Chicago Cubs

What Miguel Montero’s brutal honesty meant for Cubs and Kyle Hendricks

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AP

What Miguel Montero’s brutal honesty meant for Cubs and Kyle Hendricks

Miguel Montero picked the worst possible time to second-guess the way Joe Maddon handled the bullpen during the World Series and communicated with his players — a radio interview on the same day (!!!) as the championship parade through the streets of Chicago and a Grant Park rally that may or may not have been one of the largest gatherings in human history.

The cameras also caught Montero popping off at a time when the Cubs were hovering around .500 and running out of ideas to spark the defending champs. So team president Theo Epstein didn’t hesitate to DFA Montero in late June when the veteran catcher ripped Jake Arrieta for letting the Washington Nationals run wild on the bases. Eating almost $7 million in salary and shipping Montero to Canada became another button to press to shake up the clubhouse.

But Montero also came along at exactly the right time for Kyle Hendricks, who had 13 major-league starts for a last-place team on his resume heading into the breakthrough 2015 season that set up last year’s transformation into an ERA leader, Cy Young Award finalist and World Series Game 7 starter.

Montero doesn’t deserve a tribute on the video board when the Toronto Blue Jays come into Wrigley Field this weekend, but he also shouldn’t be remembered only as a loose cannon or a cartoon character.

“Miggy was huge for me,” Hendricks said on this week’s Cubs Talk podcast. “I know he didn’t go out the way he wanted to. He’s even texted all of us here. We have the utmost respect for him around this clubhouse. We know who he is, the teammate he was around here.

“For me in particular, he was probably the biggest influence right when I came up, from the catching side. He taught me a lot about pitching, especially at the big-league level. (He made) me feel comfortable at the big-league level.

“My development, I think, sped up a lot just because of him being around here, his experience, how much he knew the hitters, his feel and his ability just to talk to you. He could sit down and just have a conversation with you whenever.

“I owe a lot to him. And I’m excited to see him back here.”

The Cubs knew they were getting the good, the bad and the ugly when they traded for Montero during the 2014 winter meetings in San Diego, where they also closed the $155 million megadeal with Jon Lester and dramatically reshaped the franchise.

The Cubs wanted Montero’s edge, which only sharpened as he got stuck in various three-catcher rotations. But Montero welcomed Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras into the clubhouse, delivered a wake-up call to Albert Almora Jr. during a rehab assignment at Double-A Tennessee and worked with Arrieta as he blossomed into a Cy Young Award winner. Montero also became a bilingual intermediary last summer when Aroldis Chapman initially refused to talk to the media after making his Cubs debut.

After handling so many different personalities and styles with the Arizona Diamondbacks — everyone from Randy Johnson to Dan Haren — Montero made the case that Hendricks didn’t need to throw 97 mph to thrive when he could nail the edges and deceive and outthink hitters with movement and sequences. Street smarts from Venezuela and an Ivy League education became a great match.

“He always had that confidence in me, from Day 1, when I showed up in this clubhouse,” Hendricks said. “He caught my bullpens. He kind of saw what I could do with the baseball. He probably had more confidence in me than I had in myself when I first came up.

“That’s just how it is. You’re trying to find your footing. He just kept preaching that to me, telling me what he saw in me, what I could do, the ability I had against these hitters. And then we went out there together and kind of saw it happening.”

One Arizona official who knows Montero well theorized that he — like any former All-Star in his mid-30s nearing the free-agent market — simply had trouble coming to grips with the reality that he was no longer The Man.

Even if you may be right on both counts — and no matter how fast Montero patched it up with Arrieta — the backup catcher can’t blast a star manager and a star pitcher like that.

“It was too bad to see him go,” Hendricks said. “But that’s just baseball. That’s how it goes. You got to learn what you can from who’s around while they’re there and then move on. That’s just the nature of the game.”    

Joe Maddon feels the heat from White House comments and rethinks Trump vs. sports world

Joe Maddon feels the heat from White House comments and rethinks Trump vs. sports world

MILWAUKEE – Sticking to sports becomes impossible when Donald Trump calls protesting NFL players sons of b------ and feuds with NBA superstars Stephen Curry and LeBron James on Twitter while the University of North Carolina’s national championship men’s basketball team declines a White House invitation (scheduling conflict) and Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell takes a knee during the national anthem.

All that happened within 24-plus hours, a head-spinning news cycle that will not stop. It’s impossible to escape for a high-profile organization with political connections like the Cubs.

That’s how manager Joe Maddon wound up feeling the heat in Miller Park’s visiting dugout before Sunday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, clarifying his comments to the Chicago Sun-Times that went viral: “It’s dangerous when folks in our country stop respecting the White House and the seat of the president.”

“What would you like me to say?” Maddon said. “I’ve read it all and I’m saying it’s understandable why these people – why the players – jumped back at him the way they did. It’s very understandable, absolutely. I had no idea.”

