Bears

Frankie O: The case for Woody

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Frankie O: The case for Woody

By Frankie O
CSNChicago.com

In the first winter of the Great Cubs Experiment fans have been eagerly dissecting every move of the Epstein Regime. Im very surprisednot surprised at the reactions Ive been getting at the bar. This has been, so far, a nuke job of the roster and not surprising. After watching what transpired on the field last year, many are happy with that. Very happy. But at the same time, folks have to still pay top dollar to have a front row seat to the laying of the foundation for the end of 104 years, and counting, misery. Ive listened to many season ticket holders about their unhappiness with a lack of return in their investment. Fans want to be part of something good, but at what cost? Going to a game at Wrigley never gets old, but as weve watched in the last 2 Augusts and Septembers, decisions have been made to do other things.

As I look at the latest cash grab up north of the Green Bay Packers though, I begin to wonder. The Packers are having another of their stock offerings where fans have the ability to own a piece of paper, for 250. Whatever! Not to be too greedy, the Packers set an individual limit of 200. How nice! Someone can own 50,000 worth of paper, plus 25 shipping and handling, to show how dedicated they are to the cause. (I think Im more outraged at the 25 bucks. How much can it cost to put someones name on a piece of paper and mail it to them?) The demand has been so great that the team has added 30,000 more to the announced limit of 250,000. That would put the total of the offering at 70 million. And people from Philly are crazy?

I bring this up because, in my opinion, almost everyone is on board here with the transformation that is occurring and the Cubs faithful has been categorized as the most faithful in sports. Of course, the cynic in me cant help but point out that this is the offseason! Once the season starts, and the losses mount, they might be whistling a different tune. It rhymes with Lou. Life is always easy in Theory. Are Cubs fans going to be willing to keep on parting with their hard earned cash for the product they are watching on the field, when they understand they have no chance of competing? Theyre not from Wisconsin!

That is why I think that maybe the new bosses should throw the nostalgic masses a bone.

There are only a handful of Cubs who have captured the imagination of the fans the way Kerry Wood has. With his blazing fastball and quiet demeanor, he burst on the scene and achieved national stardom with his 20 strikeout game in 1998.

I remember that game, but for a different reason.

That spring training, the media was abuzz about the young flame-thrower. He was left off the opening day roster though and did not make his first appearance until April 12th. His first 3 starts were what you would expect of a rookie, 11 innings, never going more than 5 in earning a 1-2 record. Then in his 4th start at home against the St. Louis Cardinals, there was a flash of what made him the 4th overall pick of the 1995 amateur draft. Seven innings pitched, one run allowed and nine ks in an 8-3 win. I was hooked. The fastball! The curve! This kid was big-time! The following Tuesday night was a Harry Carays employee outing in the bleachers at Wrigley.

That would be Tuesday May 5, 1998. To say that we enjoyed a few beverages would be typical understatement on my part. After the game, it came to me that Wood was pitching the next afternoon. Discussing this with a friend at a local establishment, I argued that we had to go see him pitch since it was a day game, the weather was going to be iffy and it would be easy to get tickets. If he pitched like his previous outing, he was going to become the next big thing, and getting to see him would be much more difficult. My friend argued that in my euphoric state that he didnt see any way that I would be able to get up in time and come back into the city to go to the game. As my phone rang the next morning, repeatedly, I was furious that my friend was correct and that this was a game that I would be watching on the TV. Although, I did find time to pick up the phone during the last call I received to express my feelings about his being right in two succinct words. As I tortured myself on the treadmill, while watching the game, to get rid of the evil spirits that where inhabiting my body, the game I was watching was making me feel even sicker. Strikeout after strikeout, in the most dominating game I ever watched. I had to turn it off. I did however listen to the rest of the game on my way into work. 20 strikeouts, no walks and one UGH! Upon arriving, everyone at the restaurant was buzzing and there were three TV stations interviewing customers to get their reactions to one of the biggest days in Cubs history. Did you see it?! Did you see it?!! Yeah, I saw it, now leave me alone! Man, was I ticked-off. I was sure that something was going to happen, and I was right, now I was being mocked about it everywhere I turned. Oh well. At least I have a story to tell when I want people to laugh at me!

This was the beginning of Woods status of not just being another player. Although the progression of his career was not what everyone expected or predicted, due to injury or whatever else, he always maintained that status. He had an aura and a mystique to accompany that right arm.

