Cubs

Brooks' Miranda emerges as a big-time recruit

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Brooks' Miranda emerges as a big-time recruit

You probably never have heard of Jesus Miranda. He is a place kicker at Brooks High School, a Chicago Public Leaguer. Kickers in the Public League are as plentiful as dinosaurs. Good ones, that is.

But Miranda is the real deal. The 6-foot, 140-pound junior has scholarship offers from Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, USC, Oregon, Tennessee, Georgia, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Boston College.

Compare that list to any of the more celebrated prospects in the class of 2014 -- Marist's Nic Weishar, Plainfield South's Clifton Garrett, Bolingbrook's Parrker Westphal, De La Salle's Jamarco Jones, Crete-Monee's Nyles Morgan and Glenbard North's Justin Jackson -- and Miranda has all the credibility of Google, Apple and Yahoo.

Colleges don't offer kickers unless they look like George Blanda, Lou Groza or Jan Stenerud, the only place kickers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Miranda is so good that he earned All-Public League recognition as a sophomore despite playing in only six games.

Not bad for a kid who grew up playing soccer, wears jersey number 11 for Brazilian soccer star Neymar, has no goal posts on his practice field, converts 55-yard field goals in workouts, booted a 70-yard kickoff between the uprights during a game, likely will attend Wisconsin and dreams of being a linebacker like Brian Urlacher.

Miranda, who grew up on Chicago's Southeast Side, still would be playing soccer if Brooks football coach James Brown, desperate for a kicker and a punter, hadn't appealed to the soccer team for players to try out. Miranda, who began playing soccer when he was 4 years old, was reluctant at first. But his uncle said: "Try it. You might like it." Miranda liked it so much that he quit soccer.

"Jesus was the best soccer player at our school," Brown said. "I saw him walking in the hall. The soccer team practices on the same field as the football team. I asked all the soccer players to try out. I needed a punter and kicker. He tried out. The ball exploded off his foot. He has a highlight tape on YouTube. He kicks off into the end zone for touchbacks."

It didn't take long for Miranda to realize that football, not soccer, was his future.

"I saw I was talented. I said to myself: 'What sport could I get farther in life with?' I decided to stick with football. I came to Brooks to play soccer. But I get a bigger thrill out of kicking a field goal than making a goal in soccer." he said.

"Being a kicker is a special position. Football can get me to college. For me, it was an easy transition. 'How do you kick that ball?' my soccer teammates ask. I kick it as if I was kicking a soccer ball, inside my foot. I notice most kids kick the ball with the laces, on the top part of the shoe. But I do it inside."

It was late September and the football season was well underway when Miranda, then a sophomore, decided to join the squad. He continued to play soccer -- "it was still my main sport," he said -- but he converted seven field goals in six games, including a 47-yarder, and was named all-city. After the season, he decided to stop playing soccer.

"It was tough to give up soccer," he admitted. "I grew up with it. I learned to love it. I still see friends. They make fun of me. 'Why did you switch? Why do you like football?" they ask. Now I love football like I used to love soccer."

Nebraska was the first school to contact Miranda. On the last day of August, they asked him to fill out a questionnaire. They still are talking. But Illinois made the first offer -- by accident.

"Their special teams coach came to practice to see one of our defensive backs," Miranda said. "But he was injured. Coach Brown said to look at the kicker. He went back to Illinois and they offered three games into the season. Then all those other schools began to contact me.

"My reaction? I'm happy. And I'm shocked. When I started playing football, I thought it would be just a high school thing. I didn't know what I was capable of. Coach Brown said: 'You will be the one who takes us out of all this. We will all come out together.' It has all be pretty amazing."

Miranda, who has a 4.0 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale, said he will make some unofficial campus visits next summer. But he admits he prefers Wisconsin. "It is my dream school. I've been to some games. I went to the Big Ten championship game last year. The atmosphere is amazing. It's close to home. I would love to go there," he said.

Wisconsin also has expressed interest in Brooks quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw, another all-city selection who happens to be Miranda's holder on place kicks. "We would like to go (to Wisconsin) together," Miranda said.

As he looks ahead to his senior year and the conclusion of his recruiting process, he is eager to improve his consistency and accuracy. In the summer, he attends Kohl's kicking camp.

