Cubs

Is old school coaching out of style?

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Is old school coaching out of style?

Mike Flaherty is a member of the old school. He grew up playing basketball in the 1960s and coaching in the 1970s. In a distinguished 36-year career, he has earned a reputation as one of Illinois' leading high school coaches, from Mendel to Thornridge to Mount Carmel.

Flaherty has experienced the good and the bad of high school basketball, from the invention of the Internet and other modern technology to transferring to grammar school recruiting to AAU to street agents to shoe companies. Along the way, he figured out a way to win about 700 games.

"Older coaches look back with rose-colored glasses. I'm not sure it was better then. It seems like it was a simpler age with less distractions. But was it better? It was different," Flaherty said.

"If I was the czar of basketball, I would limit AAU ball to just the summer. We have had kids miss school to play AAU. I understand that is how recruiting is done today. That is reality. I can live with it. But the NCAA could make changes that would help by eliminating recruiting in the summer.

"Obviously, the whole idea of transferring is more common today than in the old days. Because of the Internet, kids are promoting themselves and being recruited out of grammar school. It is hard to get a kid who comes into school without a reputation. I remember when a transfer was out of the ordinary. Now if you don't get a kid, it is out of the ordinary. I wish kids would be more loyal to their programs. But that isn't the way it is today."

Flaherty and other old-timers, including St. Joseph's Gene Pingatore, Warren's Chuck Ramsey, St. Patrick's Mike Bailey and retired coaches Steve Goers of Rockford Boylan and Roy Condotti of Westinghouse and Homewood-Flossmoor, have watched the landscape of high school basketball change, not always to the benefit of the sport or the kids.

Change has come with AAU and traveling teams in the spring, summer and fall and the growing technology that allows youngsters to promote themselves on Internet websites and Twitter and other avenues that are used to hype kids and turn them into rock stars.

Do coaches feel they still have the luxury of disciplining them or are they too often coddling them because they fear the kids might transfer to another program?

"I won't coddle them," said Pingatore, who has been coaching for 43 years. "If they want to leave, let them leave. I don't want people who don't want to be here. We've lost kids for various reasons. This isn't the place to come to be a star. They don't like discipline or they don't like to be told they can't shoot beyond 10 feet. We run our program the same way.

"Discipline is important. We are old school and still attract people who want to be a part of it. Parents have their own website to promote their kids. That doesn't mean they can play in a program."

Pingatore insists there is too much promotion today, mostly generated by summer coaches. "Their motive isn't to help kids, just to get more publicity for themselves and more money from shoe companies. How many summer coaches place kids in Division III schools? They want to deal with the blue chippers, the Division I prospects, the ones who make names for them."

He seconds Flaherty's motion to do away with summer recruiting. "Summer coaches aren't into instruction. Exposure is the big selling point to the parents. That's why the NCAA is the culprit. They should eliminate summer evaluation and put the power back in the hands of the high school coaches," Pingatore said.

Condotti concedes that the old school method of coaching is probably gone. He contends that it is more difficult to run a program now than it was in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. In Condotti's era, there was no Internet, no outside influences, no one concerned about who is rated in the top 100, no parents complaining about playing time for their kids.

"I noticed a change when AAU began rolling," Condotti said. "It was so difficult to ask someone to spend three hours at Bloom playing three games in a row in a gym that was 100 degrees. Or would you rather go to the Peach Jam in Georgia and have a vacation and play basketball? It opened my eyes to the AAU experience. Now I see coaches go through more than I ever had to go through.

"We checked grades in my era. The hardest thing you had to do was be a student and a basketball player. There was no Internet in those days. Now it influences 14, 15 and 16-year-old kids. It is more difficult to mold a unit into a disciplined group that is working toward a common goal, to play for each other."

And then there is the parental issue. "They are looking for their kids to go to college and get an education for free. I understand that. But parents have to trust the coach that is running the program their son or daughter is in. They have to have a working relationship with the high school coach, who is more responsible for taking a kid on a trip, more
responsible for molding a young boy into a young man. I don't think AAU does that," Condotti said.

"The coach interacts with the kid all day long, not just at practice. It is a more difficult job today than it used to be. It can still be fun if you are who you are. If you have to change who you are and change your values, if you worry about a kid leaving your program or worry about parents, it ceases to be fun."

Condotti said this is the "have it now" generation, the era of instant rankings and instant gratification. He argues that kids haven't changed. They still are 15 and 16. They still want to play basketball.

"But everything else has changed," he said. "The influences that affect their lives, what they have access to, that's what has changed. Coaches have to be more patient with getting the payback now. If a kid comes back and says you were right, that you helped him, that you did the right thing and impacted his life in a positive way, that's why it is all worthwhile."

But Goers, who retired as the winningest coach in Illinois high school history (881-264), believes the individual has become bigger than the whole, that their persistence on individual glory detracts from team goals.

"How many transfers do you see based on the relationship between kids who play on AAU teams in the summer?" Goers said. "It hurts high schools and colleges, too. If the NCAA would go back and say that college coaches can only see players compete with their high school teams during the regular season and only see them play in the summer with their high school teams, it would take power away from the AAU and they wouldn't have a stranglehold on the kids."

