Cubs

John Lackey got his haircut — and a championship ring — before delivering the line of the year

John Lackey got his haircut — and a championship ring — before delivering the line of the year

John Lackey walked into the media room sipping his standard postgame drink with one hand and flashing the bling with the other hand.

The veteran who didn't come to Chicago for a haircut spent a spring training media session downplaying his excitement of receiving the Cubs' World Series ring — "I'm not a real flashy guy," he said.

Yet he couldn't help gushing about the new rock on his finger.

"It's really nice," Lackey said. "Seriously, I've been fortunate to have a couple, but this is kinda next level, for sure. I think the whole team — the Ricketts family, we wanna say thanks. It's pretty sick."

This is actually the third championship ring for the 38-year-old pitcher who won one with Jon Lester and David Ross in Boston in 2013 and also as a rookie with the 2002 Anaheim Angels when Joe Maddon was a coach there.

Lackey said he has both of those rings in a box in his closet somewhere and really only takes them out for special occasions like a wedding. Obviously the ring is a symbol for winning it all, but Lackey outwardly seemed more excited about getting himself a pair of Cubs world champion cowboy boots in spring training.

Yet on Wednesday night, he had no issue with breaking his typical pre-start warmup routine to grab a ring and then head straight to the new bullpen under the left field bleachers and prepare for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Lackey never minces words and typically spends his media sessions dropping one-liners like he's in the midst of a rap battle. One pitch into the game and he was already jawing with home plate umpire Sam Holbrook.

His legendary haircut line was the topic of conversation before his 2017 home debut.

"That stuff is very familiar to me," Maddon said after describing how he and Lackey were drinking buddies in Anaheim. "I loved when he did it. I like when our guys aren't censored like that. I like when they speak their minds."

Lackey struggled at the outset of his Wednesday night start in 45-degree weather, allowing a leadoff homer to Dodgers left fielder Andrew Toles and loading the bases in the first inning before striking out Chase Utley looking.

Lackey settled in from there, striking out 10 Dodgers in six hard-fought innings and keeping the Cubs in the game by limiting the damage to just the one run. He also retired 14 of the last 15 batters he faced.

That was exactly the edge Maddon and Theo Epstein's front office have talked up since Lackey got into town last winter.

Maddon also pointed to Lackey's unwillingness to settle into a content frame of mind in the twilight of his career and coming off another championship.

"I love that," Maddon said. "That's part of the edginess that he brings. One day, he will retire to West Texas and you won't see him again, except for maybe a photograph on occasion riding a horse.

"In the meantime, he's alive and doing really well right here and he definitely still has that edge."

And that haircut?

"I got a haircut over the offseason," Lackey said before delivering the line of the year to a roar of laughter from a large media contingent. "Actually, my wife was kind of ticked. She likes it long, so I kind of got in trouble for that one.

"But what are you gonna do? Where is she gonna go?"

Cubs camp observations: Wrigley's home-field advantage without fans

Cubs camp observations: Wrigley's home-field advantage without fans

Four days into the Cubs’ training camp restart, we’ve only begun to get acquainted with the new normal of baseball rhythms and routines that we can only hope will result in a 2020 season of 60 games.

If the league can fix some of its early testing issues and keep enough players on enough teams healthy enough to start the season, what might come into play for the Cubs and the actual baseball.

Early observations after about a dozen Zoom sessions with team personnel and two intrasquad scrimmages:

NUTS: Home cooked?

The Cubs, who draw so reliably in one of the unique ballparks in the majors, might have more to lose than most teams without fans allowed to attend games when the season starts July 24.

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Just how much of the Confines’ home-field advantage is lost will be a matter of “wait-and-see,” manager David Ross said.

“There’s always an advantage to playing in your own park,” he said Sunday. “You feel more comfortable you woke up in your own bed. You’re not staying in a hotel room, which especially now, where you feel like outside spaces just aren’t comfortable as they used to be, probably [gives] a slight advantage in your city.

