Cubs

The art of leadership: How Cole Hamels is teaming with Jon Lester to run Cubs clubhouse

The art of leadership: How Cole Hamels is teaming with Jon Lester to run Cubs clubhouse

"He works out A LOT. Like 10 times a day," a Cubs staffer told me as we discussed a good time to set up a spring training feature with Cole Hamels. 

The 35-year-old lefty is oftentimes one of the first guys to arrive at the facility and there are plenty of days where he's one of the last to leave, as he gets in multiple workouts. It's no secret the guy who goes by "Hollywood" on Players Weekend, spends an inordinate amount of time keeping his body in tip-top shape. His routines and work out techniques are already trickling down and catching the eyes of his Cubs teammates.

David Bote, for example, said Hamels suggested egoscue exercises, to help with his posture and aid in putting his body back into balance.

"Instantaneous results. I really haven't put on weight, maybe 3 pounds. But, I'm apparently 2 inches taller. I was just measured!" Bote said, chuckling. "It's amazing the effects better posture has on your daily routine. I'm more open in the chest and I have a better range of motion." 

That's just one example of the 20 million reasons the Cubs thought it was worth picking up Hamels' $20 million option this offseason, as we got into more detail here:

How about Ian Happ? He not only loves hitting the golf course with Hamels, but also picking his brain about the Philadelphia Phillies teams that kept their winning core together for a window contention from 2007-11.

"[He's explained to me] how, when you have a group that's been together for 4 years, you don't let things get stale," Happ said. "How do you keep things fresh and be able to keep learning from each other and keep playing together and keep getting better together?

"That's really an interesting discussion because they had that in Philly. They were good for six years all together and he was part of that young core. So, to learn from him on how that's managed by veterans, how accountable you have to hold guys and in what situations you can be firm, is really intriguing."

Meanwhile there's Jon Lester, the other veteran southpaw who has been asked to step up with Hamels and take on more of a vocal leadership role this year with the team. It's a topic the two might have discussed over a recent round of golf or at the Coyotes game they took in together on Valentine's Day:

Hamels may not be David Ross or John Lackey (who would have never put on that sweater), but he is a guy Lester respects immensely and one who can push him on the mound and as that "vocal leader" the brass is searching for. 

"Like Jon said, it is our time to kind of be that sort of person," Hamels said. "I know we're ready to do so. It's kind of an honor. When you're able to play the game as long as we have, that's the role that you get thrust into. There's some respect that you have towards that, especially from the guys that came before you. It's something that I know Jon and I are really going to take as far as we possibly can and getting the best out of everyone."

It's a fine line to walk as a starting pitcher and not a guy in the lineup every day, but it's apparent Hamels and Lester already have the attention of the Cubs young core. And it helps that group has made it clear they want to be coached and held accountable.

"It's a tough generation in what we can do and say now," Hamels said. "I know from when I came up, it was a lot different, but it's about understanding how to deal with it, understanding personalities and also understanding constructive criticism. I think for all of us, if you want to win, if you want to be a world champion, an MVP, the Cy Young, you have to play to a certain level and you have to maintain it.

"If you want to be that, you have to act like it and then you have to hold up your end of the bargain for eight months. And if we can all push each other to do that, you're going to see some amazing things." 

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Yu Darvish: If Cubs didn't take COVID-19 seriously, 'I was ready to go home'

Yu Darvish: If Cubs didn't take COVID-19 seriously, 'I was ready to go home'

If Yu Darvish thinks baseball can pull off this high-risk, three-month season during a pandemic, maybe there’s reason to dream on the long shot coming in.

Then, again, the Cubs’ potential Opening Day starter has not ruled out changing his mind about playing — which underscores the daily fragility of the thread holding this 30-team, 30-site process together.

“Definitely, I came here to make sure everybody’s doing the right thing,” Darvish said through a translator. “I had in my mind if they’re not, I was ready to go home.”

Darvish was the first player in the majors last spring to publicly express fear of the COVID-19 spread and lethality of a virus that was blamed for fewer than 10 American deaths at the time — weeks before major sports were shut down across the country.

Four months and more than 130,000 U.S. coronavirus-related deaths later, he made the “tough” decision to play — with plenty of reservations.

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“Yes, definitely, I still have concerns,” he said Sunday, two days after Giants star Buster Posey became one of 11 players without a pre-existing, high-risk condition to decline to play this season.

MORE: Tracking MLB players who have opted out or declined to play in 2020

Under rules in the COVID-19 health and safety Operations Manual, players with high-risk conditions are allowed to change their minds in either direction when it comes to the opt-out decision. And they earn full service time for the year and prorated salary for the 60-game season if they don’t play.

