Epstein, Krause have similarities

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Epstein, Krause have similarities

By Frankie O
CSNChicago.com

All of this Theo-mania got me thinking about former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. Was I over-serving myself, along with the giggly Cubs faithful at the bar? Not this time! All of this excitement over the makeup of a front office struck me as ironic in that how far weve come.

For most of my lifetime, the front office of any team was regarded much like any on-field official or kicker: we only noticed them when they screwed up. For fans the off-field face was the coach. When the Kool-aid drinking faithful fondly recall the 85 Bears, they dont regale me with the exploits of Jim Finks and Jerry Vainisi, its all about 'Da Coach.'

The importance, or at least the perception of the men in suits came to a head in bar conversations, 'Get it?!' When the on-going feud between Krause and his star player, Michael Jordan, reached epic proportions because of Krauses infamous organizations win championships comment. Jordan took great offense to the remark and his immense fandom went along with him. Players win championships! Krauses surly demeanor and unflattering appearance only added to the piling on. How dare he belittle M. J. like that?

It reminds me of the perception of the Nixon-Kennedy debates where we first became aware of the fact, in this TV age, that appearance could have an effect on the perception of substance. I have to admit, at the time, I was fond for pointing out that if you spotted me the best player on the planet, even a red-bow-tie wearing bartender could have built a championship team, thus was Jordans greatness and my fans disdain for Krause. Over time though, those of us who looked deeper, have a different opinion. This is especially true when you take into account what Krause says is the original comment, not the Jordan interpretation: Players and coaches alone dont win championships, organizations win championships.

That statement has proven time and time again to have validity, irregardless of having a singular, other-worldly talent. Much of this perspective is gained in the 247 sports news cycle we live in. There is not any angle of how any organization is run that is not fully inspected in public discourse. While we still reserve most of our adoration for those who have accomplished their greatness on the field, there has become a greater appreciation for, and attention paid to, those who are responsible off of it.

The flip-side is that G.M.s and certain club presidents will get universal ire for their very public failings. Its no longer enough for an under-performing player to feel the fans wrath. We also want the head of the shmuck that had the lack of foresight to sign him. (For way too much money, I might add!) Its a brave new world where even the casual fan can not only list the five general manager's in this town, but without thinking, tell you the job titles of John McDonough, John Paxson and Jay Blunk!

Which brings me to the fanfare accorded to the Cubs new hire this week. I wasnt around in 1981 when they hired Dallas Green away from the Phillies to be their executive vice presidentgeneral managersavior. Im sure the move prompted a lot of response here as I know it did in Philly. But, I seriously doubt it reached the point of national obsession. Green brought with him his mantra of Building a New Tradition and lots of excitement, but we obviously know his tenure was more bitter than sweet.

The next chosen one was the hiring of former Minnesota Twins general manager (Who had won two World Series titles, sound familiar?) Andy McPhail to be the Cubs President and CEO in 1994. I also was not around for that one either, since I moved here in January of 95, but as a die-hard baseball fan living in New Jersey at the time, that move hardly created a ripple where I was, as important as it was. After moving here, it was hard to differentiate him from the unimpassioned suits from the Tribune Company that were perceived to have more interest in making money than fielding a perennial powerhouse.

-In another of my Forrest Gump moments: for what reason I cant remember, possibly to pick-up some freebies!! I was in the box that serves as the waiting area to the Cubs offices, just before a Friday game, when I saw McPhail, suitcase in hand, leaving. When asked where he was going by the receptionist as he was walking through the door, he cheerily informed her that he was heading to the Twin Cities for the weekend for a 10-year reunion of one of his World Series teams. I dont know why a club executive leaving his team, as it was about to play a game, to go celebrate past accomplishments, made me feel weird and awkward (I do enough of that on my own!) but it did. Funny are the things that leave an impression.-

And now we have the ultimate line of demarcation for a franchise and the long awaited stamp of the Ricketts family ownership. (Although down the road in retrospect, that stamp might be the last draft in the Jim Hendry era when they decided to be a player and pony up the money that big-time amateur talent wantsgets when they decide to turn pro, a huge shift in philosophy.) From this point on it is After Theo in Cubs history. In an offseason that approached with visions of Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder donning Cubbie Blue for the next 10 seasons, the long-suffering fans have been reinvigorated with the signing of a new-age baseball franchise architect. My, how times have changed. A fan base is doing cartwheels and all of baseball taking notice over the hiring of a suit. Make no mistake though, this guy is a rock star. His youthful persona and accomplishments in Boston made him a transcendent figure. Any price paid for him will be well worth it, in my opinion.

