A World Series ring controversy and a Hall of Fame dispute? That's Cub

A World Series ring controversy and a Hall of Fame dispute? That's Cub

A ring controversy and a petty dispute with the Hall of Fame? That's Cub.

This is the franchise of the 108-year drought, a place where almost anything can go viral, from the constant turf battles with City Hall and neighborhood businesses, to the 400-pound "Cake Boss" creation for the Wrigley Field centennial that wound up in the garbage, to the Opening Night bathroom fiasco in 2015.

But after finally winning the World Series, are you surprised this is still where the Cubs — and the media covering the team — are at now?

"Um, can I get hit by a foul ball?" general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday, laughing during batting practice before a 9-7 comeback win over the Milwaukee Brewers. "I think it's just the nature (of it). There's a lot of focus and attention on us."

To be honest, this isn't really Hoyer's fight. It's not like his job description involves formulating IRS defense strategies or authenticating Kris Bryant's Adidas cleats or shipping Anthony Rizzo's game-worn gear to upstate New York.

But Hoyer is a good soldier and a good talker, a counterweight to baseball boss Theo Epstein and someone who can bring his two World Series rings from the Boston Red Sox into the conversation.

Hoyer disputed one key element to a Chicago Sun-Times report that said all employees — in order to receive their championship bling — must sign a document that gives the Cubs the right to buy back the ring for $1 if they ever decide to sell the jewelry. Players are exempted from signing that agreement, Hoyer said, and the Cubs are willing to find ways to pay down the taxes on the gifts.

"I signed that thing willingly," Hoyer said. "I know Theo did. Everyone except for the players signed it. I look at it like the Ricketts were so unbelievably generous in the cost of the ring and then the number (1,908) they gave out.

"When you're paying for the ring for a lot of people — and helping out with the taxes along with that — it just seems appropriate to say: 'I don't expect you to take the gift I'm giving you and run out to the market with it.' And I do think there's something a little bit different with the Cubs' 2016 ring, given how valuable it is and how long people waited."

Why would ownership even care when the franchise value has soared from $845 million after the 2009 purchase — including a stake in CSN Chicago and assorted Wrigleyville developments — to $2.68 billion in the latest Forbes rankings?

"I do think you devalue the ring for everyone if all of a sudden people are going to race to the market to see who can make some money off it," Hoyer said. "If you get a Heisman Trophy, they put that stipulation on it. If you win an Oscar, they put that stipulation on it. It's not a rare thing to be given a gift of something like that and also put those kind of stipulations on it."

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But it's not like Ben Zobrist would feel any differently about his World Series MVP performance if a few behind-the-scenes employees eventually sold rings under pressure, responding to a medical emergency or dealing with a financial crisis or trying to send their kids to college.

Credit chairman Tom Ricketts for hiring the right people to run baseball operations, having the patience and long-range vision to build a serial contender and securing the future of Wrigley Field. Estimates on the tiers of rings have ranged from $20,000 to $70,000.

"I certainly think in terms of the number of rings — and the cost of the rings — I'd be shocked if any professional sports team has ever spent more to take care of their employees," Hoyer said.

"Disparaging that, I feel like you're kind of taking a shot at what was really unprecedented generosity by the Ricketts. I think they went way above and beyond what other teams have done."

Maybe it's just a coincidence, but these two April 13 headlines from USA Today and The New York Times sure appeared to be sending a calculated message to 1060 W. Addison St. and Crane Kenney's business-operations department: "Baseball Hall of Fame Sorely Lacking Artifacts from Cubs' World Series Run" and "Cubs Fans Waited 108 Years. Cooperstown is Still Waiting."

"Honestly, I think the (delay's) been administrative, making sure you log everything," Hoyer said. "Certainly, there's no reason to hold out on Cooperstown. I think that's the biggest honor — to have a little display in Cooperstown about the team — so it's not a desire to not have it there.

"I just think it's cataloguing it and deciding what to send, but we'll be well-represented. It's kind of too bad that became a story, because obviously it's not about a lack of respect for Cooperstown, that's for sure."

After ToiletGate, Hoyer did another media scrum and talked about some of the growing pains while rebuilding an iconic ballpark: "Hopefully, we get all that stuff behind us and just focus on the players. And hopefully our team is what you want to talk about — not bathroom lines or porta-potties."

Two years later, that's still the organization's greatest asset, a spectacular collection of young talent and battle-tested veterans who won't be signing those promissory notes.

"Everyone knows the carriage of our guys and the quality of our team," Hoyer said. "In general, the stories are probably not going to be about controversies within that clubhouse, because I think we have a good group.

"Everyone knows they work hard and they're good guys, (but) there's always going to be little things that pop up."

Why Cubs, rest of baseball sweat as MLB battles coronavirus testing issues

Why Cubs, rest of baseball sweat as MLB battles coronavirus testing issues

It was never going to be perfect.

But Major League Baseball’s coronavirus testing system needs to be good enough.

That may not seem like an especially high bar to set.

But so far it has been a difficult one for baseball to clear.

In fact, the latest example of baseball's biggest challenge in pulling off a 60-game season played out at Wrigley Field on Monday. That's when the team that by all indications has done the best job of establishing and following safe practices had its manager and five other “Tier 1” members of the organization sit out activities “out of an abundance of caution” because their latest COVID-19 tests, from Saturday, remained “pending.”

Tier 1, by the way, comprises the 80-something members of the organization with the highest access, including players and coaches.

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The results had been analyzed. But as pitching coach Tommy Hottovy explained, they appeared to be in a batch of samples that included at least one positive test, the batch involving multiple teams. So they were retested. Five of those retested samples, including manager David Ross’, were negative, the team said late Monday, with the sixth considered “compromised” and another test done.

The sixth did not belong to a player.

