Cubs will have Ian Happ one phone call away at Triple-A Iowa

Cubs will have Ian Happ one phone call away at Triple-A Iowa

MESA, Ariz. – After an impressive camp where he looked like the next homegrown Cubs hitter to roll off the assembly line, Ian Happ will go to Triple-A Iowa and get ready to make his big-league debut, or perhaps build his value for a trade-deadline deal.

Along with Happ, the Cubs assigned outfielder John Andreoli and catcher Taylor Davis to minor-league camp on Monday while optioning pitchers Eddie Butler and Rob Zastryzny to Iowa, cutting their roster to 31 as the Opening Night picture comes into focus.

Happ – the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft out of the University of Cincinnati – batted .417 with five homers, four doubles and 17 RBI in 24 Cactus League games.

"Offensively, what was there not to like?" general manager Jed Hoyer said. "I feel like he hit the ball hard every at-bat for six weeks. It's always fun to see a young guy like that come in and open a lot of eyes."

Happ, 22, is a switch-hitter who can play second base and the outfield, skills that could help him escape from Des Moines once the need arises on the major-league level.

[MORE CUBS: How Cubs came to fully believe in the legend of Kyle Schwarber]

Though there are questions about Happ's defense, Theo Epstein's front office and Joe Maddon's coaching staff clearly value versatility and trust young talent, moving Addison Russell to shortstop in 2015 and elevating rookie catcher Willson Contreras last season.

Stay tuned to see when/if the Cubs will have a spot at Wrigley Field, but Happ looks like he will be on a fast track.

"Whenever you're in Triple-A, you're always a call away," Hoyer said. "Sometimes it happens quicker than you think. We never expected Addie would be up in April of that year, and he was. I feel like with Willson last year, if you had asked me in spring training – would he be up in June? – I probably would have thought it would be more like a September call-up or something like that.

"You never know. Things happen. When you have good players in the minor leagues, sometimes it speeds up on you a little bit."

How Cubs came to fully believe in the legend of Kyle Schwarber

How Cubs came to fully believe in the legend of Kyle Schwarber

MESA, Ariz. – An internal scouting report compared Kyle Schwarber to Babe Ruth before the 2014 draft. Schwarber debuted in The Show almost within a calendar year. The Cubs watched in awe as the rookie with the vicious left-handed swing became the franchise’s all-time leader in playoff home runs.

Schwarber did it with cartoonish power, flicking his bat after smashing a Gerrit Cole pitch that landed in the Allegheny River, sinking the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild-card showdown. Schwarber turned the next round into Topgolf, driving one onto a Wrigley Field video board and changing the rivalry with the St. Louis Cardinals forever.

Before his 24th birthday, Schwarber had also: pulled off a medical miracle to rake in the World Series; spoken in front of what might have been one of the largest gatherings in human history; and got name-checked during President Barack Obama’s final official White House event.

“I feel like I do have something to prove,” Schwarber said.

Because the only Cub starring in a Gatorade ad campaign set to launch around Opening Day – a face of the New Era hat company with a weekly radio gig on WMVP-AM 1000 this season and an I-honestly-don’t-know, ask-my-agent attitude when asked how many endorsements have piled up – still hasn’t come close to playing a full season in the big leagues yet.

But where jealousy and off-the-field distractions helped tear apart the ’85 Bears, the Cubs have an absolute organizational man crush on “Schwarbs,” fully believing the legend will continue.

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Tim Cossins’s wife, Lori, burst into tears after seeing Schwarber’s full-speed collision with Dexter Fowler on TV last year.

Cossins, the organization’s minor-league field coordinator and catching guru, is usually in zombie mode by early April after the grind of spring training. But as a young prospect, Schwarber had made such a huge impression when he visited their home in Windsor, California, coaching up their teenage son, Aiden, on how to talk to girls in between taking batting practice and getting another crash course in catching. 

“My wife was bawling,” Cossins said. “I was just devastated. I was just shattered, like everybody was. In development, you get attached to these guys. To see one of them crawling around on a warning track is a horrifying feeling.”

Schwarber exited Chase Field in an ambulance cart after crashing into Fowler, trying to chase down the ball Arizona Diamondbacks leadoff guy Jean Segura had blasted into the left-center gap. The next day, shaken team president Theo Epstein told beat writers on a conference call that Schwarber being ready when pitchers and catchers report in 2017 would be reasonable speculation.

By April 19, Dr. Daniel Cooper – the head team physician for the Dallas Cowboys – had reconstructed Schwarber’s ACL and repaired his LCL in what was supposed to be season-ending surgery on his left knee.

In an eerie coincidence, Cossins watched the final out of the World Series in the same spot where he saw Schwarber facedown in the dirt, writhing in pain. Like any superstitious Cub fan, Game 7 put Cossins on edge to the point where he started watching offensive innings downstairs in his house and moving upstairs to the master bedroom for defensive innings.      

“It almost felt scripted,” Cossins said. “He just has that innate ability to rise up and do those kind of things. I think that’s just in him. He’s one of those players where he’s large when it counts.”

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Of course, a young player wants to rehab in Chicago instead of dealing with the 100-degree heat and the isolated feeling in the desert. Who wants to give up the life? Would you rather hang out on the Gold Coast or in Arizona strip malls?

