Chicago Cubs

Garfien: The Game of Milton Bradley

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Garfien: The Game of Milton Bradley

Thursday, September 24

I know I normally devote theSox Drawer to the team that resides on the South Side, but now that Milton Bradleys stint with the Cubs is basically over, I figured Id share a story I had hoped to air about the controversial Cub. Its actually a positive story about Bradley that I couldnt get off the ground. Why?

The answer probably wont surprise you.

Ten years ago, I got a sportscasting job at WHTM-TV, the ABC affiliate in Harrisburg, Pa. It was the home of the Harrisburg Senators, then the Double-A team for the Montreal Expos. When I arrived there in December, people were still talking about a play that a young prospect had made the previous October that won the league championship for the Senators.

His name was Milton Bradley.

The Senators were playing the Norwich Navigators, the Yankees Double-A team. It was the decisive Game 5 of the series, the teams were tied at two games apiece.

In the bottom of the ninth, Harrisburg trailed by three runs. Their chances of coming back looked bleak.

However, as fate would have it, a situation arose that every young baseball player dreams about, but so rarely happens. In fact, Ive actually never seen it happen. Or even heard it happen.

But it would on this night.

Stepping to the plate was Bradley, a 21-year-old outfielder, one of the Senators best hitters, who had redemption on his mind.

It had been a season of controversy for Milton, who earlier that year spit his gum on an umpire and got suspended for seven games.
I know, shocker.

However, at this particular moment, that was ancient history. Milton Bradley had a chance to make history.

He was given the perfect dream scenario:

The championship was on the line. It was the bottom of the ninth. His team was down three runs. The bases were loaded. There were two outs. He had a full count.

And with rain pouring down in buckets, Bradley did something truly remarkable.

He sent a rocket into the air in right field, a screaming line drive that pelted every rain drop in its way. The ball soared over the right fielders head and completely disappeared over the fence -- for a grand slam.

The Senators had won the Eastern League title.

Chaos ensued.

Milton Bradley became an instant hero of mythical proportions.

He was a star in the making.

A decade passed. Bradleys majestic blast flew under the radar of his career, mainly because he crashed and burned wherever he went.

Maybe that would change here.

He signed that 30 million deal with the Cubs, and I couldnt wait for his arrival, because in my possession was all of the footage from that incredible night.

Theres Bradleys grand slam from multiple angles, his teammates mobbing him at home plate, and carrying him around the field like he was a baseball god.

Theres Milton, moments after the home run, talking about how tough a season it had been for him thanks to the gum spitting incident.

I have the spitting incident video, too.

Theres the mayor of Harrisburg on the field gushing about Bradleys grand slam and what it meant to the city. The footage culminates in a beer-drenched locker room, the Senators players and coaches celebrating their most surreal victory.

Its easily one of the greatest moments in baseball history. Were talking major leagues, minor leagues, even little league.

And I couldnt wait to tell his story. I just needed the right time to approach Milton about it.

Unfortunately, that time never came.
If Milton wasnt exploding on an umpire over balls and strikes, he was boasting about his injured 30 million knee, or throwing the baseball into the stands with two outs, or attacking a dugout water cooler, or being sent home after arguing with manager Lou Piniella during the CubsSox series, or saying that he prays games at Wrigley last only nine innings so he can go home, or calling certain Cubs fans racist, and then saying that his comments were taken out of context...

It went on and on and on.

In July, during one of the very few times that Bradley didnt have a tornado swirling around him, I went inside the Cubs clubhouse thinking this might be my best chance to do the story.

My plan was to put a microphone on him, sit and watch the video together, and capture Milton re-living the biggest hit of his baseball life.

But when I arrived in the clubhouse, Bradley was nowhere to be found.

So I waited and waited. No Bradley. I was told he was in the trainers room, and probably wouldnt come out -- until the media left.

Not a good sign.

I spoke to a member of the Cubs media relations staff about my story, and asked if he could go into the trainers room and relay the information to Milton. I figured that after enduring four months of negative press, Bradley would hear about my idea, recognize that this was a special opportunity for him to show the people of Chicago a different side of him, and that hed leap off the trainers table and sprint over to talk with me.

Well, maybe everything but that last part.

But honestly, he should have. This was a slam dunk. Or in this case, a grand slam.

Who on the planet wouldnt want to talk about hitting a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, down three runs, with the bases loaded and two outs, and a full count, through a driving rainstorm to win the league championship?

Well, Milton didnt.

The Cubs media rep came out of the trainers room shaking his head.

It doesnt look good, he said to me.

What? What do you mean?

When told about my story idea, Bradleys response was, I have that footage already, and no, he didnt want to do it.

But more than anything, he just didnt get it.