"I have the leg. Give me five kicks from the 50, I can make four. But I want to make five of five," he said. "And I want to stay healthy. I've had a knee injury or groin or hamstring. This year, I messed up the right knee on my kicking leg. But I still played."

He risks his health every time he tries to make tackles on kickoffs. In games, he wants to do something to help his team. In practice, teammates scoff when he tries to play linebacker on the scout team. He has had his moments but he won't paste all of them in his scrapbook. He still is waiting for his first game-winning field goal.

"Against Payton in the state playoff, the kick returner outran his blockers and I took him down. He had a 'What did you do?' look on his face," Miranda said. "Against Harper, they returned a kick 97 yards for a touchdown. I dove for him but he gave me a juke move and I was flying in the air and took out the referee instead of the runner. That was my most embarrassing moment."

With some of the nation's elite college programs knocking at his door, he has nothing to be embarrassed about.

Cubs? White Sox? Manny Machado mum on Chicago possibilities as both sides of town dream of his World Series impact

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USA TODAY

Cubs? White Sox? Manny Machado mum on Chicago possibilities as both sides of town dream of his World Series impact

What’s Manny Machado’s favorite pizza place? What’s his favorite bar on Rush Street? Does he want to shoot the puck at the Blackhawks game? Maybe drive a Red Line train? Headline Lollapalooza?

Heck, is there anything that can get this guy to Chicago?

Sadly, Machado has no opinion on Chicago, at least no opinion he'd like to share. He talks as though he’s experienced nothing but the tarmac at O’Hare and the inside of the visitor’s clubhouse at Guaranteed Rate Field.

“To be honest, nothing,” Machado said when one of the multitude of media members asked him what he thought about the city ahead of his Baltimore Orioles’ game against the White Sox on Monday night. “I go from my (hotel) room to the ballpark to play baseball. I try to keep it simple, my life is simple. I don’t really do too much other than come here and play.”

Sorry, Cubs and White Sox fans. No inside info to better the offer.

Both sides of town are entranced by Machado Mania. The North Side wants him to arrive via trade and help deliver another World Series championship in 2018. The South Side wants him to ink a monster free-agent deal and deliver a whole bunch of World Series championships as the new face of the rebuild.

But no matter whether you want the MVP candidate in blue pinstripes or 1983 throwbacks, he made no indication he’s thinking about his next team when he spoke Monday.

“That’s out of my hands. I can’t control that,” he said. “I’ve got to go out and win some games, do as much as I can for my ball club.

“I’m here to play baseball. Obviously you’ve got to answer these questions, but at the end of the day none of that matters. I’m here to win some games with my ball club, win some here with the Orioles, and play well at the same time.

“I’m not getting distracted by any of this, and all this talk, it’s rumors. They’re all rumors and talks. At the end of the day, I’ve got to go out there and perform and win games for this ball club.”

For the Cubs, rumors of a Machado pursuit would come at a seemingly steep cost. With almost nothing to deal away from the farm system, an Orioles team looking to jumpstart a rebuilding effort of their own would likely require Addison Russell as a centerpiece of any trade offer. Would Theo Epstein’s front office be willing to part with Russell, who they always speak so highly of, who is still just 24 years old and who remains under team control through the 2021 season? Just for a few months of Machado, who is by no means a guarantee to stick around on a free-agent deal?

The Cubs’ title chase this season would figure to be better served by getting two of their recent pitching acquisitions to turn in more consistently good performances. If Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish can right their respective ships, the Cubs might not need to worry about blowing up their core to add an MVP candidate to an already menacing lineup featuring multiple All Stars. But there’s no doubt about it: Any team that adds Machado to the mix is going to improve its chances of hoisting a trophy this October.

Unlike a pursuit of a player during free agency, it’s the Orioles the Cubs need to convince to seal a deal, not Machado, and even with Russell as the main piece, the Cubs’ package might not be the best one out there. But Machado, despite his comments, has likely heard a little bit of what it’s like to play on the North Side from the guy he calls his cousin, Albert Almora Jr.

“As kids growing up we played together,” Machado said. “When we were playing in his backyard growing up, we always dreamed about playing together some day in the big leagues and putting on the same big league uniform and be on the same field, win a World Series together, that’s every kid’s dream.”

