Javier Baez wheeled his suitcase into the Wrigley Field clubhouse on Wednesday morning, wearing sunglasses indoors, rocking a leopard-print sport coat and navy shorts and holding one of his two pit bulls – Kimbo – on a leash. (“Like Kimbo Slice,” the mixed martial arts fighter who died from heart failure this month.)
The Cubs had the best record in baseball – with 11 26-or-younger players on their active 25-man roster for that afternoon’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals – and another Joe Maddon frat-house stunt lined up for the getaway flight to Miami.
“It’s ‘The Anthony Rizzo Who Wears Short Shorts? Anthony Wears Short Shorts Road Trip,’” Maddon said during a pregame media session that lasted almost 18 minutes. “There’s no real rule. If you’re wearing sandals, you have to have painted toenails. That’s it.”
The manager’s gimmicks wouldn’t seem so cute if this was still a last-place team. Chemistry experiments always work better with real talent. And the Cubs haven’t really won anything yet.
But so far this season Cubs fans used to grumbling about overhyped prospects – in a weird media market and a city filled with so many temptations for professional athletes – might have been watching five of the eight position players who will start the All-Star Game for the National League.
For all the talk about The Cardinal Way, St. Louis has been shuffling core players to (Randal Grichuk) and from (Kolten Wong) Triple-A Memphis. The New York Mets are already sending postcards from “Panic City,” with reports suggesting demoting Michael Conforto – a breakout performer in last year’s playoffs – to Triple-A Las Vegas would be one way to shake up the team.
Of all places, Wrigleyville has become an ideal spot to welcome Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras to The Show. During Wednesday’s 7-2 loss, Contreras came off the bench when Miguel Montero hurt his knee in the sixth inning and drove a two-run homer into the bleachers in the seventh.
“It’s the environment we’re in (and) the people surrounding us,” said Kris Bryant, a Rookie of the Year closing in on his second All-Star selection before his first full season in the big leagues. “It really goes unnoticed just how much fun we’re having. It really makes those times where we’re struggling turn quicker, just because you’re playing the game for the right reasons and not putting any more pressure on yourself.”
So the Cubs (47-23) aren’t going to overreact to getting swept by the Cardinals (38-33). Pedro Strop, the chest-pounding, pointing-to-the-sky reliever, credited Maddon for allowing players to feel free and be themselves, as well as the good mix of personalities inside the clubhouse. Strop compared this group to the old-school Texas Rangers team he joined in 2009.
“You could not ride the bus if you were a rookie,” Strop said. “You got to be there earlier. Stuff like that. I couldn’t wear my hat to the side.
“Stuff that really doesn’t (matter) in the games. That’s what I mean when I say ‘old-school.’ There was a lot of stuff that rookies couldn’t do. You could not lay on the table getting a massage before some veteran (players).
“If you need a massage, I don’t care if you’re 21 years old. If that massage is going to help us win, get it.”
A major-league scout described Contreras as a little “hyper” behind the plate, but that intensity/energy level also helped transform him into arguably the game’s top catching prospect.
“I want him to continue to be that guy,” Maddon said. “I never want to see that leave him. Too many times, a young player like that will come up and eventually (someone) will get in (his) ear and try to tell (him) you can’t be that way.
“(Willson) can be that way for the next 15 years, and I’m good with it. I love his enthusiasm, (and) his effort is sincere. It’s just who he is. Never change who you are, man.”
Compare this atmosphere to the circus that greeted Rizzo almost exactly four years ago for his debut in a Cubs uniform on June 26, 2012. That team was already 20-plus games under .500 and used five pitchers – Randy Wells, Scott Maine, James Russell, Shawn Camp and Carlos Marmol – to get through a 5-3 win over the Mets at Wrigley Field.
“We pride ourselves on player development,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But I also think that the guys that are coming up right now have a distinct advantage over the guys like Rizzo that came up when they were batting third and expected to carry the lineup.
“It’s never easy to debut in the big leagues, but I do think when you’re debuting on a really good team, you’re not in the spotlight quite as much. You’re not expected to carry the team. A guy like Rizzo really had to carry the load when he came up and that’s a different way to break into the big leagues than these guys are now.”
Those 101 losses in 2012 also yielded No. 2 overall picks in the Rule 5 and amateur drafts, leading to future closer Hector Rondon, Bryant’s billboards in Wrigleyville and what’s become a destination for young talent and big-name free agents.
“We all get together as a team,” Baez said. “We always stay together.”