Doug Glanville

Cole Hamels returns to Philadelphia for the first time

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USA Today

Cole Hamels returns to Philadelphia for the first time

Tonight, as Cole Hamels is set to pitch against his first team, the Philadelphia Phillies, I am reminded of the truth of the major league journey.

It was Phillies spring training in 2004 when I sat in the dugout and saw Hamels pitch for the first time. I was the aging veteran, a role player hanging on to what would be my final season of my career. Hamels was the young gun, the slick left-hander that fooled some of the best players of my era with his dynamic change-up.

In fact, I watched him strike out three Yankees in a row (Jeter, A-Rod, Tony Clark) with that one magic pitch and in turn, witnessed the birth of the legend of Cole Hamels.

As any young player vaulted into legendary status, the challenges were not far behind as he battled an elbow issue shortly afterwards and the following spring training, a broken hand. The normal health concerns always swirling around the maturation of a talented pitcher. The Phillies still knew they had a star in the making and like any organization, you hope injuries, when they occur, will be the exception in his career.

He would back that faith up with a fantastic career, complete with World Series credentials, all-star appearances, and an asset to every community he would touch.

Now, he is the aging veteran and he is going home, at least for a few days. So far, not being slowed by a decline in velocity, but fighting the body’s signs of wear and tear. Still, when he is out on the mound, he competes like never before.

Ironically, Hamels hit the same three major league destinations that I would hit in my career. Philadelphia, Texas, Chicago. If you put a second Chicago in front of Philadelphia then he also followed the same order. I know those places well.

In particular, I know Philadelphia well. Four years of college, six years of big league baseball and it was clear in my post-career that Philly fans loved what Hamels brought to their city, which they also know will make it tough for their team to win tonight.

These homecomings are the moments when a player has to pause to embrace what time does in this game of baseball. You blink and find yourself home, but years have passed in between, the hair is a bit thinner and your opponents are a lot younger. Then you exhale realizing that you still have a ball in your hand if you are lucky.

There was a time when I knew that feeling. It was shortly after I was traded from Chicago to Philadelphia and returning to Wrigley as an opposing player. It was not off of a World Series championship, but as the rising outfield prospect. It can be disorienting.

I grew up in the Cubs system which was my introduction to what it meant to have the dream take off. It also was a place where I learned how to be a professional from the wisdom of coaches in the Cubs family. From Billy Williams, Tom Gamboa, Sandy Alomar, Jimmy Piersall and so many more, to the whispers of advice of Ryne Sandberg, Shawon Dunston, Mark Grace, Lance “One Dog” Johnson. My mind was fertile ground, trying to not just make it, but stay, and it was part of baseball’s important ritual to listen and learn from those who had done it before, then pass it on.

In those lessons are time itself, coaches and even teammates that I watched growing up as a child. The people who helped spark the love of the game, Mike Schmidt, Garry Maddox, Steve Carlton were my childhood baseball heroes. They gave me the passion, the batting stances, the memories.

When you arrive to big league camp for the first time, in a flash, these icons now had lockers next to yours or are your manager or coach. In my first spring with the Cubs, I walked in the locker room and I saw that my locker was right next to number 23. What?!?! I remember seeing the glisten of Sandberg’s name on the back of his batting practice jersey and deciding that it is time to re-focus and be a big leaguer. From Sandberg, I learned from watching.

With that first big league organization, the dream hits the ground and not only does it keep pinching you, it pushes you to be your best, in fact, you don’t have much choice if you plan to play for a long time. You have to take the stars out of your eyes and see yourself amongst the stars even if for a while, it is hard to believe and even harder to achieve.

This starter organization became your teacher. Showing you that you belong, embracing the mentorship that existed between generations of players. I would step into the box against Fernando Valenzuela and wonder if I had somehow fell into my TV set from when I was 12. But then the screwball would come and I realized that I actually needed to hit it.

