Cubs

Cubs got their money’s worth with Joe Maddon at the microphone

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Cubs got their money’s worth with Joe Maddon at the microphone

Exactly one year ago, Joe Maddon killed it at The Cubby Bear, immediately talking playoffs, comparing Wrigley Field to a computer-generated scene from “Gladiator” and grabbing the microphone and offering to buy the first round.

The Cubs haven’t been the same since that shot-and-a-beer press conference on Nov. 3, 2014, when Maddon took over a team that had sunk to fifth place for five years in a row, finishing an average of 25 games out of first.

The Cubs won 97 games and two playoff rounds this year, and everyone around the team agreed that doesn’t happen without Maddon’s influence. 

While it might be a stretch to say Maddon misses his daily media sessions before and after every game, he clearly enjoys playing to the cameras and hearing the sound of his own voice. 

Even if there’s an expiration date to Maddon’s act, the Cubs still feel like that deal, which has four years remaining and guarantees at least $25 million over the life of the contract, will go down as a franchise-altering investment. (Compare that to the way the Nationals reportedly lowballed Bud Black and hired Dusty Baker as their fallback option.)      

On Opening Day 2016, the National League will feature at least six new managers from the year before, while a Cubs franchise that had been unstable and dysfunctional will be a trendy pick to win the World Series.

[MORE: Cubs, Royals and the myth/reality of a World Series blueprint]

One year after Maddon sipped a Guinness can at the bar opposite the Wrigley Field marquee, a look back on some of his best material, in the same free-association style that drives his press briefings:

Zen Master

• “I do vibrate on a different frequency, man.”

• “I never want to be dictatorial regarding the way I teach or suggest. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

• “You might have seen the body for a couple years, but the brain has not arrived yet.”

• “You don't have to go to an Ivy League school to overthink it. You could go to a state school, too.”

Bathroom Humor

“One time I overreacted as manager in Midland, Texas, in 1986, when I actually went to a local newsstand and bought newspapers from throughout the country and took the classified ads and pasted them all over my locker room, because I told my players those were your alternatives to not playing baseball well and hard.

“I learned from my own mistake there – had them on the back of the stalls in the bathroom. So the guy would sit down there, and all of a sudden he’d close the door and there would be classified ads in San Antonio.

“I did all that. I was wrong. But as you go forward, I’d never seen an uptight moment be beneficial to any group. Never. Never. So I thought if I ever got an opportunity to do this, I’d really work against that concept.

[RELATED: Cubs enter MLB offseason as 2016 World Series favorites]

“Baseball, you play every day. Football, you have a once-a-week gig. You can go through the whole week and there are different ways to get through the week and a different mindset entirely. In baseball, man, you’ve got to be in the present tense and be tension-free. I learned that, I think, and in a roundabout way.”

Gimmicks  

• (Pajama trip): “It works both ways. If you’ve won, it always makes it even better. And if you’ve lost, it’s kind of like: ‘Let’s put this behind us and let’s move on.’ So I see it as a ‘win-win-win,’ as Michael Scott would say.” 

• (Simon the Magician): “It’s hard to grab a zoo animal on the road. You can do it at the last minute at home. You always have the home connection when it comes to animals. It’s much easier to acquire a magician on the road than it is a 20-foot python. I’ve always felt that way.”

• (Talking to a zoo animal in Wrigley Field’s interview room/dungeon): “My goal is life was to eventually own a bar named ‘The Pink Flamingo.’ If that ever happens, then I’ve made it. And if that ever does happen, Warren’s going to be at the opening night. Thank you, Warren, you did not disappoint.” 

Outcome Bias

“The fans should always worry. It’s always the prerogative of a fan to worry. I absolutely believe in that. That’s what barrooms are for. That’s what little forums are for online in this 21st-century stuff. The fans should always worry. I’m always about fans worrying. Go ahead and worry as much as you’d like.

“From our perspective, we have to just go out and play the game like we always do. I’m here to tell you, man, I just can’t live that way. The line I’ve used is I don’t vibrate at that frequency. It has nothing to do with anything. 

“The process is fearless. If you want to always live your life just based on the outcome, you’re going to be fearful a lot. And when you’re doing that, you’re really not living in a particular moment.

“I’m 60, I’ll be 80, and if by the time I’m 80 20 years from now I’ve just been worried about outcomes, I’m going to miss a lot. So you’ve really got to get involved in the process. And from our players’ perspective, that’s all I talk about. I’ve not even mentioned about winning one time to these guys during this whole time. 

“If you take care of the seconds, the minutes, the hours in a day take care of themselves. So for our fans back home, please go ahead and be worried. That’s OK. But understand that from our perspective in the clubhouse, we’re more worried about the process than the outcome.”