I know that Bradley has a troubled, checkered past dating back to his childhood. Maybe hes someone who doesnt like going backwards in time, only forwards.

If so, I understand.

I also know theres a trust issue with Milton. He often feels like hes been wronged by the media.

I dont agree with that. But Im willing to understand that, too.

However, at some point you need to be accountable for your actions, both positive and negative. As to why Bradley wont fess up about the greatest positive of his baseball career, I cant answer that.

Its merely another chapter in the mystery that is Milton Bradley.

And its fitting that he shares his name with the man famous for making board games, because while here in Chicago, he had a Monopoly of controversies, hed frequently Boggle the mind, and in the end, he sunk his own Battleship.

Too bad this story remained buried at sea.

While 2017 has been underwhelming for other hitters, Ian Happ has become a reliable rookie fixture for Cubs

While 2017 has been underwhelming for other hitters, Ian Happ has become a reliable rookie fixture for Cubs

Go ahead. Be honest.

Did you really see Ian Happ coming this fast?

Obviously you knew he’d be here one day, another one of Theo Epstein’s much-ballyhooed first-round draft picks, a position player destined to fit snugly into the Cubs’ long-term lineup.

But Happ was drafted mere months before the Cubs made their breakout run to the 2015 National League Championship Series. He spent his first full season as a professional while the big league team marched to that curse-smashing World Series championship.

Though like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras before him, Happ has landed in the big leagues and become a fixture in the North Side batting order. He’s an everyday player who might not be tearing the cover off the ball on a daily basis, but it’s now hard to imagine the lineup without him.

“I’ve felt really good since I’ve been here,” Happ said earlier this week, “the way guys are super accepting and the way they’ve embraced me in the clubhouse, I couldn’t ask for more. Being with the team for the entire spring training, getting to know the guys, it made it easy for the transitional period and making me feel like I belong right away.”

Happ showed his stuff Saturday, playing a starring role in the North Siders’ narrow 4-3 win over the visiting Toronto Blue Jays. Happ was on base three times, drove in a pair of runs and scored twice, too. He drove in the game’s first run in the first inning, launched a game-tying solo homer in the fourth and scored the go-ahead run on a Javy Baez base hit in the sixth.

Right in the middle of the action is where Happ’s been since he arrived in the bigs back in the middle of May.

It’s been a good thing, too. Because at this point in this odd season, this quest to repeat that has hardly gone according to plan, it’s possible that the Cubs aren’t in first place without Happ. A playoff spot is still nowhere close to a certainty with the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals hot on the Cubs’ tail in the NL Central standings.

With the underachieving and in some cases injury-plagued seasons to date from the likes of Russell, Schwarber, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, the reliability of Happ has made him, even if quietly, one of the key cogs on a team that is still in first place, even if they haven’t been able to pull away and lock down a third straight trip to the postseason.

And he’s doing all this with just 80 games of major league service time.

“I think the more experience you get, as you start to see different pitchers over and over again, you kind of start to see the way guys are going to pitch you, the way the game develops,” Happ said earlier this week. “The more experience you have with that, it kind of helps you to slow the game down.

“I think all the way up for me, once you move up a level, you have to adjust. Sometimes, it happens quick and sometimes it’s more of a process. I feel like I’ve had to make adjustments at every level and definitely this level, you’re making adjustments every day. The quicker you can make them, the better off you’ll be.”

As mentioned, Happ isn’t putting up some sort of jaw-dropping, send-him-to-Cooperstown kind of a rookie season. He's hitting .249 after Saturday’s two-hit day, and undoubtedly he’s had his struggles. In his last 21 games prior to Saturday, he hit .189 and punctuated that rocky stretch with a four-strikeout day Friday against this same Blue Jays team.

But his .819 OPS ranks fifth among NL rookies. It ranks fourth on the Cubs, lower only than Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Contreras. He’s also in the top five on the team in RBIs and slugging percentage. Saturday’s long ball was his 18th homer of his 80-game season. Extrapolate those numbers to the team’s 122 games on the season, and he’d have more than 25 dingers already.

Thrown into the major league fire, he’s doing all this while asked to be an everyday contributor for a team with World Series aspirations — or rather World Series expectations.

“It’s tough. It’s a new adjustment,” Rizzo said Saturday. “It’s a new everyday grind up here that’s different from the minor leagues. And he’s hit his bumps along the way, but he keeps adjusting, keeps virtually getting better every day. And it’s fun when you see his success pay off.”

“The game ebbs and flows all the time,” Happ said Saturday. “That’s why it’s a beautiful game and a terrible game at the same time. You’re going to have your good weeks, your bad weeks, good days, bad days. Being able to stay even and keep fighting through it is important.”

