Kelly Crull

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

As the Cubs managerial search continues, the Astros are vying for their second World Series championship in a three-year span.

Coincidentally, the man leading Houston once envisioned himself doing the same thing on the North Side of Chicago. It’s strange how baseball works sometimes. 

A.J. Hinch — who interviewed for the Cubs managerial job in 2013 — was disappointed when Theo Epstein and Co. chose Rick Renteria to take the reins of the club instead, especially given his managerial experience. But then again, Hinch recognizes he still could have been pushed out a year later for Joe Maddon the same way Renteria was. So, maybe things did work out best for everyone.

Between that history and Hinch's time with Jed Hoyer in San Diego, it explains why Hinch knows a thing or two about what the Cubs brass is looking for in their next manager and the process they are taking to find the right guy to steer the ship.

That guy might end up being Hinch’s current bench coach Joe Espada, who had a second interview with Epstein's front office this week.

“Joe and I were Triple-A roommates back in Oakland,” Hinch said. “I tried to hire him in Arizona as a first- or third-base coach when I became manager in Arizona and he immediately got promoted to the Marlins coaching staff. So when he was with the Yankees and we eliminated them in the ALCS in 2017, Cora was just about to be named the manager of Red Sox. I immediately asked for permission to speak to Joe and he was my choice; he was my hand-picked guy [to take over as Astros bench coach] immediately.”

And it appears, Espada will soon become someone else’s “hand-picked guy” to manage.

Will that be with the Cubs?

“He’s a well-rounded baseball man,” Hinch said. “He’s been in a few places and so he’s seen and done virtually everything to prepare himself to manage. From coaching in Miami to being with the Yankees on successful teams, to being a bench coach here. He’s been around decision-making, he’s been around high end winning and he’s intellectually curious.” 

Besides his coaching resume, Espada is thought to bring other innate characteristics to the table that would appeal to any organization. The Cubs liked what they saw and heard enough to bring him in for a second interview, which was no surprise to Hinch.

“He’s organized, diligent, he’s very fair to people, he’s a good family man.” Hinch said. “All attributes that help you build something in the clubhouse that ultimately leads to winning. The only thing untested in him is managing. And any time you talk about someone without managerial experience, I think you’re just going to have to learn on the job, period. There’s been plenty of examples of guys that have done it and Joe is really good. The potential could be very quick for him. A lot of teams have asked about him.” 

Naturally, the same could be said for David Ross, a candidate Hinch also spoke highly about.

“I think he’d be really good," the Astros manager said of Ross. "If he’s all in, I’ll love it because I think he could learn quickly. He’s got immediate credibility. I think the player buy-in is there and it would be interesting to build a staff around him.”

The intrigue will continue to grow in what now seems to be a two-horse race, but with the World Series getting underway the Cubs will likely wait for an off day or the conclusion of the Fall Classic to make an announcement. And even though their team isn’t playing, Cubs fans can still keep an eye on Espada as well as former Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez as the Astros and Nationals take center stage in the baseball world. 

Willson Contreras' mind is on baseball, while his heart is in Venezuela

Willson Contreras' mind is on baseball, while his heart is in Venezuela

Facing his locker, AirPods in his ears, Willson Contreras pulled out a little samba move as he danced his way into the next phase of his pre-game routine.

Before meetings and batting practice, Contreras began his morning by lifting weights, trying to get his mind on baseball and off the stress that has heaped the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Baseball is providing the 26 year-old with an escape from the devastating situation in his homeland of Venezuela.

“When I’m at the ballpark I’m happy, I enjoy my teammates and every second here,” Contreras told me during spring training. “But once you leave, everything that comes to my mind is Venezuela. How are the people doing there and when is going to be the end?”

Contreras’ 2019 resurgence – including a monster home run Wednesday night in Seattle – is even more remarkable when you put in perspective everything he’s dealing with on a daily basis outside of baseball.

This isn’t managing some prolonged slump at the plate or a 2-7 start to the season. To Venezuelans, this is a matter of life or death.

“I went down to Venezuela... it’s hard to see kids from 5 to 8 years old looking in a trash can for food,” he said. “It’s hard to see people dying because they don’t have medicine at all. Nowadays, it’s hard to go down there because you watch all of that.”