The Geek Department

“I had one of the first laptops ever. I was like roundly laughed at and criticized: ‘How is a computer ever going to win a baseball game?’ I said: ‘No, no, no, no, it’s about organizing your information.’

“If Branch Rickey in the 40s had all this information, this stuff would have been done 50, 60, 70 years ago, if it was available. It wasn’t available. It’s new stuff. It’s color TV. It’s air conditioning. It’s power brakes. When it wasn’t invented, you could never miss it.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right now

“But it’s been invented, and now you utilize it, so to run away from technology and change and advancement…why? 

“(That’s) an archaic form of thinking. It was definitely rooted in old-school, which I really respect. But for me, old-school has nothing to do with being stuck.”

@CubsJoeMadd

“The social-media component – I don’t know if that’s going to keep getting bigger – or honestly is it going to become less? At some point, it’s oversaturated with nonsense. 

“How much nonsense do you want to hear? I don’t really want to know about everybody else’s thoughts all the time. I really don’t. That would be the next level, like if I eventually become a mind reader.

“At that point, that would really suck, because if you know too much, man, that would be awful. It’s good that you don’t know everything. So all this stuff is getting to the point now where I don’t even know – what would be the next level of communication, outside of reading someone else’s mind? 

“And I don’t want to read any of your minds at all under any circumstances. Because once you get in there, you may never get out, and you could be contaminated for the rest of your life.”

Pre-tay, Pre-tay Good

“There’s also ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ which I’m a big fan of. I got a photograph. Actually, there was a common friend. There was that one episode when he picked up a hooker to go in the diamond lane to go to the ballgame at Dodger Stadium. There’s a picture of her draped over the front seat and he wrote on her butt: ‘How bout that for a strike zone?’ Signed, Larry David.”

On Personal Grooming

• “I don’t like when it gets puffy on the side. Remember Paulie from ‘The Sopranos?’ I feel like Paulie. I get into that Paulie mode and it really bothers me. So whenever I start looking like Paulie, I get a haircut. That’s the indicator.” 

• “I’m a product of the 60s and the 70s. Every generation has its own little gig going on. Back in the day, I had long hair. It was down to my shoulders. I was very proud of it. It was actually brown at that time, too, from what I remember. So why do you always want to impose your will on everybody else?” 

Classified Information 

“If you get it on your own, then what am I going to do? I’ve already told you: I can’t tell you everything right now. And I’ll say I can’t tell you. Your job is to do what you do. And my job is to not give it up. 

“Your job is to find it out. And that’s cool. At the end of the day, what does that mean? I keep going back to the barroom. It’s great barroom banter, man. 

“And also at the end of the day, we’re not trying to conceal weaponry being sold to Iran.”

Don’t Ever Change

“If I change, I want you to slap me in the face.”

You got it.

“If you do it to me one day and just go – boom! – I’ll know why.”

You won’t see it coming.

“I won’t see it coming, then I’ll say thank you.”  

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Cubs are in first place, they own the best record in the National League at the All-Star break and remain as much a World Series contender as any team out there.

But things are never 100 percent rainbows and lollipops for a team with this high a profile.

No, instead of a simple thumbs up from fans and observers, a pat on the back and a “job well done,” there’s been quite a bit of focus on what’s not going well for the North Siders. Mostly, that’s meant starting pitching, as four of the team’s five Opening Day starters owns an ERA north of 3.90.

If all you’ve heard this season is “What’s wrong with Yu Darvish? What’s wrong with Jose Quintana? What’s wrong with Kyle Hendricks? What’s wrong with Tyler Chatwood?” you might think the Cubs are woefully underachieving. Instead, they’re 55-38, a first-half record not far off from what they owned at the break back in 2016, a season that ended in a curse-smashing World Series championship.

The lone Cubs starting pitcher at the All-Star Game, Jon Lester, isn’t happy with what he calls the “nitpicking” that’s come with the Cubs’ otherwise excellent start to the season.

“We’re kind of pulling at hairs,” he said before the Midsummer Classic on Tuesday night. “We’re splitting hairs right now as far as things that we’re looking for negatively on our team. And that can kind of rub wrong in the clubhouse as far as guys looking around going, ‘Wait a second, we’re doing pretty good and we’re getting nitpicked right now.’

“I don’t like nitpicking. So I feel like we’ve been doing really well and just stay with the positives of everything that we’ve been playing really good baseball.”

Lester’s got a point, though at the same time it’s an understandable discussion topic: If the Cubs aren’t getting consistent results from four of their five starting pitchers, what kind of effect will that have in a playoff series? There’s a long way to go before things get to that point, but Cubs players made their own expectations known back in spring training: It’s World Series or bust for these North Siders.

