Cubs want to see Hector Rondon take things to another level


Cubs want to see Hector Rondon take things to another level

MESA, Ariz. - Is Hector Rondon an elite closer?

That question has yet to be truly answered, but the Cubs believe the 28-year-old right-hander is on the right track.

After the Jose Veras experiment blew up in 2014, Rondon took over as the Cubs' closer, saving 29 games with a 2.42 ERA that season.

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Last year, he began the season in the ninth-inning role before losing sole possession of the spot midseason.

After about two months of Rondon and Jason Motte sharing the role, Rondon caught fire and never relinquished his spot as stopper from July 29 onward, even though manager Joe Maddon refused to name an official closer.

"He came back [to closer] and nailed it down towards the end of the year," Maddon said. "I was very proud of the way he handled all that. And he should be.

"He could have easily complained, cried, made it very, very difficult for a lot of people, but he didn't. He took the adjustment the proper way, came back and was better than ever."

From July 29 on, Rondon was 18-for-19 in save opportunities, posting a 1.38 ERA and 1.00 WHIP while striking out 30 batters in 26 innings.

He picked up three saves in the Cubs' four-game sweep over the San Francisco Giants Aug. 6-9, including the final game of the series when Rondon loaded the bases with nobody out before bearing down and striking out the side to ensure a 2-0 victory.

That series really put the Cubs on the fast track to contention and Rondon was right in the thick of things, picking up 15 saves in the final two months of the season.

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It's that kind of aggression that has the Cubs excited for the future, which is what Maddon told Rondon in their one-on-one meeting as spring training got underway.

"The point I wanted to make to him was that you definitely have another level to achieve," Maddon said. "He was really good towards the end of the season. Really nice.

"But now his mind's going to catch up with all these other [physical] abilities. The ability to process the moment, the ability to understand what the right pitch to throw is in the moment.

"And if something starts getting sped up a bit, to slow it down. Those are the next things for him to be able to do. And when he does, you're really going to see some saves come out of this guy."

When the Cubs took Rondon out of the closer's role last season, they wanted to see him pitch within the strike zone more, going right after guys instead of nibbling.

Rondon's 1.67 season ERA was topped by only two pitchers with at least 10 saves - Aroldis Chapman (1.63 ERA) and Wade Daves (0.94).

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But does Rondon - who finished tied for 20th in Major League Baseball with 30 saves - feel like he has established himself as a closer?

"I don't know," he said. "Especially with my position last year - I lost my job and then I got it back.

"I'm really happy with the job I did last year and I feel like I'm in position [to do that again] this year."

Maddon, however, gave Rondon a vote of confidence.

"He's establishing himself as a legitimate closer right now," Maddon said. "I really anticipate to see even better work from him this year."

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:

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