Those such as Darvish who are not in that category don’t get service time or pay for the year if they decline to play and are not allowed to return once that decision is made official.

Asked if he still is leaving open the possibility of opting out of the season, he said, “Maybe. But at this point no, I don’t think so.”

In a baseball vacuum, Darvish offers the Cubs’ their best chance to have success during a 60-game season and any playoffs that might follow.

“The way he finished the season last year, how good he was for us, that’s the guy we’re counting on,” manager David Ross said, referring to a second half that included a 2.76 ERA and a 118-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 starts.

But Darvish, a native of Japan, hasn’t viewed baseball in a vacuum since the year began — approaching Cubs officials upon his arrival for informal work before spring training began in February to address concerns about reporters who might travel from possible virus hot spots in Asia to cover him.

“I’m really worried about it,” he said then.

And then on March 5 he left the Cubs’ spring facility to see a doctor for a test after experiencing a cough, out of a fear he might expose teammates if he had the virus.

By the time MLB and the union agreed last month to terms for a season, the thought of playing during a pandemic had only become more serious for Darvish and many others throughout the game.

“It was tough because I have small children,” Darvish said of the decision. “During the spring we had a lot of thoughts about that, and it was tough decision.”

He said seeing teammates with similar family dynamics and concerns choose to play made it “a little easier to make the decision to play.”

But it’s a discussion among players and their families across the majors that isn’t going to go away — and figures to only intensify every time another batch of test results shows up late or another player tests positive somewhere.

MORE: Cubs COVID-19 tests return negative, Theo Epstein cautions against complacency

Not to mention continued spikes in new cases and deaths in cities and states across the major-league map.

“I think we’re all a little nervous. Nobody wants to get this thing,” Cubs veteran Jon Lester said. “You have to just believe in the testing process; you have to believe in kind of the bubble community we’re trying to create here; you have to believe in these things.”

That’s when Lester held up a mask during the Zoom session with reporters.

The Cubs — the only team in the league without a player testing positive through the first two weeks of intake and monitoring testing — have shown a commitment to safety protocols from top to bottom in the organization. Third baseman Kris Bryant wore his mask again while taking ground balls at third base Sunday, despite plenty of safe distance from the nearest player or coach.

“I know that some of the players are uncomfortable wearing it, but they do wear it,” Darvish said. “So it’s nice to see. I used to wear [masks] all the time in Japan so I’m very comfortable with this.”

Getting comfortable with the larger experiment, especially when teams begin to travel and inherent risks increase, could be an ongoing adjustment — for everyone from
Darvish, Lester and Bryant to Angels superstar Mike Trout, who continues to express concerns with his first child due next month.

“There’s a lot of stuff where you’re putting yourself out there and just kind of hoping,” said Lester, whose successful battle with cancer more than a decade ago qualifies him for a high-risk exemption to opt out.

“My own personal health really wasn’t my concern,” said Lester, who said the team doctor consulted with his oncologist in Chicago on the issue. “We do have some family stuff we’re trying to stay away from. But I think you just have to dive into this head-first and go with the protocols and wash your hands and be careful.

“You really have to concentrate on that and hopefully everything else kind of takes care of itself.”

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Why David Ross is 'excited' about umpire crew joining Cubs Summer Camp

Why David Ross is 'excited' about umpire crew joining Cubs Summer Camp

The days of Cubs mental skills coach John Baker holding an armchair cushion between him and the catcher as he calls balls and strikes may be over.

Professional umpires will soon take over the responsibility of calling the Cubs’ intrasquad scrimmages. Crew chief Tony Randazzo and his umpire crew will embed themselves at Cubs Summer Camp, manager David Ross announced Sunday.

“I think it’s going to affect the mental skills department too,” Ross said, laughing. “Yeah, I’m excited about getting real umpires up here. Bake’s been doing a good job for us, but every chance we get an opportunity to turn up the dial and make it as game-like as possible, the better.”

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From his playing days as a catcher, Ross is familiar with Randazzo. Ross said he’s excited about using the umpires as a “sounding board" for questions. 

The introduction of MLB umpires, which is expected to be implemented across the league, is also set up to give umpires practice before the regular season.

The Cubs’ earliest scrimmages, as well as Sunday’s intrasquad game, featured catchers calling balls and strikes, which Ross called, “fun and unique.”

“Being in that situation in the past,” the former catcher said, laughing, “you’re not going to make anybody happy when you punch them out.”

In the middle of the week, Baker took over umpiring duties. Baker has Tier 1 clearance – the Cubs deemed his role a priority, especially in the midst of a pandemic – so he has on-field access.

“Well, after umpiring 5 ½ (innings) tonight,” Baker posted to Twitter on Thursday, “I can say that that job is much harder than it looks on TV. I’m exhausted.”

 

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