The thing I find ironic is that in this time of downsizing, Theo espouses bigger is better. Hes looking for more than a few good men, more than an army of one. For a franchise that has languished for all of our lifetimes, this shows a thoughtful, all-hands-on-deck sense of urgency. The sign of any great leader is that he recognizes that he is only as good as the people he surrounds himself with. The other great leadership trait thing is that he is able to concisely convey his vision so that all can understand. Laying out his plan for the Cubs Way is an important first step in setting realistic expectations for a now re-engaged fan base.

A testament to his credibility is that his words were not met with the usual wait and see skepticism from a group that has been lead down this path before. Unlike what he inherited in Boston, this is a tear down. It needs to be rebuilt from the ground up and most of us understand that. Which means its not going to be an easy, quick, nor inexpensive task. But building something with a base strong enough to bear the weight of over a centurys worth of disappointment is going to be a time staking task.

It will start with the draft. It will start with the new academy in the Dominican Republic. It will start with constant, consistent instruction and expectation as a player climbs the ladder in the organization. Then ultimately, it will take these products of the system, and wise choices in free-agency to build the team that finally ends the Northside misery. In baseball it takes both, home-grown and bought talent to win. Theo understands this. You cant do one without the other. He also understands that to have a system that provides players worthy of being augmented by impact free-agents, you need to build an organization that is rock-solid from the ground up.

As we have heard before in this town, Theo is telling us that it takes more than players and coaches alone to win a championship. It takes a winning organization too. He is being lauded by one and all for this vision and foresight. Somewhere, Jerry Krause has to be thinking, where have I heard that before?

Brett Anderson’s main takeaway from Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio

Brett Anderson’s main takeaway from Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio

MESA, Ariz. – The pitching section of The Cubs Way manual might not be spelled out this way, but it can be summed up in five words: Have 'em work with Boz.

Or at least that's how it sounds whenever the Cubs add another fading prospect or injury case, rolling the dice on raw stuff, change-of-scenery psychology and the wizardry of pitching coach Chris Bosio.

While the Theo Epstein administration is still waiting on the drafted-and-developed pitchers to put around the Wrigley Field marquee next to the images of sluggers Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs already have the infrastructure in place that helped turn Jake Arrieta into a Cy Young Award winner and transform Kyle Hendricks into an ERA leader.

One of Bosio's ongoing projects is Brett Anderson, who underwent surgery to repair a bulging disc in his lower back last March, yet another injury in a career that hasn't lived up to his own expectations.

"It's one of those things where he's not trying to reinvent the wheel," Anderson said. "It's more trying to limit the pressure on my back and mild mechanical adjustments where I don't land on my heel as much and kind land on the ball of my foot or my toes, so it's not such a whiplash effect.

"He's had a good track record with health, especially the last couple years, and hopefully I can fall in line there, too."

Anderson made it through his first Cactus League outing, throwing a scoreless first inning during Monday's 4-4 tie with the White Sox in front of another sellout crowd at Sloan Park in Mesa. The Cubs are taking a calculated risk here with a one-year, $3.5 million that could max out with $6.5 million more in incentives if Anderson makes 29 starts this season.

[MORE CUBS: How Ryan Dempster wound up on Team Canada for World Baseball Classic]

The Cubs can put the best defensive unit in the majors behind a lefty groundball pitcher and don't need to make a dramatic overhaul with a guy who grew up around the game. Anderson's father, Frank, is an assistant at the University of Houston and the former head coach at Oklahoma State University.

"I've been going to the field since I could walk and talk and annoy college kids," Anderson said. "I could take that one of two ways: I could get burnt out quick and kind of shy away from baseball. Or I could eat it up. Fortunately for me, I've eaten it up all the way through."

The entire question with Anderson revolves around health. He won 11 games for the Oakland A's in 2009 – finishing sixth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting – and hasn't topped that number since. There's been a Tommy John surgery and disabled-list time for a stress fracture in his right foot, a broken left index finger and a separate surgery on his lower back.

"If you dwell on the negative, you're going to worry yourself sick," Anderson said. "Pitching's fun – good, bad or indifferent – (so) you have to have a positive outlook, because otherwise you just walk around with a black cloud over your head."

The only other time Anderson hit the 30-start mark would be 2015, when he threw a career-high 180.1 innings, put up a 3.69 ERA and led the majors with a 66.7 groundball percentage. He couldn't repeat that performance with the Los Angeles Dodgers, accounting for 11.1 innings last year and not making the roster in either playoff round.

The "hybrid" fifth/sixth starter idea manager Joe Maddon floated sounds good in theory and we'll see how it works with Anderson and Mike Montgomery and a veteran rotation with strong opinions and clear ideas about routines. But the Dodgers needed 15 different starting pitchers to survive the 162-game marathon last year and seemed to run out of gas by the time the National League Championship Series returned to Wrigley Field.

