Extra wild card plays right into Epsteins hands

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Extra wild card plays right into Epsteins hands

MESA, Ariz. Theo Epstein envisions Wrigley Field in October, sellouts night after night, year after year, until theres a parade down Michigan Avenue.

That was part of the lure in leaving the Boston Red Sox for a presidents job with the Cubs. There are game-changers on the horizon at Clark and Addison, potential stadium renovations and monster television deals that should pump up revenue and fuel an annual contender.

But the landscape changed immediately on Friday with the announcement that Major League Baseball and the players union had agreed to add an extra wild card in each league for 2012 and beyond.

The goal always has to be to win the division, Epstein said. When you set out, thats the only sure-fire way to get in and now it comes with a significant added advantage of getting to avoid single-game elimination.

We still set out with the same goal of winning the division, but clearly it makes the bar of qualifying for postseason play lower and more attainable for teams that are kind of in that building phase. Its a good thing.

Epstein is trying to create another sustainable model. The Red Sox won 95 games or more six times during his nine seasons as general manager. When they reversed the curse in 2004, winning their first World Series in 86 years, they did it as a wild card. Its all about getting in the tournament.

We got more chances now, outfielder Alfonso Soriano said. We have a lot of talent here, so I think if everybody stays healthy and we play the game the right way, well be fine.

The players arent supposed to wear their (Bleep) the Goat T-shirts anymore. Instead, theres more of a quiet optimism around camp, because no one on the outside thinks theyll contend. They know they wont be playing with bulls-eyes on their backs.

I think everybody in here believes that we can win the World Series, pitcher Randy Wells said. If you didnt, then you shouldnt be here. If you do have a season where you can get hot at the right time, and jump in that extra wild card, itll help anybody.

The fans and the media dont think this is the year the Cubs will win their first World Series since 1908. This season will be about identifying core players for a championship contender.

Epstein didnt like how Billy Beane revealed all those industry secrets in Moneyball. But Epstein generally agrees with the Oakland As executive in that the playoffs can be a crapshoot.

But there are things that you can do to increase your chances in that tournament, Epstein said. Like being healthy, being rested, being prepared, advance scouting your tails off to make sure youre better prepared than the opponent.

(Its) having a really strong top of your rotation, a really strong closer, a really strong defense, certain things that sort of show up even more in the postseason than they do over the course of 162 games.

The postseason is less of a meritocracy than the regular season. (But) there are still things that you can do to hedge your bets.

Thats an insight into how Epstein plans to build this organization. The Moneyball references misrepresent Epstein because hes so heavily invested in scouting and believes in character and chemistry, intangibles that are supposed to help form The Cubs Way.

The self-proclaimed band of idiots in 2004 had guts, grinders and huge personalities: Curt Schilling; Pedro Martinez; Johnny Damon; David Ortiz; Jason Varitek; Kevin Millar; Bill Mueller; Keith Foulke; even Manny Ramirez before the fall.

Big games and big spots always boil down to players stepping up (and) overcoming adversity and performing, Epstein said. A lot of factors go into that. Theres always some randomness in the results. But (it helps) when you have guys who are really motivated and play as a team.

This is my personal experience. Ive seen guys who have come through in big spots when its more for the team and for themselves. (If) you have a bunch of guys who go out there playing as individuals, I dont know how many of those teams end up having a lot of success.

Then again, Epstein thought of the in-fighting on teams in the 1970s and 1980s that still won titles, like the As and New York Yankees: So I dont think you can draw any bright lines.

All that history attracted Epstein to the North Side, but his views on baseball can also be cold and calculating. The odds just got a little better at the casino. An extra wild card will play right into his hands.

As much as Im a traditionalist (and) a purist, its hard to argue with this, Epstein said. It seems to be the right move at the right time for the game.

Forget the analytics, Joe Maddon sends will-to-win message to Cubs: ‘Don’t forget the heartbeat’

Forget the analytics, Joe Maddon sends will-to-win message to Cubs: ‘Don’t forget the heartbeat’

MESA, Ariz. – To set the tone for 2017, the Cubs gathered in a theater on Saturday morning and watched highlights from their unforgettable playoff run last year. The clips showed that Giant comeback in San Francisco, the nearly perfect game at Wrigley Field that beat the Dodgers to capture the National League pennant and a World Series Game 7 for the ages in Cleveland.

“I would say that a high percentage of teams would have lost that game,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But we were able to regroup and come back, just based on the heartbeat. And I really wanted them to understand the heartbeat.”

That became Maddon’s primary message inside the Under Armour Performance Center as steady rain fell in Mesa, washing out the first full-squad workout and postponing the first wacky team-bonding exercise for this camp.

Maddon would never completely channel Hawk Harrelson’s will-to-win spirit and stand up and tell the room: Save it, nerds.

But in an industry where practically every team is fluent in analytics and searching for that next cutting edge, a data-savvy, open-minded manager wanted to recapture what led Jason Heyward to call a players-only meeting during the rain delay at Progressive Field, emphasizing what allowed the Cubs to survive 10 high-stress innings against the Indians.

“I think in our game today, the way it’s run on a lot of levels, it’s more about math than people sometimes,” Maddon said. “I want our guys to understand that we understand the heartbeat around here, so don’t forget the heartbeat.

“We won that game purely because of competitive natures and the fact that we wanted to win and the heartbeat was so good. It has nothing to do with statistical information, mechanics physically. It had everything to do with people.

“And I really want our guys to understand that, because we’re going to do all the other necessary work. We’re going to do all the math work. We’re going to do all the physical work. We’re going to do all the work. But at the end of the day, man, (when it’s) a different uniform than you, you compete. You try to beat that guy in the other uniform. Don’t forget that.”