But Goers concedes it probably never will happen because that's the way the NCAA and the college coaches and the shoe companies want it. "College coaches like the system the way it is because it doesn't conflict with their own practices. And they want to see all the elite players playing together at one time in one place," he said.

Meanwhile, Ramsey and Bailey admit the structure of the game has changed but they insist the core values will remain. "It is a matter of getting the right kids in your program," Bailey said.

"With rankings and the Internet, everyone feels they have to go after the top 50 eighth graders and top 20 sophomores. The coaches have forgotten to look at kids with values as persons rather than players. You need talented players but if you look at teams that have done well, it is down to the kids who know how to play together and fit into a team setting.

"Sure, it is harder to find those kids now even in your own school because this generation is a me-first generation. It is more about 'Am I going to get a college scholarship?' rather than 'What is best for our team?' Kids are being told they are going to be a college player when they are in eighth grade. Parents look at it as free tuition money. Kids start playing for themselves and the future rather than the high school team."

The trick in coaching today, Bailey said, is finding a kid who is less gifted but knows how to blend into a team concept.

"It is harder to find those kids," he said. "The red flag for me is when you are talking to parents and ask what their goals are for their son. Would you rather see your son be an All-Stater or win a state title at St. Patrick? Most would rather see their son be an All-Stater. That's a red flag for me. My wife can pick out the good players in an eighth grade tournament."

Ramsey, who is retiring after this season, believes coaches can still work with kids and develop discipline. He admits some kids won't always respond to an old school philosophy, like being unselfish and playing for old alma mater, but he thinks kids will see those values.

"It is different, no doubt about that," Ramsey said. "Kids play for a lot of different coaches, on a lot of different levels. But high schools and AAU can co-exist. Kids have always transferred. But today there is more publicity. Kids want to go where they can win or they can play."

Ramsey said he hasn't had to change his philosophy over the years. "I still deal with parents the same way I always have. I am more than happy to communicate with parents over how their son can be a better student and a better citizen and a better player. But I won't talk about playing time. That is a losing proposition for everyone," he said.

"Kids earn their playing time in practice and games. They are evaluated by coaches who are impartial. Parents are more involved than ever before. They have a big financial investment in their kids. AAU isn't cheap. But I believe that the old school philosophy as far as it involves team play, discipline and accountability will continue."

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

Ben Zobrist didn’t look for any deeper meaning in Kyle Schwarber’s first-inning homer off Yu Darvish on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, or hope that one swing could change the entire momentum of this National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Zobrist knows what it takes to win in October, the Cubs identifying him as the missing piece to their lineup after he helped transform the 2015 Kansas City Royals into a championship team, and then getting a World Series MVP return on their $56 million investment.

That “Schwarbomb” turned out to be fool’s gold, the only run the Cubs would score in front of a quiet, low-energy crowd of 41,871, the defending champs one more loss away from golfing/hunting/fishing/signing autographs at memorabilia shows.

“That was great to get a homer, but I’d rather see some hits strung together,” Zobrist said after a sloppy 6-1 loss, standing at his locker for almost 10 minutes, answering questions in the underground clubhouse. “I’d like to see a couple doubles together, a few singles, three or four hits in an inning. We just haven’t done that.

“That’s what makes rallies. They’ve stayed away from those kinds of innings. That’s why they’re ahead right now.”

Darvish – Jake Arrieta’s replacement in the 2018 rotation? – canceled out the two singles he allowed in the first inning by getting two of his seven strikeouts and answering some of the questions about how he would respond to all the pressure in October.

Darvish – a trade-deadline acquisition that had echoes of Theo Epstein’s “If not now, when?” explanation for last year’s Aroldis Chapman trade – walked one of the 25 batters he faced and pitched into the seventh inning before handing the game over to a lights-out bullpen.

“There’s nothing that we didn’t see beforehand on video,” Zobrist said. “It’s just a matter of we need him to make more mistakes, and we got to take advantage of those mistakes when he makes them.

“When he got to 3-2 counts, he wasn’t throwing a heater. He was throwing the cutter, and it’s a tough pitch to hit. You have to sit on it, and even then it’s got good movement to it. He kept us off-balance.”

Forward-thinking manager Dave Roberts is at the controls of a Los Angeles bullpen that can match up against right- and left-handed hitters, target locations, unleash upper-90s velocity, execute the elevated fastball that messes with eye levels and lean on All-Star closer Kenley Jansen for multiple innings.

The Dodger relievers essentially put together a no-hitter that lasted nine-plus innings across Games 1, 2 and 3. Together, they have pitched 10.2 scoreless innings, facing 36 batters and allowing two hits and a walk and hitting Anthony Rizzo with a pitch.

“They kept the ball on the edges and kept us off-balance,” Zobrist said. “They’re not throwing the pitch in the middle of the plate when we need them to. They’re keeping it on the edges and those are hard (to hit). When you got guys with good stuff on the mound, you need them to make some mistakes for you, or at least start walking some guys.

