Cubs

Cubs called their shot with Jason Heyward signing

jason-heyward-cubs-1-18-16.png

Cubs called their shot with Jason Heyward signing

As part of the elaborate presentation during Jon Lester’s recruiting visit to Wrigleyville, the Cubs unveiled a diamond diagram projecting their 2016 lineup – with Jason Heyward playing center field. 

At that point, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber hadn’t made their big-league debuts yet. Jake Arrieta hadn’t developed into a Cy Young Award winner. And Joe Maddon hadn’t managed a game in a Cubs uniform. 

Lester would have to take a leap of faith with Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer – who watched him grow up in the Boston Red Sox organization – to believe in a team that had finished in fifth place for five straight seasons and hadn’t won a World Series since the Theodore Roosevelt administration.

This was November 2014 – the same month the Atlanta Braves traded Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals – and 13 months before he would sign the biggest contract in franchise history.

“They kind of broke down their ultimate plan,” Lester said. “(Heyward) was kind of their big guy they pitched to me.”

[SHOP: Get your Cubs gear right here

Lester signing the richest contract in franchise history – at least until Heyward’s decision last month – marked a significant turning point in the rebuild. For $155 million guaranteed across six years, the Cubs would get an All-Star lefty to front their rotation, account for 200-plus innings and help a young team play meaningful baseball in September and maybe win around 84 games.  

The Cubs smashed all external expectations and internal projections for last season by winning 97 games and advancing to the National League Championship Series.

“Really, this year was their plan,” Lester said. “We weren’t supposed to do what we did last year. (But) I think it put that (sense of) urgency into this year.

“That’s what their ultimate plan was in 2016 – they were going to go all-in for this year. And they definitely have.”

Heyward became an obvious target because of his age-26 potential, left-handed contact skills, .353 career on-base percentage and Gold Glove defense. That made the Cubs so much more comfortable with this eight-year, $184 million investment – and he wouldn’t have to be “The Man” in Chicago.

[MORE: Cubs still in position to make the big trade when they need it]

“The biggest move we made this winter,” Epstein said, “didn’t feel like signing a free agent. He’s a day younger than Anthony Rizzo. It felt like adding another huge piece to our core of young players.

“It fits our identity. That’s really what defines us right now – a group of young position players that we really, really believe in, on the field and off the field. He adds to that mix.”

In the same way that Lester declined an offer from the San Francisco Giants in the range of seven years and $168 million, Heyward turned down a reported $200 million guarantee to return to Cardinals Nation, where at least one fan posted to Twitter an image of his red No. 22 jersey on fire.   

The Cubs also used 1908 to help convince two other big-name free agents – pitcher John Lackey and super-utility guy Ben Zobrist – who had bigger offers out there. Pitching coach Chris Bosio even said Trevor Cahill passed on a two-year offer to start for the Pittsburgh Pirates before accepting a one-year, $4.25 million deal to be a swingman for the Cubs.

“There’s something special about what’s happening,” chairman Tom Ricketts said. “All these guys that came in this year – and some of the ones that came in last year – had more money somewhere else. But they all want to be part of this team. So having a good, young nucleus and a great manager makes it easier for Theo and Jed to recruit.

[RELATED: 'Try not to suck': Javier Baez takes his swag to center field with Cubs]

“I had lunch with Jason Heyward the day he signed. I’m like: ‘Jason, so tell me, what about Chicago brought you in?’ And he’s like: ‘Well, I want to be part of a winning culture.’ And I’m like: ‘Wow, no one’s ever said that to me before.’”

Epstein thinks of it as confidence when Lester calls him arrogant. Whatever. The Cubs aren’t all talk anymore.

“I like that,” Lester said. “You come in and you stand up tall. You stick your chest out and you go: ‘This is what we see. This is what we believe in. These are our guys.’ That blew me away.

“It’s not, ‘Well, if this guy does this…’ No, everything was: ‘When this guy comes up, he’s going to do this.’ They couldn’t have been more right.”

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

The cheer master’s whistle echoed through the ballpark, and dinosaur mascots wearing giant face masks danced on top of the dugout.

With fans absent due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sunday’s scene didn’t quite do the Korean Baseball Organization experience justice. But it was still the league that taught Ryan Sadowski how to let loose on the field.

"I found that as a player I didn't allow myself to enjoy my success the way I should have because it's the game of baseball,” Sadowski told ESPN in 2016. “You're not supposed to show that you enjoy your success. I think it's something I learned here (in Korea), that I would take to younger kids in the States."

Major League Baseball is well aware that its status in the United States will continue to slip if it can’t figure out how to reach a younger audience. This summer presents an opportunity. If the players and owners can agree to a deal that makes the league’s early July target date a reality, for weeks it will be the only major sport on television.

Sports fans are clamoring for action after a months-long drought. What better time to draw in new fans? In that regard, the KBO could have something to teach MLB.

