should take a look at the Fighting Illinis Jereme Richmond and see if they can learn anything from his brief experience as a student-athlete. Of course, this is if they have any spare time from suspending coaches for NEXT year, while they participate in post-seasons THIS year.

Then Jimbo gets to stroll up Magnolia Lane and sip Arnold Palmers in Butler Cabin. As Ive told anyone who will listen, my Masters experience is probably the sporting event of my lifetime. Watching on TV in this world of Hi-def, is for any fan, completely mesmerizing. Going there in person blows that away. I went there in 2007 and will never forget it. In a world full of hype, few things can measure up. The Masters is one of them. I was on a waiting list for practice rounds tickets for ten long years before I got invited. For me it was important to be invited. I know for many, some of the August National traditions may seem a little country club stuffy, but I think theyre kind of cool. They have their ways and unlike a lot of others theyve earned the right.

One is that they are very proper. Being as such, I didnt want to gate-crash. Ive been offered the opportunity to buy tickets over the years, but that didnt seem right. I wanted to walk in through the front door as an invited guest and not worry about having passes that werent legit. For ten years I sent in my application. Notification of winning is in September, and for nine years my mailbox was empty. Then, I received my application for 2007 in May of 06. In the Masters edition of my Golf World magazine, I read a full page article written by a guy from New Jersey who had been sending in his applications for 10 years before he hit. He wrote of how special it was to spend a day on the grounds with his dad and brothers. The joy in what he was writing jumped from the page. To say I was jealous would be an understatement.

So it was without much expectation when I sent in my application that July. Philly guys always see the worst in any situation. Life moved on and I was immersed in it. Then one day, without even realizing what time of year it was, I went to get the mail. Shining like a beacon, there was a yellow envelope in the middle of all of my junk mail. Once again, I think Im pretty grounded and realistic about what life has to offer and I realize what is important in it. Still, when I opened the letter and saw what it said, you could not wipe the smile off my face. I immediately called my father and buddies to tell them the good news: Were going to Augusta! My wife told me to take the phone outside since I sounded like I was 15. Augusta National! Wow! I dont know if I anticipated going anywhere more. In the sports bucket list, this was at the top. That I had 6 months to think about it made me crazier than normal.

We were going for two days: Tuesday and Wednesday. Tuesday was for exploring every inch of the course. Wednesday was for watching the Par 3 Contest while sitting next to Ikes pond. When making our travel arrangements, we realized that the Final Four was in Atlanta. We were flying there on Monday, the day of the National Title Game. Why not? Even while we were in the Georgia Dome, watching Florida pound Ohio State, (I would normally would have enjoyed this, but our obnoxious suite mates (Thats right! We watched from a suite! Bo-Ya!) were from Florida, and they made it impossible to root for the Gators, so I couldnt cheer for either team.) our thoughts were a hundred miles away.

We arrived in Augusta at 2:00 a.m., but still had to drive by the front gate just to make sure we were really there. Bleary-eyed the next morning at 7:30 a.m., we entered the grounds. It was other-worldly. Things looked familiar, only more brilliant. It was like going back in time. The vibe was awesome. It was like everyone around you was in on it too. The first couple of hours were dizzying. There was so much to take in. Amen Corner, Sixteen, 2.00 beers! After sharing a pimento and cheese sandwich (yuck) for lunch, we did what I have always dreamed of. We walked the course, from the first tee, shot by shot. We met tons of people, were awed by some of the natural beauty and talked to every Marshall we could. Talk about golf encyclopedias! These gentlemen have been there forever and were more than pleased to share stories about what they have seen. After the round we all hugged at the eighteenth green. I will always remember that walk. There was only one thing that could top that and that was the Par 3. The atmosphere was like being at a family picnic. But instead of hanging with your uncles, you got to watch Jack, Arnie and Gary. How cool is that? It was one of those days that you wish would not end. As close to perfect as you good get at a sporting event. Although as you looked around, at everyone you were sharing this time with, you knew it was more than that. Its hard to comprehend, but being there was cooler than I ever thought it would be.

As I watch The Masters I always go back to that time. Each tournament brings a new story that golf fans can cherish. Very rarely can I say that theres been a dull one. I try to watch as much as I can and become riveted with the battles for golfs elite to earn the coveted green jacket. And since 2007 as I watch, its with a smile in my heart, as I remember seeing all that is on the screen before me in person. In 2007 I had a small slice of what my boy Nantz gets to experience every April. He is one lucky dude. And for the time I had, so am I. Now if I could only grow up.

