Last week, Abby Iapoce turned 5, and the street in front of her home in Upstate New York filled with cars parading past the house, friends waving, horns honking.
Relatives stopped by the yard with masks for the “drive-by” birthday party.
Abby’s dad, Anthony, hadn’t expected to be home for the party, not with the Cubs planning to be in Texas for the playoffs and the Cubs’ hitting coach hoping by now to be working on the best approaches for beating the Rays pitching in the World Series.
He’d already missed a similar socially distanced party for daughter Lily when she turned 8 in September — though he was there for little Anthony’s third birthday in late March, thanks to baseball’s COVID-19 shutdown that sent everybody home from Arizona a couple weeks earlier.
Mostly, the pandemic-altered kids parties are reminders of the masking-up, virus-conscious reality we all continue to face even as Iapoce and the rest of the Cubs have returned home from what he called “the longest, shortest season I’ve ever been been a part of.”
But the giggling and big smiles also are a reminder of at least one other reality within the ongoing anxiety and uncertainty of the times.
“Kids are so resilient,” Iapoce said. “You learn a lot from them. If they’re able to adjust, we should be able to as well.”
That sums up a lot about how the Cubs hitting coach is looking ahead at an offseason and 2021 baseball season that are almost impossible to predict.
The only thing he knows for sure at this point is that he’ll be working with a new assistant hitting coach next year.
Iapoce talked this week by phone as the Cubs continued to make changes to the organization that already included more than 100 layoffs on both the business and baseball side of the operation, and that on Friday included firing assistant hitting coach Terrmel Sledge after two seasons in the role.
The rest of the field staff is expected to return unless somebody such as third-base coach Will Venable — who has interviewed for the Tigers and Red Sox managerial openings — is hired away
But return to what? A baseball season that might have been the most emotionally and mentally exhausting for those on the ground has shifted into what might be the most unpredictable offseason in history.
With no vaccine or cure and with coronavirus cases starting to spike again in much of the country, it’s hard to project spring training starting on time — or looking anything close to normal.
Will the season be shortened again? To 150 games? Or 140? Or fewer? Will fans be allowed to attend games by April? In which cities — and how many at a time?
What happens to the minor leagues a year after those seasons were canceled in 2020?
“I know moving forward guys will be a little more comfortable going into the year, whatever MLB decides for 2021,” said Iapoce, who attributes some of the team’s struggles at the plate this season to the strangeness of the protocol-heavy season but also just to the skewed, 60-game schedule — which would have been the equivalent of finishing on May 31.
“I love our guys, man. I really think going forward next year, however many games we play — whether we get 160 or 140 — those guys are going to be who they have been through their careers.”
And that’s the other impossible-to-project thing.
Iapoce, who expects to start “picking up steam” on 2021 work with hitters in a week or so, has no way to know who among his hitting core will be back as the Cubs front office faces uncertain revenues and heavy payroll trimming after exceeding MLB’s luxury-tax threshold the last two years.
Whether Cubs ownership views the game’s 2021 revenue forecast in “biblical” terms again, Kris Bryant ($18.6 million in 2020 before prorated formula applied), Anthony Rizzo ($16.5 million), Javy Baez ($10 million) and Kyle Schwarber ($7.01 million) all are entering the final years of club control — which puts each of their futures with the Cubs in doubt this winter.
Perhaps none more than Bryant, who is the most expensive and took the most heat from a sector of fans and media during a rough 2020 — regardless of Iapoce’s emphatic support for Bryant’s all-around, All-Star skills and expected performance in 2021.
In fact, the hitting coach doesn’t engage much in conversations about who might be gone after the business of the offseason concludes. Iapoce wants the entire core back, 2020 warts and struggles and all — and says he likes their chances of putting up championship-caliber numbers again next year.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I can’t say it enough. I’m super excited about rolling into next season with these guys, especially these guys going into that last year of their contract.”
That might not be a popular opinion among many fans, judging by the blow-it-up sentiment on Twitter in recent weeks — which often lumped Iapoce with the hitters as a hot-seat occupant.
Then, again, manager David Ross offered his own definition of Tweet Nation last month when he said, “Those people are idiots.” So take it for what it’s worth.
It’s not like Iapoce claims to know what’s next for anyone — for the country during this pandemic or for MLB, let alone for the roster of hitters he’ll be tasked with helping win another division title.
For now, one of the Cubs who went three months without seeing family during the summer training camp and season soaks up as many smiles and giggles as he can get — and every lesson that season and those smiles can offer.
“Everybody in MLB will just have a better grasp how to navigate the situation,” he said of 2021. “Just with how everyday lives have changed. You don’t go out of the house without a mask now, or go into stores without a mask. Things we thought were big adjustments are now an everyday part of living.”