Cubs

Behind the scenes at Wrigley: Eddie Vedder, The Cubs Way and how winners write history

Behind the scenes at Wrigley: Eddie Vedder, The Cubs Way and how winners write history

After the Cubs won their first National League pennant since the year World War II ended, Lukas McKnight found himself on the Murphy’s Bleachers rooftop, part of a small group watching Eddie Vedder play piano and sing Pink Floyd songs at the famous sports bar behind Wrigley Field.

Tracking the Cubs as October turned into early November became an all-consuming pursuit, an alternative universe where you would keep bumping into Bill Murray or John Cusack and have to remind yourself to do things like call home, pay the bills and do your laundry.

McKnight grew up in Chicago’s northern suburbs and got drafted by the Cubs in 2000. Four years later, with his career stalling in the minors, he had evolved into almost a player/coach, paired up as a kind of personal catcher for a young lefty with a great curveball and control issues. That would be Rich Hill, the late bloomer who teamed up with Clayton Kershaw to throw back-to-back shutouts and give the Los Angeles Dodgers a 2-1 lead in that NL Championship Series. 

By 2005, Jim Hendry’s front office had seen enough potential to make McKnight an area scout, sending him all over the Upper Midwest, Ohio Valley region and Florida. Theo Epstein’s group would eventually promote McKnight to assistant director of amateur scouting, giving him a seat at the table when the Cubs drafted future World Series heroes Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.

“I would say surreal,” McKnight said. “Like you knew you were there, but you’re kind of floating six feet above the ground the whole time.”

At least that’s how it felt by the end, at a safe distance from the Cleveland Indians and a World Series Game 7 that lasted 10 innings and attracted more than 40 million viewers, becoming Major League Baseball’s most-watched TV event in 25 years.

“The thing that always stands out is just the swings of emotion,” McKnight said. “For me, it was probably even more than most because I lived it so long. I’ve been part of teams where it looked like you were going to be there – and you failed. 

“It’s just knowing that feeling. And then when you get all the way to the World Series and thinking: To fail at this point, it’s going to feel even worse than it felt in ’03 and ’08. 

“It was those wild, wild swings of emotion. Great senses of relief when you win – and an even lower stage when you lose. That’s what really stood out to me over the course of it. But the fulfillment when we win, that’s an emotional feeling as well. It’s almost like the culmination of my being.”

After his father, Scot, finished working on his doctoral dissertation in theology at the University of Nottingham, McKnight moved from England back to Libertyville just in time to get hooked on the 1984 Cubs. At the age of four, McKnight followed the lightning-in-a-bottle team that won 96 games and blew a 2-0 lead over the San Diego Padres in a best-of-five NLCS, the beginning of a familiar pattern of heartbreak.

What was it about this group of young stars, role players and established veterans that allowed them to dig out of that 3-1 hole against the Indians and accomplish what no Cub team had done since 1908? 

“The pragmatist in me would say: No. 1, this is probably the best Cubs team we’ve ever seen,” McKnight said. “I know there’s been some other teams where we’ve won a lot of games. But I just can’t think of a lineup that’s ever been this strong. And obviously a defense – especially now that we’re able to quantify the defense a little bit more – where we could put together a world-beater (unit) that made us maximize our pitching.

“The pitchers staying healthy – and Joe (Maddon) being able to work the staff to where no one was really overworked and the (starters) were a little stronger going down the stretch – I think all those things contributed. Ultimately, I think it was a better team. 

“And I think this is just a really, really strong makeup team. You always want to build a (team that way). But you can’t manufacture the players. You kind of have to go with who’s available to you. But I think we got a lot guys (where) we’re going to look back and think they’re special makeup guys. 

“Kris Bryant just kind of being unflappable. Kyle Schwarber being able to step up and do the things he does. Leadership guys with Jon Lester and David Ross – it kind of goes on – Anthony Rizzo is in that group as well. You just go around the diamond – and everybody’s a separator and a difference-maker from a makeup standpoint.

“It’s like anything, winners can kind of get to write history. So you go back, when the ball falls in your favor and you win, you’re going to remember it probably a little bit more fondly than you would otherwise. 

“But I think even objectively – you look at this team and it’s pretty unique. And then the subjective with the makeup – I think you look around and it’s hard to remember teams being that strong and that complete makeup-wise.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Still, it didn’t truly hit McKnight until the morning of Nov. 4, riding in a trolley from Wrigley Field toward what would be guesstimated to be one of the largest gatherings in the history of, um, human civilization.

“You actually realized the scope of it and how many people you had touched,” McKnight said. “You heard the (projections): There’s going to be four or five million people there. For whatever reason, it didn’t click. It might have been the champagne still flowing in my veins or whatever. 

