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Even after so many ups and downs, Starlin Castro says: ‘I’ll always be thankful for the Cubs’

Even after so many ups and downs, Starlin Castro says: ‘I’ll always be thankful for the Cubs’

The much-anticipated reception for Starlin Castro at Wrigley Field didn’t quite match the buzz when the video board showed David Ross on “Dancing with the Stars” during a rain delay.

It might have been the 37-degree wind chill at first pitch or a more laid-back vibe from the Friday matinee crowd or Castro being one year off from getting one of those World Series rings made from 14-karat white gold.

Even if it didn’t build toward a full-throated standing ovation at 1:25 p.m., the clapping started when the sound system blasted Castro’s walk-up music, “Ando En La Versace,” a cool hat tip for a player wearing the New York Yankees’ road gray uniforms and hitting cleanup in between Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge.

As Castro stepped into the batter’s box, he patted catcher Willson Contreras on the back, pointed toward the home dugout, smiled, nodded and touched the brim of his helmet. The “WELCOME BACK STARLIN CASTRO” tribute ran on the video board after the first inning.

Even if it stung a little bit seeing the Cubs end the 108-year drought without him, Castro is in a good place now, playing for another iconic franchise and again looking like a potential batting champion.

“I feel happy for the city,” Castro said, back in the Wrigleyville fishbowl, surrounded by about 30 reporters and at least four TV cameras before the Yankees pulled off a dramatic 3-2 comeback victory over the defending champs. “I feel happy for my ex-teammates.”

Castro, who woke up second in the American League with a .362 average, always showed that elite hand-eye coordination, an eager-to-please personality whenever the Cubs had another management shake-up and a strong desire to be in the lineup every day, something he learned from Alfonso Soriano.

Even during a 2-for-4 afternoon, Castro also reminded you of those concentration lapses that filled up so much airtime, bandwidth and newspaper space while the Cubs finished in fifth place each season between 2010 and 2014.

This didn’t rise to the level of a Bobby Valentine rant on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” in 2011 – when the shortstop turned his back to home plate – but Castro again found himself in the middle of the action with one out and the bases loaded in the sixth inning.

A step or two slow tagging up from third on the line drive Chase Headley hit at Gold Glove right fielder Jason Heyward, Castro ran out of the baseline and onto the infield grass and knocked over Contreras in that rally-killing double play. Around the Cubs, it really wasn’t personal with Castro, just questions sometimes about the focus level and his instincts.

“I’m a big Starlin fan,” said Joe Maddon, one of five managers Castro played for during his six seasons on the North Side. “When we took him out of the shortstop role and put him at second without any real specifics, he didn’t cry.

“He didn’t blame anybody. He just went out and started working at it, became a pretty good second baseman, and then one of our best offensive players in 2015 in the postseason by far. He had an outstanding September and October and you could see he was on the verge of really understanding the whole thing.

“He was asked to do too much of a leadership kind of a thing when he wasn’t ready for it – not at all. Just because he hit for a good average, just because he made an All-Star team, all of a sudden people want to start attaching labels to that. That’s wrong. That’s absolutely wrong on every level. He just needed more time.”

[RELATED: What Starlin Castro's return to Wrigley Field means for Cubs and Yankees]

The Cubs clearly saw Ben Zobrist as a finishing piece to the team that stormed into the 2015 National League Championship Series and got swept by the New York Mets. The Cubs flipped Castro to the Yankees – the only team willing to absorb his remaining money ($38 million guaranteed through 2019) and give up a useful pitching piece (Adam Warren) – at the winter meetings and signed a future World Series MVP to a four-year, $56 million contract.

“I really like Starlin,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “He came up in the big leagues really early on teams that weren’t good and I thought the way he reacted in 2015 when we started winning was perfect. He played great down the stretch.

“For us, the fit was right with Zobrist, and the move made sense, but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for (Starlin). He played on a lot of teams that were really bad and he played really hard the whole time.”

The baby-faced kid once put on the billboard opposite Derek Jeter, marketed as part of “The Three C’s” (along with Tyler Colvin and Andrew Cashner) and splashed across the cover of Sports Illustrated looked almost exactly the same when he walked into the visiting dugout before the game wearing a navy blue Yankee sweatshirt and gray Air Jordans.

“There’s always going to be memories here,” Castro said, “because that’s the team that gave me the first opportunity to be a professional baseball player, and be in the big leagues for the first time. I’ll always be thankful for the Cubs.”

Cubs’ Ian Happ claimed center field after AAA detour: 'He's the real deal'

Cubs’ Ian Happ claimed center field after AAA detour: 'He's the real deal'

Ian Happ paused before answering, the moment of silence punctuating his matter-of-fact response.