While the focus for the Cubs is on the present and winning the NL Central crown, this franchise’s championship window extends far beyond the end of the 2017 campaign. Happ will continue to be a big piece of that window staying open, and Maddon said that this rookie season will have positive effects far down the road.

“Developmentally, I think this year’s going to be a boon to him for next year, absolutely, getting this kind of experience,” Maddon said earlier this week. “Defensively, I think he’s really improved at second base. I think he’s very nice in the outfield. I think there’s actually more positions he can venture into, whether it’s first base, third base, other things that he can do that make him even more valuable.

“The moment he starts forcing pitchers into the zone, he’s got extreme power. He really does. He’s not tall, but he’s strong. The ball comes off his bat as hot as anybody out there. It’s just a matter of him understanding the major league game and what they’re trying to do and veteran pitchers trying to take advantage of young hitters, which they do often. You’ve just got to make sure you force this guy back over the plate.

“When he learns that, like these other guys, they’re going to be very good players.”

Surely the future is bright for Happ, as it is for many of the Cubs’ young players. But as it’s plain to see on a daily basis, there’s a lot of brightness right now, too. Happ might be a rookie, but he sure doesn’t act like it. And at times, with his play, he sure doesn’t look like it, either.

“I’ve felt comfortable here, I have for a long time, and I feel really great with this group of guys,” Happ said Saturday. “And winning baseball games is a lot of fun.”

If the Cubs are going to keep winning baseball games, expect Happ to play a major role.

In thick of tight division race, Cubs add catcher Rene Rivera: 'You can't have enough experience'

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USA TODAY

In thick of tight division race, Cubs add catcher Rene Rivera: 'You can't have enough experience'

If this was 2016, the Cubs might not have bothered to acquire Rene Rivera.

But this isn’t 2016.

The Cubs have a vastly different catching situation than they did a year ago. But even more importantly, they’ve been unable to build any sort of lead in a crowded National League Central race.

Rivera, claimed off waivers from the New York Mets on Saturday morning, almost surely won’t end up being the guy who fuels the Cubs’ pulling away from the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. But with Willson Contreras on the disabled list, Miguel Montero on the Toronto Blue Jays, Alex Avila not even a month into his Cubs tenure and Victor Caratini just 17 games into his big league career, adding an extra veteran presence behind the plate seems like a pretty good idea.

“It’s like you can’t have enough pitching. You can’t have enough experience, depth-wise, especially at that position,” manager Joe Maddon said Saturday. “So I though we were very fortunate to be able to do this right now. Theo (Epstein, team president) told me about the potential yesterday, obviously it happened.”

This time last season, the Cubs had a reliable 1-2 punch behind the plate with Montero and Contreras. And more notably they had a double-digit lead in the NL Central standings. There’s been an awful lot of change since, with Montero’s brutal honesty getting him shipped off to Canada and Contreras injuring his leg in San Francisco.

Fortunately for the Cubs, they invested some of their last remaining minor league capital in acquiring Avila. Avila won’t replicate the kind of offensive production that made Contreras the hottest hitter on the team, but he’s a very capable starting catcher during Contreras’ time on the shelf.

And while Caratini has been fine — in fact, he’s hitting .400 since Contreras went down and collected three hits in Friday’s win over the Blue Jays — the Cubs are no longer about getting guys experience in August and September. The stakes are much higher.

The Cubs might’ve been an unstoppable juggernaut during the 2016 regular season. This year, though, has been a much different story, and a playoff spot is hardly a certainty.

Rivera isn’t going to solve the problems that have made it so the Cubs are stuck fighting for the crown of a middle-of-the-road division. But he’ll bring veteran experience to a playoff race that could last all the way until the season’s final days.

Rivera has been playing big league ball since 2004 but has totaled just nine years of major league service since then, serving in backup roles and just twice appearing in more than 100 games in a season. The Cubs raved about his defensive ability Saturday — as well as the eight homers he hit in 54 games for the Mets this season.

“He’s very good. Saw him with different teams, we’ve all seen him. He’s got a great reputation,” Maddon said. “Nice fella. Very good defensive player, great reputation. And he's got some pop, too. He hit a couple home runs. So that veteran kind of presence, the depth that it provides is all good stuff.”

No announcement has been made about the active roster. Minor league pitcher Aaron Brooks was designated for assignment to make room for Rivera on the 40-man roster. But the general thinking is that Caratini will head back to Triple-A Iowa.

“He’s done really well,” Maddon said of Caratini. “The way he’s blocked pitches in the dirt has been spectacular. I’ve enjoyed watching his receiving and his blocking, too. The pitchers have been really happy with him. … He’s very aware of building relationships with his pitchers, which I like. And it seems as if the pitchers are into him, too.

“There’s a great future for him in this game.”

But right now, the Cubs need all the experience they can get.