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Men vs. Boys: How Nationals showed Cubs the way to build a heavyweight contender

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AP

Men vs. Boys: How Nationals showed Cubs the way to build a heavyweight contender

WASHINGTON – What are the odds the Cubs would win the World Series and Donald Trump would become president before the Washington Nationals won a playoff series?

We can only imagine the reaction if Dale Sveum heard that apocalyptic postgame question on Sept. 6, 2012, when the Cubs manager summed up a four-game sweep at Nationals Park like this: “That’s just men playing against boys right now.”

This was nearing the end of Year 1 for the Theo Epstein administration, when the light at the end of the tunnel felt more like a bridge to nowhere.

Now the Cubs are the defending World Series champs. Epstein’s baseball operations group continues a tradition of playing pickup basketball before each playoff series, posing for pictures on Thursday with Patrick Ewing on the Georgetown campus. And Washington is the team that has to prove it can handle the pressure in the best-of-five National League Division Series that begins Friday night at Nationals Park.

That alternative reality would have sounded absolutely bonkers while watching the Cubs and Nationals that September.

“I showed (Kyle) Schwarber like three days ago,” said catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello, his face lighting up with recognition. “We gave up 15 homers in four games. We watched every homer the other day. I said: ‘This is where we were.’”

Sveum got fired, in part, for his brutal honesty after another fifth-place finish in 2013. But he knew all about talent and preparation after: playing with Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor; being on the 1998 New York Yankees team that won 114 games and the first of three straight World Series titles; and helping coach up the iconic “Band of Idiots” on the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

Set aside Jeff Samardzija’s 2-1 loss on Labor Day — another sign the Notre Dame football star could become a 200-inning pitcher and anchor a flip deal for future All-Star shortstop Addison Russell — and the Cubs got outscored 29-8 in three games started by Chris Rusin, Chris Volstad and Justin Germano.

“I’ve never been part of three consecutive games that you were just beyond overmatched,” said Borzello, a Sveum hire who earned four World Series rings as a Yankee staffer. “These homers were not fence-scrapers. It was like: ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ It wouldn’t stop. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

General manager Jed Hoyer fired off a long internal memo after that series, detailing how the Nationals were built and how they timed their big moves. In the middle of the 2009 season, as an up-and-coming Red Sox employee, Hoyer had multiple interviews with Nationals ownership for the GM job that went to Chicago guy Mike Rizzo as an internal promotion.

“It was like smacking us in the face,” Hoyer said. “This is what we wanted to become when we were good. We were looking at an adult version, or basically a late-teenage-years version of what we were trying to be.

“Getting destroyed by those guys, I thought, was actually like a great thing for our mentality. Like: ‘Oh, OK, this is how far we are away.’

“But also in 2009, when I was interviewing there, they were dead last, so it doesn’t have to take forever.”

Indeed, the Nationals turned 102- and 103-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009 into No. 1 overall picks Stephen Strasburg (Game 1 starter) and Bryce Harper (2015 NL MVP). Though it hasn’t yet translated into October glory, the Nationals have won between 95 and 98 games and division titles in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017.

Out of that 101-loss season in 2012, the Cubs found their own future NL Rookie of the Year/MVP from Las Vegas: Kris Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft, part of a run on hitters that includes Schwarber, the 2014 first-round selection who’s 3-for-3 in playoff appearances and already an October legend.

“It’s crazy,” Schwarber said. “I was lucky enough to come here when we made the playoffs. That’s all I know – winning right now.

“I’m sure there’s other guys in this room that have been part of losing teams, and they don’t ever want to have that feeling again. I know for a fact I don’t ever want to have that feeling of being on a losing team.

“It’s the competitive nature of this game. You want to make it to the playoffs. You want to win the World Series. I’m lucky. I’m fortunate to be a part of this. We just want to keep it going.”

In the same way that the Nationals gave outfielder Jayson Werth a seven-year, $126 million contract after a 93-loss season in 2010 — to change their culture and add championship experience — the Cubs signed big-game pitcher Jon Lester to a six-year, $155 million megadeal after a last-place finish in 2014.

Now Werth is appreciating his final days in a Washington uniform, super-agent Scott Boras will market Harper as a free agent after next season, the Nationals don’t know how long Strasburg and Max Scherzer can reasonably stay healthy and the Cubs feel like they are just getting started.

“This team has an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done for a while,” said Ben Zobrist, last year’s World Series MVP. “There’s been some teams that have dominated those few years in a row. This team, because of all the young players, and because of the resources the club has going forward, has the opportunity to do that for years to come.

“You’re entering the smack-dab middle of a time where you got a lot of young, exciting Cubs players that are going to make their mark for years and years to come. So this is the time to be a Cub fan. If you want to jump on the bandwagon, do it now.”

But to fully appreciate the scope of this teardown, rebuild and potential dynasty, you have to understand “Men vs. Boys.”

“Don’t forget this series, because this is the one that’s going to keep you pushing,” Borzello remembered thinking at the time. “You never want to experience that again.

“It’s more an appreciation of where we are. But to appreciate where we are, you can’t forget where you’ve been. And that is the series that I’ll never forget. That’s where we were.”   

After President Trump’s ‘divisive’ comments, why the Bears locked arms during the national anthem

After President Trump’s ‘divisive’ comments, why the Bears locked arms during the national anthem

President Trump forced every NFL team to respond following comments over the weekend, both on Twitter and at a rally in Alabama, that any NFL player who takes a knee in protest during the national anthem is a “son of a bitch” who should be “fired." Bears chairman George McCaskey and coach John Fox spoke to their team on Saturday and delivered a message that players said was well-received. 

