Cubs, MLB players to honor Black Lives Matter movement during season

Cubs, MLB players to honor Black Lives Matter movement during season

So far, the Cubs have not been among the several teams with players or managers taking a knee to protest racial injustice during the national anthem of exhibition games this week.

But Cubs players plan to be among those across MLB who will wear Black Lives Matter-themed T-shirts for batting practice and/or uniform patches that read “Black Lives Matter” or “United for Change” when the season opens Friday.

Players may also wear similar-themed wristbands or put messages on their cleats.

“We’ve had multiple meetings on racial injustice, and we’ve got a plan in place for Opening Day that these guys are unified with,” manager David Ross said Wednesday of conversations players and staff have had. “It really has been some great discussions and great conversations, learning a lot about things that we don’t see or what other people may be going through.

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“It’s been really powerful, I think, for this group to have those discussions and brought us closer together in my opinion. It’s been very rewarding on my end.”

Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward, among a declining number Black players in the league, has been among the MLB players who have spoken out publicly on racism in the game and society in the aftermath of the suffocation killing in May of George Floyd by Minneapolis police that sparked protests across the country that continue in some cities today.

“This stuff’s been happening for years, for centuries,” Heyward said as players reported for summer training camp three weeks ago. “At the end of the day, I think [the national attention and protests are] a huge step in the right direction. But it’s to be determined how long it’s going to last.”

MORE: Cubs' Jason Heyward feels responsibility to speak up for racial equality

Cubs president Theo Epstein called out his own hiring practices that have produced little diversity in his front office and played a lead role in calling attention to baseball’s systemic racism, including a recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement during the televised MLB draft last month.

Speaking out on racism and other socially conscious issues — in particular by Black players — has traditionally been silenced within clubhouses and the larger culture of a sport that has seen the numbers of Black American players in the majors drop to just 7.7 percent.

“I do know that our players have heard the message loud and clear that we want them to express themselves and be themselves,” Epstein said, “and that we see them as people and as citizens, not just as players.

“And that the concept of shutting up and dribbling or shutting up and playing baseball in this case does not apply in this organization.”

The player-driven conversations that resulted in the messages players are allowed to literally wear on their sleeves this season are where cultural and systemic changes might begin — or at least have a chance to keep the conversations from fading back into the background sports restarting.

The NBA is leading all sports in that effort, with “Black Lives Matter” painted on its courts and players allowed to display personal messages on their uniforms.

But baseball voices are at least finally starting to be heard, whether Giants manager Gabe Kapler joining some of his players in kneeling this week, Angels pitcher Keynan Middleton kneeling and raising a fist during the anthem in San Diego or “Black Lives Matter” being painted in giant letters across the exterior of Fenway Park in Boston.

“First it starts with players like myself, African Americans, speaking up,” Heyward said. “Just speaking truth, speaking knowledge, letting people know we’re here for equality. We’re not here for any special treatment.

“We’re not here saying we’re perfect. It’s not about that. No one’s perfect. Everyone has their struggles and differences. But for us this is new. This is new for us to be able to speak up.”


Cubs' Craig Kimbrel rises to the moment in 'sharp' outing against Brewers

Cubs' Craig Kimbrel rises to the moment in 'sharp' outing against Brewers

Cubs reliever Craig Kimbrel stuck with what was working. He pounded the strike zone with one high fastball after another against Manny Pina. Kimbrel was rewarded with a strikeout to end the inning.

In the Cubs’ 4-3 loss to the Brewers on Friday, Kimbrel pitched a shutout ninth inning to give his team the chance to rally. Instead, the Cubs’ bats went cold. But the stadium lights illuminated Kimbrel’s progress.

“He looked really good,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I’ve been trying to find a spot for him, and the feedback has been great every time I talk to the pitching guys, and his bullpens and the work he’s put in. I think you saw that tonight. The ball was exploding out of his hand really well. Some bad swings. Looked sharp.”

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It should be noted that the spot Ross found for him was in a one-run game. Kimbrel, who entered the season as the Cubs closer, at least temporarily lost that job after a string of rough outings. The Cubs blamed mechanical issues.

On Friday, Kimbrel didn’t allow a hit with the game on the line.

One of the biggest developments for Kimbrel is that he’s now throwing his curve ball for a strike, therefore not allowing opposing hitters to simply gear up for a fastball.

The third pitch he threw on Friday was a curve ball. Avisail Garcia already had two strikes on him, and then he fouled off a curve at the bottom of the strikezone.  Kimbrel sat him down with a high fastball clocking in at almost 98 mph.