“No,” he said. “I don’t feel that way.”

Looking back, he doesn’t feel like he rose to the Major Leagues too quickly.

Happ has had to field that question since spending 2/3 of last season in Triple-A. But already this year, Happ has hit three home runs, tied for the most on the team, while also maintain a top-three batting average (.297). Not only is he performing on the field, Happ has also embraced a leadership role and taken over for Kris Bryant as the team’s MLBPA representative.

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“He’s the real deal,” Ross said Sunday, after Happ went 3-for-3 with two doubles in the Cubs’ intrasquad scrimmage.

The club’s decision to send Happ to Triple-A Iowa at the beginning of last season came as a surprise. Much of Happ’s conviction that he was ready for the major leagues when he debuted came from his standout rookie season.

Happ hit 24 home runs as a rookie – still his career high – and finished eighth in rookie of the year voting in 2017. His batting average regressed the next year (from .253 to .233), and his strikeout number rose (from 129 to 167). But he joined the .350 club in on-base percentage.

“We believed then and we believe now that he’s going to be a really good player,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said this week. “We thought it was the right move and something that was necessary even though it was really unpleasant to send him back there. To his credit, he made the absolute most of it, took personal responsibility.”

When Happ returned to the big leagues, his progress showed. He won NL player of the week in the final week of the season. But he’s made even more of a splash this year, from Spring Training through the first two weeks of the regular season.

Entering the year, center field was one of the main position battles to monitor for first-time manager Ross.

“Right now, the job is Ian Happ’s,” Ross said Sunday.

Ross’ lineup choices had suggested as much already. Happ has appeared in all 13 of the Cubs games, at least pinch hitting in the three he didn’t start.

“It’s hard to take Ian Happ out of the lineup,” Ross said of the switch-hitter. “The guy’s swinging the bat really well, and his right-handed at-bats have gotten tremendously better. He’s been a staple.”

Happ started his season off with a two-run home run in his first plate appearance. He was batting ninth, and through all of Ross’ reshuffling of the bottom third of the batting order, Happ has been the Cubs’ most frequent nine-hole hitter.

With the Cubs’ No. 7 and 8 hitters consistently getting on base, in the nine-hole has showcased Happ’s ability to drive in runs (he’s tied for second on the team with six RBI) or set the table for the Cubs’ unconventional top of the order.

“I feel great about where I'm at right now,” Happ said, “my ability to help the team and get on base for those guys that are hitting behind me.”

Just as he set the tone in the batter’s box early, with an Opening Day home run, Happ flashed some leather in the opening series against the Brewers. Three days into the season, Happ tracked a long fly ball back to the wall. He leaped and caught it just before his back slammed into the ivy, which barely cushioned the brick behind it.

Happ slid down the wall into a crouch, his body no doubt feeling the results of the impact. But it wasn’t long before he stood back up.

“I think he absolutely took advantage of his time down (in Iowa),” Epstein said, “and is in a different and better phase in his career now because of what he went through.”

 

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How Cubs temporarily grabbed White Sox spotlight during Sunday Night Baseball

How Cubs temporarily grabbed White Sox spotlight during Sunday Night Baseball

Even with the White Sox on center stage, the Cubs found their way into the spotlight.

“We’re gonna aggravate everybody in Schaumburg with this,” ESPN broadcaster Matt Vasgersian said Sunday. “White Sox fans, sorry about this.”

The White Sox made their first appearance on Sunday Night Baseball since May 12, 2013 on Sunday. But early in their matchup against the Indians, the ESPN broadcast momentarily pivoted towards the North Siders.

ESPN showed the results of a social media poll asking baseball fans what they make of the Cubs’ 10-3 start to the season. Of the more than 52,000 respondents, 41 percent said they’ll start to fade soon, 34 percent said they’re a World Series contender and 25 percent said they’re a division title contender.

“Apparently, we had a lot of respondents calling from the South Side of Chicago,” Vasgersian joked.

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The Cubs were scheduled to appear on Sunday Night Baseball before their series against the Cardinals was postponed. So while the poll’s appearance was no coincidence, some White Sox fans probably weren’t happy seeing it pop up mid-game.

“White Sox (fans) are saying,” Vasgersian said, “‘It’s the first time we’ve been on Sunday Night Baseball since 2013 and we gotta talk about the Cubs?’” 

White Sox fans have aired their grievances in recent years over the team being forgotten by national media, especially as the Cubs have received plenty of coverage. This may not fall under the same category as previous occurrences, but it certainly brings back memories of those moments.

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