“There’s no substitute for fans,” he added. “There’s probably a slight advantage, but I don’t know if it’s as great as it used to be.”

What Ross didn’t mention were the rooftops across Waveland and Sheffield, which are planning to operate at 25-percent capacity when games start, suggesting at least a few hundred fans within cheering and booing distance.

“You’re going to hear them loud and clear, too,” pitcher Tyler Chatwood said. “I promise you that.”

BOLTS: Taking the fifth

All you need to know about Alec Mills’ ability to adjust and immediately step into an important role is what he did in an emergency start against the first-place Cardinals at Wrigley last year with the Cubs a half-game out and barely a week left in the season.

He hadn’t started anywhere in a month — and that was in the minors. But the guy who pitched out of the bullpen just three times in the four intervening weeks, pitched two outs deep into the fifth inning that day and didn’t allow a run (the bullpen took care of that, in a loss).

No wonder when Ross talks about Mills replacing the injured Jose Quintana (thumb) in the rotation, he says, “I’ve got a ton of confidence.”

He’s not the only one. “I’ve always had the mindset of doing whatever I can to stay ready and help in any way,” said Mills after pitching a strong three innings in a simulated game Sunday. “Obviously, with an unfortunate injury like this, I think it’s just even more heightened.

“I’m ready to do whatever, whether it needs to be maybe a start here or there, a couple more starts, long guy out of the pen — just whatever I need to do I pride myself on being ready to do that.”

CHATTER: The mask at hand

“It’s a little different. You leave the house with a phone, your keys, your wallet and your mask.”

—Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo on his and his teammates’ new daily normal.

“Everybody is thinking about it, but we try to get here and understand this is our safe zone and we’re trying to create that [within] the things that we’re going to do on and off the field.”

—Ross on players weighing the risk of playing during the pandemic against the safety precautions and protocols the team has built in and around its Wrigley Field bubble.

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2020 Cubs schedule features six games against White Sox: 'It’s exciting, right?'

2020 Cubs schedule features six games against White Sox: 'It’s exciting, right?'

Imagine it’s late September. The Cubs have already hosted the White Sox for three unforgettable games at Wrigley Field — fans packed the rooftops (at 25 percent capacity) around the ballpark. Now, it’s time to head to the South Side for the final series of the season, rife with playoff implications.

If the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t derail the 2020 MLB season, that scene very well could become a reality.

The Cubs regular season schedule, which MLB released Monday, features six Crosstown Classic games. The first of two series between the Chicago teams runs Aug. 21-23 at Wrigley Field. The second is penciled in for Sept. 25-27 at Guaranteed Rate Field. Both three-game series include Friday and Saturday evening games, and end with a Sunday afternoon game.

The Crosstown rivalry consumes 1/10 of the Cubs schedule this shortened season.

“It’s exciting, right?” Cubs manager David Ross said.

And quite convenient. That’s the point of a regionally-based schedule, which has the Cubs facing only NL Central and AL Central teams. While trying to limit the spread of COVID-19, that convenience becomes especially important.

“We get to sleep in our own beds at night,” Ross said of the Crosstown Classic. “We can set up things where if we need to we can work out here and drive over like you would in an Arizona spring training. There’s a lot of options that we have for us that we can do with an in-town team. I feel like that’s definitely a luxury.”

Some of those same advantages apply to the Cubs’ games at Milwaukee as well. As is the case with all their division rivals, the Cubs are scheduled to play the Brewers 10 times, including opening day at Wrigley Field on July 24.

As for their mid-September series at Milwaukee: “Players have the ability to drive up day of the game, drive back afterwards or get a car back,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of freedom and comfort in sleeping in your own bed, especially in the scenarios we’re in this year.”

The Cubs’ setup with the White Sox is mirrored over in Missouri between the Cardinals and Royals; they will also play each other six times. The Cubs will play three or four games against each of the four other teams in the AL Central. The White Sox are expected to be a stauncher opponent than the Royals, automatically giving the Cubs a tougher route through their interleague schedule.

But that’s a small price to pay for six rivalry games in Chicago.