Joe Maddon digging hot starts from Cubs and White Sox

Joe Maddon digging hot starts from Cubs and White Sox

The Adam LaRoche retirement fiasco figured to either tear the White Sox apart or bring them closer together. Outside Camelback Ranch, Chris Sale’s blistering takedown of Kenny Williams sounded like an All-Star pitcher daring his boss to trade him.

LaRoche popped up again on Wednesday, posting this message on his Twitter account: “Don’t forget, tomorrow is take your child to work day.” But once that media storm passed in spring training, the White Sox could go back to being the team built on a strong rotation and a lineup anchored by Jose Abreu and Todd Frazier.     

A series of low-risk, high-reward moves are paying off, with the White Sox now 16-6 after sweeping the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. The Cubs – another big offseason winner – are the only team in the majors with a better record (15-5).     

“Digging it,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who wore a pink Mother’s Day edition of his “Try Not To Suck” T-shirt during his media session at Wrigley Field. “I’m really happy for them and their success. I think it’s great for the city. If we could both sustain this kind of play, it could make for a very interesting summer.” 

The Cubs were digging themselves so much in Arizona that a coach’s son taking out a lineup card before a Cactus League game almost felt like Maddon’s crew trolling the White Sox (and not what it actually was – a prearranged birthday reward). 

But Maddon has deep respect for Robin Ventura and the way the White Sox manager navigated his team through the bizarre LaRoche situation, a player walking away from $13 million because his son would no longer have unrestricted access in the clubhouse. 

“I know he went through a tough gig this past spring training,” Maddon said. “I thought he handled it great.”

As an Angels coach in the mid-1990s, Maddon remembered bumping into Ventura and noticing the people skills that made him such a favorite on the South Side. 

“Robin Ventura’s a good man,” Maddon said. “I’m walking into the ballpark – (and) I’m just a year-and-a-half, a year in the big leagues – and he happened to be walking in at the same time.

“He greeted me like I had been there for 20 years. He addressed me. And I’ll never forget that.”

This year, Maddon and his old buddies from the Angels joined Ventura for dinner one night in spring training.   

“It was like me, (Mike Scioscia), Buddy Black, Ronnie Roenicke and Sandy Koufax,” Maddon said with a smile. “Did I say Sandy Koufax? And then Robin was there, too, because Robin digs wine. And Robin is always like throwing me a good bottle now and then.” 

The Cubs and White Sox haven’t both finished with winning records since 2008, when they each won division titles and had all these big, combustible personalities like Lou Piniella, Ozzie Guillen, Carlos Zambrano and A.J. Pierzynski. 

The Cubs and White Sox will play four straight games on both sides of the city (July 25-28) and we’ll see if they stay hot. But the Bulls and Blackhawks are done, and this year baseball doesn’t have to be a space-filler until the Bears report to training camp. 

“When you live in this city and you have that stuff going on, what could possibly beat that?” Maddon said.

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:


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