Cubs won't get into a war of words with Donald Trump


Cubs won't get into a war of words with Donald Trump

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — About to begin a season where anything but a World Series title will be considered an epic disappointment, the Cubs refused to get into a war of words with Donald Trump.

The Cubs have been on the periphery of a surreal presidential race, with Trump sending out a cryptic tweet threatening the Ricketts family last month, and then doubling down during Monday’s meeting with The Washington Post editorial board, saying ownership has done a “rotten job” running the team.

“Maybe Mr. Trump did not follow the season last year,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Maddon claimed to be unaware of the story and had a reporter read Trump’s comments back to him before Tuesday’s 9-6 Cactus League win over the Cincinnati Reds at Goodyear Ballpark.

After overseeing a 24-game improvement and guiding a young team into the National League Championship Series, Maddon won his third Manager of the Year award, with his own press conferences becoming must-see TV.

“I don’t want to get into a battle with Mr. Trump,” Maddon said. “I have no idea what this is all about. It’s been a very entertaining political season. It’s actually to the point now where I prefer watching Fox and CNN over ESPN any day of the week.

“I’m totally enjoying the sport right now. So regardless of what’s being said or how it’s being said, it’s just posturing, anyway.”

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Trump took aim at Cubs ownership after reports surfaced that Marlene Ricketts contributed $3 million — before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries — to a Super PAC designed to stop the Republican frontrunner.

Marlene is married to Joe Ricketts, the TD Ameritrade founder who is not a visible presence around the team. Board member Pete Ricketts — who made an appearance at Cubs camp in Mesa over the weekend — is the Republican governor of Nebraska. Board member Todd Ricketts is also heavily involved in right-wing politics and helped bankroll Scott Walker in the Wisconsin governor’s failed bid for the White House.

Staying in character, Trump didn’t offer much in the way of substance or specifics when Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt asked him about the Ricketts connection. From the transcript on the newspaper’s website:

HIATT: “You said a few weeks ago after a family in Chicago gave some money to a PAC opposing you, you said, ‘They better watch out. They have a lot to hide.’ What should they watch out for?”

TRUMP: “Look, they are spending vicious ... I don’t even know these people. Those Ricketts. I actually said they ought to focus on the Chicago Cubs and, you know, stop playing around. They spent millions of dollars fighting me in Florida. And out of 68 counties, I won 66. I won by 20 points, almost 20 points. Against — everybody thought he was a popular sitting senator. I had $38 million dollars spent on me in Florida over a short period of time — $38 million. And, you know, the Ricketts, I don’t even know these people.”

HIATT: “So, what does it mean, ‘They better watch out?’”

TRUMP: “Well, it means that I’ll start spending on them. I’ll start taking ads telling them all what a rotten job they’re doing with the Chicago Cubs. I mean, they are spending on me. I mean, so am I allowed to say that? I’ll start doing ads about their baseball team. That it’s not properly run or that they haven’t done a good job in the brokerage business lately.”

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Theo Epstein, who has a wicked sense of humor, thought about it for a moment, but the president of baseball operations declined to respond to Trump. (Epstein headlined a private Lincoln Park fundraiser for Barack Obama during the last presidential election cycle after The New York Times exposed plans for racially charged attack ads linked to Joe Ricketts.)

Chairman Tom Ricketts, who carefully watches what he says to reporters, addressed the Trump situation during his annual spring-training media session.

“We stand up for what we believe in,” Ricketts said last month. “We support the causes that we think are important. That’s what America should be. That’s who we are.”

Maddon had dinner on Monday with David Axelrod, an old Chicago Tribune reporter turned political consultant and a former senior advisor in the Obama White House. Maddon and his entourage — strength-and-conditioning coach Tim Buss and media-relations director Peter Chase — met at Mastro’s City Hall, the Scottsdale steakhouse, the night before the Arizona primary.

