Cubs

Is Joe Maddon getting in Cardinals’ heads with ‘Try Not To Suck?’

Is Joe Maddon getting in Cardinals’ heads with ‘Try Not To Suck?’

ST. LOUIS – The St. Louis Cardinals appear to be developing a bit of a Cubbie complex, even if Joe Maddon won’t admit he’s in their heads now.

“I did not say that,” Maddon said, trying to suppress a grin near the end of a media session that lasted 20-plus minutes before Wednesday’s rivalry game.

The star manager of the team with the best record in baseball started rolling when a reporter asked if he had heard about the crackdown on “Try Not To Suck” T-shirts at Busch Stadium.

“I’d love to know the definition of why they’re offensive in any way, shape or form,” Maddon said. “Whoever thinks they’re offensive has a dirty mind.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the Cardinals will likely relax a ballpark policy that instructs ushers to have fans remove – or turn inside-out – clothing with explicit language. “Sucks” has been on the list of banned words for apparel and signs.       

The blue T-shirts feature Maddon’s iconic glasses and the advice he gave last September to Javier Baez, who went on to hit the big three-run homer in Game 4 at Wrigley Field, helping eliminate the Cardinals from the National League division series. 

How Maddon heard about fans getting hassled at Busch Stadium sounds like an episode from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” one of his favorite TV shows starring his buddy Jeff Garlin. 

“We went to Hooters for some wings and some beer,” Maddon said. “A guy came in with the shirt on – a Cubs fan – and he told me he was denied access at the ballpark.

“I was debating all kinds of methods to combat all that. But then I decided to let it fly and I think the fans are responding. That’s the best way to indicate how foolish it is.”

This series has already seen a Busch Stadium sound system mix-up where classical music played while the Cubs took batting practice. And then it shut down and turned back on when assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske brought out a portable speaker.

Jason Heyward got booed throughout for switching sides in the rivalry – and then had to respond to unconfirmed tweets that fans yelled racial slurs at the $184 million outfielder.

Maddon – who grew up as a Cardinals fan in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining territory and got to meet Hall of Famer Bob Gibson before Tuesday night’s game – thought about wearing the T-shirt on purpose.

“I think it’s much better if the fans make a big deal out of it,” Maddon said. “Let somebody else blow your horn and the sound travels twice as far.”

A reporter sarcastically suggested the Cubs should respond by banning jorts at Wrigley Field.

“I would love to know where the original concept or thought came from, because it’s not a unilateral decision made by an usher,” Maddon said. “It’s got to be an edict among the powers that be here. Was it the mayor of St. Louis? Is it the president?

“It’s interesting. It speaks to the politics of the area a little bit also. I think you have to be careful with that.

“I’d love a full explanation as to why they find it offensive. And I said if you do find it offensive, you really have to dig down deeply and understand why you find that dirty in some way. I’d love to know why it’s dirty. Because that’s what it comes down to – somebody finds it dirty. And I don’t find it that way at all.”

Maddon is still thinking bigger and better, because sales of the T-shirts benefit charities affiliated with the Cubs and the Hazleton Integration Project in his hometown. This free publicity won’t suck.

“If you look it up in the dictionary,” Maddon said, “I think it’s very appropriate to utilize that word in a lot of different moments in our daily adventures. We’re also trying to tone it down a bit for kids. I’m trying to come up with the kids’ version of ‘Try Not To Suck.’

“Actually, for those that are really interested, the ladies’ versions came out today. We have both tank top and a V-neck and they’re fabulous.

“We’re also looking into the potential of doing it in every team’s colors, and that would be kind of interesting to absolutely inundate the market with ‘Try Not To Suck’ T-shirts.”

State of the Cubs: What is the identity of this 2018 team?

State of the Cubs: What is the identity of this 2018 team?

Who are the 2018 Cubs?

It's mid-August, there's only seven weeks of regular season action left before the playoffs and yet the Cubs still don't have an identity they can hang their hats on.

Maybe they are just a team with an underachieving rotation, an inconsistent offense, a bullpen that is fantastic when rested and an elite defense.
 
Yet they maintain there's more in the tank and with a roster this talented and track records this extensive, it's easy to believe them. 

But when will that show up on a regular basis?

Mind you, the Cubs aren't complaining where they're at.

They woke up Monday morning with the best record in the National League by three games and the peace that no matter what happens in a two-game series with the Brewers this week at Wrigley Field, they'll head to Pittsburgh Thursday at least a game up in the division.

Of course, where would the Cubs be right now without David Bote's ninth-inning heroics Sunday night or against the Diamondbacks two weeks ago? Fortunately for the Cubs, that's an alternate universe they don't have to think about.

They'll take this current position, of course. Especially with the two biggest free agent additions of the offseason — Brandon Morrow and Yu Darvish — combining to throw just 70.2 innings to date plus a balky shoulder that has put Kris Bryant on the shelf for nearly two months (assuming he returns late August or early September) and has sapped the power of the 2016 NL MVP even when he has been healthy enough to suit up. And don't forget Carl Edwards Jr. — the team's second-most important reliever — also missed time (nearly five weeks) and has appeared in just 39 games.