The purity of those moments happen with that original baseball family. For Cole Hamels, it was the Philadelphia Phillies. He built relationships, he proved himself with supporters and against detractors. He learned from great players, he would ultimately teach great players. All in one short baseball lifetime in one city he would call home until 2015.

Today he wears a Cubs hat, he is proud, he is a competitor and he will go out and try and beat his old team to a pulp. But it is like having bragging rights against your brother, more than it is to destroy an enemy. I competed tooth and nail against my brother in years of Wiffle Ball in our front yard, but we hugged it out after leaving nothing left on the driveway. You can love with respect and still want to fiercely win.

For any veteran knows that he is the sum of his past even as he is trying to hold on to the present and write his future. Humility reminds you to be thankful for every single stop during the major league ride, especially that ones where you spent significant time honing your skills, and hoisting the hardware of a champion.

In a twist of fate, Hamels’ 2008 World Series manager, Charlie Manuel, has just returned as the Phillies hitting coach which will bring out some special feelings about his championship season. Another strong memory that will surely hit him. He can say a toast with Charlie later.

But first, he has a game to pitch.

Mike Montgomery is going where the Cubs couldn't take him in Kansas City

Mike Montgomery is going where the Cubs couldn't take him in Kansas City

Tonight, former Cubs pitcher Mike Montgomery makes his debut with his new team, the Kansas City Royals. The Royals are 24.5 games out of first place, even after they won seven out of their last 10. The Cubs are riding a nice stretch in the second half and expect nothing short of a division title and a championship.

So, why would Montgomery want to leave Chicago and go to a team that is going nowhere?

Because he believes his career can go somewhere the Cubs weren’t taking him.

After throwing the golden pitch that clinched the World Series for the Cubs in 2016, he has filled many roles for the team. He starts, he relieves, he closes, he sets up, he is situational, he waits, he pitches hurt, he does what the team needs to be done to help. And for two years, he appeared in 44 and 38 games respectively, with 14 and 19 starts in those years. 

For his entire minor league career, he was a starter and when he broke in, he also started for a while in Seattle. Then in 2016, he went to the pen. But he never lost the confidence that he could be a consistent starter in a major league rotation. 

Montgomery just turned 30 years old, a new father, and there is nothing like age and family to provide clarity about how short and temporary a career can be, especially for a pitcher. 

He got hurt this year, and probably wondered if being endlessly available contributed to his health issues. It takes a toll to always be ready, especially as you get older. Predictability can be comforting, helpful at times to gaining a rhythm, and a way to take care of your body knowing you have some recovery time built in. 

At 30, the window starts to close slowly but inevitably. His time to establish himself as a starter is yesterday and because he has struggled in a utility role in 2019, he is going the wrong way for his career. He is now getting a label as a lefty that can’t get lefties out, but is not a starter either. The pigeonholing has begun.

He has to fight it, quickly and he can with this bold move. Asking out.

Not from the Cubs, but from how the Cubs are using him in 2019. He has decided that he can’t afford to sit back for the glory of oneness and hope they will take care of him on the other side. By this time in his career, he knows how expendable players are in the grand scheme. That the phone will not ring one day, you will become a memory, and even being a great memory can’t stop you from being inevitably sent home.

He knows that it is not a fair exchange to sacrifice health, opportunity and long-term security to be an insurance policy that may never get claimed. Being in that role is casting a shadow over getting handed the ball every fifth day with a chance to eat up innings and waltz into longer term security for his career and his family. It starts to not add up, especially when you already have a ring in your trophy case.

In 2003, I was traded to the Cubs from the Texas Rangers on July 30th. After recovering from an injury, I hit .389 with a .528 slugging, and a .925 OPS in July. I was on absolute fire. At 32 years old, the turnaround was happening, my one-year free agent contract was about to grow into something more if I got my 200+ at bats in the second half. 

While I was rolling along, the Rangers were 44-63 on July 30th, going nowhere, but I was going somewhere up. So I thought. 

