Cubs

Cubs set out to create a new identity

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Cubs set out to create a new identity

MESA, Ariz. Theo Epstein leaned on the batting cage, standing in between Billy Williams and Rick Sutcliffe. This was the past and present, shoulder to shoulder at HoHoKam Stadium, and spring training is all about seeing into the future.

The Cubs have been able to sell sunshine and beer for a long time. It was 78 degrees at first pitch, and 10,366 fans rolled in for their Cactus League opener. Before a 12-10 loss to the Oakland As, the president of baseball operations signed autographs by the dugout.

This is what were all here for, to play the game on the field, Epstein had said at the beginning of camp. Sometimes a winter can stretch on and you forget what you do for a living. You feel like an accountant or something.

The Cubs are trying to create a new identity, and it will have more of a corporate feel, from the computer system they designed with Bloomberg Sports to the increased emphasis on video and statistical analysis.

Baseball staffers from every level of the organization assembled at a Mesa hotel in the middle of February to build what Epstein has called the scouting and player development machine, which will come with manuals that run hundreds of pages.

The idea is that something as simple as a bunt play will be run the same in the Dominican summer league as it is inside Wrigley Field, and on and on and on. The Cubs Way.

Weve got better cooks, pitcher Matt Garza said when asked about the difference now.

Yes, the Cubs have even overhauled the kitchen, using a food service company that has cut out red meat from the spread and caters for several teams throughout the Valley. No detail is too small just check out the blue corners on the bases at Fitch Park where your foot is supposed to hit.

After years of ownership instability that handcuffed the previous administration and once new revenues start flowing out of a renovated Wrigley Field this could be the superpower of the Midwest. The empire should include game-changing TV deals and new facilities in Arizona and the Dominican Republic.

Pitcher Andy Sonnanstine recalled a team meeting early in camp where Epstein talked about how its a little bit different when you put the Yankees uniform on the Red Sox and the Cubs are right up there with them. Can you handle the pressure?

The Red Sox model that Cubs executives have long coveted will include a strong, steady manager. Dale Sveum emerged from the same intense interview process that revealed two finalists in Terry Francona and Joe Maddon, who certainly werent stars almost 10 years ago at Fenway Park.

Sveum wont be tossing bases, or entertaining everyone in the interview room with great stories. He may not be loud or show much emotion, but he has presence after lasting 12 seasons in the big leagues, even after a horrific leg injury.

I just try to be myself and whatever happens, happens, Sveum said. But I do believe a team does take on the personality of their managernot that I have any kind of personality.

You just try to harp on the little things. And at the same time, theyve got to know that you know how difficult this game is. Im not the guy where if somebody strikes out with the bases loaded, Im going to be throwing things. I completely understand that.

I wasnt a very good player, so I completely understand the trials and tribulations of this game and the pressures theyre under and all that stuff. My goal is to get them to prepare like its the seventh game of the World Series every day. So when they do fail, (they) can look (into) the mirror and say: I did everything I could today to make myself a better player.

Its not like the other 29 teams are ignoring fundamentals and spending spring training eating fried chicken, drinking beer and playing video games. And check the clips: Around this time last year, everyone was writing stories about the good vibes in Camp Quade (at least until Carlos Silva and Aramis Ramirez almost got into a fight in the dugout).

But the days are longer now, one player said, and at least 10 were out taking extra batting practice in front of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo after Sundays game ended.

Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano are gone, but there was Alfonso Soriano that morning, walking from one end of the clubhouse to the other, bobbing his head and smiling: Hey babehey babehey babe.

I dont like to be the leader, Soriano said. My teammates can see how I play hard and how I work. I think they can take that to the field. I dont like to talk much. Just work hard and try to be better every day and try to win. Thats what I can take to the young guys here.

You can already see the bonds forming, top prospects Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson relaxing in chairs by their lockers. Cubs executives think theyll be glue guys for their lineup and clubhouse.

The things I can control are what I do every day, Jackson said. Im not going to make the team right now today. But every days a piece to that puzzle. Im going to keep working every day until that day comes, and when that day comes Im going to keep working there.

I believe in big things for the Cubs and its something I want to be a part of.

Looking back on Rick Monday's flag-saving incident in 1976

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USA TODAY

Looking back on Rick Monday's flag-saving incident in 1976

"I would rather be remembered as someone who stood up and did something about something I felt strongly about, than as someone who just stood there and watched the parade go by."

When you least expect it, life can come at you pretty quickly. The way Rick Monday reacted 43 years ago in a Cubs uniform is still worth remembering.

The Cubs were playing at Dodger Stadium on April 25, 1976. Monday was in his fifth season with the Cubs and playing in center field. Steve Stone was the starting pitcher and in the bottom of the fourth inning, Monday heard something going on around him. Two fans ran onto the field and then past Cubs left fielder Jose Cardinal.

"Is it because they have a bet with somebody?" Monday said. "Is it because they've had too much to drink? Is it because they don't like you?”

The fans turned out to be protesters and one of them was carrying the American flag under his arm. As they laid down the flag and doused it with a can of lighter fluid, Rick Monday darted at them from center field.

"It angered me for a lot of reasons," he said. "First of all, you're interrupting the game. Secondly, now you're bringing out a flag and I was only about three or four years removed from being in the Marine Reserves."

Monday considered bowling them over if he got there on time, but the first match blew out as they tried to ignite the flag. Monday improvised. He scooped up the soaking wet flag and kept running with it. By the time he'd handed it to a teammate near the dugout, Tommy Lasorda let the protesters have a few choice words. At the time, Lasorda was the third baseman for the Dodgers.

"He [Lasorda] came running past me yelling about every expletive that a longshoreman would utter on a bad, bad day!" Monday said.

The fans were arrested, and when Monday came to the plate for his at-bat in the top of the fifth inning, the scoreboard in center field paid tribute with - "Rick Monday...you made a great play" and the California crowd gave the Cubs outfielder a standing ovation. One year later, they'd be cheering for him again. The Cubs traded Rick Monday in a five-player deal that brought Bill Buckner and Ivan DeJesus to the North side. Rick Monday went on to play a total of 19 seasons in the Majors. He was part of the Dodgers World Series championship team in 1981.

43 years after the flag incident, Rick Monday works in the Dodgers radio broadcast booth and that American flag is still a part of his life. He and his wife take the flag around the country while raising money for military charities. Monday says he reacted quickly that day because that's the way he was raised. Six years in the United States Marine Corps Forces Reserves only reinforced those instincts.

"It's a good thing I did get it, because I did not want any of my former drill instructors from the Marine Corps to come and say, 'Hey Marine! Why did you stand there and watch when they ignited the American flag?" Monday said.

An All-American play by a two-time All-Star outfielder

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Addison Russell goes 1-for-4 in rehab assignment with the Iowa Cubs

Addison Russell goes 1-for-4 in rehab assignment with the Iowa Cubs

Addison Russell is nearing the end of his 40-game suspension for violating the MLB's domestic abuse policy. He made his first rehab start with the Iowa Cubs on Wednesday night, performing quite well in the stint.

He was 1-for-4 with an RBI, one walk and a stolen base to boot in Iowa’s 6-4 win over the Nashville Sounds. Unless there any changes in the expected gameplan, Russell will be able to rejoin the big league club on May 3 at the earliest, when they begin a series against the division-rival St. Louis Cardinals.

Russell was a key piece of the 2016 World Series team but it will be interesting to see how he fits into the mix with Javier Báez in the midst of an excellent season at shortstop.

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