Cubs

How Cubs came to fully believe in the legend of Kyle Schwarber

How Cubs came to fully believe in the legend of Kyle Schwarber

MESA, Ariz. – An internal scouting report compared Kyle Schwarber to Babe Ruth before the 2014 draft. Schwarber debuted in The Show almost within a calendar year. The Cubs watched in awe as the rookie with the vicious left-handed swing became the franchise’s all-time leader in playoff home runs.

Schwarber did it with cartoonish power, flicking his bat after smashing a Gerrit Cole pitch that landed in the Allegheny River, sinking the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild-card showdown. Schwarber turned the next round into Topgolf, driving one onto a Wrigley Field video board and changing the rivalry with the St. Louis Cardinals forever.

Before his 24th birthday, Schwarber had also: pulled off a medical miracle to rake in the World Series; spoken in front of what might have been one of the largest gatherings in human history; and got name-checked during President Barack Obama’s final official White House event.

“I feel like I do have something to prove,” Schwarber said.

Because the only Cub starring in a Gatorade ad campaign set to launch around Opening Day – a face of the New Era hat company with a weekly radio gig on WMVP-AM 1000 this season and an I-honestly-don’t-know, ask-my-agent attitude when asked how many endorsements have piled up – still hasn’t come close to playing a full season in the big leagues yet.

But where jealousy and off-the-field distractions helped tear apart the ’85 Bears, the Cubs have an absolute organizational man crush on “Schwarbs,” fully believing the legend will continue.

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Tim Cossins’s wife, Lori, burst into tears after seeing Schwarber’s full-speed collision with Dexter Fowler on TV last year.

Cossins, the organization’s minor-league field coordinator and catching guru, is usually in zombie mode by early April after the grind of spring training. But as a young prospect, Schwarber had made such a huge impression when he visited their home in Windsor, California, coaching up their teenage son, Aiden, on how to talk to girls in between taking batting practice and getting another crash course in catching. 

“My wife was bawling,” Cossins said. “I was just devastated. I was just shattered, like everybody was. In development, you get attached to these guys. To see one of them crawling around on a warning track is a horrifying feeling.”

Schwarber exited Chase Field in an ambulance cart after crashing into Fowler, trying to chase down the ball Arizona Diamondbacks leadoff guy Jean Segura had blasted into the left-center gap. The next day, shaken team president Theo Epstein told beat writers on a conference call that Schwarber being ready when pitchers and catchers report in 2017 would be reasonable speculation.

By April 19, Dr. Daniel Cooper – the head team physician for the Dallas Cowboys – had reconstructed Schwarber’s ACL and repaired his LCL in what was supposed to be season-ending surgery on his left knee.

In an eerie coincidence, Cossins watched the final out of the World Series in the same spot where he saw Schwarber facedown in the dirt, writhing in pain. Like any superstitious Cub fan, Game 7 put Cossins on edge to the point where he started watching offensive innings downstairs in his house and moving upstairs to the master bedroom for defensive innings.      

“It almost felt scripted,” Cossins said. “He just has that innate ability to rise up and do those kind of things. I think that’s just in him. He’s one of those players where he’s large when it counts.”

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Of course, a young player wants to rehab in Chicago instead of dealing with the 100-degree heat and the isolated feeling in the desert. Who wants to give up the life? Would you rather hang out on the Gold Coast or in Arizona strip malls?

The Cubs made an exception for Schwarber, who showed up to Wrigley Field early and often, staying out of the way of players who needed to get ready for first pitch that night, feeding off the energy from the best team in baseball. 

“I knew that we could do something special and it was going to be hard for me,” Schwarber said. “Just dealing with those first six weeks, it was miserable. You can’t walk. You have to crutch everywhere. You have to have someone help you go to the bathroom.

“You’re pretty much confined to a chair, unless you’re going to rehab or you’re getting up to go to the bathroom. They want you to keep your leg elevated, so that the swelling kind of works its way down.

“(It’s) just trying to fight that mental battle…it was a weird spot for me.”

To keep Schwarber engaged – beyond the video he would break down and scouting reports he would help put together – the Cubs invited the gym rat into their draft room. When Cubs officials broke for lunch during one pre-draft meeting, Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, decided to prank Schwarber. 

McLeod set it up with Tim Adkins, a regional crosschecker, telling the room, “We’re going to go back to the college catching,” knowing that would pique Schwarber’s interest. “But let’s just hurry up and get through the crap, the bottom half, the non-prospect-type-guys.”

Adkins had the video clip cued up in the dining room of Wrigley Field’s state-of-the-art underground clubhouse, saying the defense is a question mark and the guy always got his numbers against weaker competition, beating up on schools like Morehead State, but doing nothing on weekends against Michigan and Michigan State.

“And then we had him roll the film,” McLeod recalled. “And it was Schwarber from Indiana. You could tell he was locked in and all of a sudden he’s like: ‘Ah, man, f--- that!’”

After sitting out Day 1 of the draft last June – and having to wait until No. 104 to make their first pick – McLeod and Epstein looked at each other and decided that someone had to fire up the group.