The Sun-Times asked Maddon for a reaction minutes after Saturday afternoon’s 10-inning, playoff-intensity loss to the Brewers as the media session was breaking up in the manager’s office inside the visiting clubhouse. That quote appeared deep within a longer story headlined: “Sports world revolts: LeBron James, Roger Goodell fire back at Trump.”    

“I had no idea what the president had said prior to being asked that question,” Maddon said, “so I wasn’t commenting on what the president had said. When (the reporter) asked me that question, I had no idea it was in that context whatsoever.”

The Cubs angle: The World Series champs starred in the final official White House event for President Barack Obama on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. A group of players, staffers and executives returned for an Oval Office photo op with Trump on June 28, a side trip in the middle of a likely playoff preview against the Washington Nationals.        

Curry already made it clear that he would vote against the Golden State Warriors making a ceremonial visit to Trump’s White House. After Trump tweeted that he withdrew Curry’s championship invitation, Maddon told the Sun-Times: “With all due respect to everybody, I just believe that we need to get our acts together collectively, all of us.”

“I had no idea what he said,” Maddon said during Sunday’s pregame briefing. “I had no idea what was said. How would I? I had no idea what was said prior to (getting asked) that question.

“My response is typical: I always respect the office and the White House and the seat of the president, like I said before we had attended. That was what my response was about. It had nothing to do with the situation yesterday.”

Maddon backtracked and said he has no issues with LeBron using his @KingJames account to support Curry, call Trump “a bum” and tell his 38.5 million Twitter followers: “Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!”

“I’ve always spoken what’s on my mind,” Maddon said, “and I’ve always respected other people doing the same. It’s that simple. I just did not know the context of the question yesterday at all.

“And then I read about it last night when I got back to my room. And I could understand what all the uproar was about, easily. But I had no idea after the game that’s what had been said.”

Maddon wore a black turtleneck and an olive coat to the White House in January and enjoyed seeing Obama, who gave him a shout-out during the East Room ceremony: “Let’s face it, there are not a lot of coaches or managers who are as cool as this guy. Look how he looks right now.”

Maddon also eagerly posed with Trump, a meeting set up through Cubs ownership and the Ricketts family’s influence within Republican politics. Maddon also aligned himself that week with a childhood friend from Pennsylvania, Congressman Lou Barletta, an early Trump supporter who recently announced a Senate campaign.

“Again, I have respect for the government of the United States,” Maddon said. “I have respect for the office. I have respect for the seat of the presidency. When it comes down to individual battles, I have nothing to do with that.

“All I’m saying is that I understand why the players responded the way they did. After I read the comments, it was very clear why they would respond the way they did.

“It’s just unfortunate we’ve arrived at this point where it’s so easy to have this dialogue between the highest office in the country and everybody else in such a negative way. That’s the part that’s really disappointing.”          

Justin Wilson isn’t running away from big moments with Cubs: ‘I want the ball’

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AP

Justin Wilson isn’t running away from big moments with Cubs: ‘I want the ball’

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs have tried to find lower-pressure spots for Justin Wilson to work on things and rebuild his confidence without publicly burying a lefty reliever they specifically targeted before the July 31 trade deadline.

Both manager Joe Maddon and team president Theo Epstein have given Wilson the vote of confidence, though the real test will be whether or not the Cubs actually trust him in the playoffs.

“It’s an open book of communication here,” Wilson said. “We talk. I’ve talked to them and said: ‘Hey, I’m going to get right. I want the ball. I just want to keep getting back out there.’”

Even after All-Star closer Wade Davis blew his first save in more than a year, the Cubs could find big-picture optimism about their bullpen because Wilson got four outs during Saturday’s 4-3 10-inning loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

“How good was that?” Maddon said. “That’s really something looking forward. He made a nice adjustment out there. It looked really good from the side. If we get that out of him, that could be a huge difference-maker for us.”

That was the idea when the Cubs made Wilson their headliner in the package deal with catcher Alex Avila and reinforced the bullpen for another World Series run. Wilson closed for the Detroit Tigers, notching 13 saves for a bad team, putting up a 2.48 ERA in 42 appearances and shutting down left- and right-handed hitters.

Wilson – who gave up 16 walks in 40.1 innings for Detroit – allowed 16 walks and 17 hits through his first 14.1 innings as a Cub while putting up a 6.28 ERA.

On a smoking 88-degree afternoon and in front of a loud crowd of 44,067, Wilson faced the top four hitters in the Milwaukee lineup and unleashed 17 fastballs in a row, all of them buzzing around 95-97 mph across the seventh and eighth innings. Wilson struck out Eric Sogard and Neil Walker, forced Ryan Braun to fly out to left field and struck out Travis Shaw swinging.

With stuff like that, the magic number to clinch the National League Central title in the low single digits and another week left in the regular season, the Cubs hope Wilson can figure it out and become the late-inning weapon they envisioned.       

“Clearly, it hasn’t been the same for me from before the trade,” Wilson said. “I just want to keep pitching.”