Cubs

Cubs getting off to the fast start they absolutely needed

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Cubs getting off to the fast start they absolutely needed

Anthony Rizzo must be feeling pretty good about his winning-the-division prediction.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Rizzo said, sounding annoyed at the wise-guy question.

The Cubs had completed less than 12 percent of their schedule after Monday night’s 4-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. But a young team that’s used to being buried by this point will take 11-7, running one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central.

“Huge,” Rizzo said. “We preached it in spring training: We got to survive April. We can’t put ourselves in a hole like we’ve done in years past. We’re doing a good job of coming to the park every day and playing with a lot of energy, having fun and really playing with a purpose.”

Surrounded by reporters, Rizzo stood in front of his locker, inside the cramped clubhouse that now has a shiny disco ball hanging from a ceiling fan. Loud rap music blasted from the sound system when the media entered the room.

Joe Maddon likes to say the heavy lifting had already been done by the time he left the Tampa Bay Rays and scored a five-year, $25 million contract. But after winning the offseason – and dealing with their fifth manager in six seasons and an overhyped group of prospects, not to mention the usual Wrigleyville distractions (see Porta-Pottie-Gate) – the Cubs absolutely needed a sense of momentum.

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon hates the idea of the DH in National League]

The Cubs generated 10 hits from the first six hitters in their American League-style lineup and wore down the Pirates (11-9) in front of 29,159 at Wrigley Field. Jason Hammel – last year’s sign-and-flip guy – put up eight scoreless innings and now has allowed one walk against 23 strikeouts through 25-plus innings.    

Inside the interview room/dungeon, a reporter asked Hammel: Is it too early to project this is going to be a really good team this year?

“We’ve been doing that since January, right?” Hammel said, delivering another great one-liner. “We know what we have in this clubhouse. We’re excited. It starts with Joe. He’s given us one hell of a feel. He came in and made us know that we’re going to have a good time while we were winning.

“It wasn’t the drill-sergeant type. It wasn’t looking over our shoulder being the mother, the dad, whatever. It’s letting us go out and be ourselves and just play baseball.

“We’ve worked really hard at understanding that we don’t care what anybody else says. It’s what we have.”

The Cubs have Rizzo (2-for-3, one walk, two RBI) leading the majors with a .494 on-base percentage. Kris Bryant (2-for-4, two RBI) has been as good as advertised, putting up a .938 OPS through his first 10 games in The Show. Starlin Castro is hitting .324 and pushing himself to be in the Gold Glove conversation at shortstop.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“We were wanting a good April, and we’re on our way to having one,” team president Theo Epstein said. “But I think it’s been earned. The guys have really fought hard every game, and I really like the identity that we’re creating for ourselves.”

The Cubs have already notched five victories in their final at-bat. They are 8-4 against the division and 3-0 in extra-inning games. All this without $155 million ace Jon Lester (0-2, 6.23 ERA in four starts) coming close to hitting his stride.

“I really think it’s a best-case scenario as far as the identity of the team,” Epstein said, “the mood and the spirit surrounding the team, how they really have bonded with one another and are fighting through all 27 outs.

“That’s been fantastic. It’s been a lot of fun to be around. But I don’t really overanalyze the early-season performance, because baseball’s all about grinding it out through six months. And you’ll end up where you’re supposed to be.”

It’s a good sign when Addison Russell’s Wrigley Field debut (1-for-3, one run scored) might be the sixth-most interesting headline that night. Compare that to the way the Chicago media treated Rizzo and Castro with wall-to-wall coverage when they first arrived at Clark and Addison.

“It’s just the strength of our lineup,” Rizzo said. “Anyone can do it at any time. We’re really happy with the way we’re grinding out at-bats early in the game, which can be setting us up for later in the game. We’re making pitchers work. That’s what we want to do every time. Every at-bat (should) be a stressful at-bat on the pitcher.

“We just have a really good feeling in here right now. And we just got to keep rolling with it.”