“Schwarber just walks in the room and yells: ‘Let’s f------ go! Get some f------ players!’” McLeod recalled. “And then he walks out and goes: ‘Let’s do this s---!’ and then he walks out the door.

“How comfortable and confident is he to come in and just do that?”

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The shocking news leaked out before the Cubs played an almost perfect Game 6 in the NLCS, beating Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the franchise’s first pennant since the year World War II ended.

Cooper, a medical expert within NFL circles, had given Schwarber the green light to ramp up his baseball activities, opening the possibility to be the designated hitter in an American League stadium. Schwarber flew from Dallas to Los Angeles and secretly hit in the cage at Dodger Stadium before traveling to Arizona, where the Cubs set up a pitching machine on Field 1 at the Sloan Park complex. 

Strength coaches fed at least 1,000 balls to Schwarber, who did his pre-pitch routine and natural stride toward the mound without actually swinging the bat, trying to sharpen his vision for Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller and the Cleveland Indians. Schwarber played in two Arizona Fall League games with the Mesa Solar Sox before taking a private jet to Cleveland.

Did part of you wonder about being the weak link for a 103-win team, that maybe this wouldn’t be a Hollywood ending? 

“Those were definitely thoughts that crossed through my mind,” Schwarber said. “But when it came to the day of Game 1, I had all the confidence in the world in myself. I wanted to be the most confident person out there. And I felt like I was.”

Manager Joe Maddon estimated that “1 to 5 percent of major-league players – MAYBE – could do what he did.”

“It’s freak-of-nature stuff,” McLeod said. “You can’t be away for six months and step into the World Series against Cy Young-caliber pitching and do what he did. As much as we talk about it, it might even be years from now until we can fully even appreciate it.

“You can set the machine at like 95 or 88 with sliders. He’s there just tracking, tracking, tracking with his eyes locked in on that. And even still, that is different than standing there with 50 million people watching you and Corey Kluber on the mound throwing a 92-mph cutter on the outside corner.”

Schwarber saw six pitches and struck out swinging in his first at-bat against Kluber. The next time up, Schwarber slammed Kluber’s first-pitch fastball off the right-center field wall for a two-out double in the fourth inning. The Cubs lost Game 1, but won the next three at Progressive Field with Schwarber in the lineup and hitting .412 during the World Series.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning NL MVP. “You can look at as many balls off the machine (as you want). It will be close in terms of speed, but you can’t really replicate how much movement (Kluber) has on his ball.

“He just saw pitches that had the right velocity, but nowhere near the movement or release point or timing or any of that. Especially coming off a knee injury, too, I’m sure he was kind of hesitant to do certain things. And then swinging – with all the torque he creates – it’s just all that stuff in your mind.

“For him to go out there and just perform like he did – I don’t know how he did it.” 

Listed at 6 feet, 235 pounds – with a crew cut and a goatee that makes him look like a guy you would watch a Bears game with in Wrigleyville – Schwarber has outstanding hand-eye coordination and the type of athleticism that once made him a second-team all-Ohio linebacker in high school.

David Ross – the grandpa figure now on “Dancing with the Stars” – sort of joked that Schwarber seemed more comfortable in the batter’s box with six months off than he ever did during a 15-year big-league career.

“He’s born to hit,” Ross said. “He can roll out of bed and hit 95.”

After Jason Heyward’s fiery speech in the weight room and the 17-minute rain delay in Game 7, Schwarber hammered Bryan Shaw’s 93-mph fastball past the defensive shift and into right field, sparking the 10th-inning rally with a leadoff single.

How do you top the biggest moment of your life? Schwarber doesn’t spend much time on those existential questions, looking out from the stage at the never-ending sea of people celebrating during the Grant Park rally, raising his arms and saying: “Let’s do it again next year!”

Cubs aiming to finalize coaching staff this week

Cubs aiming to finalize coaching staff this week

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — If fans are feeling impatient waiting for the Cubs coaching staff to be finalized, the front office feels their anxiety.

Jed Hoyer said Tuesday afternoon at the MLB GM Meetings the Cubs hope to settle their coaching staff before the week is up, putting an end to what he joked has been a six-week human resources process.

Theo Epstein confirmed Monday Will Venable will be back as a base coach for the Cubs in 2020, though which base is not yet certain. Venable who interviewed for the managerial vacancy this fall, spent 2019 as the first-base coach for the Cubs, but also filled in at third base early in the season when incumbent Brian Butterfield dealt with vertigo. 

In addition to Joe Maddon, Mark Loretta (bench coach), Butterfield (third-base coach), Lester Strode (bullpen coach) and Chris Denorfia (quality assurance coach) are also out.

