Cubs

How Michael Barrett draws value from 2006 Cubs-White Sox fight

How Michael Barrett draws value from 2006 Cubs-White Sox fight

The moment serves as a teaching tool these days for Michael Barrett as much as anything.

Whether the collision at the plate and resulting punch to the face of A.J. Pierzynski 14 years ago Wednesday can be instructive beyond that remains to be seen as Major League Baseball proposes even stricter limits on contact and fighting within its plans to start the 2020 season during a pandemic.

Barrett, the former Cubs catcher at the center of perhaps the definitive moment in Chicago’s crosstown rivalry, said he isn’t sure how baseball would prevent or enforce such rules any more effectively than they already do; it’s not like fights are planned (usually).

As recently as a month ago, social-distancing measures were quickly ignored during a bench-clearing incident during a professional game in Taiwan.

RELATED: 6 memorable Cubs bench-clearing moments since 2000

What he does know is that even 14 years later, “it often comes up,” during the course of his job as the Washington Nationals minor-league catching coordinator.

That’s where the teaching part comes in.

“We talk about it,” Barrett said during a phone conversation with NBC Sports Chicago on Wednesday. “I just tell them, ‘Never let your guard down [even] when you think there’s not a play at home plate.’ And I’m not pointing the finger at A.J. at all. Just in general, ‘Don’t ever let your guard down; don’t ever assume the runner is going to slide with or without the ball. Always be prepared for a collision.’

“In that case I was not prepared. That’s not pointing the finger at anybody but myself.”

Since Barrett retired after the 2010 season, collisions such as the one that precipitated “The Punch” have been outlawed, along with takeout slides on the bases — sharply reducing flashpoints that might lead to brawls.

It’s just one of myriad ways the game has changed and toned down since the high-emotion days of Barrett’s and Carlos Zambrano’s Cubs days.

“Even further back than that — 30, 40 years ago,” Barrett said of a more raucous, quick-tempered, spikes-flying, hard-sliding, chin-music era in the game.

“No different than hockey,” he said. “Things were taken care of themselves on the field. Whether that was healthy for the game or not is not something that when you’re playing that you necessarily think about. Sometimes your emotions get the better of you. But major league baseball has seen, in general, healthier results by policing some of that themselves.”

Is the game better for that increased regulation from the commissioner’s office?

“I think as major league baseball players we need to be responsible and set good examples for youth out there and do the best we can to be good role models,” Barrett said. “Fighting is not being the best role model that you can be. There’s other ways to communicate.

“Do I look back on that day and think poorly of what I did? Not necessarily. One thing that was evident that day was I was as much into that game as anybody who has ever played the game. Was I proud of the result? I could have probably done things a lot differently. But hindsight’s always 20-20.”

What seems certain is that this is a far different age in sports when it comes to even the perception of violence on the field, whether it’s hard slides in baseball or hard-checking defense in basketball — or even the levels of contact allowed in football.

“The world has changed as we know it in so many ways and players have opportunities to express themselves in other ways more than we ever got to,” Barrett said, “whether it’s social media, through the way they dress … It’s just a different era.”

Cubs outfielder Ian Happ has a podcast. Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish has a popular YouTube channel and has more than 2 million Twitter followers. First baseman Anthony Rizzo posts pictures of his dog Kevin on Instagram and highlights relief efforts for hospital workers on Twitter.

“Today’s players are heard,” Barrett said. “Players are still competitive with one another; that’ll never change. I just think that players have the opportunities to lash back in different ways and express their unhappiness or feelings in other ways that probably are [potentially] more detrimental to their careers.”

Talk about teaching moments that involve players as young as 16 and up to 30-plus that Barrett works with.

“We talk to our boys about that all the time: ‘Be careful,’” he said. “No different than 20 years ago. Then it was, ‘Be careful what you do on the field.’ Now it’s a wider scope than when I played.”

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Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Cubs fans may remember Dan Straily. The right-hander pitched for the club in 2014, making seven appearances (one start) before getting dealt to the Houston Astros the ensuing offseason in the Dexter Fowler trade.

Straily now pitches for the Lotte Giants in the KBO, South Korea's highest level of pro ball. The league kicked its season off earlier this month without fans in attendance, a model MLB will likely follow for most (if not all) of its potential 2020 season.

Jon Frankel, a correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," recently interviewed current and former KBO players about the league's return during the coronavirus pandemic. In an excerpt made available via press release, Frankel asked Straily if he misses playing in front of a crowd.

