Cubs

Inside the scouting report where Cubs compared Kyle Schwarber to Babe Ruth and called their shot

Inside the scouting report where Cubs compared Kyle Schwarber to Babe Ruth and called their shot

"I believed today," Stan Zielinski wrote in a report filed on May 4, 2014, teasing the Cubs with the video he shot on a handheld camera during an Indiana-Purdue game. "I will send clip. To preview, squint your eyes and imagine a grainy film of Babe Ruth hitting a ball in the stands at Yankee Stadium. I swear I saw that reenacted today as the ball flew out over the 2nd fence in RF."

Zielinski used his imagination for almost 40 years as a scout for the White Sox, Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins, working around the rainouts and through the cold weather, covering the Midwest for the Cubs from 2001 until his death this winter, an unexpected loss that would be felt throughout the entire organization.

Zielinski uploaded Kyle Schwarber's last at-bat to the team's internal database. That day, the Hoosiers wore baggy, off-white throwback uniforms with high socks, adding to Schwarber's aura.

"He really loves to play," Zielinski wrote. "He can work out inconsistencies with his mechanics behind the plate with teaching. He'll be a major-league catcher. ... He has the best college bat I've seen in a long time, and remember I'm old so I've seen a lot of them.

"I had to answer a question you will all ask me ... 'Yes, I would consider him with 4th pick.' Squint again and you can see him call his shot and point to CF bleachers in Wrigley Field."

Zielinski's invisible hand helped raise the 2016 World Series banner now flying at Wrigley Field and create the 108-diamond championship ring Schwarber will receive during Wednesday night's bling ceremony. Because long before #Schwarbombs became a thing on Twitter — flying into the Allegheny River and onto a Wrigleyville video board — Zielinski saw it all coming.

"That's Stan," Schwarber said. "For him to think of me that way, I can't thank him enough, because I felt like he helped me get here. He pushed for me to be a Cub."

***

Jim Hendry, the fast-talking executive who loves busting balls and telling stories, had never before felt so stressed about speaking in public.

Zielinski died suddenly overnight in January at his home in Chicago's western suburbs at the age of 64. Zielinski's wife, Holly, asked the former Cubs general manager to give the eulogy at St. John the Baptist in Winfield. But when Hendry stood up at the front of the church, he experienced this amazing sense of calm, something the priests would have prayed for at his old Jesuit schools.

"I miss him every day," said Hendry, who's now a special assistant with the Yankees. "I find myself wanting to call him every day. I probably talked to him on the phone at least five days a week for 30 years. It's crazy."

Zielinski funneled players to Hendry when he coached at Creighton — the prospects hesitant to sign or not quite ready for the demands of professional baseball — and kept doing it for the Cubs. Of the 25 guys Creighton dressed for the 1991 College World Series, Hendry counted 12 from Illinois.

"The guy hit bull's-eye after bull's-eye for me," Hendry said. "It was unbelievable."

Zielinski saw Rich Hill's curveball at Michigan and Jeff Samardzija's baseball potential at Notre Dame, signing both pitchers in the fourth and fifth rounds, four years apart.

Zielinski did an extensive background check on Ted Lilly, pushing the Cubs toward the four-year, $40 million deal that would help lead to back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008.

When the Cubs executed the Mark DeRosa salary-dump trade with the Cleveland Indians on New Year's Eve 2008, Zielinski told Hendry: Don't do the deal without Chris Archer, a Class-A pitcher who went 4-8 with a 4.29 ERA that season.

If that was unique then — a scout closely analyzing the amateur draft, trade-deadline activity and upcoming classes of free agents — it's almost unheard of now that front offices have continued growing and building different silos within baseball operations.

"He was that good," Hendry said. "But he didn't want a bigger job. He didn't want to be the boss. He loved the area job first. He wanted to be the guy that got to know the kids — and got to know the families — and went to their high school basketball games in December when they're in the 10th grade. He put so much more into it than the normal area guy.

"He knew everybody. He knew every coach. He knew every parent. And that was his first love."

***

Theo Epstein — who never believed in "The Curse of the Bambino" — recognized those same qualities and the depth of Zielinski's relationships when the Cubs held their workouts at Wrigley Field before the draft.

"It was incredible," Epstein said. "Everyone would wait in line to talk to Stan. It was like he was the pope and they were waiting for their 30 seconds with him."

Zielinski stood around 6-foot-2 and could see eye-to-eye with players. He had broad shoulders, a stocky build, short, brown hair graying at the sides and two children of his own, Zach and Anna.

