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Cole Hamels returns to Philadelphia for the first time

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USA Today

Cole Hamels returns to Philadelphia for the first time

Tonight, as Cole Hamels is set to pitch against his first team, the Philadelphia Phillies, I am reminded of the truth of the major league journey.

It was Phillies spring training in 2004 when I sat in the dugout and saw Hamels pitch for the first time. I was the aging veteran, a role player hanging on to what would be my final season of my career. Hamels was the young gun, the slick left-hander that fooled some of the best players of my era with his dynamic change-up.

In fact, I watched him strike out three Yankees in a row (Jeter, A-Rod, Tony Clark) with that one magic pitch and in turn, witnessed the birth of the legend of Cole Hamels.

As any young player vaulted into legendary status, the challenges were not far behind as he battled an elbow issue shortly afterwards and the following spring training, a broken hand. The normal health concerns always swirling around the maturation of a talented pitcher. The Phillies still knew they had a star in the making and like any organization, you hope injuries, when they occur, will be the exception in his career.

He would back that faith up with a fantastic career, complete with World Series credentials, all-star appearances, and an asset to every community he would touch.

Now, he is the aging veteran and he is going home, at least for a few days. So far, not being slowed by a decline in velocity, but fighting the body’s signs of wear and tear. Still, when he is out on the mound, he competes like never before.

Ironically, Hamels hit the same three major league destinations that I would hit in my career. Philadelphia, Texas, Chicago. If you put a second Chicago in front of Philadelphia then he also followed the same order. I know those places well.

In particular, I know Philadelphia well. Four years of college, six years of big league baseball and it was clear in my post-career that Philly fans loved what Hamels brought to their city, which they also know will make it tough for their team to win tonight.

These homecomings are the moments when a player has to pause to embrace what time does in this game of baseball. You blink and find yourself home, but years have passed in between, the hair is a bit thinner and your opponents are a lot younger. Then you exhale realizing that you still have a ball in your hand if you are lucky.

There was a time when I knew that feeling. It was shortly after I was traded from Chicago to Philadelphia and returning to Wrigley as an opposing player. It was not off of a World Series championship, but as the rising outfield prospect. It can be disorienting.

I grew up in the Cubs system which was my introduction to what it meant to have the dream take off. It also was a place where I learned how to be a professional from the wisdom of coaches in the Cubs family. From Billy Williams, Tom Gamboa, Sandy Alomar, Jimmy Piersall and so many more, to the whispers of advice of Ryne Sandberg, Shawon Dunston, Mark Grace, Lance “One Dog” Johnson. My mind was fertile ground, trying to not just make it, but stay, and it was part of baseball’s important ritual to listen and learn from those who had done it before, then pass it on.

In those lessons are time itself, coaches and even teammates that I watched growing up as a child. The people who helped spark the love of the game, Mike Schmidt, Garry Maddox, Steve Carlton were my childhood baseball heroes. They gave me the passion, the batting stances, the memories.

When you arrive to big league camp for the first time, in a flash, these icons now had lockers next to yours or are your manager or coach. In my first spring with the Cubs, I walked in the locker room and I saw that my locker was right next to number 23. What?!?! I remember seeing the glisten of Sandberg’s name on the back of his batting practice jersey and deciding that it is time to re-focus and be a big leaguer. From Sandberg, I learned from watching.

With that first big league organization, the dream hits the ground and not only does it keep pinching you, it pushes you to be your best, in fact, you don’t have much choice if you plan to play for a long time. You have to take the stars out of your eyes and see yourself amongst the stars even if for a while, it is hard to believe and even harder to achieve.

This starter organization became your teacher. Showing you that you belong, embracing the mentorship that existed between generations of players. I would step into the box against Fernando Valenzuela and wonder if I had somehow fell into my TV set from when I was 12. But then the screwball would come and I realized that I actually needed to hit it.

The purity of those moments happen with that original baseball family. For Cole Hamels, it was the Philadelphia Phillies. He built relationships, he proved himself with supporters and against detractors. He learned from great players, he would ultimately teach great players. All in one short baseball lifetime in one city he would call home until 2015.

Today he wears a Cubs hat, he is proud, he is a competitor and he will go out and try and beat his old team to a pulp. But it is like having bragging rights against your brother, more than it is to destroy an enemy. I competed tooth and nail against my brother in years of Wiffle Ball in our front yard, but we hugged it out after leaving nothing left on the driveway. You can love with respect and still want to fiercely win.