Maddon has a libertarian streak and a $25 million contract. He grew up in an Italian-Polish immigrant family in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region and still returns home to support the Hazleton Integration Project, the foundation he launched to try to help ease the ethnic and racial tension in that blue-collar city.

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But Maddon didn’t want to make any endorsements or comment on Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric.

“I think it’s very wise for me not to become political,” Maddon said. “I think it’s very wise for me to remain apolitical at this point. There’s so much time left to get this thing all figured out.

“I am a registered voter in Florida. I exercised my right in the primary, and I’ll continue to watch this whole thing unfold. It’s very interesting. Oh my God, I’ve never gone (home) — (or) back to the RV in this situation — and wanted to put on the news as much I want to do that right now.

“So I think from the perspective of getting more people involved — or paying attention — I think it’s all good. Now whether you agree with somebody or not, it never matters to me. I’m probably the most nonjudgmental person you’ve ever met in your life.

“It’s all about individual tastes, where you’re coming from, what do you think, and obviously it leads to some heated discussions.”

While sitting in the dugout, it took more than six minutes before Maddon got the first baseball question during his daily pregame media session.

“That’s all the political crap you’re getting out of me,” Maddon said. “You know I love all this stuff, but I’m not going there. I am not going there.”

Jason Heyward has changed everything for the Cubs lineup

Jason Heyward has changed everything for the Cubs lineup

Who needs Bryce Harper when the Cubs are set with Jason Heyward in right field for the next half-decade?

OK, that might be a little extreme, but Heyward has actually turned a major corner in his Cubs career, as evidenced by this stat:

And it's not just the numbers. It's how Heyward has turned things around at the plate and who he's gotten his hits off of.

Start with the walk-off grand slam against the Phillies on the last homestand. That pitch was a 97 mph fastball up and Heyward hammered it into the right field bleachers.

He also turned on a 99 mph Jordan Hicks sinker over the weekend in St. Louis for a 2-run homer. Then there was the single Heyward hit at 107 mph off Josh Hader to tie the game in Milwaukee last week — which was the first hit by a left-handed hitter off Hader all season. And the single Heyward had off the Pirates' dominant left-handed closer Felipe Vazquez in Pittsburgh last month. 

Suddenly, Heyward is able to catch up to elite velocity. And not only that, but he's PULLING these balls.

In his first two years with the Cubs, Heyward had just 1 homer off a pitch 95 mph or faster. He already has 3 this season.

"He looks confident at the plate," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "I feel like he's swinging with aggressiveness, swinging with a purpose. ... I'm happy for him that he's been delivering those [big] moments and I feel like as he does, his confidence is only gonna grow."

That refrain — "I'm happy for him" — is commonly heard around the Cubs these last couple of weeks. Inside the clubhouse, Heyward is absolutely beloved for his professionalism, work ethic and leadership. 

Heyward is a guy that's easy to root for, whether you're his teammate, a fan, a media member or part of an opposing team. Case in point:

It's been a really rough couple of years at the plate, but these last few weeks, Heyward has transformed the Cubs lineup as Joe Maddon has moved him back up to the 2-hole, where he began his Cubs career in the early part of the 2016 season.

"He's the guy that's really ascended among the group," Maddon said. "He's made all the difference by being able to hit second and providing some really big hits in the latter part of the game."

If the Cubs had a playoff game tomorrow, Maddon's lineup for that contest would probably feature Ben Zobrist leading off and Heyward hitting second (which would've sounded crazy even a month ago). Maddon loves how they set the tone and example for the rest of a young lineup that is still developing.

As Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff are trying to drill into the heads of the team's stable of young hitters the importance of putting the ball in play with two strikes, Heyward is sporting the lowest strikeout rate of his career (11.5 percent), which ranks 11th in MLB behind Buster Posey. Heyward is on pace for only 56 strikeouts in 441 at-bats this year.

And believe it or not, it was actually a concussion that got Heyward on the right path. 

