Cubs year in review: We stinks to Theo-mania

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Cubs year in review: We stinks to Theo-mania

Carlos Zambrano towered over the reporters surrounding his locker inside Dodger Stadium. The postgame interview was just about over when a local blogger who had scored credentials wanted to know what Zambrano was like as a kid in Venezuela.

Have you always been this emotional?

Where you been the last nine years? Zambrano wondered.

Everyone started laughing on May 4 after the Cubs won a getaway game in Los Angeles. Less than 48 hours earlier, Curb Your Enthusiasm star Jeff Garlin had stood outside the clubhouse grumbling about the state of his team, calling it a big bowl of nothing.

Perhaps youve been too busy playing winter ball in Venezuela. Or maybe you stopped listening near the end of spring training, like Carlos Silva (blah, blah, blah).

Really, there wasnt much reason to pay attention. The season was essentially over by the first week of April, when 40 percent of the rotation (Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner) went on the disabled list. But that was only the most obvious and convenient excuse.

The Cubs had already made the wrong bets on big contracts. Ownership instability had forced the front office to cut corners in the draft and player development. There would be a natural regression for an aging core of players.

There would be consequences for the Win one for the Tribune! mentality that came out of the Tower years ago.

Chairman Tom Ricketts fired general manager Jim Hendry and gave Theo Epstein the keys to the kingdom. Epstein fired manager Mike Quade, hired Dale Sveum and told the industry the Cubs were open for business. No player in the clubhouse could feel all that safe anymore.

Where you been? Hopefully, you got that (Bleep) the goat T-shirt you wanted for Christmas. What follows is a look back on a year that may (or may not) change the franchise forever.

We stinks

Zambrano reported to spring training in Arizona and joked that he was cured after anger-management therapy: I got approval from the psychologist that I can be by myself.

Zambrano had no other choice after cleaning out his locker and walking out on his teammates. The Atlanta Braves had planned Aug. 12 to be a night for Bobby Cox, their beloved former manager, but all that was overshadowed once Zambrano got lit up and threw at Chipper Jones.

Zambrano left Turner Field during the middle of the game and headed toward the teams downtown hotel. He was texting and telling people that he felt like he was stealing money and thinking about retirement. The Cubs called his bluff.

Epstein knows this history and has publicly allowed for the possibility of Zambrano earning his way back onto the team. But privately people on both sides would admit that he could use a change of scenery.

With good friend Ozzie Guillen now running the Miami Marlins show, it makes sense for Zambrano to take his talents to South Beach.

You cant fight change

Hendry must have been going through the stages of grief when he suspended Zambrano. Ricketts had already fired his general manager on July 22, leading to what Hendry would later call one of the best-kept secrets in Cubs history.

By the time Zambrano blew up, Hendry was approaching acceptance. In the days leading up to the Aug. 19 announcement, Hendry was holding court at Houstons Minute Maid Park, telling all the old stories and spitting out rapid-fire expletives and one-liners.

Hendry was the guy with the loudest laugh in the dugout. He got his start coaching baseball and teaching English at Columbus High, a Catholic school in Miami. He rose to become the first general manager in franchise history to see the Cubs make the postseason three times during his tenure.

In one role or another, Hendry lasted almost 17 seasons in the Cubs front office. His big personality inspired a tremendous amount of loyalty among the people who worked for him. At the end of the news conference announcing his firing, he stood up inside the Wrigley Field dungeoninterview room.

Hours before first pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals, Hendry jokingly asked the beat writers to deliver a message to interim general manager Randy Bush: Tell Bushie to go hug Albert for me.
Theo-mania

Pujols wasnt going to embrace the Cubs, though that didnt stop the national media and a new front office from feeding the perception that they were in on all the big-ticket items this winter (Prince Fielder? Yu Darvish?).

This came 12 months after the Cubs had to spread Carlos Penas one-year pillow contract across three fiscal years. Ricketts made the splash when he lured Epstein from the Boston Red Sox with a bigger job and a better title.

