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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Cubs Talk Podcast: Redemption Stories & Schwarber Leading Off

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Redemption Stories & Schwarber Leading Off

Luke Stuckmeyer is joined by the Cubs Postgame Live team of David Kaplan and David DeJesus to break down all the various redemption stories on the 2019 Cubs, ranging from Kris Bryant returning from an injury-plagued campaign to Tyler Chatwood becoming a legitimate weapon out of the bullpen (1:00). Then, the guys discuss how well Kyle Schwarber is performing out of the leadoff spot over the last week (11:45).

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Kyle Schwarber finding his niche in Cubs' leadoff spot: 'He’s really morphed into the hitter we thought he could be'

Kyle Schwarber finding his niche in Cubs' leadoff spot: 'He’s really morphed into the hitter we thought he could be'

After two seasons alternating table setters atop their lineup, the Cubs may finally have found a consistent leadoff hitter in Kyle Schwarber.

“It’s one of those things you have to believe it to see it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before Friday’s game against the Reds. “And sometimes there’s other folks that have to see it to believe it. I just thought it was the right time.”

Schwarber started his 11th-straight game on Friday, hitting leadoff in the last nine games of that stretch. Unlike his abysmal tenure leading off in 2017, though, Schwarber is getting into a groove hitting first for the Cubs this season.

In 2017, Schwarber hit leadoff 37 times; not only did he slash a woeful .190/.312/.381 with seven home runs, but he walked 24 times compared to 48 strikeouts. The Cubs went with a leadoff-man by committee approach the rest of the season, as 10 other players hit leadoff at least once.

Schwarber has flipped the script as a leadoff hitter this season. Although the sample size is small, he’s slashing .265/.372/.618, (34 at-bats) with three home runs and seven walks compared to 12 strikeouts.

“Again, I liked it back then, I did. However, he did not react to it well in that moment,” Maddon said. “But if you look at his overall abilities as they stand right now, for me, that’s the perfect spot for him, especially in our lineup.

“He’s made some adjustments recently, he’s more mature as a hitter, he’s understanding it better. All of those things are involved. I like it; I could’ve done it earlier this year, but he really wasn’t doing what he’s doing right now earlier this year.

“I think this last three weeks or so, he’s really morphed into the hitter we thought he could be.”

Schwarber certainly has been trending upwards since the calendar flipped to May. In April, he slashed .211/.282/.338 with 25 strikeouts and seven walks. While he’s hitting .224 this month, he holds a stellar .389 OBP (.837 OPS), walking 19 times compared to 21 strikeouts.

“There’s things that he’s doing right now that are permitting him to be more consistent,” Maddon said. “Like the other day, that first at-bat walk against [Max] Scherzer in what was such a big at-bat. There was like four pitches all over the place and he didn’t swing.”

Schwarber walked in both of his at-bats against Scherzer on May 17 on a combined 10 pitches. He took four pitches out of the zone the first time around and four more the second at-bat. On the latter instance, the only strikes came on foul balls.

All of this is not to say that the days of Schwarber hitting for power are over. He has four home runs in May, three of which have come in the leadoff spot. And while RBI chances aren’t as prevalent for leadoff hitters, Maddon mentioned how Schwarber has room to grow.

“To this point, he hasn’t really been the RBI guy that you might envision. He’s been more the table setter,” he said. “I think as he learns his craft better, of course he can drive in runs more consistently.

"He’s on the verge of doing that right now. The benefit has been for him to set the table more than cleaning it up to this point, but I think he has the abilities to do both.”

Following the Cubs’ 6-5 loss to the Reds on Friday, Maddon reiterated his confidence in his latest No. 1 hitter. Schwarber went 1-for-4 with a home run, a walk and a strikeout.

“I like his at-bats right now in general,” he said. “That’s kind of why I did what I did, because I think that it’s become a more mature at-bat and the more the stays up there, the more comfortable he’s going to get.”

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