Morton faces early season test

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Morton faces early season test

Rocco Balcaster, the leading scorer on Morton's unbeaten and unappreciated basketball team, was trying to be objective while sizing up his team's pluses as he prepared for Friday's West Suburban Gold showdown with highly rated Downers Grove South in Cicero.

"Our team is looking pretty good even though we haven't played much competition yet," the 6-7 senior said. "Our defense is strong. In four games, we have held all of our opponents under 40 points. That's our goal: to keep opponents under 40. And we want to keep doing our thing on offense--running motion sets and getting a lot of inside baskets."

Balcaster is used to winning at Morton, which isn't the way it used to be. Today's generation doesn't relate to former coaches Norm Ziebell, who produced two state championships in the 1930s and 1940s, or Jim Vopicka, who had winning teams in the 1950s. Morton was known as a baseball school with five state titles to show for it.

But current coach Tony Martinucci had only one losing season in his first 11 years. He is closing in on 200 victories in his career. His last four teams were 24-4, 23-6, 16-10 and 18-10.

"When I got here, basketball was serious. The varsity was 24-4 and we just tried to follow them, do what they did, fill their shoes," Balcaster said. "I was tempted to go to St. Patrick but I decided to stay at Morton. I wanted to get a good education and get out of the neighborhood but I stayed because of the basketball program and my older brother Joe was on the varsity and he encouraged me to stay. I'm glad I did."

That has been the key to Martinucci's success--keeping local kids at home. A Morton graduate of 1982, he learned his trade from coaches Tom Richardson at Nazareth and Gene Pingatore at St. Joseph. After serving as Morton's freshman coach for two years, he was promoted to the varsity.

"I always heard that you can't win at Morton. We were good in baseball and coming on in soccer but we could never win in basketball, I was told," Martinucci said. "No one remembered the good years with Ziebell and Vopicka, just the lean years in the 1980s and 1990s."

The problem was the most talented athletes went to St. Joseph in Westchester or Nazareth in La Grange Park or Fenwick in Oak Park, not Morton in Berwyn-Cicero.

"I had to change the attitude and stop losing kids," Martinucci said. "And I had to build some excitement in the program."

He did that. This year, for example, he promoted promising freshman Wiesner Perez to the varsity. The recipient of a national scholarship, he could have gone to any high school. But both of his brothers who are at Morton and Wiesner chose to stay at home.

"He will be very good, the best player we have had in a long time," the coach said.

Balcaster is the leader of the senior-dominated squad, averaging 18 points and eight rebounds per game. Other starters are 6-4 junior Walter Perez (17 ppg), 6-4 senior David Chatman (9 ppg, 8 rpg), 6-0 senior point guard Anthony Lewis (12 ppg, 4 assists) and 6-4 junior Rodrigo Nava (8 ppg).

Wiesner Perez, 5-10 sophomore Greg Carter and 5-10 senior Letech Lewis come off the bench.

"The bench is the key," Martinucci said. "How well will they play in big games? How well will the young kids handle the pressure in big games? Friday will be a measuring stick going into the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.

"This could be another 20-plus victory season. This team could be in a class with our 24-4 team. But we've toughened up the schedule. This is the toughest our conference has ever been with Proviso East, Downers Grove South, Morton and Hinsdale South. It could be the strongest conference outside the Chicago Public League."

That's the kind of challenge Balcaster and his teammates are looking forward to. The conference may be tough but they know the route through the regional, sectional and supersectional is even tougher.

"Our goal is to get Downstate," Balcaster said. "The regional and sectional are always tough and we know we will have to get past Simeon (in the supersectional) to get to Peoria."

"We have to be prepared. That's why we play about 200 games with each other in the summer. We are a big team with four starters who are 6-4 or bigger. We feel we have a rebounding edge. My role? Score the most points. Eighteen points per game is all right now. That's all the matters as long as we are winning."

SportsTalk Live: David DeJesus discusses time spent with Joe Maddon, World Series criticism

SportsTalk Live: David DeJesus discusses time spent with Joe Maddon, World Series criticism

"Be sexy."

That was one of two rules manager Joe Maddon told David DeJesus when the Tampa Bay Rays acquired him in 2013.

DeJesus appeared on SportsTalk Live on Wednesday to discuss his time spent with Maddon in Tampa Bay.

"Just be yourself out there," DeJesus said of Maddon when the Rays traded for him. "I want you to have fun and I want you to just have that ora of 'just don't worry, just go out there and play.' It kept the whole team loose."

DeJesus also shared his thoughts on Maddon's questionable managerial decisions in the World Series.

Hear that, and more, in the video above.

Between Cubs' victory lap and Hall of Fame vote, Sammy Sosa barely staying in the picture

Between Cubs' victory lap and Hall of Fame vote, Sammy Sosa barely staying in the picture

Sammy Sosa has stayed so far off the radar that his long-running absence from Cubs Convention didn't even come up during last weekend's Q&A session with ownership.

And the Cubs can't go viral all the time and dominate every offseason news cycle, with the National Baseball Hall of Fame revealing the election results on Wednesday and welcoming Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez as part of its 2017 class.

But it's become out of sight, out of mind for Sosa, who barely crossed the 5-percent threshold (8.6) needed to remain on the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot for another year.

Sosa — a seven-time All Star, 1998 National League MVP and the franchise's all-time leader with 545 home runs (and 609 overall) — hadn't gained any traction at all during his first four years under BBWAA consideration, hovering between 12.5 and 6.6 percent.

It's complicated with Sosa, a diva personality who experienced a dramatic late-career renaissance and got named in a New York Times report that exposed him as one of the players who tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug in 2003 (during what was supposed to be an anonymous survey).

The Cubs have undergone a complete makeover since Sosa walked out in 2004, leaving him without many allies in the organization. It's nothing personal, but in the past the Ricketts family has hinted that Sosa could mend certain fences and fill in some of the blanks he once left open during an unconvincing performance in front of Congress.

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The Cubs brought Hall of Famers Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and Ryne Sandberg to meet President Barack Obama during their Martin Luther King Jr. Day visit to the White House and keep adding former players to the front office. It's awkward after a World Series run where so many alumni showed up to do TV work, throw first pitches, spray champagne or simply watch a rare playoff game at Wrigley Field.

— If Sosa's looking for a roadmap, Manny Ramirez did his penance and cooperated with Major League Baseball to the point where Cubs president Theo Epstein shockingly hired him as a Triple-A Iowa player/coach in the middle of the 2014 season, something that would have been unthinkable during their clashes with the Boston Red Sox.

As a hitting consultant, Ramirez took a come-and-go-as-you-please arrangement, becoming a national story during the 2015 playoffs but largely staying away from the 2016 championship team, perhaps gearing up for his independent-ball comeback in Japan this year. Even after failing multiple drug tests, one of the greatest right-handed hitters of his generation still finished at 23.8 percent in his first year on the BBWAA ballot.

— Lee Smith (34.2 percent) — a drafted-and-developed Cub and the franchise's all-time leader with 180 saves — didn't come close in his 15th and final time on the BBWAA ballot. Smith had been grandfathered when the Hall of Fame narrowed the eligibility window to 10 years, possibly trying to squeeze Steroid Era symbols like Roger Clemens (54.1 percent) and Barry Bonds (53.8 percent).

— This will make Cub fans feel old: Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano are Hall of Fame-eligible for the first time in 2018, when based off this year's returns Trevor Hoffman (74) and Vladimir Guerrero (71.7) should be building momentum toward the 75 percent needed for induction into Cooperstown.