MESA, Ariz. – “Everybody’s going to be on our helmet.”
Within all their layers of management, the Cubs don’t have an official Department of T-shirts. But Dexter Fowler nailed it on the head with that quote, putting context to Jason Heyward vs. Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants after an offseason of hype.
If “Embrace The Target” became Joe Maddon’s go-to slogan for deflating pressure in camp – with a bull’s-eye designed onto the front of those T-shirts – then “Buckle Your Chinstrap” might be the takeaway as the Cubs leave Arizona.
The buzz around this team is so loud that the Cubs set a new spring-training attendance record (226,163) during Wednesday’s 10-0 win over the Colorado Rockies at Sloan Park, averaging more than 15,000 fans a game during Cactus League play.
“We just have to keep…it…to…ourselves,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman slowing down the last four words for emphasis. “We’re genuinely cheering for each other. It’s not like we’re out there doing stupid stuff to show up the other team.”
It is not a “narrative” when Cubs players know they are going to get everyone’s best shot this year and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein is sensitive to the idea of organizational arrogance, saying this is a third-place team competing to get back into the playoffs.
Camp Maddon featured mimes, karaoke jams, two cubs from Bearizona Wildlife Park and that sledgehammer-swinging motivational speaker who smashed the cement brick resting on the manager’s chest.
Plus, a surreal presidential race where Donald Trump cryptically threatens the Ricketts family. Coming off a winter where Heyward signs with the Cubs and someone posts on Twitter an image of his red No. 22 St. Louis Cardinals jersey on fire.
The manager is right when he says that the overheated nature of social media warps perception. And Maddon – who definitely isn’t a micromanager – pretty much just lets gonzo strength-and-conditioning coach Tim Buss do his thing before the team stretch.
“I’m a little bit more old-school, too,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “But you know I respect (Maddon’s) philosophy. I’m a guy that likes to get to the field and get to work sometimes and probably try to focus on the game more than maybe some other things. But I respect that (approach). I do my best to fit in.
“Sometimes it’s fun, because you kind of actually take a lot of pressure off your shoulders and see what he’s doing. I (also) like to get to work sometimes and take it a little bit more seriously.
“But it’s OK. Not everybody’s the same. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish over here – (take) everybody’s different personalities (and) pull the same way.”
Jon Lester also didn’t always know how to react while pitching for the tightly wound Boston Red Sox against Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East.
“I don’t think you could ever have a bad vibe with Joe,” said Lester, who threw five scoreless innings and hit a two-run homer against Colorado as the Cubs finished with a 10-17 Cactus League record. “It’s always a positive day.
“That’s one thing I’ve always respected about Joe: No matter where we’re at in the season or where we’re at in the standings – or how we’re playing or how bad we’re playing – it’s always positive. He always brings a positive vibe to the clubhouse. That makes our job a lot easier. We don’t have to make that up.”
The New York Times, New York Post, Washington Post and USA Today all published stories with Mesa datelines, while Sports Illustrated put the Cubs on a regional baseball-preview cover.
“All the other extracurricular stuff,” Lester said, “is good for some of these guys. It’s something that a lot of us have gone through at different points in our career (with) the hype involved and the hoopla. I think you have to go through stuff like this in order to make yourself better.
“Nothing’s affected them so far, so I don’t see this effecting them. We had bears (out here). You never know what might show up at Cubs camp or Wrigley Field. It keeps us on our toes."
Only these Cubs could have planned-in-advance goodwill gestures (a coach's son bringing out the lineup card for his birthday or welcoming an RBI youth team to practice) and make you wonder if they were trolling the White Sox after the Adam LaRoche retirement fiasco. (They weren't.)
Maybe Jake Peavy is still fuming over how long it took Kyle Schwarber to stop listening to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and step into the batter’s box before the Cubs swept the Giants last August. Whatever.
Can’t wait to see how The Best Fans in Baseball react to bat flips at Busch Stadium. Can’t wait to hear the boos in Pittsburgh after Jake Arrieta mocked Pirates fans on Twitter, telling them the blackout atmosphere wouldn't matter in the wild-card game.
The Cubs are going to rip up this game's unwritten rules and get chased by baseball’s fun police.
“Enjoy it,” Rizzo said. “Show the emotions. Show it for each other. When I’m in the box, I feel like Heyward and Dex and ‘Ske’ (assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske) and 'KB' (Kris Bryant) – they’re all up there with me. So when I get that big knock, I’m excited for them, because they’re excited for me.
“I talk to a lot of guys around this league. And they say it looks like you guys are having so much fun.”