“When they’ve gotten in those situations with a three-ball count, they’re still making the pitch when they need to. They’re not walking many guys – and we are.

“That’s why they’re up 3-nothing.”

Zobrist (4-for-23 this postseason) is now more of a part-time player/defensive replacement, no longer the switch-hitting force who dropped the bunt at Dodger Stadium that helped end the 21-inning scoreless streak during last year’s NLCS.

Zobrist insisted the Cubs are still all there mentally, not checked out after a grueling first round against the Washington Nationals and a brutal walk-off loss in Game 2 at Dodger Stadium. He owns two World Series rings and one has the Cubs logo and this inscription: “We Never Quit.”

“We keep it loose all the time,” Zobrist said. “We know what’s at stake. And we don’t shy away from it. We look forward to the challenge ahead. It would be a great story for us to be able to come back in this series and win this series.

“We make adjustments, we take advantage of mistakes and we come out with a victory tomorrow. That’s what we have to do.”

Winter is coming for Cubs team that looks checked out of 2017

Winter is coming for Cubs team that looks checked out of 2017

Kyle Schwarber took a Babe Ruth swing on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, posed for a moment and dropped the bat out of his follow through, watching that Yu Darvish pitch soar 408 feet out toward the left-center field bleachers.

Those carefree Cubs relievers shown on the video board – wait, was that John Lackey bouncing around? – danced in the bullpen in the first inning. This is exactly what the Cubs wanted: Grab an early lead? Check. Get one of their big boys going? Check. Energize the crowd of 41,871? Check.

That sense of momentum lasted less than the time it takes to buy a beer or go to the bathroom at Wrigley Field, because the Los Angeles Dodgers look like the unstoppable force this October.

Now Wade Davis may never pitch in this National League Championship Series and Wednesday night could be Jake Arrieta’s final start in a Cubs uniform. Winter is coming after a 6-1 loss left the defending World Series champs looking mentally checked out of 2017.

The Cubs played AC/DC and Motley Crue in their underground clubhouse and answered questions about why they believe they can match the 2004 Boston Red Sox who took down the New York Yankee Evil Empire, becoming the only team to come back from an 0-3 deficit since the LCS expanded to a seven-game format in 1985.

But Kris Bryant’s glassy look and bloodshot eyes told a different story, the reigning NL MVP admitting how “draining” those five games felt against the Washington Nationals in Round 1.

“But you kind of expect that around this time when games mean a lot,” Bryant said. “It takes a lot of energy to get ready for these games, and at the end, you feel wiped out. It’s expected.”

But no one could have predicted this lack of buzz in Wrigleyville, which felt less than a lot of midweek games during the regular season. A silence fell over the old ballpark when Andre Ethier – who has three homers across the last two seasons combined – lined a Kyle Hendricks pitch off the video board in right field to lead off the second inning.

Hendricks – who has made 10 postseason starts across the last three years and kept the Dodgers completely off-balance last October on the night the Cubs clinched their first NL pennant in 71 years – watched in the third inning as Chris Taylor crushed another home-run ball that bounced off the roof of the batter’s eye in center field.

“I wouldn’t say we’re running out of gas,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “Every time we step on the field, I feel like we have a pretty good chance of winning. We’re going to come into the clubhouse tomorrow positive and just ready to strap it on.”

The Dodgers will be out for beer and champagne on Wednesday night and the chance to kick back and watch the Yankees and Houston Astros expend all their energy in the ALCS.

Dodger manager Dave Roberts – who pushed all the right bullpen buttons in Games 1 and 2 (eight no-hit/scoreless innings combined) – toyed with the Cubs by letting Darvish hit against struggling reliever Carl Edwards Jr. with a two-run lead and two outs and the bases loaded in the sixth inning.

Darvish showed bunt on all four pitches – and drew a four-pitch walk and slammed his bat to the ground in celebration. The fans booed after Edwards struck out Taylor on three pitches to end the inning.

“We were there just as much as any other game,” said Ben Zobrist, last year’s World Series MVP. “Mentally, there was no letdown. Physically, there was no letdown. It was just a matter of them capitalizing on some mistakes that we made. That’s part of the game. And they didn’t make a lot of mistakes.

“They played better baseball than us tonight. That’s why they got the W.”

The Cubs committed two errors in Game 3 and then had a National-style meltdown in the eighth inning, from Zobrist misjudging the flyball to right field that dropped in front of him, to Mike Montgomery throwing a wild pitch, to catcher Willson Contreras getting crossed up on a swinging strike three, his glove nowhere near Montgomery’s 92.7-mph fastball, which crashed into his right arm and ricocheted into the visiting dugout.

A three-run game became 6-1 – and head for the exits and then the offseason. There was Albert Almora Jr. in the ninth inning, driving a ball into the ivy in left field and sprinting right into lead runner Alex Avila at third base, bailed out only because Kike Hernandez waved his hand to signal a ground-rule double.

At least that made All-Star closer Kenley Jansen work the last three outs, accumulated stress that might benefit the Yankees or Astros more than the Cubs.

“They are done,” an NL scout wrote in a text message. “You can see it in their faces.”