What the Wrigley banner-raising ceremony means to Cubs ace Jon Lester


What the Wrigley banner-raising ceremony means to Cubs ace Jon Lester

MILWAUKEE – Like all professional athletes, Jon Lester lives in a bubble, flying on private jets and staying in five-star hotels. Part of this is by design, believing that a focus on process and routine creates a sense of calm, something to fall back on during high-stress situations. This is also someone who owns farmland in Georgia and enjoys disappearing into the woods to go hunting.

So while other Cubs have noticed how much their lives have changed since winning the World Series, experienced a different level of celebrity and capitalized on the newfound perks, this is exactly what Lester signed up for when team president Theo Epstein made a $155 million offer he couldn’t refuse.

Except for a quick, in-and-out stop at Cubs Convention in January, Lester hasn’t really been in Chicago since the team’s parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue, the Grant Park rally and the post-championship bender.

The adrenaline will be surging again on Monday night at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs will raise their 2016 banner above the iconic center-field scoreboard before Lester faces the Los Angeles Dodgers on national TV in a National League Championship Series rematch.

“There hasn’t really been a surreal moment,” Lester said before Sunday’s 7-4 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “For me, it’s always when you get that tangible thing and you have something in your hand or you see that banner go up.

“That’s when it kind of hits home for me. I was a little confused on why we were doing two different days in Chicago for the celebration. (And) now I’m happy we’re doing two days, because then I will get to be a part of the ring stuff on Wednesday. That, for me, will kind of be the surreal moment.”

Lester already owns two World Series rings from his time with the Boston Red Sox, but says he doesn’t show off the championship bling often, except for weddings or other special occasions: “They’re kind of so big and gaudy it’s not really fun to wear it sometimes. It’s kind of almost too big, which is a good thing.”

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Lester’s presence helped transform what had been a fifth-place team for five straight seasons, energizing the clubhouse and signaling the Cubs would be serious about winning and move beyond checking minor-league box scores and talking up the future. During his recruiting trip to Chicago the week before Thanksgiving 2014, Lester told Epstein: “They’re going to burn this city down again when we win the World Series.”

“A big part of what we do is for the fans,” manager Joe Maddon said. “They will be out in force. It’s going to be raucous. It’s going to be a party for them. I love it. Our fans deserve it. They waited a long enough time. The reaction has been beyond spectacular.

“Every place you go, more than anything, you hear: ‘Thank you.’”

Lester had enough sense of history to choose No. 34 as a tribute to Kerry Wood, Walter Payton and Nolan Ryan and wanted to be part of something like the epic World Series against the Cleveland Indians that ended the 108-year drought.

“We all saw the stuff this offseason – the different TV programs about our journey and fans and just how much it meant to those people,” Lester said. “The one that hit home was a guy that sat at his dad’s grave for the entire game and listened to (Game 7) on the radio and just his emotions through the whole game. That resonated pretty hard for me.

“That was a pretty cool moment that these fans shared with their family members – who have been through so many years of heartache – to finally win and give these people the championship that the city deserves.”

Even someone who spent nine years in the Fenway Park fishbowl and pitched in 14 playoff series still feels the butterflies. Moving the bullpens to underneath the bleachers means more revenue for the Cubs and tunnel vision for Lester.  

“There’s a lot of things going on, a lot of distractions,” Lester said. “But I actually honestly think that the bullpen move is going to help us with all this stuff. You’re kind of separated from things. You’re in a tunnel. You’re away from everybody. You don’t get to really see what’s going on.

“Obviously, when you get out there for first pitch, it’s going to be a little different. But as far as the festivities leading up to that point, I feel like that new bullpen’s going to kind of help combat all those emotions.”                   



Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

The day after Kris Bryant suggested that first-time fatherhood and the dramatic reality of world events have changed how he looks at his future with the Cubs, general manager Jed Hoyer outlined why it might be all but moot.

Setting aside the fact that the Cubs aren’t focusing on contract extensions with anyone at this time of health and economic turmoil, the volatility and unpredictability of a raging COVID-19 pandemic in this country and its economic fallout have thrown even mid-range and long-term roster plans into chaos.

