Chicago Cubs

Behind the scenes at Wrigley: Eddie Vedder, The Cubs Way and how winners write history

Behind the scenes at Wrigley: Eddie Vedder, The Cubs Way and how winners write history

After the Cubs won their first National League pennant since the year World War II ended, Lukas McKnight found himself on the Murphy’s Bleachers rooftop, part of a small group watching Eddie Vedder play piano and sing Pink Floyd songs at the famous sports bar behind Wrigley Field.

Tracking the Cubs as October turned into early November became an all-consuming pursuit, an alternative universe where you would keep bumping into Bill Murray or John Cusack and have to remind yourself to do things like call home, pay the bills and do your laundry.

McKnight grew up in Chicago’s northern suburbs and got drafted by the Cubs in 2000. Four years later, with his career stalling in the minors, he had evolved into almost a player/coach, paired up as a kind of personal catcher for a young lefty with a great curveball and control issues. That would be Rich Hill, the late bloomer who teamed up with Clayton Kershaw to throw back-to-back shutouts and give the Los Angeles Dodgers a 2-1 lead in that NL Championship Series. 

By 2005, Jim Hendry’s front office had seen enough potential to make McKnight an area scout, sending him all over the Upper Midwest, Ohio Valley region and Florida. Theo Epstein’s group would eventually promote McKnight to assistant director of amateur scouting, giving him a seat at the table when the Cubs drafted future World Series heroes Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.

“I would say surreal,” McKnight said. “Like you knew you were there, but you’re kind of floating six feet above the ground the whole time.”

At least that’s how it felt by the end, at a safe distance from the Cleveland Indians and a World Series Game 7 that lasted 10 innings and attracted more than 40 million viewers, becoming Major League Baseball’s most-watched TV event in 25 years.

“The thing that always stands out is just the swings of emotion,” McKnight said. “For me, it was probably even more than most because I lived it so long. I’ve been part of teams where it looked like you were going to be there – and you failed. 

“It’s just knowing that feeling. And then when you get all the way to the World Series and thinking: To fail at this point, it’s going to feel even worse than it felt in ’03 and ’08. 

“It was those wild, wild swings of emotion. Great senses of relief when you win – and an even lower stage when you lose. That’s what really stood out to me over the course of it. But the fulfillment when we win, that’s an emotional feeling as well. It’s almost like the culmination of my being.”

After his father, Scot, finished working on his doctoral dissertation in theology at the University of Nottingham, McKnight moved from England back to Libertyville just in time to get hooked on the 1984 Cubs. At the age of four, McKnight followed the lightning-in-a-bottle team that won 96 games and blew a 2-0 lead over the San Diego Padres in a best-of-five NLCS, the beginning of a familiar pattern of heartbreak.

What was it about this group of young stars, role players and established veterans that allowed them to dig out of that 3-1 hole against the Indians and accomplish what no Cub team had done since 1908? 

“The pragmatist in me would say: No. 1, this is probably the best Cubs team we’ve ever seen,” McKnight said. “I know there’s been some other teams where we’ve won a lot of games. But I just can’t think of a lineup that’s ever been this strong. And obviously a defense – especially now that we’re able to quantify the defense a little bit more – where we could put together a world-beater (unit) that made us maximize our pitching.

“The pitchers staying healthy – and Joe (Maddon) being able to work the staff to where no one was really overworked and the (starters) were a little stronger going down the stretch – I think all those things contributed. Ultimately, I think it was a better team. 

“And I think this is just a really, really strong makeup team. You always want to build a (team that way). But you can’t manufacture the players. You kind of have to go with who’s available to you. But I think we got a lot guys (where) we’re going to look back and think they’re special makeup guys. 

“Kris Bryant just kind of being unflappable. Kyle Schwarber being able to step up and do the things he does. Leadership guys with Jon Lester and David Ross – it kind of goes on – Anthony Rizzo is in that group as well. You just go around the diamond – and everybody’s a separator and a difference-maker from a makeup standpoint.

“It’s like anything, winners can kind of get to write history. So you go back, when the ball falls in your favor and you win, you’re going to remember it probably a little bit more fondly than you would otherwise. 

“But I think even objectively – you look at this team and it’s pretty unique. And then the subjective with the makeup – I think you look around and it’s hard to remember teams being that strong and that complete makeup-wise.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Still, it didn’t truly hit McKnight until the morning of Nov. 4, riding in a trolley from Wrigley Field toward what would be guesstimated to be one of the largest gatherings in the history of, um, human civilization.

“You actually realized the scope of it and how many people you had touched,” McKnight said. “You heard the (projections): There’s going to be four or five million people there. For whatever reason, it didn’t click. It might have been the champagne still flowing in my veins or whatever. 

“But then you start driving. And you’re going down Addison and every street is 30-people deep all the way to the highway. And then you get on Lake Shore Drive, and it’s five-people deep all the way to downtown. And then you get to downtown, and it was just absolutely staggering. 

“It just kind of overwhelmed you. You started taking pictures and every street was more packed than the last the closer you got to Grant Park. To me, that’s where it just got a little bit staggering and kind of overwhelming on what had actually happened and how impactful this had been for so many people. 

“I know it was kind of the perfect storm, right? Chicago Public Schools didn’t have school that day. Who could ever account for weather like that in early November? So there were a lot of reasons why so many people showed up. But that was to the point where it turned from just exhilaration to kind of overwhelming and what this meant. 

“Obviously, it was huge for an organization. But to see what kind of impact it had for a city and a metropolitan area – that part was just staggering.”