Something I witnessed later that year forever endeared him to me. My father and brother were in town and we went to a Cubs game that was honoring Harry. We arrived inside Wrigley early so that we could get on the field to have a picture taken, because thats how I roll! My father and brother were wearing new Cubs hats that they had purchased on the way to the stadium. Waiting to get onto the field, we were sitting in the first row of seats almost behind home plate on the Cubs side of the field. At this time rookie-phenom Wood was doing some PR work with some bankers, throwing a ceremonial pitch and having his picture taken. In the meantime, a crowd of youngsters, including my brother, had gathered near the home plate entrance to the Cubs dugout in hopes of getting an autograph.

Upon completion of his work duties with the giddy bankers (Wood fever had caught the entire populace of Chicago) he stopped to oblige the youthful mass on his way into the dugout. My brother came back beaming with his new hat having a pretty cool autograph on it. One that was so cool that a Phillies fan wouldnt get a ton of grief for possessing it. The old man, realizing this point, decided that he would go over and get his signed too. It was comical watching Wood pass over my father time after time, to sign something for a kid. Understanding that it wasnt going to happen, my father backed out of the throng and started his way back. At this point a little guy in the group saw what was happening and told my father to hold on and give the hat to him. As soon as the kid got back in line it was signed. I love the fact that Wood signed for every kid there and wouldnt sign for an old dude who was a Phillies fan, not falling for the subterfuge of him holding a Cubs hat!

I never saw him in person until many years later. Just over a year ago as a matter of fact, at the after funeral reception at Harry Carays for Ron Santo. As he approached the bar, my work wife and I said hello and asked teasingly if he had signed a contract for the 2011 season. We asked knowing that he was a free-agent and everybody who was a fan of the Cubs, including the late Ronnie, would like to see him back in a Cubbies uniform. The sheepish smile he gave the two of us got us thinking, Wow, maybe he will be back. His signing was announced less than a week later and Jim Hendry said their conversation at the reception was where their talks to bring him back started.
But that wasnt hard to guess. He belongs here. The symmetry between him and the Cubs is undeniable.

By this time Id become a fan of his for another reason. I know hes not the only one, not even on his own team, but for purpose of this post, Ill focus on his charitable endeavors. I think because Ive watched him here since he was 20, and have watched him grow into manhood it really resonates.

I dont know when the point is that you get it but he certainly does. I know for myself it was when my children were born. Maybe not so coincidentally, once he got married and had children, Wood has become a charitable force. According to his website, his Kerry Wood Strike Zone Celebrity Bowling Tournament has raised over 2 million for Childrens Memorial Hospital and other Chicago charities. Upon his arrival with the Cubs last year, he and his wife launched The Wood Family Foundation, in which they hope to improve the lives of children in and around the Chicago area through children's charities. You look at the picture of him and his family in the foundation website and its everything that anyone would want in life. And by reading their comments throughout the website, you can feel their need to share their good fortune. The benefit that the Wood family is having on others is admirable and undeniable.

What I also would term as undeniable would be Kid Ks effect on this years Cubs roster. When I first moved here, the Cubs Cub was Mark Grace. Not only was he good, he seemed to do things the right way. A gamer. He was also an influence on the young Kerry Wood, imparting his years of baseball wisdom. I always perceived that hitters wanted nothing to do with pitchers and vice-versa, but these two are so cool, it seemed a natural fit, and you would see them together often.

With this years edition primed to be one of the youngest weve seen in a long time, it only makes sense that the veterans chosen to stay are the right ones. New manager Dale Sveums comments about the apathy he perceived in the Cubs dugout in years past as viewed from across the field is something that is no longer going to be accepted, by anyone, since we have been promised more. What some of the youngsters on the Cubs are going to need is a no-nonsense, modern day, Crash Davis, someone who can appreciate the ups and downs of playing in the Show, someone who knows how to successfully navigate all of the obstacles in playing for the Chicago Cubs.

No one disputes that this is going to take a while, the path of developing young talent always does. In the meantime though, their need to be leaders, on the team and in the field, veterans that have earned the trust of management and the ticket-buying public alike, to show the way forward.

As I read in the papers this week what I consider a game of chicken, I dont get it. I know the mantra for the Epstein lead management is not to pay for past performance, and I get this, if youre talking about A-Rod or Albert Pujols or Alfonso Soriano(!), but they all make mega-mega millions. Were talking here about a set-up reliever that ALL sides agree took less than market value to play here last year. Why not consider that when offering a 2 year deal for appropriate money that would benefit everyone involved. The Cubs are better with Kerry Wood here. Chicago is better with him here as well

Ryan Pace finds silver lining in social distancing at Halas Hall

Ryan Pace finds silver lining in social distancing at Halas Hall

Bears general manager Ryan Pace, like everyone else in the United States right now, is doing his best to do his job in what's become a bizarre new normal of social distancing. Fortunately for him and the rest of the team's staff and players, Halas Hall is well-equipped to handle COVID-19's challenges.

