Cubs

Thornton's Banks dreams of Oregon

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Thornton's Banks dreams of Oregon

Thornton's Jalen Banks is a unique personality. He is a genuine student-athlete. He competes in two sports. He ranks No. 3 in a class of 432. And he wants to study civil engineering in college.Talk about juggling your busy schedule to accommodate classes, homework, practice, games and the recruiting process. Well, Banks has been running ahead of the curve since he received a C in reading as a fourth grader."I went to a private school early and they instilled academics in me," Banks said. "They talked about the challenges of high school. Grades are important but I don't look at it as work. I'm capable of doing it so why not? If I get a B, I get mad at myself. Why can't I do better? Competing in the classroom is like competing in football or track."Banks has worked hard to achieve success at all levels. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound safety has accumulated 10 scholarship offers and the list, which includes schools from the Big Ten, SEC and ACC, is a testimony to his ability to combine academics and football skills.He has offers from Illinois, Northwestern, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and Western Michigan. He made unofficial visits to Iowa and Wisconsin last week during spring break. Earlier, he visited Illinois, Northwestern and Michigan State. Since he doesn't plan to commit until after the 2012 season, he can be expected to receive more offers.He hopes one of them will come from Oregon."Oregon is my dream school," he said. "Since I was 7 or 8-years-old, since I began following football and watching games on TV, I have loved Oregon. It's more than the (green and yellow) uniforms. I like the offense, the great players, the playmakers. I enjoy watching them play. I get more involved when I'm watching them. I was excited when they got to the national championship game."No, I'm not disappointed that they haven't offered yet. I have talked to them. They will see me in May. And I'm going to one of their camps in June. Theyll get a chance to evaluate me. I hope they like what they see. If I get a chance, I'd like to go there. But there are other great schools that have opened my eyes. It would be exciting to play in the SEC."But he isn't in a hurry. Coach Bill Mosel, preparing for his 27th season as head coach at the Harvey school, reminds that the recruiting process has accelerated in recent years. Offers are made sooner and sooner, sometimes when athletes are sophomores."I'll sit down with Jalen and his parents after the May evaluation period and see where they are at," Mosel said. "He needs to take visits. I don't want him to have any regrets by committing too early. Kids often renege on their early commitment because they don't take official visits and then find out a school is stockpiling talent at his position. Jalen won't commit before the season. He'll make visits in the fall."

In the meantime, Banks is eager to improve his speed (from 4.5 to 4.4) and demonstrate his leadership skills as one of four captains on a team that hopes to improve on last year's disappointing 6-4 finish. And he wants to win another state championship in track.Last year, Banks ran a leg on the winning 800-meter relay. He hopes to repeat this spring. He also competes in the 100, 200 and another relay. He enjoys track because it helps him to get in shape for football, improves his quickness and squeezes his competitive juices."The great ones are very focused. They know what they want," Mosel said. "When Jalen was a freshman, we talked about how he would like to see himself and he hasn't wavered. His career path hasn't changed."Mosel said Banks "has the opportunity to be the best defensive back we have produced, in a class with Jermaine Hampton," who played at Northern Illinois and with the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL.That's quite an accolade. Traditionally, Thornton is one of the most successful football programs in the state. A few years ago, eight of Mosel's products were competing in the NFL.Banks has played on the varsity since he was a freshman, a rarity in high school and especially at a high-profile school like Thornton. He started as a wide receiver. Midway through his sophomore year, he was moved to safety to fill a void in the defensive secondary. He likely will play safety in college. But if he gets a step faster, he could be moved to cornerback, the toughest position to fill at the college level."He has great feet. He is very fluid. He has good hips, good ball skills and reacts to the ball in the air. He also is very physical and comes up and makes tackles," Mosel said."From day one, I always liked football. It's a fun sport, a contact sport," Banks said. "There is something about hitting somebody or scoring touchdowns that makes it more exciting."Banks grew up in south suburban Hazel Crest and wasn't familiar with Thornton. But he played for the Harvey Colts youth team and attended a state playoff game and was bit by the bug. "From then on, I decided not to go to St. Rita or Marian Catholic," he said."Before I even walked into the school, I became aware of the tradition. Old-timers, the coaches for the Harvey Colts and other people were always talking about the Thornton tradition and the Lou Boudreau Room, where all the trophies and pictures of All-Staters and All-Americans are. Nothing else has to be said. You just look around and you see it and you feel it."His father always told him that, because of his size and footwork, he would be a defensive back. Jalen never objected. He relished the challenge. While others opted for the more glamorous positions such as quarterback, running back or wide receiver, he preferred defense."You get to make plays. You don't have to wait for the ball," he said. "On defense, it's up for grabs, for everybody who is hungry, 11 men flying to the ball. On defense, you can free-wheel to make plays."Banks, who was injured most of his freshman year, realized he had big-time potential early in his sophomore year. He had two interceptions in his first game. But that was only one game, he reasoned. But he stood out in a losing effort against Lincoln-Way East in the state playoff and the proverbial light bulb when on."I made a lot of plays, tackles for loss. I was matched up against (Illinois recruit) Jason Robertson. I didn't give up any big plays. It really made me feel confident, that I can play defensive back at the Division I level. I know I can hit and make tackles," he said.So Banks looks ahead to the 2012 season and the completion of the recruiting process. "I had a dream to be in this position," he said."I like being able to go out and get a feel for things, to meet players and coaches. I appreciate the personal letters. I'm looking for a balance between academics and athletics. I'm looking for a school that will help me excel as a student and as a player. I want a degree to get a guaranteed job."Every school has nice facilities. In the Big Ten, everybody has a big stadium. But do they have people within the program, people to help you get better, strength coaches and position coaches, people to look after you?"Jalen Banks is still looking.