Samardzija appreciated how Zielinski would make specific suggestions about how to improve his game — and not waste time playing mind games or trying to talk him out of the NFL or drive down his asking price.

Zielinski grew up in Northbrook, went to Loyola Academy and played college baseball at St. Mary's in Minnesota, but he could walk into Cliff Floyd's house in South Holland and convince his parents their boy should sign with the Expos as the No. 14 pick in the 1991 draft.

"Stan was so genuine and just so real with everything that a young kid needed," said Floyd, who lasted 17 seasons in the big leagues and now works as an MLB Network analyst. "It's having the ability to be the calm in the storm — in any environment. Whether you're in the hood or the suburbs, it doesn't matter, because you have to be able to change your vibe going to different households.

"You can't just be one-dimensional. That's an ability or a quality that not a lot of people possess. And when you have it, you have it."

The Cubs needed all of that insight and accumulated experience to take a chance on Schwarber, who looked more like an American League designated hitter or the perfect player for your neighborhood softball team. If not for that below-slot deal worth $3.125 million, Schwarber's camp believed he might have dropped to the San Diego Padres at No. 13.

"I don't think that (Stan) got caught up in that new age of scouting with the spin rate and launch angle and hard-hit stuff," Schwarber said. "He did a really good of getting to know the player, knowing what type of person he is, (to) tell what kind of competitor he is.

"(It's) knowing that guy is going to go out there every day and give it 110 percent. That's why he was unique. It wasn't a lot of hearsay questions. It was more upfront. I'm going to be upfront with you. You be upfront with me. That's why I loved him."

The Cubs absolutely believed Schwarber suffered a season-ending injury last April when he wrecked his left knee in an outfield collision and needed surgery to reconstruct his ACL and repair his LCL. But if anyone could come back that October after two Arizona Fall League games with the Mesa Solar Sox and step in to face Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller and the Indians ...

"He's John Wayne," Zielinski wrote after that Purdue game. "NOW I would consider him at #4. I started to think how much I'd miss watching him play and decided that would be alleviated by knowing he'd be playing for our team.

"Today was the best day I've ever seen him have behind the plate. Really agile on his legs, looked relaxed and had flexibility in his hands, framed better, bought some pitches — maybe that leather is worked in enough to be soft. He did drop a couple that were up, but he did a real good job on pitches down in the zone.

"He felt so good that after (taking a) big lead Indiana was replacing their regulars late and he refused to come out."

***

Who compares some Big Ten dude to John Wayne or Babe Ruth?

"Stan was probably the best I've ever seen at creating that picture of the person," said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development for the Cubs. "You would just be amazed to see how detailed he was in breaking down who this guy will be when he arrives in Chicago."

Zielinski's mind raced with possibilities, paranoid about everything from being late to a game or a workout to where he stood in the organization to how his guys performed in the minors. He used vivid language and descriptive adjectives to replace common baseball terms.

"Where I might say, 'Wow, that's a really fluid swing,'" McLeod explained, "Stan would say it (this way): 'It's like listening to jazz music when this guy steps into the box.' But you know exactly what he's talking about."

Amateur scouting director Matt Dorey found himself re-reading old reports after Zielinski's death: "'He has an arm action like a cranky shopping-cart wheel,' things like that where you would just automatically envision the guy with a roll or a rattle at the back of his arm stroke."

Hendry started cackling over the phone: "'A one-pitch carnival thrower.' You know, like guys on dates with their girlfriend trying to win the stuffed animal.

"Or he'd call 'em a 'seat-belt reliever.' You had to f------ buckle up every time he came into the game and hold on. Oh, he had s--- like that all the time.

"He had a language of his own. Man, I'm telling you, he had s--- that nobody's ever written in a scouting report before — or ever will again."

Like comparing a guy at a basketball school — who might have entered his junior season as a possible second-round pick — to one of the most iconic athletes of all-time.

"He just took you to this place where you were mesmerized reading it," McLeod said.

"It felt like I was watching a game through an old, bad whatever-millimeter camera," Dorey said. "I felt like I was watching Babe Ruth saunter to the plate, call his shot and then he went on to hit a home run. And then as he trotted around the bases, I felt like I was watching Babe Ruth's trot."

***

Epstein had already seen enough on video and at the Big Ten tournament to develop a man crush on Schwarber by the time he noticed a dispatch from Zielinski in the fall of 2013. Zielinski reported that Schwarber had lost around 10 pounds and appeared to be in better shape, a tipping point for Epstein's data-driven, risk-management philosophy that favored college hitters at the top of the draft, anyway.