The renovations at Halas Hall couldn't have come at a better time. The more expansive campus provides the Bears with the space needed to keep the players and coaches as safe as possible. For Pace, it offers a greater opportunity to appreciate the little things while catching a meal with Matt Nagy.

“So the last two nights, we discovered how nice it is,” Pace said, via MMQB. “You sit out there, and it forces you to take a different vantage point during the day. Beautiful view, and it’s pretty peaceful.”

As Albert Breer pointed out, Pace and Nagy's view includes four outdoor practice fields and a couple of ponds. Not too shabby.

The most important takeaway isn't the landscape. Instead, it's safety. 

NFL players have until Thursday to decide whether they'll opt-out of the 2020 season, and for teams that are lacking the facilities Chicago has, it's more likely high-risk players or those with families at high-risk will choose to sit out the season.

Bears nose tackle Eddie Goldman and safety Jordan Lucas have decided to opt out this year, and there's a chance more will do the same. 

Pace is confident in Chicago's COVID-19 plan. We'll see if the players are too.

For now, Pace is finding comfort in the little things. 

Why Chicago Cubs starters Jon Lester, Alec Mills are two of MLB's best pitchers

Why Chicago Cubs starters Jon Lester, Alec Mills are two of MLB's best pitchers

Usually when GMs, managers and fans get ready for a baseball season, any consistent production from the Nos. 4 and 5 starters is a luxury. In the Cubs’ case, it’s been an embarrassment of riches through two turns of the rotation.

Through 10 games, the Cubs are 8-2, good for the best win percentage in the National League. One huge reason for that has been the team’s incredible starting pitching. Kyle Hendricks set the tone early when he pitched a complete game shutout in the very first game of the season. Now, the Cubs’ starters lead MLB in ERA (1.95), batting average against (.156) and WHIP (0.780). They’ve done all that while also throwing 60 innings, second only to the Indians who have thrown 70 innings.

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At first glance you’d probably think, yeah, that makes sense with Hendricks starting the season the way he did, and Darvish getting back on track with six innings of two-hit ball in his second start. But surprisingly the only two clunkers came in Hendricks and Darvish starts. In fact, the analytics say Jon Lester and Alec Mills, the Cubs’ last two guys in the rotation have been two of the most impressive starters in MLB.

Let’s start by looking at the ERAs of all starters who have at least 8 IP, since the name of the game is keeping runs off the board. If 8 IP seems like an arbitrary cutoff… well, it is. But it seems like a fair number to assess quality pitchers who have made two starts in this shortened season with short leashes on pitchers. Among those pitchers, Lester and Mills each rank in the top-10 with ERAs of 0.82 and 1.38, respectively, according to FanGraphs.

So how are they doing it? Neither is a power pitcher who relies on strikeouts. In fact, Lester’s four punchouts place him tied for fourth-fewest in our split of SPs who have thrown more than 8 IP. Mills’ seven strikeouts (tied for 10th-fewest) aren’t much better. These guys succeed by keeping guys off the base paths, and not allowing hard-hit balls.

Looking at batting average against, Lester and Mills move into MLB’s top-five, according to our FanGraphs split, with each pitcher holding batters under .120. Since we’ve already established that neither guy is a power pitcher, when we filter further to just show BAA on balls put in play it should come as no surprise that Lester and Mills rise to No. 1 and No. 2 in all of baseball with .118 and .139 marks, respectively.

Great defense, like Javy Baez’s tag in Monday’s game, certainly helps the pitchers’ stats. But the starters also make things easier on the defense by inducing poor contact, regardless of whether the ball is hit on the ground or the air. According to FanGraphs, Mills ranks second in MLB by inducing soft contact on 33.3% of all balls put into play. In addition, he’s 11th in MLB with a 54.3 ground ball percentage. Lester ranks ninth by getting hitters to make soft contact 26.5% of the time, although he’s 11th in the league in getting batters to hit fly balls 47.1% of the time.

In the end the result is the same, with Mills and Lester combining to only allow four extra base hits in 24 IP. So although they aren’t typical “dominant” pitchers that teams like to make their aces, Mills and Lester have been two of the most effective starters in the game.


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