Meanwhile, the White Sox are, as they’re doing in every facet of their existence at the moment, playing a long game when it comes to Machado or any big-name free-agent-to-be. Reports dating back to last winter say they’re expected to be one of the many teams vying to sign Machado to what’s sure to be a gargantuan contract when he joins Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson and a host of other superstars in free agency this winter.

Machado’s production has made him the object of White Sox fans’ affections for some time, and the dream of seeing him join all the young talent in this rebuilding effort and leading the South Siders in their next pursuit of a title is still alive and well in their minds. The White Sox will have the financial ability to pay the high price for Machado, if they choose — a price, it should be noted, that come winter will be only measured in money and not players, as a midseason trade during this campaign would be. Obviously the biggest selling point is their bright future, where he could anchor a lineup that also features Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert. Pair that with a boatload of cash, and maybe it’s enough to edge out the rest of what’s expected to be a very competitive market.

The White Sox, too, have an apparent void at third base (or shortstop, should they do some maneuvering on the left side of the infield) moving forward after Jake Burger, last year’s first-round pick, twice tore the same Achilles tendon this year. While there’s still time needed to tell where exactly the White Sox will have major league holes to fill, penciling names into a 2020 lineup leaves most pencilers with a question mark at third base. Machado would fit nicely there, and the apparent need could provide more drive for the White Sox to get something done this winter. There will be other options, of course, should they miss out on Machado. Donaldson this winter and Nolan Arenado the following are two other alluring names. Be it Machado, it would be the kind of statement signing that signals that the rebuilding effort is ready to transition into the contention phase, much like the Cubs did with Jon Lester.

And like the Cubs, the White Sox have their own Machado friend to make a convincing pitch. Nicky Delmonico played alongside Machado (and Harper, for that matter) on a Team USA squad back in 2009.

“It was really cool. I got to play with Harper for two years and Machado (for one),” Delmonico said last week. “Just to be around that type of talent, it was a lot of fun.

“It was pretty special. We had a lot of guys who are doing well at the big league level. It was like a big family.

“You’re with each other every day. It’s like what I compare to the minor leagues. You’re playing every day in that short amount of time. So you got to know that person pretty well. And to play with those guys, it was a lot of fun.”

And Welington Castillo, too, got to know Machado when they were teammates last year in Baltimore.

“He’s special, honestly,” Castillo said. “I had the opportunity to play with him last year in the (World Baseball Classic) and then for a year with the Orioles. It’s nice to play with him in the same lineup and spend time with him. He’s an awesome player and an awesome person. I think that’s why everybody is talking about him. Everybody sees because he’s been showing them every year, what he can do.

“Who wouldn’t want to have a guy like him?”

If Machado has received any PR training through this process, he put it to good use Monday. Nothing he said indicated any preference to join either of this city’s teams either this season or next. He didn’t say the word “Cubs” once, and judging by his response to the lone question asked specifically about the White Sox, it doesn’t sound like the South Side rebuild is the talk of the Orioles’ clubhouse.

That, though, will likely do nothing to dampen enthusiasm on either side of town that Machado could soon call this city home, nor does it mean Machado wouldn't be jazzed about joining a championship contender this season or a franchise with a bright future next season.

But until a deal is made this summer or this winter — or both — it’s all just speculation. Until then, Machado’s going to try to beat one of Chicago’s teams four times this week, either as a preview of what could be or a display of opportunity lost.

Roquan Smith helps shear a sheep at Bears community event

Roquan Smith helps shear a sheep at Bears community event

Roquan Smith has more sheared sheep than tackles on his stat sheet as a pro football player.

Smith and several other Bears rookies participated in a hands-on community event at Lambs Farm in Libertyville, Illinois on Monday where he assisted farm staff with the sheep's grooming. Smith said it was a first for him despite growing up around animals. 

"It's like on the norm for me though, playing linebacker you're in the trenches," Smith said of the experience.

"Shaving a sheep, I never really envisioned myself doing something like that," Smith said via ChicagoBears.com. "I was around animals [growing up], but it was more so cows and goats here and there and dogs and cats. I've petted a sheep before, but never actually flipped one and shaved one."

Bears rookies got up close and personal with more than just sheep.

Smith was selected with the eighth overall pick in April's draft and will assume a starting role opposite Danny Trevathan at inside linebacker this season. Here's to hoping he can wrangle opposing ball-carriers like a sheep waiting to be sheared.