That breathtaking scene and the sensory overload should leave the Cubs wanting more. On the night they clinched the franchise’s first pennant since 1945, the Cubs started two rookies who began this season at Triple-A Iowa – catcher Willson Contreras and outfielder Albert Almora Jr. – in a young lineup that featured NL MVP Bryant (24), All-Stars Rizzo (27) and Addison Russell (22), NLCS co-MVP Javier Baez (23) and Cy Young Award finalist Kyle Hendricks (26).

Vedder and Pearl Jam just got selected for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 2017 class. After a Christmas break, the Cubs will start gearing up for the 2017 draft in early January with preliminary meetings in Chicago. This is why Vedder won’t be planning future Pearl Jam tours for October, but maybe you’ll see him one night over at Murphy’s. 

Beginning tonight at 6:30 p.m., CSN Chicago will replay all 11 playoff wins, part of a programming block that will run through the day after Christmas, featuring sit-down interviews with Cubs personnel, a look back at the championship parade and Grant Park rally and fresh content on CSNChicago.com. 

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Chris Hine (Chicago Tribune) and Jordan Bernfield join David Kaplan on the panel. Jon Lester, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras all work out with the Cubs before their game. Which player’s return with have the biggest impact down the stretch?

Plus, the guys discuss how many snaps Mitch Trubisky should take with the first team, debate who won the big Cavs/Celtics deal and Scott Paddock drops by with the latest NASCAR news.

Listen to the SportsTalk Live Podcast below. 

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

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USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

Jon Lester isn’t expected to be on the disabled list for long, which of course is great news for the Cubs.

But while he’s there, it’s once again time for Mike Montgomery to audition for a spot in the team’s 2018 starting rotation.

The Cubs are facing the possibility of losing two members of that starting staff this offseason, when both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey will be free agents. Montgomery seems like a logical replacement, but he’ll need to be better than he’s been as a starter this season. He’s put up a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

He’ll get another opportunity to show his stuff over the next week or so, as he makes one or two spot starts with Lester on the shelf resting up his left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

“I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace. But it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to going out there and helping the team win,” Montgomery said over the weekend. “I’m going to go out there and prepare and be ready to help this team get to the playoffs.”

Montgomery doesn’t have to worry about instilling confidence in his bosses. Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein both lauded Montgomery’s efforts since he was acquired about a year ago, in the middle of the 2016 team’s march to that curse-smashing World Series win. It was Montgomery who earned the save in Game 7.

And again this season Montgomery has given plenty of reason for those guys to have confidence in him. He’s turned in a strong 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances, one of the more reliable arms out of what is becoming an increasingly shaky bullpen. This past Thursday, he relieved the early-to-depart Lester, pitching 4.1 shutout innings and allowing just three hits and a walk against the Cincinnati Reds.

Throw in the versatility of being able to effectively switch between starting and relieving, and that’s a recipe for sticking on a big league roster.

“He’s good about bouncing back and forth,” Maddon said. “He’s been invaluable to us the last couple years. He’s still learning his craft. Every time I talk to him it’s kind of like the little lightbulb constantly goes off for him regarding his stuff and how to utilize it. That’s what I’ve been talking about with him the last couple years. This guy’s got all kinds of tools in the toolbox but he doesn’t really know how to utilize them all, and I think he’s finally understanding the cutter, the curve, the changeup to go with the fastball. He’s one of those guys that he should never get wild with his fastball because his pitches are so good and he can throw them for a strike.”

Montgomery’s reliability has been enough that Epstein said there’s no plan for the Cubs to add another starting pitcher before this month’s waiver trade deadline. Of course, the fact that Lester’s injury isn’t as bad as initially feared and the July acquisition of Jose Quintana factors into that, as well.

“We’ve expended a lot of prospect capital trying to make this team better. We think it’s just a start or two (that Lester will miss), and Mike Montgomery is more than capable of filling in,” Epstein said. “He’s thrown the ball really well, like what we saw from him (Thursday). So we’re going to fill that vacancy internally with Mike and go from there.”

While every start made by any pitcher this season seems important — the Cubs entered Monday’s day off with just a two-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central standings, with a playoff spot hardly guaranteed — Montgomery’s efforts could have just as great an effect on next season. If Arrieta and Lackey both end up departing via free agency, the Cubs will need some replacements. Montgomery figures to be among the first options, especially if this midseason audition goes well.

Of course, Montgomery is happy to do whatever he needs to to help his team. He’s not complaining about a bullpen role or one that has him shuttling between the relief corps and the rotation. But he admitted that starting is his goal, meaning the importance of this moment likely hasn't been lost on him.

“Yeah, absolutely, I wanted to start. But also I wanted to be a guy who could fill another role and hopes that makes our team better,” he said. “If me starting makes us better in their mind, then that’s what I want ideally. But I’ve realized I can’t always control that, I can go out there and pitch well. If I pitch well, they’re probably going to give me more opportunities, which is probably going to lead to starting.

“I think it’s because I spent five years in Triple-A from the time I was 21 and I had a bigger ego. And then you realize that you just want to be in the big leagues and that Triple-A kind of stinks. I think it’s just how I’ve gotten to this point. And coming here last year from a team that was trying to get in the playoffs to a team that was clearly going to win the division, you realize that your role isn’t to come here and start making demands, it’s to come here and just do your job.”

Right now, the Cubs need Montgomery to fill the void while Lester rests up. And if he can make his starts look a little more like his bullpen outings, he’ll do just that. And if that’s what happens, maybe they’ll call on him next season to do a whole lot more.