For any veteran knows that he is the sum of his past even as he is trying to hold on to the present and write his future. Humility reminds you to be thankful for every single stop during the major league ride, especially that ones where you spent significant time honing your skills, and hoisting the hardware of a champion.

In a twist of fate, Hamels’ 2008 World Series manager, Charlie Manuel, has just returned as the Phillies hitting coach which will bring out some special feelings about his championship season. Another strong memory that will surely hit him. He can say a toast with Charlie later.

But first, he has a game to pitch.

How the Cubs pitching staff prepared for a three-week Summer Camp

How the Cubs pitching staff prepared for a three-week Summer Camp

As the Cactus League shuttered its doors and Cubs players scattered across the country – some headed home, others stayed in Arizona —Tommy Hottovy stepped into uncharted territory.

Hottovy has been the Cubs pitching coach since December of 2018, so he’s guided his pitchers through offseasons before. But going from ramping up in Spring Training to not knowing when Major League Baseball would return? No one had a play book for that.

“Our philosophy was be over-ready and not try to play catchup,” starting pitcher Tyler Chatwood said. “So, luckily we were able to do that.”

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Fast forward to Sunday, Day 3 of Cubs Summer Camp. By the end of the holiday weekend, four of the Cubs’ five presumptive starters had thrown at least two innings in an intrasquad scrimmage and four relievers had also gotten time on the mound.

“It’s just a testament to the work those guys put in over the process,” Hottovy said.

During the shutdown, Hottovy held regular meetings with the pitchers via video conference. They bounced ideas off each other and discussed their overall approach.

“We had so many resources between Tommy, Rossy (manager David Ross), the whole coaching staff staying in touch with us the whole time,” right-hander Kyle Hendricks said. “And then other players. So, we really did it as a group.”

Out of those conversations, Hottovy learned that many of the pitchers wanted arm strength to be a focus during the break.

“Not just pitch-count wise,” Hottovy said, “but to feel that their arm was in the right throwing shape.”

So, he incorporated that into the pitchers’ throwing programs.

Each pitchers’ program was catered to the resources and facilities he had access to, as well as his own goals. But before ramping up for Summer Camp, most of the starting pitchers were throwing one bullpen session early in the week and a simulated game later in the week. As the season got closer, they added a second bullpen.

RELATED: Why Jon Lester hasn't yet thrown live batting practice in Cubs Summer Camp

“The reason I liked getting to those two bullpens,” Hottovy said, “was because now you kind of start simulating what it’s like to be on a five-game rotation.”

By the time they entered camp, many of the starting pitchers were already throwing multiple-inning simulation games. By Day 2 of camp, the Cubs were ready for a short intrasquad game. Hendricks threw three innings, and Yu Darvish threw two.

“Both of them had actually thrown more pitches in a simulated outing prior to coming here,” Hottovy said, “but we wanted to back that off a little bit, obviously knowing that the intensity was going to go up. They’re back on the field with players behind them facing more of our lineup, more of our hitters.”

On Sunday, the Cubs stretched an intrasquad out to five-innings. Chatwood and Alec Mills started, and Dan Winkler, Duane Underwood, Rex Brothers and James Norwood all pitched in relief.

“Everything’s based off pitching,” Ross said and then laughed. “We give the pitchers a hard time all the time; the pitchers kind of dictate how long the day’s going to go because these guys have got to get their pitch counts up.”

With less than three weeks until the season opener, Hottovy’s job still doesn’t return to normal. Instead of setting a schedule based on the order of the pitching rotation, he’s “front-loading” the starters. He also is preparing some relivers to throw extended innings.

“Right now, in my mind we have seven opening day starters,” he said, “…You can’t space them out too much in my opinion just because you can’t take that chance.”

 

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Cubs, MLB face daily reminders of COVID-19 risk, decision to keep going

Cubs, MLB face daily reminders of COVID-19 risk, decision to keep going

Long after the Cubs finished their three-inning, Fourth-of-July vacation from the pandemic Saturday, manager David Ross returned by himself to the field, where he spent a few minutes of mostly quiet time, a few grounds-crew members working on the mound and batter’s boxes in the background.