Tom Ricketts delivers state of Cubs address: Donald Trump, Steve Bartman, All-Star Game, global domination

Tom Ricketts delivers state of Cubs address: Donald Trump, Steve Bartman, All-Star Game, global domination

MESA, Ariz. – Chairman Tom Ricketts wants the Cubs to be known as one of the greatest sports franchises on the planet, a first-class brand synonymous with winning.

With that ideal in mind – and setting specific policy ideas or agendas aside – has the first month of the Donald Trump administration matched up with the organization’s values? 

“I don’t really know what that question was,” Ricketts said Saturday during his annual state-of-the-team news conference in Mesa.

It’s worth asking, because at this time last year, Trump cryptically threatened the Ricketts family on Twitter, and then later in spring training told The Washington Post editorial board that the family has done a “rotten job” running the team. Ultimately, the family’s right-wing influence shifted from a stop-Trump movement to helping bankroll the Republican nominee’s presidential campaign.      

Beyond ending the 108-year drought and finally winning the World Series, the Ricketts family laid out the planks of the franchise’s platform and has in many ways lived up to it: investing in high-character people; creating a vibrant corporate culture; being a good neighbor in Wrigleyville; and growing Cubs Charities.

Do those community concepts line up with the rhetoric coming out of the Trump White House?

“I don’t really know how to answer that,” Ricketts said. “I think the fact is that we do have a good culture at the Cubs. And I don’t think anything that the White House has done – or hasn’t done – has any impact on that at all.”   

Ricketts is a patient, big-picture executive who showed how to think beyond the next day’s headlines, giving the green light to modernizing the entire operation, upgrading the infrastructure in Chicago, Arizona and the Dominican Republic and allowing team president Theo Epstein to oversee a complete teardown and rebuild.

The Cubs are no longer defined by that history of losing, but on some level their brand is now also tangentially associated with an early-stage administration of alternative facts, Chicago-to-Afghanistan comparisons, the Muslim ban, the border wall, murky Russian connections and a Holocaust memorial statement that didn’t mention the Jewish people.

Ricketts posed for a photo with his two brothers and Trump at a black-tie inauguration event. Pete Ricketts, Nebraska’s Republican governor, posted it on his official Twitter account.

“Obviously, my brother Todd is a nominee for undersecretary of commerce, so he’s waiting for that process to play out,” Ricketts said. “My sister (Laura) was a bundler for Hillary Clinton. The family has different political views. Away from that, I don’t think anything that’s going on in D.C. has any impact on us right now at all.”

• Ricketts wasn’t certain if Todd would have to step down from the team’s board of directors to accept that Cabinet position: “I know there are the conflict of interest kind of things and ethics rules. He may have to. I’m not really sure. But he’s got to go through the nomination process first.”

• Ricketts addressed the team inside the theater in the Under Armour Performance Center, thanking the players for all their contributions on a rainy day that washed out the first full-squad workout.  

“I also said I think we have a unique opportunity to not only be considered one of the great sports teams in the U.S.,” said Ricketts, who recently returned from the Laureus Sports Awards in Monaco. “But I just got back from Europe and I think that our long-term goal should be (having us) considered one of the great sports organizations in the world.” 

• Up and down the chain of command, the Cubs believe they can be in that conversation, given their talent base, financial muscle and a stable ownership group that plans to control the team for generations (an arrangement that currently includes an equity stake in CSN Chicago).

“What separates a really good team from a truly great team is the consistency of results,” Ricketts said. “We’ve won one World Series. Hopefully, we’ll be in the mix again for many years to come.

“If you look at the Yankees of 15 years ago, the Patriots of today, they’re just always right in the mix. On the global side, you look at teams like Man U or Real Madrid or the All Blacks and they just set the standard for how people perform. And their team means something all over the world.

“I’d like to think that one day – if we’re consistent enough and if we win – that Cubs logo will mean something to people around the world. Not just a team that didn’t win for a long time.”   

• Amid the afterglow three months ago, Ricketts told USA Today that the Cubs would reach out to Steve Bartman at some point and try to come to an understanding after a foul ball during the 2003 National League Championship Series forced the fan into hiding.

“I personally haven’t,” Ricketts said. “The team was thinking about it. I’m not sure what they did or what they didn’t do, to be honest.”

• Ricketts will defer to Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer when it comes to Jake Arrieta’s countdown to free agency and how to negotiate with the Cy Young Award winner after this season.

“That’s a Theo and Jed decision,” Ricketts said. “They have the right perspective on (how) they have to put a great team on the field this year. But they also have a longer-term perspective in realizing that decisions that effect this year might hurt us in a few years.

“But I’ll leave it up to them. I imagine that they’ve got a strategy around that and they know what they want to do.”

• The competitive-balance-tax threshold – which the new collective bargaining agreement sets at $195 million this year – appears to be a kind of soft payroll ceiling for the Cubs moving forward.

“The way it’s structured, it can be very punitive if you just ignore it and just blow through it,” Ricketts said. “So we’ll be thoughtful and strategic about when we go over the tax and when we don’t. But I’ll leave that mostly up to Theo.”

• The Cubs are lobbying Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball officials to host the 2020 All-Star Game at a fully renovated Wrigley Field.

“I don’t think it’s inevitable,” Ricketts said. “I think that it would be great for the league, great for the game and it would be great for Chicago to have it at Wrigley Field. But nothing’s inevitable on that. There’s a process that we have to go through and hopefully at some point soon the commissioner will give us the nod.”