According to Javy Baez, the Cubs need to improve their pregame focus

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USA Today

According to Javy Baez, the Cubs need to improve their pregame focus

While the Cubs’ decline has been talked about over and over again, it’s always been framed in relatively vague terms. Perhaps in the interest of protecting a former manager who is still well-liked within the clubhouse, specifics were always avoided. It was just a change that was needed.

That is, until Javy Baez spoke on Sunday morning. In no unclear terms, Baez took a stab at explaining why such a talented team has fallen short of expectations in back-to-back seasons. 

“It wasn’t something bad, but we had a lot of options – not mandatory,” Baez said from his locker at Sloan Park. “Everybody kind of sat back, including me, because I wasn’t really going out there and preparing for the game. I was getting ready during the game, which is not good. But this year, I think before the games we’ve all got to be out there, everybody out there, as a team. Stretch as a team, be together as a team so we can play together.”

Related: What to love, and hate, about the Cubs heading into 2020

The star shortstop's comments certainly track. Maddon is widely considered one of the better managers in baseball, but discipline and structure have never been key pillars of his leadership style. He intrinsically trusts players to get their own work done – something that's clearly an appreciated aspect of his personality... until it isn't. World Series hangovers don’t exist four years after the fact but given Maddon’s immediate success in Chicago, it’s easy to understand how players let off the gas pedal. 

“I mean I would just get to the field and instead of going outside and hit BP, I would do everything inside, which is not the same,” he said. “Once I’d go out to the game, I’d feel like l wasn’t ready. I felt like I was getting loose during the first 4 innings, and I should be ready and excited to get out before the first pitch.” 

“You can lose the game in the first inning. Sometimes when you’re not ready, and the other team scores by something simple, I feel like it was because of that. It was because we weren’t ready, we weren’t ready to throw the first pitch because nobody was loose.” 

Baez also promised that this year would be far more organized and rigid. They will stretch as a team, warm up outside as a team and hopefully rediscover that early-game focus that may have slipped away during the extended victory lap. That may mean less giant hacks, too. 

“Sometimes we’re up by a lot or down by a lot and we wanted to hit homers,” he said. “That’s really not going to work for the team. It’s about getting on base and giving the at-bat to the next guy, and sometimes we forget about that because of the situation of the game. I think that’s the way you get back to the game – going pitch by pitch and at-bat by at-bat.” 

Baez was less specific when it came to his contractual discussions with the team, only saying that negotiations were “up and down.” He’d like to play his whole career here and would be grateful if an extension was reached before Opening Day – he’s just not counting on it. The focus right now is on recapturing some of that 2016 drive and the rest, according to him, will take care of itself.

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Magic, buzz and something crazy: It's time for the White Sox to win

Magic, buzz and something crazy: It's time for the White Sox to win

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The White Sox are rebuilt.

No, the rebuild isn’t officially over. You’ll have to wait for after the parade for that. And it’s true that there are plenty of question marks on this roster.

But for the first time in a long time, the White Sox are preparing for a season with expectations. Big ones. The manager set them early, saying he’d be disappointed if his squad didn’t reach the postseason. There hasn’t been October baseball on the South Side in more than a decade. But that’s not stopping anyone in silver and black from realizing that things are different now.

“It’s definitely a little different,” shortstop Tim Anderson said. “It’s more relaxed and we know what we want. We know what we want this spring training versus last spring training. We kind of knew what we wanted, but now we know what we want and we see it. We just have to put the work in and go get it.