“But then you start driving. And you’re going down Addison and every street is 30-people deep all the way to the highway. And then you get on Lake Shore Drive, and it’s five-people deep all the way to downtown. And then you get to downtown, and it was just absolutely staggering. 

“It just kind of overwhelmed you. You started taking pictures and every street was more packed than the last the closer you got to Grant Park. To me, that’s where it just got a little bit staggering and kind of overwhelming on what had actually happened and how impactful this had been for so many people. 

“I know it was kind of the perfect storm, right? Chicago Public Schools didn’t have school that day. Who could ever account for weather like that in early November? So there were a lot of reasons why so many people showed up. But that was to the point where it turned from just exhilaration to kind of overwhelming and what this meant. 

“Obviously, it was huge for an organization. But to see what kind of impact it had for a city and a metropolitan area – that part was just staggering.”

That breathtaking scene and the sensory overload should leave the Cubs wanting more. On the night they clinched the franchise’s first pennant since 1945, the Cubs started two rookies who began this season at Triple-A Iowa – catcher Willson Contreras and outfielder Albert Almora Jr. – in a young lineup that featured NL MVP Bryant (24), All-Stars Rizzo (27) and Addison Russell (22), NLCS co-MVP Javier Baez (23) and Cy Young Award finalist Kyle Hendricks (26).

Vedder and Pearl Jam just got selected for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 2017 class. After a Christmas break, the Cubs will start gearing up for the 2017 draft in early January with preliminary meetings in Chicago. This is why Vedder won’t be planning future Pearl Jam tours for October, but maybe you’ll see him one night over at Murphy’s. 

Beginning tonight at 6:30 p.m., CSN Chicago will replay all 11 playoff wins, part of a programming block that will run through the day after Christmas, featuring sit-down interviews with Cubs personnel, a look back at the championship parade and Grant Park rally and fresh content on CSNChicago.com. 

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The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

How much do the Cubs really need Manny Machado? 

They entered play Tuesday leading the National League in runs per game, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and run differential.

That doesn't sound like a team desperate for another bat and would trade future assets to go all-in for only a few months of a player, even one as good as Machado.

Of course, the Cubs went out and got walloped 10-1 by the Indians Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but that had more to do with awful pitching and Machado won't do a thing to help that area of the game. In fact, Machado would actually hurt the team's run prevention given he's a worse defensive shortstop than Addison Russell.

All that being said, the Machado rumors probably won't be going anywhere until the Baltimore Orioles deal their shortstop to either the Cubs or another team, so Russell will have to get used to hearing his name included in such conversations.

Any Cubs package headed to Baltimore for Machado likely has to start with Russell, the Cubs' 24-year-old shortstop who won't become a free agent until after the 2021 season.

"He would be robotic if it did not [affect him]," Joe Maddon said. "I think honestly if he was 7, 8, 10 years into the league and something like this was being bandied about, probably not nearly as much. But the age that he's at, the experience level that he's at, I think it just can't help but have an impact.

"So we just gotta continue to nurture him here. I talk to him all the time. There's certain things you can't control. You can't control what's being said, but you can control how you react to it. That's about the best thing we could encourage him to do and he'll get our support."

Maddon said he gives Russell a hug and reminds him of "something" before every game as he tries to massage the confidence of a player that is currently the shortstop of a Cubs team with World Series expectations.

Russell doesn't turn 25 until next January, yet many people act like he's already peaked as a player. 

He's two years removed from hitting 21 homers and driving in 95 runs as part of the 2016 championship season.

2017 was a lost year for so many reasons — from off-field issues to shoulder and foot problems — and Russell has only 1 homer in the first quarter of the 2018 season, but he's taken other strides this year.

He currently boasts career best marks in walk percentage, strikeout percentage, line drive percentage, groundball percentage and is using the opposite field more than ever.

The power hasn't come yet this year, but a .343 on-base percentage is a pretty solid complementary piece to one of the best all-around defenders in the game.

Russell ranks 10th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved among all players, tied for second among shortstops. Fielding metrics are not perfect, but Machado is 133rd in DRS among qualifed fielders and 24th among shortstops, so there is clearly a gap between the two players' glovework.

Maddon has never shown any outward sign of altering his belief in Russell becoming a dynamic player.

"Addy's gonna continue to progress to the point where all his game is gonna become consistent," Maddon said. "And even beyond that, who do you like better at shortstop [defensively] right now? ... His throwing's dramatically improved. His baserunning decisions — I know he had a gaffe in Cincinnati, but for the most part, he's gotten better.

"So what we're really talking about is his hitting. That's where people get hung up about this game all the time. I see absolute progress in that, also. He just came off a hot week and he had a couple tough days and then all of a sudden, it becomes exaggerated. Why? Because he's 24.