Ricketts, who had already sat through two forgettable seasons, knew his family had to make a game-changing hire and send a message to a skeptical fan base that was tired of hearing about bison dogs and urinal troughs.

They put up THEOLOGY and In Theo We Trust T-shirts in the storefront windows on Clark Street. The president of baseball operations has already waved goodbye to veterans Aramis Ramirez and Sean Marshall, and shipped out Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu, two homegrown players who were supposed to be part of the youth movement.

A new collective bargaining agreement will limit what the Cubs can spend in the draft and internationally, and you wonder if they found religion too late. Epstein had already begun pooling intellectual capital by bringing his boys Jed Hoyer (general manager) and Jason McLeod (senior vice president) into an expanding front office.

The Red Sox were ahead of the curve almost a decade ago, but the baseball world is now essentially flat. The entire industry is accessing most of the same data and looking at the game through similar prisms. Ricketts has to hope hes paying for future results and not past performance.

Epstein has built up a reservoir of goodwill that should last until the first three-game losing streak. Guillen put it this way: In two years, I hope the fans in Chicago love Theo the way they do now.

Im not a lunatic

Quade was dealt a bad hand after waiting his entire professional life for this chance. No one was going to win big with this roster.

Quade rode the El. He could walk through Wrigleyville with a hat pulled down over his bald head and no one would notice. He was a Chicago guy who could talk about Da Bears. But as the season wore on, he seemed to become an increasingly isolated figure.

The players who once lobbied for their interim manager to keep the job didnt say much near the end. Just before the All-Star break, the television cameras captured a shouting match with Ryan Dempster inside Pittsburghs PNC Park dugout. That was a revealing look behind the curtain.

This was a group that had to separate Silva and Ramirez in the dugout after the first inning of the fourth game in spring training.

Sveum rides motorcycles and has tattoos all over his skin, which will stand out inside the corporate culture at Clark and Addison. The Milwaukee Brewers made him their interim manager for 12 games late in the 2008 season and won the wild card.

Thats the extent of Sveums experience managing at this level, but he has several advantages over Quade: The instant credibility that comes after playing 12 seasons in the big leagues; a stronger voice in assembling his coaching staff; and a secure, stable front office that expects him to grow into the job.

It is what it is, man

For Matt Garza, the year ends exactly where it began, trying to ignore all the trade rumors.

Garza remains under club control for two more seasons and what Epstein does with the 28-year-old pitcher trade or contract extension figures to be a bellwether for this franchise. It could reveal just how long they think this rebuilding process will take.

Garza has already made his bones in the playoffs (and been traded twice). He has electric stuff (and a 52-54 career record). The centerpiece to last winters eight-player deal with Tampa Bay made a strong overall impression during his first season on the North Side.

Teammates appreciated Garzas energy, work ethic and competitiveness (and loved wolfing down Popeyes fried chicken in the clubhouse before his starts).

The two building blocks for the future are Garza and Starlin Castro, a 21-year-old All-Star shortstop who led the National League with 207 hits. But if Epsteins blown away by an offer, he wont hesitate to trade Garza for multiple young players to surround Castro in 2014 and beyond.

We dared to dream

People who never met Ron Santo felt like they knew him just by listening to him on the radio. There was laughter and groaning and none of it was phony. His emotions were always extreme. It was either joy or agony.

One year after his death, his family learned that Santo was voted into the Hall of Fame by a Golden Era veterans committee led by old friend Billy Williams. It was a measure of the man both on and off the field.

It was a bittersweet feeling for Cubs people, who still crack up and double over in laughter telling the same Santo stories.

It was the final chapter for a year in which the players wore No. 10 uniform patches and the organization celebrated his legacy. Fans gathered to see the unveiling of a magnificent Santo statue at the corner of Addison and Sheffield.

Santos widow Vicki found a lesson in the waiting for Cooperstown. It spoke to a fearless style of play and the lives impacted by a rainmaker for juvenile diabetes research.