Why former Cub Bobby Scales, now a baseball exec, needed to 'make my voice known'

Why former Cub Bobby Scales, now a baseball exec, needed to 'make my voice known'

Bobby Scales held up a lime-green object so the others on the Zoom session could see it.

“This is my cell phone case. It’s neon green. I hate this thing,” said the former Cubs infielder who’s now the minor-league field coordinator for the Pirates.

“The reason I keep it neon green is because if I get pulled over, and I’m sitting in my car and it’s in my cupholder, there’s no thought that that’s a gun,” he said. “You’re not going to say I went to draw for something.”

It’s one of several examples Scales shared on the latest episode of the Cubs Talk Podcast of the countless ways being black in America impacts daily thoughts and actions, some smaller, some larger and all collectively exhausting, especially at what might be a “tipping point” moment for the country after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Scales, 42, was a feel-good story for the Cubs in 2009 when he made his big-league debut after persevering through a decade in the minors. He was also a rarity as one of a dwindling number of African-American players in the the majors.

He’s even more of a rarity in that regard as a front-office executive in a sport that has become even whiter in its executive and on-field management positions in recent years.

Scales, a passionate advocate for a game that might be reaching its own cultural tipping point, talks about the power of sports to drive public discourse and change, as well as the shortcomings MLB faces in that effort as “one of the true last bastions of the real old boys’ network.”

Baseball lags behind the other major American sports in tolerating political or social advocacy, never mind dissent. And its fewer and fewer non-white American insiders have found stronger voices in this national moment of outrage and protest — whether it’s former Cubs outfielder Dexter Fowler on social media, Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward on the airwaves or Scales this week on a Chicago podcast.

RELATED: Cubs' Jason Heyward on racial injustice: 'It feels like a broken record'

Baseball might be a tough culture from which to speak out.

“But that doesn’t mean you [should] be afraid to do so,” Scales said. “That’s why I’ve made my voice known.”

Scales, who talked briefly with the Cubs about a front office job at a time he wanted instead to keep playing in Japan, eventually became a farm director for the Angels before joining the Pirates and is considered a rising star among executives in the game.

That could make him one of its more important voices for the kind of change urgently needed in a sport that long ago began losing its appeal with younger Americans, that has a pace-of-play problem, that clings to a culture of “unwritten rules” that discourage bat flips and fist pumps (read: joy), and that has a growing racial gap to bridge in this country — certainly compared to the participants and fans of football and basketball.

“I love this game. I don’t want to have to love another game,” Scales said. “I love this game. I want to work in this game. I want to effect change. I want to affect the lives of young men, in this game. So I want the best for it, too.”

It’s a game that for better and for worse has often reflected American culture, from its six decades of strident segregation to its seven decades of imperfect integration and all its labor battles, drug scandals and tech booms throughout.

And if this moment of outrage and backlash in American history actually is the tipping point that leads, finally, to measurable change in a way that the deaths of Amadou Diallo (1999), Eric Garner (2014) or Sandra Bland (2015) did not, then maybe there’s even hope for a more outspoken and inclusive culture in baseball.

“Every white listener of this podcast, I want you to understand,” said Scales, whose family history includes a great grandmother who marched on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965 across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

“One, we’re not making this stuff up,” he said. “This stuff is real; it happens every day. And, two, we’re really, really over it. 

“It’s time. Give it up. 

“What are we so scared of in this country that we cannot talk through?”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Bobby Scales on impacting change in baseball, America

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Bobby Scales on impacting change in baseball, America

Bobby Scales, a former Cub and now field coordinator with the Pittsburgh Pirates, joins David Kaplan and Gordon Wittenmyer to discuss racial injustice in America and the experience of a black baseball player in MLB.

(1:55) - America is in a dark place right now

(9:40) - Racial issues in the MLB

(16:20) - There is a reason protests are going on around the country

(24:58) - Making front offices more diverse in the MLB

(31:46) - Reaction to Dexter Fowler's comments on being black in baseball and in America

Listen here or below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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