“Just taking a minute, trying to enjoy what I get to do, what this whole process is,” said Ross, who walked around and gazed at the Wrigley Field green expanse and out at the scoreboard with the U.S. flag against the blue sky, then snapped a picture.

“Everybody was gone, just finished a workout and I had a minute,” he said, “and it just looked cool, on the Fourth of July. Just a little moment for me.”

The rare moment of calm amid the COVID-19 storm that rages with renewed force across much of the country and that roars against everything baseball is trying to build this summer was gone almost as soon as it began — Ross pulling the mask back across his face as he headed back indoors toward his office and eventually home.

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By the time the Cubs got together again Sunday, it was time for another round of coronavirus testing and another wait to see if they’ll remain one of only two teams without a known case among the players.

In between, they played five more innings of baseball and wondered how long 30 teams in 28 cities can keep their training camps functional and a 60-game season in play.

“We had meetings, and everybody knows what’s at risk,” said fourth starter Tyler Chatwood, who pitched three innings Sunday. "My wife is pregnant, and I have a two-year-old at home. So, I think the toughest part for me is not seeing them, but this is what I want to do.

“We all want to stay as safe as possible and we all want to get the season in.”

If Chatwood, Ross and the rest of the Cubs weren’t sure how persistent the micro-commitments and significant the undertaking of this 1,700-player effort, they have been bombarded with reminders each day — from Sunday’s testing to the news that high-profile pitchers Felix Hernandez and David Price and Cleveland bench coach Brad Mills have opted out of the 2020 season over the risk, to Giants star Buster Posey and Phillies $118 million pitcher Zach Wheeler telling media they might yet make the same decision.

Ross reiterated the day-to-day nature of evaluating the landscape and risk and navigating the protocols and emotions.

“Everybody definitely has their radar up and wants to know we’re doing everything possible,” he said. “Our guys are extremely bought-in. But everybody has a little bit of a pause as you come to the park and what each day’s going to be like.”

Sunday was only Day 3 of a 21-day training camp before a season would open on July 24.

It was only Day 2 for some other teams. And some teams, such as the Oakland A’s, postponed Sunday’s scheduled full-squad workout because their intake testing hasn’t been completed. Sean Doolittle of the Nationals told media the team in the nation’s capital is short on some basic PPE supplies, such as masks, and he remains concerned about the league’s ability to pull this off safely.

And a few miles to the south, the White Sox on Sunday said two of their players have tested positive.

MORE: White Sox announce two players test positive for COVID-19

“This not a small undertaking, trying to get a season up and running and then manage it for a 60-game season,” said Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, who suffered through a frightening, painful month-long bout with COVID-19. “I think we’re giving it the best chance to be successful.”

In addition to Hottovy, Royals manager Mike Matheny also revealed over the weekend, he battled the virus about a month ago.

As news continues to surface about positive tests, and stars as big as Mike Trout of the Angels openly talk about whether they might opt out, the Cubs mask up in their clubhouse, continue to wash and distance and ask their own questions.

“Guys are doing a great job,” Ross said. “We’re doing everything possible. But for sure, there’s a lot of pause around the league, and rightfully so.”

Not that anyone in baseball is judging anyone who chooses to opt out. In fact, far from it, Ross said. 

“These are serious issues that to a man everybody has to look at their situation individually and make a tough choice,” he said. “This is an extremely difficult environment for these players to be in. They’re having to alter their routines, continue to have other things on their mind, other than performing baseball, and still trying to make it fun.”

Hottovy said he had to make his own tough choice to return after talking about the concerns with family. Ross said some Cubs have family members at home with high-risk conditions for severe reactions if infected by the virus.

So far, the Brewers and Cubs are the only teams that have not reported any positive tests among its players.

MORE: David Ross indicates no Cubs players have tested positive for COVID-19

“It doesn’t mean somebody’s not going to test positive through no fault of their own,” Ross said “We’re at the mercy of this virus.

“But I’m super proud of our guys, how serious they’re taking it and how they’ve come in so far.”

And so far, they’ve stayed together. Whatever doubts might persist. Whatever might be around baseball’s next corner.

Said Hottovy: “How it’s managed, how we handle it on a day-to-day basis and manage it not only as an organization but across baseball is going to determine how this thing goes in the long run.”

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