New bullpen addition George Kontos is happy the Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016...but he didn't want them to


New bullpen addition George Kontos is happy the Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016...but he didn't want them to

George Kontos is just like you.

He was born in the Chicagoland area (Lincolnwood), grew up a diehard Cubs fan and went to school close to home at Northwestern. He even lived and died with that uber-emotional 2003 National League Championship Series, hanging out on Waveland Avenue with college buddies during the infamous Bartman Game.

But that's where the comparisons stop.

When the Cubs finally won it all in November 2016, the veteran reliever had a unique perspective...and he wasn't quite sure what to feel.

Kontos rooted for the Cubs his whole life and now finally gets to put on a uniform with the iconic logo, signing a minor-league deal with the organization over the winter. But he was originally selected out of Northwestern by the New York Yankees in the 5th round of the 2006 MLB Draft and later traded to the San Francisco Giants in April 2012. He spent the next five years in San Francisco, winning a pair of World Series but also losing to those 2016 Cubs in the NLDS after a collapse by Kontos' bullpen mates in Game 4.

"Being in baseball, I'm obviously rooting for the team I'm playing for. I've come in and played against the Cubs lots of times and the 8-year-old inside of me has always rooted for them," Kontos said. "But 2016 was a little bit difficult because they went through us in the first round and we had that bit of a collapse in Game 4 with our bullpen.

"So that one was tough. I can't say I was rooting the Cubs on then, just because it was so fresh and left such a bad taste in my mouth after how we finished our season. But now that it's moved on, I'm happy that they were able to do that. It was something I always hoped for growing up and the fact they were able to do it and I was able to watch it is awesome."

Kontos still lives in Chicago, so even after the Giants were knocked out in 2016, he couldn't escape the Cubs' run. Not that he necessarily wanted to, either.

As that postseason developed, Kontos was recruited by 120 Sports (now Stadium) to do a live broadcast of Games 1 and 2 of the World Series in the West Loop studios.

He still had to fight through those mixed emotions for the broadcasts, especially because he — like Cubs manager Joe Maddon — felt great about the Giants' chances if they were able to get back to Wrigley Field for Game 5 of the NLDS with Johnny Cueto on the mound. Maddon has often pointed to how important that Game 4 comeback was because San Francisco had Cueto looming for a winner-take-all matchup at what guaranteed to be a tense atmosphere at the corner of Clark and Addison.

But now, looking back, Kontos can revel in the joy the same way other Cubs fans can. Plus, the dude has two World Series rings already from the 2012 and 2014 Giants.

He hasn't spent a lot of time around these Cubs, but he can see some similarities between those Giants "dyansty" teams and this current Cubs roster. 

"The thing we had with the Giants the years we won is we had unbelievable team chemistry," Kontos said. "Everyone checked their ego at the door and it was playing as a unit to accomplish one common goal to win that day. And as the season progresses and as the postseason kicks in, that motto is definitely amplified where we have to come in and win today. It's all about picking each other up."

Kontos may get caught up in the numbers game in the Cubs bullpen, as there are plenty of arms vying for the last couple spots in spring training.

Who knows how this will all shake out with Kontos, but for now, he's getting to play for the team he grew up watching and rooting for.

"It's a dream come true," Kontos said. "I've been a Cubs fan since I was 5 years old. In those dreams as a little kid, it was always a Cubs uniform I was wearing as I was envisioning myself in a major-league game. 

"Being able to step into this clubhouse and put this jersey on and hopefully getting the opportunity to toe it up at Wrigley on Opening Day or whenever throughout the season, it's definitely going to be a dream come true for me, my family and everybody who's ever rooted me on along the way — teachers, friends, people from Northwestern. There are a lot of ties that go back there and I'm very proud to pitch in front of whenever I pitch at Wrigley."

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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.

6 of Wrigley Field's worst 7th-inning stretch renditions in recent memory

6 of Wrigley Field's worst 7th-inning stretch renditions in recent memory

The seventh-inning stretch is a sacred tradition at Wrigley Field. Harry Caray passionately performed “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” every home game during his tenure as Cubs radio play-by-play man, previously doing so late in his tenure with the White Sox.

Caray died in 1998 and the Cubs have continued the tradition in his honor ever since, using a rotating cast of celebrities and former players as guest conductors. Last season, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster performed at the Friendly Confines.

Some renditions are more memorable than others, though not in an endearing way like Cookie Monster’s. NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon sang 15 years ago Sunday, and not only did he refer to the ballpark as “Wrigley Stadium,” but also was off pace and didn’t really know the lyrics altogether.

Cubs fans showered Gordon with a chorus of boos, to which all he could do was chuckle and finish as fast as possible. 

Singing in front of 40,000 people isn’t easy, so it’s hard to be too tough on those whose appearances go awry. Nevertheless, guest singers know what they’re signing up for. On the anniversary of Gordon’s performance, here are five more of Wrigley’s worst in recent memory.

Mike Ditka — June 5, 1998

Well, Ditka certainly provided some energy. “Da Coach” didn’t take a breath in his 26-second blaring performance; perhaps he was winded from rushing up to the booth, to which he arrived a few moments late.

Ozzy Osbourne — Aug. 17, 2003

This isn’t a ranking of bad performances, but Osbourne sits atop the leaderboard anyhow. The Black Sabbath vocalist started off singing “Let’s go out to the ball game” before breaking into a mumble streak of made-up words. The look on Kerry Wood’s face summarizes things well.

Mr. T — May 25, 2009

It didn’t sound too good, but it sure was enthusiastic. Way to do your thing, Mr. T.

David Cross — Sept. 21, 2013

Hard to say what Cross, a stand-up comedian and actor, was going for here. He starred in three “Alvin and the Chipmunks” films and, fittingly, screeched into the mic a couple of times. Maybe it was all in jest? He ended his rendition by saying, “That was awful. I’m so sorry.” 

Scottie Pippen — Oct. 22, 2016

Pippen performed the stretch in the biggest game in Cubs history (at that point) — the pennant-clincher in 2016. The Bulls Hall-of-Famer was on tune to start before mixing up lyrics, then passing the mic to the animated Wrigley crowd. 

We’ll give Pippen a slight pass here, considering he brought six championships to Chicago during his playing days.  

With that, I'll leave you with this:

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