MESA, Ariz. – About 30 miles from White Sox camp on Friday morning, the Cubs stood in a half-circle wearing party hats as Munenori Kawasaki gripped the microphone and sang “Happy Birthday” to David Ross and Dexter Fowler.
And then two pink crates stacked as a birthday cake rolled out in front of the weight room at the Sloan Park complex. Strength and conditioning coach Tim Buss popped out wearing a one-piece bathing suit, a cowboy hat and high heels.
Showing the kind of firm leadership that’s made him a three-time Manager of the Year, Joe Maddon had made the executive decision that Buss should wear a one-piece bathing suit — and not a bikini — because that would be funnier. Obviously.
Right around the same time, Chris Sale’s comments were catching fire on social media after the White Sox ace torched executive vice president Kenny Williams for the way he handled the Adam LaRoche situation.
The Cubs have cornered the market on zoo animals. But Camelback Ranch became the circus before the White Sox stopped their airing of grievances in the clubhouse and went out and beat the Cubs 3-2 in front of 13,130 in Glendale and a curious TV audience back home in Chicago.
The White Sox rivalry could bring out the worst in the Cubs during the Carlos Zambrano/Milton Bradley/Lou Piniella years. But the Cubs are now a destination, where free agents take less money to play for baseball’s buzziest team and try to end more than a century of losing.
“It’s kind of an ironic sales pitch,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “The fact we haven’t won in (such a long) time is so alluring to our players. I hope someday we can’t use that sales pitch anymore. But at the moment, it’s certainly effective.”
Maybe an us-vs.-them attitude sparks the White Sox and Williams uses the $13 million LaRoche walked away from — because his 14-year-old son couldn’t have unlimited access to the clubhouse anymore — to make a splash at the trade deadline.
The White Sox have to be one of the most loyal organizations in sports — to their credit and sometimes to a fault — and used patience and discipline to make low-risk, high-reward deals throughout the offseason. Winning will fix everything in that clubhouse.
The Cubs can be extremely cold and calculating — just ask White Sox bench coach Rick Renteria — but 1908 fuels an ends-justify-the-means philosophy.
Still, the Cubs know how to make personal touches. “The Arm” — an upcoming book on the economics of pitching by Yahoo! Sports baseball columnist Jeff Passan — gives a behind-the-scenes account of the Jon Lester negotiations and how the Cubs appealed to his sense of family.
Within the first two minutes of the recruitment DVD sent to Lester’s home in Georgia, Passan writes, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein talked about how the Cubs staff “a 24-hour on-call doctor and nurse for families in case of emergency when the team is out of town.”
“The Arm” also nails down another rumor: Lester had been unnerved after getting traded from the Boston Red Sox to the Oakland A’s in a 2014 deadline deal when he found out the wife of a teammate was assaulted at the O.co Coliseum.
During their emotional pitch after that season, the Cubs stressed everything from the security services at Wrigley Field to the differences between the Chicago and Boston media markets to what the franchise could do for Lester’s charitable foundation.
“A lot of our focus in trying to build an organization is just trying to do everything first-class,” Hoyer said. “We have family ownership and try to make sure that every facility is first-class. We treat our players that way.
“When you do that stuff: a.) It’s the right thing to do. And b.) I think word gets around that’s how you treat people.”
Hoyer was speaking broadly — and not at all commenting on LaRoche’s decision to retire — as AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)” blasted out of the sound system as the Cubs stretched before their workout.
The Cubs also gave Lester the biggest contract in franchise history at the time — six years and $155 million plus full no-trade rights — and the vibe would obviously be so much different if this team had lost 97 games last year.
“It’s not like we reinvented anything,” Hoyer said. “People want to be part of a winner. Joe creates a great atmosphere by focusing on players’ families and doing those little things that maybe is a tiebreaker. But ultimately you can’t become a place that players want to play if you forget about those things.”