The phone rang and the general manager of the Rangers, John Hart called to let me know he had traded me to the Cubs. Poof. Just like that. By the time I got to the locker room to get my stuff and say good bye to my Rangers’ teammates, my boxes were packed, my jerseys were gone. Poof.

Sure, the Cubs were in the race, but they were around .500 when I arrived. They had signed a bunch of veteran players whose starting days were behind them. In my case, Kenny Lofton was the guy in centerfield, which turned me into a bench player from an everyday centerfielder instantly. Not because I wasn’t doing the job in Texas, but because the Cubs needed me to do a lesser job. Lofton played almost every day and in the second half of that season, after the trade, I got 51 at bats. In 28 games. 

Not a great way to find another job after the season. But I had bought in, Dusty Baker communicated well to me and since I had never been in the playoffs, I kept my mouth shut and followed. 

We would go all the way to Game 7 to the NLCS and despite the ending, it was an exhilarating experience. Once in a lifetime. Truly special, but along the ride, no one could guarantee me any of that. Just as easily, the Cubs could have collapsed and I would have been on the bench for a team on the road to rebuilding. And they wouldn’t do it with a 33-year-old veteran centerfielder with a bad hamstring.

I did get my magic hit in the NLCS after sitting on the bench for weeks and when the season ended, Dusty Baker called me personally to express that he wanted me back. I was hoping the silver lining was that some free agent team would see that I could be a clutch performer when it counted. I was happy to get his call, but when all was said and done, he did not have the power to grant me that wish. The phone never rang from Chicago again and I ended up making the Phillies squad in 2004, barely hanging on to my career. 

At 33, I was now a caddy to Marlon Byrd and other young outfielders for the entire season. 162 at bats in 87 games. My career was dead in the water, my coaching career seemed to be growing in front of my eyes, against my will.

Of course, I thought about how I could have played better, I could have made a different decision in free agency and stayed in Philly or signed with Tampa. Those were options, but I bet on myself to go to Texas and regain starter status and after I came back from injury, I did just that. But my age was creeping up and the Rangers had little incentive to keep an aging singles hitter on a team that was fighting for last place. 

Two years after that trade, the phone stopped ringing and by the time it did ring after the Yankees released me, I had taken it off of the hook anyway. I saw the game passing me by. I wanted to start a family. It still stung to see a couple of players get rewarded with multi-year deals who I later learned were in the Mitchell Report for being associated with PEDs, one of which I helped get back to health while I was in Texas. 

So it is a tough question to ask yourself. Would you take the slim chance of winning a World Series as a bench player knowing your career may be shortened 2-3 years? Or would you seek an opportunity to keep playing every day or frequently with a chance to extend your career and have more time to find a way to be on a contender later? 

We only get one career, one shot at it. The greater glory matters, the ring is king and I will always long for the ring I never obtained. But I also learned about what can happen after you are that hired gun, or after you stay silent and accept the role the team thinks is best for them when it starts to run counter to what you believe you can do. It can sound selfish, true, but a player watches how other players are treated, not just how they are personally treated. I played with Ryan Howard when he first came up with the Phillies and years later, covering him with ESPN, he came over and said “Now, I know how you felt in 2004 at the end of your career.” Long memories.

Once a season ends where you were marginalized (even when it is because you played poorly), your career may not recover. So with the Cubs trading Montgomery, they were looking out for him in a way, something they did not have to do, and it is a funny game, he could be back one day.

Only time will tell, but as Montgomery expressed. “It’s bittersweet.” 

Bitter because he wanted to stay and have it all. Be on a contender and be a starter. That was no longer an option. 

Sweet because it was a great chapter in his career, he won, and now he can focus on being the pitcher he believes he can be, not what a team needs him to be. 

In baseball, there is nothing like proving someone wrong …

Or proving yourself right.

The 2019 Cubs are not a steamroller, but does this mean they can't win?