Epstein used the Boston Red Sox for what might have been another ridiculous frame of reference, envisioning Schwarber as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia. Shane Farrell — a young assistant in amateur scouting at the time and the son of John, the current Red Sox manager — saved Epstein's e-mail from Oct. 16, 2013.

"After reading that Schwarber showed up with a trimmer body, I'm making the call right now that Schwarber is going to be our pick and put up Big Papi numbers," Epstein wrote in a group e-mail that circulated among Farrell, McLeod, general manager Jed Hoyer and Cubs officials Jaron Madison and Lukas McKnight. "Off the video, this guy has one of the shortest left-handed swings I've ever seen. And the power speaks for itself. Shane can pitch for us at that point."

Farrell — who pitched for Marshall in college and has a humble, respectful attitude toward the wise men in the game like Zielinski — joked: "I'm still waiting for Theo to hold up his end of the bargain there."

The last time Farrell saw Zielinski in December, he got inducted into the Midwest Scouts Association Hall of Fame and used the Kauffman Stadium event to remember how he whiffed on the player who helped the Kansas City Royals win the 2015 World Series.

"If you got to know Stan at all, he's somebody that truly hated the spotlight," Farrell said. "Any sort of recognition was totally not his thing. But he gave a great speech. He was giving himself a hard time up there in front of all those people, talking about how he walked away from Ben Zobrist when he was an amateur player at Olivet Nazarene."

After Zielinski's death, Farrell made what he called at once the easiest and hardest decision he'll probably ever have to make in his career. Farrell is now covering most of Zielinski's old territory — half of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Farrell has been amazed at how quickly Midwest coaches got back to him when he sent out e-mails introducing himself, how much they wanted to share old stories about Zielinski.

"These are shoes that no person could ever fill," Farrell said. "It was just kind of a natural response to help out a friend, really, somebody that I really cared about and really, really admired and looked up to."

Farrell remembered Zielinski's last line in a lengthy Schwarber report documenting all the games he had seen before the Cubs made a franchise-altering decision in the 2014 draft: "You won't ever regret taking him at No. 4."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Covering the MLB All-Star Game from the media’s perspective

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Covering the MLB All-Star Game from the media’s perspective

NBC Sports Chicago’s own Kelly Crull and videographer Scott Changnon recalled what All-Star week in the nations capitol was like from their point of view.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

 

Cubs, Bears, Bulls among the top 25 wealthiest sports teams in the world

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USA TODAY

Cubs, Bears, Bulls among the top 25 wealthiest sports teams in the world

What Chicago sports team is worth the most money in 2018?

As reported by Kurt Badenhausen in a Forbes article about the 50 richest teams around the globe, the Cubs are the most valuable organization in the Windy City.

Chicago’s North Side baseball team ranks as the 16th wealthiest team in the world, valued at $2.9 billion, an 8 percent increase from 2017. The Cubs are the third-most affluent franchise in Major League Baseball, behind the New York Yankees ($4 billion) and the Los Angeles Dodgers ($3 billion).

This year, the baseball club owned by the Ricketts family surpassed the wealth of the Boston Red Sox ($2.8 billion), who the Cubs were ranked behind last season at $2.68 billion. In the span of a year, the North Siders gained two spots in the top 50 from 18 to 16 on the list.

What could be the reason for this increase?

Could it be that the Cubs are in first place in the NL Central? Or could it be the incredible performances from players like Jon Lester and Javy Baez?

Whatever the reason is for the Cubs’ prosperity, the team is doing something right.

The club also surpassed the Bears on the list this year. In 2017 the Bears (worth $2.7 billion last year) were tied with the Red Sox as the 16th most valuable sports team on Earth. The McCaskey-owned football team has fallen to a tie at 17 with the San Francisco Giants, both valued at $2.85 billion in 2018. The Bears even increased by 6 percent in the last year, making the Cubs’ jump seem greater.

The Bulls, owned by Jerry Reinsdorf, are the last team from Chicago to make the cut. They stand at 23 in the top 50, tied with the Denver Broncos. Both franchises are worth $2.6 billion. Chicago’s NBA team even fell a spot from 2017, but they still increased their value by 4 percent (worth $2.5 billion last year).

The Bears are the seventh richest team in the NFL, while the Bulls are fourth wealthiest in the NBA.