MORE: Why one medical expert remains skeptical of MLB's COVID-19 precautions

"Of course. Like, even if you're on the road, and people are just telling you how much you suck — you thrive off it," Straily said. "You feed off that energy.”

Crowd noise obviously plays a big part in an athlete's adrenaline. Not having that factor will be an adjustment for MLB in 2020, and Straily took things a step further regarding the circumstances players face without fans in attendance.

“My shortstop dove for a ball. And he missed it by, like, an inch," he said. "Like, it was an incredible effort. When he hit the ground, I heard the air leave his lungs. And we've talked about that in the dugout. Because I've never once in my life heard that.”

Not having crowds to drown out on-field noise could make for a unique viewing experience for fans at home. UFC returned on May 9, and many punches and kicks were audible on ESPN's TV broadcast.

MLB teams could play proxy crowd noise in games, but nevertheless, fans may pickup noises on their TVs previously unavailable from home.

The full episode will air Tuesday at 9 p.m. CT on HBO.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

The cheer master’s whistle echoed through the ballpark, and dinosaur mascots wearing giant face masks danced on top of the dugout.

With fans absent due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sunday’s scene didn’t quite do the Korean Baseball Organization experience justice. But it was still the league that taught Ryan Sadowski how to let loose on the field.

"I found that as a player I didn't allow myself to enjoy my success the way I should have because it's the game of baseball,” Sadowski told ESPN in 2016. “You're not supposed to show that you enjoy your success. I think it's something I learned here (in Korea), that I would take to younger kids in the States."

Major League Baseball is well aware that its status in the United States will continue to slip if it can’t figure out how to reach a younger audience. This summer presents an opportunity. If the players and owners can agree to a deal that makes the league’s early July target date a reality, for weeks it will be the only major sport on television.

Sports fans are clamoring for action after a months-long drought. What better time to draw in new fans? In that regard, the KBO could have something to teach MLB.

Sadowski is in a unique position to compare the KBO and MLB. He played in both leagues before becoming a KBO scout. Sadowski’s support for on-the-field expression is one Cubs shortstop Javier Báez would likely get behind.

Báez had a message similar to Sadowski's on MLB’s YouTube channel recently. In a show taped during Spring Training, Báez chatted with Puerto Rican recording artist Residente while running the Grammy Award-winner through baseball drills.

“In my personal opinion, I would like to teach young people growing up to enjoy [the game],” Báez said in Spanish. “And if they fail, fail having fun. And keep doing what is right. Let the kids play.”

Báez has been criticized for his playing style, most famously in 2018 when he bat-flipped after a popup. Afterward, former Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned Báez's “respect for the game.”

But Báez's huck wouldn’t have been out of place in Sunday’s KBO game between the NC Dinos and Hanwhu Eagles. The broadcast didn’t feature the kind of ostentatious bat flips that have become so popular on social media. But still, in consecutive innings, players on both teams tossed their bats several feet up the baseline to punctuate base hits. No uproar ensued.

The rate at which KBO bat flips have spread through Twitter speaks to a hunger for showboating among young baseball fans. Why not embrace it?   

“It’s not that it is not the correct way of doing it,” Báez told Residente of his playing style. “It’s just not the way many coaches teach it.”

In the United States, the NBA is the poster child for attracting millennial fans. In 2017-18, young adults led the league’s growth in ratings, according to Forbes. TV viewership among 18- to 34-year-olds was up 14 percent.

The NBA does an especially good job marketing its stars. Admittedly, the game lends itself to that strategy in a way that baseball does not. LeBron James can take over any game down the stretch, but Mike Trout isn’t going to get an at-bat every time the winning run is in scoring position.

But there are other ways NBA stars capture the fascination of young fans. Kids across the country grew up shrugging like Michael Jordan or pumping their arms and pounding their chests like LeBron James.  They take deep dives into YouTube, watching the most devastating dunks of all time – the more embarrassing for the defender, the better. None of that disrespects the game. The NBA and KBO have that in common.

MLB doesn’t have to adopt the KBO’s use of specific chants for each batter and embrace bat flipping for everything from home runs to ground outs – even though, by all accounts, those elements create a delightfully raucous atmosphere.

MLB doesn’t have to abolish baseball’s unwritten rules in one day. But an amendment is in order.

What if demonstrative zeal was instead embraced as a sign of respect for the game? After all, it might be MLB’s best hope of connecting to the next generation.