Give the Cubs another gold star for getting through yet another round of tests — and yet another glitch in that process — without having a player test positive.

But give MLB another kick in the ass. The testing issues don’t seem to be as bad as they were throughout the league that first holiday weekend of processing. But it hasn’t fixed this thing yet, either.

Whether it’s a lab-capacity issue, a quality issue or a shipping issue, it’s not even close to good enough.

Not for 30 teams barely a week from leaving their individual training-site bubbles to start playing each other for two months. Not when more than one-third of those teams play in locales considered hot spots for the pandemic. Not in the world’s most infected country.

“We do feel comfortable in this bubble that we’ve kind of created here,” said Hottovy, who was hit hard by the virus for a month before camp started. “When the season starts though and we start traveling and we start putting ourselves in some different circumstances, we just don’t know what to expect with that.

“We’re still taking this day-to-day for sure.”

Players across baseball, including Cubs star Kris Bryant, said they were upset and surprised at how unprepared MLB’s testing system appeared to be when camps opened. Two weeks of testing later, and just enough issues persist to make the league’s entire 2020 undertaking look more tenuous than ever.

The season starts July 23. That’s not much time to get it “good enough” — never mind to get it right. But, again, we're not asking for perfection.

The league protocols require testing thousands of players and other team personnel every other day through the end of the season.

Imagine sitting a manager and three or four players from a single team on a game day because of “pending” or “compromised” test results. Imagine that happening two or three times a week to various teams. Or worse — imagine a given team doesn’t exercise “an abundance of caution” and puts the players or staff in question on the field or in the dugout and clubhouse anyway.

“The only concern that I have right now is how long the test will take to get the results back,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said on Thursday. “Other than that, I don’t think I am at risk inside of the ballpark because the Cubs have been doing the best they can to keep us safe in here."

“I don’t have any concerns about my teammates, because I trust them. I know we all are doing our best to keep [each other] safe, and that way we can have a season this year.”

Contreras expressed tolerance with the system so far and was reluctant to point a finger at MLB or anyone else.

“But how can that get better?” he said. “I have no answer for that.”

It doesn’t matter whose fault it is as much as it matters that an answer is found quickly.

Players, staff and their families already have taken on the daily stress and anxiety of this health risk and the every-other-day process of holding your breath until the next result comes in.

“You get that test day coming up when you might get results, and it’s a little bit of that unknown, a little bit of anxiety of, ‘Have I done everything right?’ “ Ross said. “You start running back the day since you’ve been tested and what you’ve done, where you’ve gone, who you’ve been in contact with, just in case something bad may come back on your test. It’s real.”

Thirteen players, including Giants star Buster Posey, already have declined to play this season, all but one without a pre-existing condition that would qualify as “high risk” under the agreement between players and management.

Angels superstar Mike Trout heads a list of several more who have talked openly about opting out at some point, depending on how things look as we get closer to games.

That includes Cubs starter Yu Darvish, who said Sunday, “I still have concerns” and that he has not ruled out heading home if he doesn’t feel it’s safe anymore for him or his family to keep playing.

Maybe Trout, Darvish, Posey and the rest of those players have the right idea.

In fact, maybe we’d all be better off if baseball rededicated its testing capacity to a general public that suddenly is facing shortages again in a growing number of hot spots.

But if baseball is going to stick to its plan and try to pull off this season, then it needs to get this right. Right now.

Nobody’s expecting anything great at this point. Maybe not even especially good. But good enough? In the next week or so?

Would that be too much to ask?


How Cubs' Jon Lester just got 126 innings closer to returning to Chicago in 2021

How Cubs' Jon Lester just got 126 innings closer to returning to Chicago in 2021

One more year of Jon Lester?

A few months ago that looked uncertain at best — figuring to come down to a $25 million decision for the Cubs to mull at the end of this season (or a $15 million decision, given the $10 million buyout on the option clause).

But the vesting part of Lester’s hefty seventh-year option on his original six-year, $155 million contract suddenly looks tantalizingly within reach for the longtime ace.

Major League Baseball and the union have finalized an agreement on multiple details for calculating contracts in 2020, including vesting contract options, according to documents obtained by NBC Sports Chicago.

Performance thresholds for vesting options will be prorated for the 60-game season and rounded up to the next out. 

So that 200-inning threshold Lester needed to reach to assure the additional $25 million year — a threshold he hasn’t reached since 2016, when he was 32?

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In a season only 37.04 percent as long as normal, that means 74 1/3 innings earn the extra year.

It’s still roughly the same average of innings for 12 projected starts (6.17) this year as it would have been for 32 (6.25) in a full season.

But that’s a lot fewer potential aches, pains and injuries to navigate for two months compared to six months — and a stretch that doesn’t include the bone-chill cold of April and weather volatility of May.

Lester, who ranks eighth on the all-time list of postseason innings pitched, said when spring training opened in February he “obviously” wanted to finish his career as a Cub.

“Hopefully, I have a good year, and it’s null and void, and we don’t have to talk about it,” Lester said then of trying to vest the option.

“I signed here hoping that the option was kind of going to take care of itself and [I’d] finish out the seventh year. After that, I can’t predict tomorrow, let alone what’s going to happen two years down the road.”

Lester pitched in his first intrasquad game of the restarted training period on Sunday and looked strong enough to get sent out to face two more batters after finishing his scheduled two innings — retiring seven of nine, with one reaching on an error and another on a 15-foot tapper in front of the plate.

“He was commanding all of his pitches,” catcher Willson Contreras said. “From what I saw, he’s looking in good shape.”

Monday's agreement between MLB and the union also included details on calculating awards bonuses, roster bonuses and contract escalators. And unlike the normal injured list, players won't lose "active time" on the roster while on the COVID-19 IL.

The Athletic was first to report Monday's agreement.