"You can't have too much depth coming from where I was last year in L.A.," Anderson said. "We used so many starters. Obviously, that wasn't really the case here, which you can't really bank on year in and year out. But if I'm healthy, everything else will work itself out and I'll take my chances.”

Cubs: How Ryan Dempster wound up on Team Canada for World Baseball Classic

Cubs: How Ryan Dempster wound up on Team Canada for World Baseball Classic

MESA, Ariz. – During an escalating prank war, Ryan Dempster once arranged for a camera crew to shadow Will Ohman in spring training and sell the journeyman reliever on being the star in a TV special.

But Dempster isn't trying to punk anyone by playing for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic – even though he's almost 40 years old and hasn't pitched in a competitive environment since Game 1 of the 2013 World Series at Fenway Park.

Don't let the Harry Caray/Will Ferrell impersonations fool you. Dempster always had a different side to his personality, an edge that allowed him to recover from Tommy John surgery, transition from 30-save closer back to All-Star starter and throw nearly 2,400 innings in The Show.

Still, it sort of felt like a reality show or a time machine or a spin-off from a Kris Bryant Red Bull ad on Monday at Field 1, the most secluded spot to throw live batting practice at the Sloan Park complex. On a cool, gray day, Dempster looked the same with his reddish beard, glove waggle, white pinstriped pants and blue Nike cleats.

Before stepping into the batter's box, Cubs president Theo Epstein tried to talk a little trash with Dempster: "I know I can't hit big-league pitching, but I'll see if I can hit you."

Besides Epstein, the eclectic group of hitters included Tommy La Stella and minor-leaguer Todd Glaesmann. Dempster threw roughly 50 pitches to Lance Rymel, a former farm-system catcher who will manage a Dominican summer league team this year. The audience included one reporter, six fans, a group of curious Cubs staffers and reliever Jim Henderson, who is in camp on a minor-league deal and will also pitch for Team Canada.

"I'm not going to be disrespectful to the whole process," Dempster said. "I'm not just like playing in a beer league and then decide: 'Eh, I'll throw against the Dominican team. The U.S. looks like they're pretty stacked, but I'll be all right.' I know what it entails going into this.

"At the end of the day, I'm not so worried about velocity. I'm worried about command and my ability to change speeds. It has been pretty funny to see the reactions, and I can understand why people would see it as far-fetched. But I always liked a good challenge."

Dempster first hatched this idea during a Fourth of July vacation, somewhere around Sequoia National Park in California. The group included Ted Lilly – another pitcher who got by with guts and became a special assistant in Epstein's front office – and former bullpen catcher Corey Miller.

"I just said: 'For old times' sake, why don't I throw a side?'" Dempster recalled. "I thought for sure when I woke up the next day I wouldn't be able to lift my arm up. And it felt really good."

Dempster continued with a throwing program – even through a trip to Hawaii after the World Series – and contacted Greg Hamilton, the head coach and director of Baseball Canada. As a Cub, Dempster had been the one leading runs up Camelback Mountain and showing younger pitchers like Jeff Samardzija how to train for 200 innings.

"I wasn't sure if he was serious or not," said Epstein, who did make contact against Dempster. "And then when I figured out he meant it and had a plan, I knew he'd be fine, because he's such a hard worker and he's really smart. If he's going to put the time in to get ready, I knew he'd be fine. He'll be competitive, for sure."

Dempster understood how to put together his own program with a focus on his legs, strengthening his core and shoulder exercises. To be clear, this isn't setting the stage for a comeback, the way game-over closer Eric Gagne is hoping to use Team Canada as a launching pad (after not pitching in the big leagues since 2008).

"This is just a chance to represent my country," said Dempster, who grew up in British Columbia and played on junior national teams in the 1990s. "Sometimes – I'm not bored – but a challenge in life or an opportunity presents itself. (And) it's a good lesson to teach my kids: If you work hard at something, you can do (it) and hopefully it pays off."

Dempster went out on top as a World Series champion, walking away from $13.25 million rather than pitch for the Boston Red Sox in 2014. He signed on with MLB Network and rejoined the Cubs as a special assistant in baseball operations. If he had to pick a lane, it would probably be entertainment and building off his Cubs Convention late-night format and sketches like "The Newlywed Game" with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.

But Dempster still needs a fix. The star-studded cast from the Dominican Republic – Robinson Cano, Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre, Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz – will be waiting on March 9 at Marlins Park.

"Major League Baseball, professional sports aren't a normal job," Dempster said. "How do you go from that extreme high, the adrenaline rush of going out there and pitching in front of 40-grand every day to…now what do you do that satisfies you? I'm trying to find that, make my way towards that. I feel like I will eventually get there."