“I get a winning vibe, all positive and winning vibes. Everybody knows what we are here to do. We are here to win a championship, and we are here to take it all.”

Everyone at Camelback Ranch is talking about expectations. And whether they’ve voiced their intent to just play better baseball, make the playoffs or win the World Series, there’s one common conclusion: It’s time to win.

The losing has not been fun during the last three rebuilding seasons. The White Sox lost a combined 284 games in 2017, 2018 and 2019, with contending often taking a backseat to development in anticipation of the transition from rebuilding mode to contending mode.

But a host of breakout campaigns from young, core players in 2019 laid the groundwork for Rick Hahn’s front office to make a slew of veteran additions this winter, adding to that core All-Stars like Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnacion and Gio Gonzalez.

It all adds up to realistic postseason expectations on the South Side. And a feeling that those losing days are firmly in the rearview mirror.

“I think it's just about time for us to start winning,” first baseman Jose Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “It's just that time for us to start winning games and start to be relevant.

“The team that the front office put together, we're going to be able to do it. We have to be united. We need to be strong in good times and bad times if we want to be successful this season. With the guys that we have right now, that's something that's doable. That's our goal.

“I think expectations are high because we all know that this is the time for us to win.”

Certainly Abreu would love to experience that. He hasn’t been a part of a winning team in his major league career, part of six sub-.500 seasons on the South Side. But his love for the organization kept him in a White Sox uniform as he briefly hit free agency this winter. He’ll be wearing those colors for at least another three years thanks to a new deal. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if he never wears any others.

But you don’t have to have sweltered through the dog days of this rebuild to express your excitement for 2020. Something had to lure all those free agents this winter. Grandal, Keuchel, Encarnacion, Gonzalez, they all liked what they saw. Now they’re a big part of why there is such electricity running through White Sox camp.

“It seems like they want to do magic this year and for years to come now,” he said. “I look at it now as, let's keep competing as much as we can and see it from there. The buzz is in the locker room. We are excited. We do want to play, and I think this is the year we're going to push for it.

“They went out and got some guys that wanted to make something happen this year, and I think we have the team to do it. If you’re someone in Chicago watching the White Sox, this is a team to watch, and we’re excited to see that we can put it together.”

It truly does seem that Hahn’s front office did go out and get everything that was missing from this roster, which featured as impressive a collection of young talent as you’ll find but lacked experience, especially winning experience. Even 33-year-old team leader Abreu has never played in the postseason.

Enter the newcomers. Grandal and Encarnacion have appeared in each of the last five postseasons. Keuchel’s been to the playoffs in four of the last five years. Gonzalez played in three of the last four postseasons. New reliever Steve Cishek went to the NL wild card game with the Cubs in 2018.

They have no plans of stopping those streaks.

“Once you get a little taste of the playoffs, that's why you play, is to get that feeling,” Keuchel said. “As much as you want to replicate it in the regular season, for guys who have no playoff experience, I think the regular season is that feeling. But there's another feeling to it that pushes you and wants you to be a better player.

“I told Rick Hahn this, I said four out of the last five years I've made the playoffs, and I don't expect any of these three years (during his contract with the White Sox) to be any different.”

A lot of things will have to go right for the White Sox to make a rapid ascent to the top of the baseball mountain. As mentioned, there are question marks. What will the team get from Dylan Cease and Reynaldo Lopez a year after some ugly results? Will Michael Kopech be the pitcher who was promised prior to his Tommy John surgery? What will Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal do in their first tastes of the major leagues? Will Anderson and Yoan Moncada stay productive if their good luck diminishes? Will Nomar Mazara unlock the potential the White Sox see in their new right fielder?

It all has to work out for the White Sox to compete for the division title and a World Series championship. But isn’t that the case with every team?

This is the time of year when hope springs eternal. Viewing the upcoming season through rose-colored glasses is a February tradition on par with Presidents Day mattress sales.

But the White Sox have good reason to be excited, good reason to be talking playoffs for the first time in so long. That light at the end of the tunnel that Hahn has been talking about for a while now isn’t just visible. It’s bathing these young White Sox.

Of course, they have to prove they can do it. But all this talk? Don’t roll your eyes. It’s not at all crazy.

The White Sox are saving the crazy for the field.

“We have a chance to do something crazy,” Anderson said. “That’s what everybody is talking about, right? So why not own up to it and set the bar high, go to the playoffs and win the championship. That’s the goal, right?

“We didn’t come here to work for nothing. We come here to win championships and make it to the playoffs. That’s no secret. Everybody knows we are here to win championships.”

It’s time to get nuts.

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