“This is without question the most difficult time we’ve ever had as far as projecting those things,” Hoyer said. “All season in projecting this year, you weren’t sure how many games we were going to get in. Projecting next season obviously has challenges, and who knows where the country’s going to be and the economy’s going to be.”

Bryant, a three-time All-Star and former MVP, is eligible for free agency after next season. He and the club have not engaged in extension talks for three years. And those gained little traction while it has looked increasingly likely since then that Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, would eventually take his star client to market — making Bryant a widely circulated name in trade talks all winter.

MORE: Scott Boras: Why Kris Bryant's free agency won't be impacted by economic crisis

The Cubs instead focused last winter on talks with All-Star shortstop Javy Báez, making “good” or little progress depending on which side you talked to on a given day — until the pandemic shut down everything in March.

Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are both also eligible for free agency after next season, with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras right behind them a year later.

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None has a multiyear contract, and exactly what the Cubs are willing to do about that even if MLB pulls off its 60-game plan this year is hard for even the team’s front office executives to know without knowing how hard the pandemic will continue to hammer America’s health and financial well-being into the winter and next year.

Even with a vaccine and treatments by then, what will job markets look like? The economy at large? The economy of sports? Will anyone want to gather with 40,000 others in a stadium to watch a game anytime soon?

And even if anyone could answer all those questions, who can be sure how the domino effect will impact salary markets for athletes?

“There’s no doubt that forecasting going forward is now much more challenging from a financial standpoint,” Hoyer said. “But that’s league-wide. Anyone that says they have a feel for where the nation’s economy and where the pandemic is come next April is lying.”

The Cubs front office already was in a tenuous place financially, its payroll budget stretched past its limit and a threat to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second consecutive season.

And after a quick playoff exit in 2018 followed by the disappointment of missing the playoffs in 2019, every player on the roster was in play for a possible trade over the winter — and even more so at this season’s trade deadline without a strong start to the season.

Now what?

For starters, forget about dumping short-term assets or big contracts for anything of value from somebody’s farm system. Even if baseball can get to this year’s Aug. 31 trade deadline with a league intact and playing, nobody is predicting more than small level trades at that point — certainly not anything close to a blockbuster.

After that, it may not get any clearer for the sport in general, much less the Cubs with their roster and contract dilemmas.

“We have a lot of conversations about it internally, both within the baseball side and then with the business side as well,” Hoyer said. “But it’s going to take a long time and probably some sort of macro things happening for us to really have a good feel for where we’re going to be in ’21 and beyond.”


Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Veteran umpire Joe West made waves Tuesday downplaying the severity of COVID-19 in an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. 

“I don’t believe in my heart that all these deaths have been from the coronavirus," West said. "I believe it may have contributed to some of the deaths.”

As far as the Cubs are concerned, those comments don’t represent how to treat the virus. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure everyone treats it with equal severity.

“That’s one of the things we've really tried internally to instill in our players and our coaches,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday, “[that] everyone here has to take it equally [serious].”

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Hoyer noted like the world, MLB isn’t immune to people having different viewpoints on the virus — those who show concern and those who don’t. This echoes comments made by manager David Ross earlier on Tuesday, and Hoyer said those he’s talked to with the Cubs don’t feel the same way as West.

The Cubs had an up close and personal look at pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s battle with COVID-19 during baseball’s shutdown. It took the 38-year-old former big leaguer 30 harrowing days to test negative, and in the past week many Cubs have said watching him go through that hit home. 

“When you get a 38-year-old guy in wonderful health and he talks about his challenges with it,” Hoyer said, “I think that it takes away some of those different viewpoints.”

To ensure everyone stays safe and puts the league in the best position to complete a season, MLB needs strict adherence to its protocols.

“I think that's one of our goals and one of the things that we feel is vital is that we have to make sure everyone views this the same way, because we can't have a subset of people within our group that don't view it with the same severity,” Hoyer said.

“That’s not gonna work. We're not gonna be successful."