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

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USA TODAY

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

As Cactus League play begins, how many spots are actually up for grabs on the White Sox roster?

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AP

As Cactus League play begins, how many spots are actually up for grabs on the White Sox roster?

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Some teams have it easy, with their 25-man rosters seemingly locked into place before spring training games even start.

The White Sox actually have a lot more locked-down spots than you might think for a rebuilding team, but this spring remains pretty important for a few guys.

The starting rotation figures to be set, with James Shields, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Miguel Gonzalez and Carson Fulmer the starting five. Carlos Rodon, of course, owns one of those spots once he returns from injury. But the date of that return remains a mystery.

From this observer’s viewpoint, eight of the everyday nine position players seem to be figured out, too: Welington Castillo behind the plate, Jose Abreu at first base, Yoan Moncada at second base, Tim Anderson at shortstop, Yolmer Sanchez at third base, Nicky Delmonico in left field, Avisail Garcia in right field and Matt Davidson as the designated hitter. More on the omission of a starting center fielder in a bit.

Omar Narvaez would be a logical pick to back up Castillo at catcher, and Tyler Saladino is really the lone reserve infielder with big league experience, not to mention he’s a versatile player that can play anywhere on the infield.

Leury Garcia also figures to be a lock for this 25-man roster. But will he be the everyday center fielder, as he was for a spell last season? He played 51 games in center in 2017 but battled injuries throughout the year. I think Leury Garcia will end up the starting center fielder when the season begins because of his bat. His .270/.316/.423 slash line isn’t going to make anyone do cartwheels, but it’s better than the offensive struggles of Adam Engel, who started 91 games in center in 2017 and slashed .166/.235/.282. Engel would still be a solid inclusion on the bench because of his superb defense, but to create that big a hole in the everyday lineup is tough.

How could that position-player group change? Keep your eyes in center field, where there are a couple other guys who could force their way into a roster spot this spring: Charlie Tilson and Ryan Cordell. Tilson has had a tremendous amount of trouble staying on the field since coming over to the White Sox in a 2016 deadline deal, but that hasn’t dampened the White Sox hopes for him. And Cordell got name-dropped by general manager Rick Hahn during SoxFest, when the GM said he’s received multiple calls about Cordell since acquiring him last summer. Cordell put up good numbers at the Triple-A level prior to a significant injury last year.

But the main battles figure to be in the bullpen. At times this winter, as the White Sox kept adding players to that relief corps mix, that the whole thing seemed wide open. But when you think about it, maybe there are only one or two open spots.

You’d have to think these guys are pretty safe bets to make the team: Juan Minaya, Gregory Infante, Nate Jones, Joakim Soria and Luis Avilan. Though Hector Santiago was just recently acquired on a minor league deal, he’s really the only long man of the group, and he could sub in if there’s an injury to a starting pitcher. That leaves two spots between the group of Aaron Bummer, Danny Farquhar, Jace Fry, Jose Ruiz and Thyago Vieira — not to mention guys signed to minor league deals like Xavier Cedeno, Jeanmar Gomez and Bruce Rondon.

Bummer had a 4.50 ERA in 30 big league games last year. Farquhar had a 4.40 ERA in 15 games. Vieira has gotten attention as a flame-thrower, but he’s got just one big league game under his belt, something that might or might not matter to the rebuilding White Sox. Guys like Gomez, who has 40 career saves including 37 just two years ago, and Rondon, who had multiple shots at the Detroit Tigers’ closing job in the past, could vault themselves into the mix as potential midseason trade candidates.

Then there's the question of which of those guys will be Rick Renteria's closer. Minaya had closing duties after most of the bullpen was traded away last summer. He picked up nine saves and posted a 4.11 ERA in his final 17 appearances of the campaign. Look to Soria, though, a veteran with plenty of closing experience from his days with the Kansas City Royals. If he's given the opportunity to close and succeeds, he could fetch an intriguing return package in a potential deadline deal.

But now it's game time in Arizona.

“The fun part of playing the game of baseball is playing the game of baseball," Renteria said earlier this week. "We prepare. I think they all enjoy what they’re doing in terms of their preparation. They take it seriously, they focus. But ultimately like everything that we do in life, I guess it’s a test. And the games are a test for us on a daily basis. And how we are able to evaluate them and take advantage of the opportunities that we have to see them in a real game situation is certainly helpful for us.”