Cubs set out to create a new identity

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Cubs set out to create a new identity

MESA, Ariz. Theo Epstein leaned on the batting cage, standing in between Billy Williams and Rick Sutcliffe. This was the past and present, shoulder to shoulder at HoHoKam Stadium, and spring training is all about seeing into the future.

The Cubs have been able to sell sunshine and beer for a long time. It was 78 degrees at first pitch, and 10,366 fans rolled in for their Cactus League opener. Before a 12-10 loss to the Oakland As, the president of baseball operations signed autographs by the dugout.

This is what were all here for, to play the game on the field, Epstein had said at the beginning of camp. Sometimes a winter can stretch on and you forget what you do for a living. You feel like an accountant or something.

The Cubs are trying to create a new identity, and it will have more of a corporate feel, from the computer system they designed with Bloomberg Sports to the increased emphasis on video and statistical analysis.

Baseball staffers from every level of the organization assembled at a Mesa hotel in the middle of February to build what Epstein has called the scouting and player development machine, which will come with manuals that run hundreds of pages.

The idea is that something as simple as a bunt play will be run the same in the Dominican summer league as it is inside Wrigley Field, and on and on and on. The Cubs Way.

Weve got better cooks, pitcher Matt Garza said when asked about the difference now.

Yes, the Cubs have even overhauled the kitchen, using a food service company that has cut out red meat from the spread and caters for several teams throughout the Valley. No detail is too small just check out the blue corners on the bases at Fitch Park where your foot is supposed to hit.

After years of ownership instability that handcuffed the previous administration and once new revenues start flowing out of a renovated Wrigley Field this could be the superpower of the Midwest. The empire should include game-changing TV deals and new facilities in Arizona and the Dominican Republic.

Pitcher Andy Sonnanstine recalled a team meeting early in camp where Epstein talked about how its a little bit different when you put the Yankees uniform on the Red Sox and the Cubs are right up there with them. Can you handle the pressure?

The Red Sox model that Cubs executives have long coveted will include a strong, steady manager. Dale Sveum emerged from the same intense interview process that revealed two finalists in Terry Francona and Joe Maddon, who certainly werent stars almost 10 years ago at Fenway Park.

Sveum wont be tossing bases, or entertaining everyone in the interview room with great stories. He may not be loud or show much emotion, but he has presence after lasting 12 seasons in the big leagues, even after a horrific leg injury.

I just try to be myself and whatever happens, happens, Sveum said. But I do believe a team does take on the personality of their managernot that I have any kind of personality.

You just try to harp on the little things. And at the same time, theyve got to know that you know how difficult this game is. Im not the guy where if somebody strikes out with the bases loaded, Im going to be throwing things. I completely understand that.

I wasnt a very good player, so I completely understand the trials and tribulations of this game and the pressures theyre under and all that stuff. My goal is to get them to prepare like its the seventh game of the World Series every day. So when they do fail, (they) can look (into) the mirror and say: I did everything I could today to make myself a better player.

Its not like the other 29 teams are ignoring fundamentals and spending spring training eating fried chicken, drinking beer and playing video games. And check the clips: Around this time last year, everyone was writing stories about the good vibes in Camp Quade (at least until Carlos Silva and Aramis Ramirez almost got into a fight in the dugout).

But the days are longer now, one player said, and at least 10 were out taking extra batting practice in front of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo after Sundays game ended.

Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano are gone, but there was Alfonso Soriano that morning, walking from one end of the clubhouse to the other, bobbing his head and smiling: Hey babehey babehey babe.

I dont like to be the leader, Soriano said. My teammates can see how I play hard and how I work. I think they can take that to the field. I dont like to talk much. Just work hard and try to be better every day and try to win. Thats what I can take to the young guys here.

You can already see the bonds forming, top prospects Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson relaxing in chairs by their lockers. Cubs executives think theyll be glue guys for their lineup and clubhouse.

The things I can control are what I do every day, Jackson said. Im not going to make the team right now today. But every days a piece to that puzzle. Im going to keep working every day until that day comes, and when that day comes Im going to keep working there.

I believe in big things for the Cubs and its something I want to be a part of.

Jon Lester explains absence from Cubs' White House trip: 'Absolutely nothing political'

Jon Lester explains absence from Cubs' White House trip: 'Absolutely nothing political'

Jon Lester didn't make any sort of statement by missing Monday's White House trip with his Cubs teammates. But at a polarizing moment in a divided country, a high-profile player on a World Series team felt the need to respond on social media and explain his absence from the championship ceremony. 

President Barack Obama name-checked Lester during his East Room speech – both for his spectacular pitching performance and beat-cancer charitable initiatives – as the Cubs continued their victory tour off the franchise's first World Series title since Theodore Roosevelt lived in the White House.

Lester stood behind Obama when the 2013 Boston Red Sox were honored on the South Lawn. During that 2014 ceremony, Lester stood next to John Lackey, another Cub who missed this Washington trip. Lester also toured George W. Bush's White House with Boston's 2007 championship team.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day – and with the specter of Donald Trump's inauguration looming – Obama used his administration's final official White House event to draw a direct line between him and Jackie Robinson and highlight the connective power of sports.

"The best part was the president talking about how sports brings people together," All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said, "how no matter what's going on in this country and the world, three or four hours of any one particular game can just rally so many people together." 

This team couldn't have created so much joy for generations of fans without Lester, who signed a $155 million contract with the last-place Cubs after the 2014 season, a transformational moment during the long rebuild that led to the White House trip that Obama never thought would happen.

"It was a thrill and an honor for all of us," team president Theo Epstein said. "It means so much more with his roots in Chicago and his final days in office. It couldn't have worked out any better. It's something we'll all remember for our whole lives."

The time Addison Russell froze up after getting a text from Eddie George

The time Addison Russell froze up after getting a text from Eddie George

Plenty of Cubs fans surely were star-struck to meet Addison Russell at Cubs Convention last weekend. But the 22-year-old All-Star shortstop has a shortlist of people he would be amazed to meet, too. 

Russell reveres President Barack Obama, on Friday the outgoing Commander-in-Chief's work in the community when talking about getting to visit the White House. So on Monday, Russell got to check off meeting one of the people on his list. "There's probably about three people that I would be star-struck by, and (Obama's) one of them," Russell said. 

One of those three spots is "open," Russell said. The other member of that list is former Ohio State and Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George. 

Russell wears his No. 27 because of George, who wore that number during his career in which he made four Pro Bowls and rushed for over 10,000 yards and 78 touchdowns. Prior to the 2016 season, George sent Russell and autographed Titans helmet inscribed with good luck message.

After the season, Russell said George texted him seeing if the newly-crowned champion had time to chill. Few things rattled Russell last year — he became the youngest player to hit a grand slam in the World Series when he blasted one in Game 6 against the Cleveland Indians last November — but getting a text from George did. "I couldn't text back," Russell said. "It was nuts. I waited four days because I was thinking of what back to say."

Even the most famous athletes still get star-struck. Russell's been lucky enough in the last few months to meet and hear from two of the people who bring out that sense of awe in him. "Just to come in contact with people like that, it just makes me smile," Russell said. "It definitely gets me in the mood of getting better, and that's the goal this year, is getting better."