“I don’t think he was far off (all year),” Cubs starting pitcher Alec Mills said, “and I think tonight he started putting a few more things together, fastball up in the zone and some good curve balls. It was good to see, for sure.”

As Kimbrel’s teammate, Mills may not be speaking from a position of objectivity. But he knows pitching, and he said he’s been excited about Kimbrel’s fastball all year.

“Even that first inning in Cincinnati,” Mills said. “The ball was coming out really good. It was electric. It was more like the Craig that I remember from past years.”

The Kimbrel from past years was a seven-time All-Star from 2011 to 2018, the year he won the World Series with the Red Sox.

But from 2017 to 2019, the average speed of Kimbrel’s fastball dropped from 98 mph to 96mph. It has remained right around 96 mph this year. On Friday, Kimbrel was locating it more effectively, while his curve ball helped put batters off balance.

Kimbrel still walked a batter – he stopped short of overpowering. But even against the one batter he walked, Justin Smoak, Kimbrel got ahead in the count early. He threw two curve balls for strikes. The first Smoak watched. The second he whiffed.

One outing isn’t a guarantee that Kimbrel will win back his role as closer. But it does show that the positive feedback Ross is getting translates into games. And that Ross is ready to trust him in close games. 

“I'm still going out there trying to compete,” Kimbrel said earlier this month.

On Saturday, he sure did.



Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

As if things weren’t already going well enough for the Cubs during this strange, short season of baseball in a pandemic, now the baseball gods are dropping gifts into their laps.

The Cardinals’ lengthy shutdown because of a coronavirus outbreak has the Cubs’ arch rivals restarting their season Saturday in Chicago with a patched-up roster and eight games over the next five days, including five games against the Cubs.

And although that means the relative hardship of two doubleheaders for the Cubs in three days, all five of those games Monday through Wednesday are against a decimated Cards roster that won’t have the front end of its rotation for any of the games.

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They catch the Cardinals at their weakest point of the early season a week after catching an otherwise formidable Cleveland team at a moment of clubhouse crisis involving protocol perps Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger.

That one resulted in a two-game sweep by a combined score of 14-3.

This one already has resulted in all 10 games against the Cardinals now being scheduled for Wrigley Field.

Combine that with the three road games against the White Sox next month, and it means that the team with baseball’s best record on the field, the perfect record in player COVID-19 testing and no significant injuries to key players so far will play 60 percent of its games within its Chicago bubble if the Cubs and MLB pull off the full 60-game season.

If the Cubs were positioned any better to make the playoffs, they’d already be there.

“You can look at it that way if you want,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We’re just doing our thing.”

No other way to look at it from here. Have you seen the rest of the schedule?

The Cubs have 43 games left, including 29 within a National League Central Division that doesn’t include another .500 team three weeks into a nine-week season. Nine more games are against the Tigers and White Sox.

The best team on the schedule is the Twins, and all three of those games are at home and not until the second-to-last weekend of the season.

With all due respect to Ross and his fear of “bad juju,” the Cubs can’t lose.

“It’s still early on,” the manager said.

Nothing’s early in a 60-game season. And the Cubs already have matched the hot starts of their 2016 and 1908 World Series champions.

“We’ve still got a long ways to go in the season,” Ross said.

The Cubs did have to scratch Tyler Chatwood from his scheduled start Friday night because of back tightness. And Kris Bryant has missed the last two games because of a sore finger after rolling his wrist trying to make a diving catch in left field in Cleveland Wednesday.

But Alec Mills looked good in short-notice replacement duty Friday until a rough four-pitch (and three-run) sequence in the sixth. And Chatwood might be ready for one of Monday’s games — or possibly one of Wednesday’s.

“Things falling in our favor?” Ross said. “We’re playing good baseball, and that should be the focus for me and not the other stuff.”

Granted, they still have to play the games. Granted, Bryant wasn’t available off the bench with the bases loaded in the eighth Friday, and Josh Phegley struck out instead.

And, yes, they actually lost a game to the Brewers Friday night.

But if you still don’t believe the baseball gods are stirring the Cubs’ pot so far this season, you weren’t paying attention in the ninth inning when Craig Kimbrel struck out Avisail Garcia swinging at a 98-mph fastball to start the scoreless inning and Manny Piña swinging at a 96-mph fastball to end it.

What closer problem? Bring on the Cardinals, right?

These guys might not lose another game.