Cubs

Theo Epstein admits there's a bit of frustration in Cubs' clubhouse over constant lineup shuffling

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein admits there's a bit of frustration in Cubs' clubhouse over constant lineup shuffling

Joe Maddon will be back as the Cubs’ manager in 2019. Theo Epstein confirmed as much during his approximately 70-minute end-of-season press conference Wednesday.

There was speculation that Maddon and the Cubs might have parted ways after the earliest end to a season during his tenure, speculation that perhaps there was some unseen behind-the-scenes head-butting going on between the skipper and the front office. Epstein made sure to say that wasn’t true, that conflict over baseball ideas is welcomed and that he in no way prefers a yes-man running his team.

But while Epstein did his best to put that issue to bed, he was refreshingly honest to the point that he revealed not everyone in a Cubs uniform is always happy with Maddon’s methods. The team president fessed up that certain players are a little frustrated with Maddon’s constant lineup shuffling, something that’s been a Maddon trademark since he arrived on the North Side ahead of the 2015 season — and the Cubs’ rise to the top of the baseball heap.

“Maybe a little bit, honestly,” Epstein said when asked if there’s frustration among the players over the lack of a set, everyday lineup. “But I also think they understand. They look around and they see the talent here. And that’s how players talk about it. ‘We have so many talented players who deserve to play, and that’s what makes us great, that’s what makes us really good. But here’s how sometimes it makes me feel, and here’s how if we could communicate about it it could make things a little bit easier.’ I just think it’s important to hear that and to listen and to communicate as much as possible about it and to be transparent.

“In a situation that’s more uncertain —more uncertain than a set lineup every single day, which we don’t have with this group — helping players anticipate as much as possible when they’re going to play, their role so they can think along is really important. And I think that’s something that Joe tries to do and does effectively. But we can all get better at it. I learned some things from talking to the players today, and I’m going to share those with Joe. I’m sure Joe learned some things from his discussions with the players, too. We’re going to continue to try to get better at it.

“I would say the players very much understand but that they’re human and of course at times they get frustrated, more often when they’re not playing or not hitting than when they’re in there a lot and hitting.”

The lack of a set 1 through 8 in the batting order during the majority of a 162-game season has worked rather well for the Cubs since Maddon took over as manager. They’ve averaged more than 96 wins during his four seasons, all of which ended in playoff berths, three of which saw the Cubs reach the NLCS and one which ended in a World Series championship.

It’s been a luxury for a team that’s had plenty of depth during this stretch. Maddon’s juggling of certain positions on the field and his desire to get certain, more traditional everyday guys rest has allowed the Cubs to stock their bench with players whose talent makes them capable of being everyday guys on many, if not most, other teams.

Being able to bring guys like Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ — and, before his rise to superstardom, Javy Baez — off the bench has helped the Cubs late in games. And as Epstein put it, it’s saved the Cubs in injury situations over the years.

“The fact that we have more than eight everyday-caliber players to throw out there and we have depth, it’s a huge part of what’s helped us win 95 games this year, what’s helped us average 97 (wins) the last four years, more than anyone in baseball,” Epstein said. “When you lose Addison Russell, Javy Baez slides over, Ben Zobrist slides to second base, and when you lose Kris Bryant, David Bote’s there to fill in. Player after player. The alternative to that overexposing a reserve or forcing a Triple-A or Four-A type player into that role, and that hurts the team and that hurts your ultimate goal.

“That said, there is a price to pay, sometimes with players not knowing they’re in the lineup every day and not having that confidence that they can go out and play and develop at their own pace. If they’re sometimes wondering if they have to get that hit today to be in the lineup tomorrow, that’s something that you wrestle with.

“Honestly, I think the right thing for the organization overall is to have too many good players instead of not enough, or to have eight guys for eight spots and then the second you suffer one or two or three injuries your whole season’s down the tubes.

“It’s the depth of really quality players we’ve had that’s kept us afloat at many times.”

The existence of frustration isn’t exactly surprising for players who consider themselves — and in many cases have proved themselves — capable of everyday roles. But this is not a new topic for the Cubs, one that predates even these comments from Zobrist in spring training.

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody,” Zobrist said in February. “You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

So while Maddon’s methods might be a tad frustrating at times, they also allow for plenty of opportunities. And more than 96 wins a season.

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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