Players felt like the team’s ownership, management and coaching staff had their back, and they determined their response to — as defensive end Akiem Hicks said — “divisive rhetoric” would be to lock arms as a team during the national anthem on Sunday. The Bears saw President Trump’s comments as an attempt to divide them and the rest of the players in the league, so the message they wanted to send was one of unity. 

“To tell us that we don’t have the freedom to speak and to stand on whatever platform that we feel like and voice our opinions, and we have great respect for our country, great respect for the flag, great respect for the anthem — we also want to show that we’re unified,” Hicks said. “And I think that was the best way to show that. We hold all those things dear and we are American citizens.”

This issue has been boiling ever since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — who remains unsigned — was the first to kneel during the national anthem last year in protest of police brutality and social injustice in the United States. Those beliefs are why Kaepernick began peacefully protesting, but the debate about athletes kneeling during the anthem can sometimes lose sight of that, said linebacker Danny Trevathan. 

“It gets lost in (translation),” Trevathan, who played a big role in what the Bears decided to do Sunday, said. “I know a lot of people (talked) about the flag, which I’m real big on it, but I really understand the way he attacked it. 

“He believed in something. He stood for that. And that’s what America’s built on, guys standing up for a great cause. And I feel like, you know, a lot of people overlook that but for somebody great like that to say something to that, he must’ve felt some way. But I feel like he did the right thing. And this team came together and we had his back, and we stood up for a great cause today.”

Added Trevathan about the Bears' actions on Sunday: “I feel like we were together. Together we can’t fall. I feel like I was doing the right thing. I feel like my two daughters, they would be proud of me. I took a stand for what I believed in. 

“And you know, I can’t stand around and let stuff like that happen. Because then you feel pity for yourself, you’ll be like, next time, I’m going to do something, next time — nah, man. Now is the time to stand up and be that right, that right person in the right situation. What’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. You have to stand up for what’s right.”

Whatever the Bears did on Sunday, the point was to do it as a unified team — a team of players of different ethnicities and backgrounds from different regions of the country. 

“We love each other, we’re empathetic for each others’ issues,” offensive lineman Kyle Long said. “This team does a great job of putting ourselves in others’ shoes. And it’s not something that’s hush-hush, we talk about it in the locker room. We have guys who are open about how they feel, and we have guys that are respectful of other people’s opinions. 

“I feel like today showed that we are a unit, a cohesive unit. That’s what we wanted to convey today. We didn’t want to show any disrespect towards the military, the flag. But there are obviously issues going on in our country, and I think we did the right thing today. Going forward, just trying to make this place a better world to live in.”

Combating divisiveness, Steelers opt to skip national anthem in display of team unity

Combating divisiveness, Steelers opt to skip national anthem in display of team unity

All eyes were on the NFL Sunday afternoon after President Donald Trump told his supporters at a rally on Friday night that team owners should fire any "son of a bitch" who protests or takes a knee during the National Anthem.

The remarks fell on deaf ears as the Pittsburgh Steelers took a stance against President Trump before their 23-17 overtime loss to the Bears at Soldier Field.

In a display of unity, the Steelers were one of three teams on Sunday — along with the Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks — who remained in the locker room during the national anthem in an attempt to combat divisiveness.

The Steelers decision was agreed upon during a players' only meeting at the team hotel on Saturday night.

"You know, by no means, no way shape or form, was there any disrespect intended towards our troops and those that serve this country," Steelers quarterback and team captain Ben Roethlisberger said. "We all have the utmost respect for them obviously. They give us the freedom to play this game. Last night, obviously with all the issues going on if you will, we had a players' only meeting after the team meeting last night, we decided we were going to talk about what we were going to do because we know some guys wanted to take a knee, guys wanted to stand.

"We said whatever we do, we need to make sure we are unified as one group because that is what we are about and that is what it should be about. Staying together as one unit, one group, one brotherhood, things like that so rather than having one guy kneel, one guy stand, the conclusion was made by everybody that the best to do was to stay in the locker (or in the tunnel if you will) and show respect that way."

When the Steelers ran out of the tunnel following the anthem, they were met by a chorus of boos from the Soldier Field crowd

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who revealed in a pregame interview on Sunday that the team wouldn't be taking the field during the national anthem, made it clear that the most important aspect of the team's decision was to stay united

"They were not going to be disrespectful during the anthem so they choose not to participate during the anthem, but at the same time many of them were not going to accept the words of the President," Tomlin said. "So, we decided to sit out and not take the field, to remove ourselves from it, so we could focus on playing football. Those were our intentions."

While nearly every member of the Steelers organization stayed in the locker room during the national anthem, one player stood in front of the tunnel.

Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former United States Army Ranger and Captain who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, was seen in the tunnel with his right hand over his heart.

Villanueva wasn't available for comment following Sunday's game, but his teammates made it clear that they had no problem with his decision to distance himself from the rest of the team.

"Al is a hell of a man and I appreciate everything he does," Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said. "This man went over and served our country like no other and we've commended him every single day." 

In addition to the support of their head coach, the Steelers had the backing of team President Art Rooney II for their decision.

While President Trump may not agree with the displays around the league as evidence by him going on another Twitter rant about wanting to see the NFL change its policy regarding the national anthem, commissioner Roger Goodell doesn't plan on fining any players for their Week 3 protests.

If that's the case, would these displays continue throughout the entire season? Possibly.

"It isn't just one day," Heyward said. "We're out in the community. We're trying to make changes, not by just one person but as a team. It doesn't matter what goes on. We're trying to build a better society, a better city and a better America for everyone."