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USA TODAY

The 2019 Cubs are not a steamroller, but does this mean they can't win?

Their wins are not comfortable. Their losses are at times puzzling. The 2019 Cubs are not behaving like a steamroller that would create the feeling that a world championship is inevitable. Does this mean they can’t win?

After a nail-biting first 6 innings, the Cubs found late game power against the Pirates to open the second half. Bryant provided the home run, enough to help push across 3 runs in the bottom of the 7th and eventually to pull out the win.

The Pirates are now 2 games under .500. This Cubs team who expected to handily take the NL Central are finding themselves playing crab in the bucket with smaller crabs. By now, as the second half begins, we learn that these smaller crabs together have some pull.

Take the bottom two teams. The Pirates are 3rd in all of baseball in batting average. They can flat out hit. The Reds are 3rd in all of baseball in ERA. They can flat out pitch. If you catch either of these teams on a good day, they will beat you. There will be no steamrolling this season. The other teams have some assets, beatable ones, but you still have to beat them and not yourself.

It was known going into this season that the NL Central got better. Kicked off by the arrival of perennial MVP contender, Paul Goldschmidt, coming to the Central, but he has not been his MVP-caliber self, yet other teams and players have emerged to put a lot of potholes in the Cubs road to glory.

If we see the division as a battle until the end with all of the teams entering the ring taking equally wild swings at each other, then we must look outside the division to break the stalemate.

Optimism can be found when we look at the Cubs remaining schedule outside of the NL Central. Take a look. As of post-game:

San Diego 45-45

San Francisco 41-48

Oakland 50-41

Philadelphia 47-43

San Francisco 41-48

Washington 47-42

New York Mets 40-50

Seattle 39-55

San Diego 45-45

Not a single first-place team. Not one.

Sure, you have to win on the field and the A’s are good, the Nats are hot, but that is about it. Even if they play .500 in their division, they can accomplish great success by just beating teams they are having a better year than to date. Only the A’s have a better record (maybe the Nats if they win tonight.)

There is a flip side to this place of optimism. That it will be hard to frame this season as a success if they don’t go deep into the post-season on the heels of a division win. They are in first place now and we established that they have a fairly weak out of division schedule, so the Cubs are in the driver’s seat. There may be a lot of road left, but barring major injury, most of the obstacles would be self-placed.

As for the other two teams on their heels…

The Brewers still have the Astros, Twins, A’s

The Cardinals still have the A’s, Dodgers, Astros

If there is a time for expectation it is now. The Cubs start the second half at home, they have a weaker schedule than their closest division foes, they added a closer in Kimbrel. The talent is there.

We have heard a lot of grumblings about the hot seat for Joe Maddon long before this point in the season. It was hot in part because of the poor September last season, it was hot because of the organizational changes that were made after learning from a number of exit interviews with team leaders going into the off-season.

There is not much left to change with players other than to find ways for them to consistently execute. A few deals could be made to sure up some depth, but the pieces are there.

In the meantime, there is another level to reach when we look at what is happening with the American League’s Yankees or Astros or the NL’s Dodgers, but good execution gets the Cubs to a place to be able to win it on the diamond, where anything can happen, no matter the opponent.

But they must get there first and this division has seen leads evaporate quickly, it has seen even hot teams get neutralized by a divisional opponent. This starts to crush the wild card hopes and put more on the value of a division title. The NL Wild Card as it stands has 7 teams within 3 games of the final slot. This will be a long battle and any team around, in the end, will have to depend on other teams in the end. A bad spot to be in unless you win it outright.

So the Cubs need separation, space in their division to pull away and take advantage of the teams they will be playing outside of it. It is in their grasp and it creates great accountability, because of the same reason.

We know they can win, because of their ability, but now, if they can continue to get big hits as Heyward provided in the 8th with Kimbrel closing games out with little drama, we then know when it comes to their division.

They should win.