"I don't take anything for granted," Joe Maddon said. "The Cardinals are playing a whole lot better, the Pirates have done a nice job, Milwaukee's not going away. I get all that. But at the end of the day — and this has been my mantra forever — worry about the Cubs. Worry about you guys.

"We just gotta play our game and if we do that, that stuff becomes secondary at every stop, whether it's Milwaukee, St. Louis, Pittsburgh. Cubs do what they're supposed to do, that other stuff becomes moot. 

"That's about getting the rotation back where we think they can be. That's about getting our offense percolating on all cylinders again while we continue to play this defense. If we could somehow get KB, Darvish and Morrow back for that stretch run, my god, you can't get better acquisitions at the end of the year.

"That's all a possibility, but I don't count on it. I'm not waiting for that day to happen. In the meantime, you work with what you got and try to make that as best you can."

What Maddon has is a team that is 13-11 with a -21 run differential since the All-Star Break — obviously not the stuff of a championship team across nearly a month's worth of a sample size.

Digging deeper, however, and you see that the Cubs have been on the wrong end of several blowouts including the 18-5 loss to the Cardinals July 20 and the 9-0 defeat at the hands of the Royals last week. Of the Cubs' 13 second-half wins, 9 have come by three runs or less, including 6 one-run victories.

But the concerns are there, particularly with making sure the rotation helps pick up the slack down the stretch and reduce the stress on an already-taxed bullpen.

Cubs pitchers have combined to throw just 44 pitches and get 7 outs after the seventh inning all season — all of which can be credited to Kyle Hendricks. Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Mike Montgomery and now Cole Hamels have yet to throw a pitch in the eighth inning this year (though, obviously, Hamels has been fantastic in a small sample size and Montgomery saved the rotation when Darvish went down months ago).

Once the Cubs signed Darvish in February, there were many pundits across the game that believed this could be the top starting staff in baseball behind only the Houston Astros.

"Remember I thought in spring training, this had a chance to be THE best rotation we've had here," Maddon said. "We've had some pretty good ones. And it just hasn't gotten to that point yet, but I still believe that it can, in spite of the fact that we haven't gotten the normal innings out of them."

The rotation is underperforming, but this has been by far the deepest stable of relief pitchers Maddon has had to work with in Chicago.

"You gotta give these bullpen guys a ton of credit and the depth that is organization has built," Maddon said. "The guys that have come up for cameos have contributed greatly to this moment.

"I've often talked about the bullpen — you gotta have that to win a championship and these guys are demonstrating that right now. And part of that is to not beat 'em up."

The Cubs still rank atop the National League in many offensive categories — including runs scored, OPS and on-base percentage — but anybody who's watched this team all year knows they are prone to rather extreme highs and lows.

Since the All-Star Break, it's mostly been at a low, contributing to that suboptimal run differential.

"Offensively, I don't see some of our guys at their normal levels," Maddon said. "I know we got this wonderful run differential [on the season] and we lead the league in runs scored, but how do you maintain that? That's my biggest concern."

Beyond Javy Baez's MVP campaign and the resurgence of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, the only thing that has been working offensively of late is Anthony Rizzo in the leadoff spot.

Maddon tossed the face of the franchise atop the order a month ago and hasn't moved him out — for good reason. In 27 starts at leadoff, Rizzo is slashing .347/.446/.604, good for a 1.050 OPS. 

The rest of the lineup behind him has gone through its ups and downs lately, but that's also the nature of the game, especially in this day and age with strikeouts up and basehits down.

For perspective, a Phillies team that has been challenging for the NL East all season has experienced similar head-scratching offensive games on a regular basis:

A lot can change in Major League Baseball in the span of a few weeks.

Just a few weeks ago, who considered Bote to be big part of this team in 2018 or beyond? When the Cubs traded for Hamels, they were hoping he could give them solid innings. Did anybody predict this level of success from the 34-year-old southpaw so soon?

With seven weeks left until postseason baseball, rest assured — there are still plenty of ups and downs coming for the Cubs.

Outsiders — fans and media — often seesaw with those ebbs and flows for many reasons, but the best one is this: It's simply no fun if you don't allow yourself to get completely caught up with moments like Bote's ultimate grand slam or Hamels' Rejuvenation Tour that has only lasted three starts.

But even if those outsiders are willing to ride that roller coaster even a little bit, the Cubs certainly won't inside the clubhouse.

"Never a good time to ride the roller coaster," Rizzo said. "I get motion sickness anyways."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Bote-mania has not only taken over Chicago but he’s helped save the Cubs’ season

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Bote-mania has not only taken over Chicago but he’s helped save the Cubs’ season

Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Matt Buckman and Jon Graff break down a wild weekend set against the Nationals.

They discuss David Bote becoming a household name, Cole Hamels continuing the stellar start to his Cubs career, and Kris Bryant finally feeling pain free. Plus, once the 2016 MVP returns to the lineup, what does that mean for Bote’s playing time?

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.