Lester has been phenomenal, unquestionably worthy of his fifth All-Star selection. He posted a 2.98 ERA in 19 first-half starts. But the rest of the rotation wasn’t nearly as pretty. Hendricks finished his first half with a 3.92 ERA, Quintana with a 3.96 ERA, Chatwood with a 5.04 ERA and Darvish, who made only eight starts before going on a seemingly never-ending DL stint, with a 4.95 ERA. Mike Montgomery, who’s made nine starts, has a 3.91 ERA overall and a 3.20 ERA as a starter.

None of that’s exactly end-of-the-world bad, and there are plenty of pitching staffs across baseball that would probably make a trade for those numbers in a heartbeat. But is it the elite, best-rotation-in-baseball type stuff that so many projected for this team before the season started? Of course not. And Lester knows it. He, like team president Theo Epstein, just looks at that fact a little differently than the fans and observers who are so quick to push the panic button.

“Can we pitch better? Absolutely. As a collective unit, yeah we can. And that’s a positive,” Lester said. “I think guys are ready for runs. You kind of saw Kyle put together a couple starts there where he’s back to being Kyle. Q’s been throwing the ball pretty well for us.

“I think this break will do Chatwood a lot of good. This is a guy, he’s pounding his head against the wall, beginning of the season he wasn’t giving up any runs but everybody’s talking about walks. I look at the runs, I don’t care about the walks.

“We get these guys back to relaxing and being themselves, we’ll be fine. Our bullpen’s been great, our defense has been great. Offense is going to come and go, as we’ve seen in the game. As starters, we’ve got to keep our guys in the game the best we can, at the end of the day our bullpen and our defense is going to pick us up.”

The fretting will likely never end unless the Cubs have five starters throwing at an All-Star level, that's just the way things go. Something’s got to fill all that time on sports radio, after all, and for a team with postseason expectations, it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about how they might fare in the postseason, where those starting-pitching inconsistencies will most definitely come into play.

But Tuesday night, Cubs fans will see three players representing their club. Lester will be a happy observer with one of the best seats in the house, and Javy Baez and Willson Contreras will deservedly start among the best in the game. And they’ll have bragging rights over all their NL teammates because nitpicking or not, they’ve got the best record in the league.

Grinding it out, working as a team: The story of the Cubs

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USA TODAY

Grinding it out, working as a team: The story of the Cubs

Five times in franchise history. That’s how often the Chicago Cubs have owned the best record in the National League heading into the All-Star game. This is the first time since 2008.

Here’s what makes it even more surprising.

They’ve been doing it without Kris Bryant for long periods of time. He’s missed roughly one quarter of the Cubs’ games. Bryant’s injuries have forced him to sit out 23 games and the 2016 National League MVP has just 10 home runs. How many teams could lose a player of that caliber and still be elite? Not many.

They’ve also found a way to the top with the other half of the Bryzzo Souvenir Co. going through multiple slumps during the first 93 games of the season. According to the advanced metric of “Weighted Runs Created Plus," Anthony Rizzo has been human at the plate. Rizzo’s wRC+ rating of 100 is exactly the league average. Last year at this time his wRC+ was 31 percent better than the league average. His current WAR is just 0.2.

Don’t get me wrong, Rizzo and Bryant have still made an impact and both have shown signs that their stocks for the second half should by on “buy now” list.

So, the Cubs’ 1-2 punch has been off their game and it’s not their biggest struggle in the so-called first half. That dubious honor belongs to the starting rotation. Their two offseason additions have been disasters. Yu Darvish hasn’t pitched and Tyler Chatwood hasn’t thrown strikes.

By this point, you’re wondering how the Cubs aren’t in 4th place? Well, for those three issues there have been just as many answers from different places. Maybe more.

In the outfield, Albert Almora’s .319 batting average ranks third in the NL and he simply seems to catch everything. Jason Heyward. Who saw this coming? He’s delivering at the plate on a regular basis. In 2016, Heyward’s wRC+ was 29 percent worse than the league average. This year, he’s climbed to a 109 rating or nine percent above average. He also catches everything. Combine those two with Kyle Schwarber’s 17 bombs and his massive defensive improvements and you have an impactful outfield. Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist have done their parts too.

Speaking of Happ, the Cubs have eight players with at least a .340 on-base percentage. Happ needs just eight more plate appearances to be the ninth Cubs’ batter on that list.

All major factors, but the biggest reason the Cubs are atop the NL despite all this adversity is “The Javy Baez Show”. El Mago has done it with his glove, his baserunning, his defense, his energy and his bat. Baez is the first player in MLB history with 18 doubles, six triples, 18 home runs and 18 stolen bases before the All-Star break.

So, how have the Cubs reached this place for the just the fifth time in franchise history? They’ve done it by grinding it out. They’ve done it as a team. Two traits that should serve them well the rest of the way. #EverybodyIn.