That leaves the coaching staff as follows:

Manager — David Ross
Bench coach — Andy Green
Pitching coach — Tommy Hottovy
Associate pitching coach, catching and strategy coach — Mike Borzello
Hitting coach — Anthony Iapoce
Assistant hitting coach — Terrmel Sledge
Bullpen coach — Chris Young
Base coach — Will Venable
Base coach — open
Quality assurance coach — open

It's actually been longer than six weeks since the Cubs informed Maddon they intended to move on from the World Series-winning manager, but it hasn't even been three weeks since the Cubs officially hired David Ross as the replacement. 

But the offseason is fully in gear now and the Cubs would like to turn their full attention to the roster.

"We'd love to get [the coaching staff] done by the end of the week," Hoyer said. "I don't know if that's realistic or not, but that'd be a great goal. We're starting to put together some meetings and stuff with those guys coming to Chicago, so it's not like we're not moving forward with stuff. But I do feel like it's time to have that locked down."

Ross has obviously had a say in the new additions to the staff, going through what Hoyer called a "crash course" in interviewing and hiring coaches. Ross doesn't have much experience working with Green — the most important of the new hires — but he has worked closely with Hottovy and Borzello in the past from his days as a player. He's also been around those guys and the other holdovers on the coaching staff while serving as a special assistant in the front office the last three seasons.

Still, Hoyer said the Cubs are cognizant of Ross' need to have somebody on the coaching staff he trusts. 

"You want guys to fill certain roles on your staff — coaching, strategy, etc." Hoyer said. "But there's also a camaraderie you want to create. There's a relationship with the manager that you want to give that manager. It's a really hard and lonely job at times. 

"Having someone on that staff that you trust that you've known from the past that you can vent to or grab a beer with or grab breakfast with and talk about it, I think that's really important."

Once the final two spots on the coaching staff are finalized, Ross can also turn his attention to pressing matters like immersing himself in the Cubs' behind-the-scenes processes with the research and development staff and the rest of the front office.

Ross has some knowledge of that from his front office work over the last three years, but he also was enjoying time in retirement with his family in addition to his duties as an MLB analyst/broadcaster for ESPN.

"The best way he can hit the ground running is just become really familiar with all of the stuff that we do in the office even beyond what he's already done," Hoyer said. "Using it as a great learning winter for spring training, it's really important from an organization standpoint and a message standpoint. I know he wants to hit the ground running and the best way to do that is to be in the office as much as possible to be able to map out spring training."

What Scott Harris' departure means for Cubs

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AP

What Scott Harris' departure means for Cubs

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Even before the offseason started, the Cubs knew this was going to be a winter of change behind the scenes — on the coaching staff, in player development and scouting and in the big-league front office.

One change they weren't necessarily anticipating was losing Scott Harris to the San Francisco Giants.

Harris had spent the last seven years with the Cubs, working up to an assistant GM role and emerging as one of the most trusted voices in the front office under Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. The Giants officially introduced Harris as their new GM Monday, leaving the Cubs with even more turmoil to address this winter.

In September, the Cubs had already moved Jason McLeod over to the big-league front office from his previous role as vice president of amateur scouting and player development, but McLeod won't be an exact replacement for Harris. Instead, the Cubs will spread Harris' responsibilities around — at least in the short term — and allow younger internal options an opportunity to step up and earn expanded roles.

"We're thrilled for Scott," Epstein said. "It was an opportunity he couldn't turn down — a No. 2 of another storied franchise in his hometown; it was just too good to be true. We're thrilled for him, but it was bittersweet. We loved working with him and he was a big part of our culture and guys around the major-league team love working with him. 

"It will leave a pretty significant void that we'll have to fill. We'll distribute a lot of his responsibilities around to a few different people internally and reevaluate as we continue to look outside, if there happens to be the right fit outside the organization, too."

It won't be easy for the Cubs to replace Harris, as they viewed him internally as a potential GM down the road. At the moment, he was a valued and trusted voice inside the front office at a critical time in the organization as they work to set themselves up for the future beyond their current window of contention that is set to close after the 2021 season.

"He's got incredible work ethic," Epstein said. "He's got significant intellectual capacity, but he's very down to earth, fun to be around. He doesn't tell you how smart he is. He's one of the guys everyone loves going to to share things and pick their brain. He's got good feel managing up, managing down, managing laterally, good feel with the players and uniform personnel. He'll do a really good job over there."

Now the Cubs will have to move on, though they're not in any rush to do so. 

After announcing a host of moves as part of their internal shake-up last month, the Cubs are still looking to hire a scouting director from outside the organization. Epstein confirmed they have interviewed close to 10 candidates and the Cubs are "reaching the final innings" in that process.

The same way they search for the next star player, the Cubs are also searching for the next front office star — the next Scott Harris, if you will.

"Anytime you have the opportunity to fill a spot — and there is some real turnover in our organization this year — I think you're always looking for somebody with potential to impact years down the line beyond the scope of responsibility you're hiring for," Epstein said. "This gives us anther big bullet to fire in our hiring, but we might not necessarily rush out and do it right away. 

"We have a lot of qualified people internally, too, who might take off with new responsibilities, so we'll see. We'll weigh that, but we are definitely looking outside. Same with scouting director — we're looking for an impact hire in that role." 

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