Sadowski is in a unique position to compare the KBO and MLB. He played in both leagues before becoming a KBO scout. Sadowski’s support for on-the-field expression is one Cubs shortstop Javier Báez would likely get behind.

Báez had a message similar to Sadowski's on MLB’s YouTube channel recently. In a show taped during Spring Training, Báez chatted with Puerto Rican recording artist Residente while running the Grammy Award-winner through baseball drills.

“In my personal opinion, I would like to teach young people growing up to enjoy [the game],” Báez said in Spanish. “And if they fail, fail having fun. And keep doing what is right. Let the kids play.”

Báez has been criticized for his playing style, most famously in 2018 when he bat-flipped after a popup. Afterward, former Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned Báez's “respect for the game.”

But Báez's huck wouldn’t have been out of place in Sunday’s KBO game between the NC Dinos and Hanwhu Eagles. The broadcast didn’t feature the kind of ostentatious bat flips that have become so popular on social media. But still, in consecutive innings, players on both teams tossed their bats several feet up the baseline to punctuate base hits. No uproar ensued.

The rate at which KBO bat flips have spread through Twitter speaks to a hunger for showboating among young baseball fans. Why not embrace it?   

“It’s not that it is not the correct way of doing it,” Báez told Residente of his playing style. “It’s just not the way many coaches teach it.”

In the United States, the NBA is the poster child for attracting millennial fans. In 2017-18, young adults led the league’s growth in ratings, according to Forbes. TV viewership among 18- to 34-year-olds was up 14 percent.

The NBA does an especially good job marketing its stars. Admittedly, the game lends itself to that strategy in a way that baseball does not. LeBron James can take over any game down the stretch, but Mike Trout isn’t going to get an at-bat every time the winning run is in scoring position.

But there are other ways NBA stars capture the fascination of young fans. Kids across the country grew up shrugging like Michael Jordan or pumping their arms and pounding their chests like LeBron James.  They take deep dives into YouTube, watching the most devastating dunks of all time – the more embarrassing for the defender, the better. None of that disrespects the game. The NBA and KBO have that in common.

MLB doesn’t have to adopt the KBO’s use of specific chants for each batter and embrace bat flipping for everything from home runs to ground outs – even though, by all accounts, those elements create a delightfully raucous atmosphere.

MLB doesn’t have to abolish baseball’s unwritten rules in one day. But an amendment is in order.

What if demonstrative zeal was instead embraced as a sign of respect for the game? After all, it might be MLB’s best hope of connecting to the next generation.

6 of Wrigley Field's worst 7th-inning stretch renditions in recent memory

6 of Wrigley Field's worst 7th-inning stretch renditions in recent memory

The seventh-inning stretch is a sacred tradition at Wrigley Field. Harry Caray passionately performed “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” every home game during his tenure as Cubs radio play-by-play man, previously doing so late in his tenure with the White Sox.

Caray died in 1998 and the Cubs have continued the tradition in his honor ever since, using a rotating cast of celebrities and former players as guest conductors. Last season, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster performed at the Friendly Confines.

Some renditions are more memorable than others, though not in an endearing way like Cookie Monster’s. NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon sang 15 years ago Sunday, and not only did he refer to the ballpark as “Wrigley Stadium,” but also was off pace and didn’t really know the lyrics altogether.

Cubs fans showered Gordon with a chorus of boos, to which all he could do was chuckle and finish as fast as possible. 

Singing in front of 40,000 people isn’t easy, so it’s hard to be too tough on those whose appearances go awry. Nevertheless, guest singers know what they’re signing up for. On the anniversary of Gordon’s performance, here are five more of Wrigley’s worst in recent memory.

Mike Ditka — June 5, 1998

Well, Ditka certainly provided some energy. “Da Coach” didn’t take a breath in his 26-second blaring performance; perhaps he was winded from rushing up to the booth, to which he arrived a few moments late.

Ozzy Osbourne — Aug. 17, 2003

This isn’t a ranking of bad performances, but Osbourne sits atop the leaderboard anyhow. The Black Sabbath vocalist started off singing “Let’s go out to the ball game” before breaking into a mumble streak of made-up words. The look on Kerry Wood’s face summarizes things well.

Mr. T — May 25, 2009

It didn’t sound too good, but it sure was enthusiastic. Way to do your thing, Mr. T.

David Cross — Sept. 21, 2013

Hard to say what Cross, a stand-up comedian and actor, was going for here. He starred in three “Alvin and the Chipmunks” films and, fittingly, screeched into the mic a couple of times. Maybe it was all in jest? He ended his rendition by saying, “That was awful. I’m so sorry.” 

Scottie Pippen — Oct. 22, 2016

Pippen performed the stretch in the biggest game in Cubs history (at that point) — the pennant-clincher in 2016. The Bulls Hall-of-Famer was on tune to start before mixing up lyrics, then passing the mic to the animated Wrigley crowd. 

We’ll give Pippen a slight pass here, considering he brought six championships to Chicago during his playing days.  

With that, I'll leave you with this:

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.