Watching Venezuelans contemplate their future in their home country hurts.

"It’s not supposed to be that way because we’re born in Venezuela and you want your future to be in Venezuela,” Contreras said.

Just this week, thousands of marchers protested in Venezuela to try to force socialist President Nicolás Maduro from power. With tensions escalating and a revolution on their hands, Contreras told me before suiting up for the Cubs and Mariners game on Tuesday he’s just scared for his country.

“Everybody doesn’t have the same heart because the regime knows how bad they’re doing to the country,” he said in spring training. “They know they’re killing people. They know the military is killing people because the regime is making orders. You cannot go to the streets and have a democracy because the military will kill you just like that. It’s hard. It’s really hard.”

With those thoughts constantly weighing on his heart and mind, Contreras continues to find a way to channel his emotions into the game he loves as much as his country.

Willson Contreras is raising money for his country by selling  "Freedom for Venezuela" shirts, with 100% of the profits going to Venezuela.

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Spring Break: Taking a ride with Cubs ace Jon Lester

Spring Break: Taking a ride with Cubs ace Jon Lester

Jon Lester doesn't relish press conferences or media interviews. The Cubs 2019 Opening Day starter didn't get into baseball because he wanted to sit in front of cameras or find his name quoted in articles. This makes it ironic that the answer to the question “Who is your favorite player to interview?” – a question that I field often as a sports reporter – may be Lester.

The southpaw isn't on John Lackey's level when it comes to his disdain of holding court with the media, but he's not quite a "media darling" like his good ole' battery mate David Ross, either. It's unlikely you'll see Lester in a TV booth one day (even though he'd be great), but he gets that it's part of the gig and most important, he respects journalists trying to do their job.  

The Cubs ace is intimidating and challenging (in a good way), but when you can convince him to give you a few minutes of his time, the conversation is always tremendous. The 35 year-old veteran is insightful, thoughtful, genuine and funny. He has a knack for self-deprecating humor, which makes him even more human and relatable. He always has a great story to offer and his transparency sets him apart. 

That brings us to the golf course idea. 

Many fans know about the lefty’s love for the links. NBC Sports Chicago thought that maybe, if we were able to talk to Lester in a place he feels comfortable, we would be able to capture him at his best. When I first proposed the idea, he asked me, “How many times will you bother me this week if I don’t say yes?” My response, “Everyday.” He agreed.

“I’ll do it if you leave me alone,” Lester said. Persistence is key and basically that exchange was a win in my book.

We discussed the details, but like most avid and very talented golfers, the thought of going to a public course where we could bring our cameras wasn’t really Lester’s style. He was sure he could convince his private course to bend the rules and let us follow him around. But alas, not even a three-time World Series Champion had that kind of pull. He promised to lower his course standards for us next spring, but in the meantime a ride home from work on camera, would be our next best option. 

Eric Fogle, one of our terrific and most versatile photographers, grabbed his gear that was prepped to be outside on the course and instead managed to squish it all in to the passenger’s seat of Lester’s brand new Mercedes. Originally, we planned to have multiple photographers involved in this feature shoot, but as luck would have it, the other half of our crew was pulled to White Sox camp in Glendale following the Manny Machado news. 

So, here is this 50 pound camera sitting on Eric’s lap, with the lens about a foot from Lester’s chin. I sat in the back seat hoping to somehow warm up a guy who just wants to be playing golf already. 

I wasn’t sure how I was going to start the conversation or where it would go, but what I did know was that I had a 20 minute car ride to take the discussion in any direction. He shook his head and grinned a bit when I mentioned the start of his 14th big league season.

“I’m just old,” he joked. But from there, as you’ll see and hear in the video, Lester opens up and shows us a side of himself he rarely reveals. The devoted dad and husband, the loyal teammate and friend, the fun-loving wine aficionado and the Hodgkin Lymphoma survivor who has raised millions to help in the fight against pediatric cancer. 

That vulnerability is often masked by the fierce competitor we watch take the mound every fifth day, but this is a peek at the person whom I consider a “favorite interview.”

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