It should resonate with the romantics who follow this team and the cold-blooded analytical types charged with rewiring this franchise: You cant give up.

Kyle Schwarber catching again is a good step for a banged-up Cubs team

Kyle Schwarber catching again is a good step for a banged-up Cubs team

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs are so strong up the middle that Javier Baez can star for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic and return to camp as a super-utility guy/late-game defensive replacement. 

But that projection in late March is based on across-the-board health, which never happens in a 162-game season. World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (stiff neck) hasn't played in a Cactus League game in almost a week. All-Star shortstop Addison Russell (stiff back) became a late scratch to Friday's lineup at Sloan Park.

After trying to make a diving catch in center field, Albert Almora Jr. exited in the third inning of a 4-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians with what the Cubs called "left neck tightness," though he still plans to play in Las Vegas this weekend.  

On the other side of the spring-training complex in Mesa – away from the crowd of 15,473 in a minor-league game against a Colorado Rockies squad – the Cubs did get a positive piece of news on the health front: Kyle Schwarber went four innings behind the plate, going Tony Pena style and trying to reduce the stress on his body.

"I love catching," Schwarber said. "Whenever I played baseball, I was always a catcher. For me to be able to do that today – and feel pretty good about myself walking away from the day – it was a good step."

This is clearly important to Schwarber, an intensely driven personality who doesn't want to hear "no." Otherwise, the Cubs probably would have shut this down already, not wanting to risk it with a franchise player, someone who might blast 35 homers at the top of their lineup.

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But the medical staff cleared Schwarber when pitchers and catchers reported to Arizona – 10 months after he underwent surgery on his left knee to reconstruct his ACL and repair his LCL – and it could become a valuable skill again. 

"The most difficult part I would probably say was setup-wise," Schwarber said, "trying to find that timing of your moves and everything like that. Sometimes I felt like I was a little late getting my setup. But that all came. It's been a year since I got behind there, so overall everything went really well."

The Cubs already have one of the best young catchers in the game (Willson Contreras) and a two-time All-Star making $14 million this season backing him up (Miguel Montero). Schwarber doesn't want to put a number on how many starts he might make behind the plate, though the Cubs have framed it as in case of emergency, an extra late-inning option for manager Joe Maddon or maybe something that makes sense with a particular matchup. 

"As of right now, it's still the third-catcher role," Schwarber said. "I'm down for whatever, but I know the majority of the time is going to be out there in left."

Joe Maddon offers up Cubs strength coach to be Madonna's trainer

Joe Maddon offers up Cubs strength coach to be Madonna's trainer

MESA, Ariz. — Think the stir-crazy Cubs have been in Arizona long enough? Near the end of a camp that has been relatively tame — at least compared to last year's parade of mimes, zoo animals and karaoke jams — manager Joe Maddon heard about Madonna's contest to find a new dance trainer and immediately thought of the man behind those gonzo stunts.

Because that's what a three-time Manager of the Year does. So the organization's content arm put together a one-minute clip nominating strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss, releasing it to 1.7 million followers on Friday through the @Cubs Twitter account.

"We're hoping that Madonna has an opportunity to check that out," Maddon said at the Sloan Park complex. "We're willing to send even more information — whatever she possibly needs — to see that our guy's the best."

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Set to synthesized 1980s-style music, the aerobics video is rated more PG than the actual "Bussy" experience. The Cubs didn't show Buss leading the team stretch in a Speedo and a Lucha Libre mask. A slow-motion part of the montage does feature Buss standing alone in the clubhouse, dousing himself in beer during a clinching celebration.

"We could have made it more edgy," Maddon said. "There were so many more ways to go with it. I was kind of pleased with it. I thought it presented his abilities very well. His physique was presented in a manner that she could be duly impressed with the fact that our strength and conditioning coach fashions that form."

What if Madonna steals Buss from the Cubs?

"We could share somehow," Maddon said. "She'll fire him after a couple weeks anyway."