During the Cubs' first trip of the season to St. Louis in early May, Heyward went into the stands to try to rob Dexter Fowler's walk-off homer on the final game of the series. The Cubs right fielder smacked his head on the wall on that play and wound up on the disabled list for nearly two weeks.

But he didn't waste any time while he was on the shelf.

"Oh I know I made strides [while on the DL]," Heyward said. "Can't waste any days. That's how hard this game is. When you're going through things, just naturally in the season, it's hard to slow it down. It's hard to break everything down, to pay attention. But I just try to use my time wisely."

Thanks to that time off, Heyward now has his hands "free" and more involved in his swing than at any other point in his Cubs career.

That's all he worked on while he was on the shelf with Cubs hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines.

"Literally, my hands," Heyward said. "Using my hands, keeping that simple. It's way easier to make adjustments on the fly when I'm really just throwing my hands at the ball instead of just arms and muscle the ball over.

"... It's hard to catch everything wheren you're just going at it day in and day out. But I was just able to see that here and work on that and feel it and here we go."

Since he's returned from the disabled list on May 18, Heyward is hitting .307 with a .347 on-base percentage and .489 slugging percentage, good for an .836 OPS. In that 24-game stretch, Heyward has 16 RBI and 10 extra-base hits (6 doubles, 2 triples, 2 homers).

To put that in perspective, that's as many extra-base hits for Heyward as he had in the previous 40 regular season games (48 games if you include playoffs) dating back to last September.

Neither the Cubs nor Heyward are getting ahead of themselves here and guaranteeing this offensive hot streak to continue. 

This is the same guy who walked into the visiting clubhouse at Miller Park last week and flipped off MLB Network because they were discussing how the Cubs are the best team in the league when facing a starting pitcher the third time through the order. He didn't want his team to get complacent or too caught up in the past and think they've already accomplished something this season when the goal is another World Series.

There was actually a clue earlier in the season that an offensive breakout could be on the way for Heyward, but he then fell back into a slump before making a major adjustment with the time off.

"No one should get ahead of themselves with grand declarations, but he deserves so much credit," Theo Epstein said. "He made such good use of his time when he was on the DL. In a difficult spot — the concussion DL — once he felt good enough to work, he worked really hard.

"Clearly found something in his swing — his hands, the feel of creating some lag and some whip in his swing. That's huge for him because with all that he's been through the last couple years, he never lost the ability to recognize pitches early, the ability to manage a really good at-bat and never lost his hand-eye.

"Now that he's got that whip going, you see the ball coming off the bat totally differently. He's driving the ball through the gaps, he's hitting with some backspin or the pull side. The ball's coming out hot when he gets it deep to the opposite field.

"Just really happy for him that all the work has led to the better feel for his swing and how he can take advantage of that great brain and eye that he has at the plate."

Cubs honor sweet swingin’ Billy Williams on 80th birthday


Cubs honor sweet swingin’ Billy Williams on 80th birthday

After Mother Nature washed out the Cubs and Dodgers Monday at Wrigley Field, the Cubs recognized one of their Hall of Famers.

In honor of outfielder Billy Williams’ 80th birthday on June 15, the Cubs painted Williams’ No. 26 behind home plate. Cubs players are also wearing shirts with his number featured on the front.

On the Cubs Twitter page, there is also a glass case of pictures and Williams’ old jersey with other memorabilia. 

In his illustrious 16-year career with the Cubs, Williams, known as sweet swingin’ Billy from Whistler, hit .290 with 392 home runs, 1353 RBIs, 2510 hits and 911 walks.

His best offensive season came in 1970 when he hit 42 home runs and 129 RBIs, both career bests.

Williams also played with the Oakland Athletics for two seasons after he was traded by the Cubs after the 1974 season.

Williams was a guy you’d see on the field a lot during his day, starting all 162 games four times. In 1970 he eclipsed 161 games.

He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1987. Williams appeared in six All-Star Games, he was the 1961 Rookie of the Year and the 1972 NL MVP. He also won the NL batting title that year.