"I think the sky is the limit for this guy. He's a confidence guy like most of us are. As he's feeling good about himself, that's when the line drives start to occur. I mean, one of the biggest hits so far was the ball over the centerfielder's head in Atlanta [last week].

"And he always has this tendency to do some really good work when it matters most. He's been that guy already. So just be patient. He's just gonna keep getting better."

Remember, Russell is the same guy that hit a grand slam and drove in 6 runs in Game 6 of the World Series in Cleveland and started every game at shortstop that postseason. Every year Russell has been the Cubs' shortstop, the season has included a trip to the National League Championship Series.

"Our front office has always been one to make moves and they’re not afraid to do things and we’ve seen that," Kris Bryant said. "We won a world series because of that, getting [Aroldis] Chapman and some of the other guys we got, but we don’t put one ounce of thought into that because we’re happy with the guys we have here.

"The effort that everybody puts forth day in and day out when they’re on the field is spectacular. You know we have a great group of guys here and until someone is gone, we’re going to play with what we’ve got and continue to play the way we have. So, not much thought about [trade rumors]."

Russell has also quietly been very productive over the last month after a slow start to the season. Since April 26, he boasts a .306/.386/.444 slash line (.830 OPS).

It's still hard to see the Cubs willing to give up the next 3.5 years of Russell for 3 months of Machado and MAYBE a slightly better chance of re-signing the superstar this winter.

"I was talking about a 24-year-old hitter, what about a 24-year-old human being having to process all of that?" Maddon asked. "Whether he's hearing it or not from anywhere here, it's just mom, dad, brother, friend, former coach on the phone — 'What's that all about?' 

"He's gotta be inundated with that conversation. He didn't ask for that. He's just doing his job."

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Tyler Chatwood looked to be turning the corner with his control issues, but alas, he and the Cubs aren't so lucky.

After walking only two batters in a solid start in Atlanta last week, Chatwood had taken a big step in the right direction. It was, after all, only the third time he'd walked fewer than 5 batters in an outing this season.

Those control woes reared their ugly heads once again Tuesday night at Wrigley Field in a 10-1 loss to the Indians. Chatwood walked 6 batters and managed to net only 8 outs, getting hammered for 4 runs in the third inning.

"Ugh, it was tough," Maddon said. "The stuff was so good, we just couldn't get a strike."

"It's definitely frustrating," Chatwood said, "because one at-bat, I'll feel really good and the next one, I feel like I'm fighting myself.

"Last time [out], I was able to stay in the rhythm. Tonight, I was kinda battling, rushing rather than staying back, so it's just keeping that feeling and maintaining that."

His season ERA is only 3.74, which looks good until you consider his WHIP is 1.62 and he's walked 40 batters in 45.2 innings with only 41 strikeouts in the process. He now leads baseball in walks per 9 innings.

Chatwood said earlier this month in St. Louis that he's figured out what has led to the startling lack of control and while he didn't elaborate on the mechanical issue, he was working hard at correcting the problem in bullpens.

He's also used the term "fighting myself" at least a dozen times this month alone and it's become a common refrain for his explanation of what's going on. 

"He's got a busy delivery when he throws the baseball," Maddon said. "He's kinda busy what he does with his hands. It's not like he can just change it easily because that's how his arm works, how his body works.

"Sometimes, like you see him the other day, everything's on time and how good it can be and when it's out of sorts a bit, then all of the sudden it becomes shotgun. Ah man, you can see the movement [on his pitches] from the side, how good it is. 

"We gotta harness it somehow. I spoke to him briefly on the bench; I reassured him it's gonna be fine, it's gonna be really good by the end of the year. We gotta figure it out and he knows that. But man, that's good stuff. We just gotta get it in the zone."

Chatwood also admitted part of the problem is mental in that he's trying to force pitches rather than trusting his stuff. He's also gotten into the bad habit of drifting down the mound, though he's not sure when or where he picked up that hitch in his delivery.

Chatwood and Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey are working on slowing his delivery down to get his arm in the same spot on a more consistent basis.

When the Cubs signed Chatwood over the winter, it was easy to see why.

He just turned 28 in December, his peripherals and a move from hitter-friendly Coors Field foretold a potential leap in performance and his stuff is nasty. Plus, he signed a three-year deal at a relative bargain of $38 million.

Once the Cubs signed Yu Darvish in spring training, you could make the case that Chatwood could be among the best No. 5 starters in baseball.

Nine starts later, the honeymoon period is well over with Chatwood, as he threw only 30 of his 74 pitches for strikes Tuesday night and sent catcher Willson Contreras sailing all around home plate for pitches way out of the zone.

Still, it's clear to see there is some intriguing talent there and the season there is roughly 70 percent of the season remaining before the Cubs make what they hope is another run at the World Series.

"I have a lot of faith," Maddon said. "I know we're gonna reap the rewards, the benefits as he figures this thing out."