The Cubs made an exception for Schwarber, who showed up to Wrigley Field early and often, staying out of the way of players who needed to get ready for first pitch that night, feeding off the energy from the best team in baseball. 

“I knew that we could do something special and it was going to be hard for me,” Schwarber said. “Just dealing with those first six weeks, it was miserable. You can’t walk. You have to crutch everywhere. You have to have someone help you go to the bathroom.

“You’re pretty much confined to a chair, unless you’re going to rehab or you’re getting up to go to the bathroom. They want you to keep your leg elevated, so that the swelling kind of works its way down.

“(It’s) just trying to fight that mental battle…it was a weird spot for me.”

To keep Schwarber engaged – beyond the video he would break down and scouting reports he would help put together – the Cubs invited the gym rat into their draft room. When Cubs officials broke for lunch during one pre-draft meeting, Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, decided to prank Schwarber. 

McLeod set it up with Tim Adkins, a regional crosschecker, telling the room, “We’re going to go back to the college catching,” knowing that would pique Schwarber’s interest. “But let’s just hurry up and get through the crap, the bottom half, the non-prospect-type-guys.”

Adkins had the video clip cued up in the dining room of Wrigley Field’s state-of-the-art underground clubhouse, saying the defense is a question mark and the guy always got his numbers against weaker competition, beating up on schools like Morehead State, but doing nothing on weekends against Michigan and Michigan State.

“And then we had him roll the film,” McLeod recalled. “And it was Schwarber from Indiana. You could tell he was locked in and all of a sudden he’s like: ‘Ah, man, f--- that!’”

After sitting out Day 1 of the draft last June – and having to wait until No. 104 to make their first pick – McLeod and Epstein looked at each other and decided that someone had to fire up the group.

“Schwarber just walks in the room and yells: ‘Let’s f------ go! Get some f------ players!’” McLeod recalled. “And then he walks out and goes: ‘Let’s do this s---!’ and then he walks out the door.

“How comfortable and confident is he to come in and just do that?”

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The shocking news leaked out before the Cubs played an almost perfect Game 6 in the NLCS, beating Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the franchise’s first pennant since the year World War II ended.

Cooper, a medical expert within NFL circles, had given Schwarber the green light to ramp up his baseball activities, opening the possibility to be the designated hitter in an American League stadium. Schwarber flew from Dallas to Los Angeles and secretly hit in the cage at Dodger Stadium before traveling to Arizona, where the Cubs set up a pitching machine on Field 1 at the Sloan Park complex. 

Strength coaches fed at least 1,000 balls to Schwarber, who did his pre-pitch routine and natural stride toward the mound without actually swinging the bat, trying to sharpen his vision for Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller and the Cleveland Indians. Schwarber played in two Arizona Fall League games with the Mesa Solar Sox before taking a private jet to Cleveland.

Did part of you wonder about being the weak link for a 103-win team, that maybe this wouldn’t be a Hollywood ending? 

“Those were definitely thoughts that crossed through my mind,” Schwarber said. “But when it came to the day of Game 1, I had all the confidence in the world in myself. I wanted to be the most confident person out there. And I felt like I was.”

Manager Joe Maddon estimated that “1 to 5 percent of major-league players – MAYBE – could do what he did.”

“It’s freak-of-nature stuff,” McLeod said. “You can’t be away for six months and step into the World Series against Cy Young-caliber pitching and do what he did. As much as we talk about it, it might even be years from now until we can fully even appreciate it.

“You can set the machine at like 95 or 88 with sliders. He’s there just tracking, tracking, tracking with his eyes locked in on that. And even still, that is different than standing there with 50 million people watching you and Corey Kluber on the mound throwing a 92-mph cutter on the outside corner.”

Schwarber saw six pitches and struck out swinging in his first at-bat against Kluber. The next time up, Schwarber slammed Kluber’s first-pitch fastball off the right-center field wall for a two-out double in the fourth inning. The Cubs lost Game 1, but won the next three at Progressive Field with Schwarber in the lineup and hitting .412 during the World Series.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning NL MVP. “You can look at as many balls off the machine (as you want). It will be close in terms of speed, but you can’t really replicate how much movement (Kluber) has on his ball.

“He just saw pitches that had the right velocity, but nowhere near the movement or release point or timing or any of that. Especially coming off a knee injury, too, I’m sure he was kind of hesitant to do certain things. And then swinging – with all the torque he creates – it’s just all that stuff in your mind.

“For him to go out there and just perform like he did – I don’t know how he did it.” 

Listed at 6 feet, 235 pounds – with a crew cut and a goatee that makes him look like a guy you would watch a Bears game with in Wrigleyville – Schwarber has outstanding hand-eye coordination and the type of athleticism that once made him a second-team all-Ohio linebacker in high school.

David Ross – the grandpa figure now on “Dancing with the Stars” – sort of joked that Schwarber seemed more comfortable in the batter’s box with six months off than he ever did during a 15-year big-league career.

“He’s born to hit,” Ross said. “He can roll out of bed and hit 95.”

After Jason Heyward’s fiery speech in the weight room and the 17-minute rain delay in Game 7, Schwarber hammered Bryan Shaw’s 93-mph fastball past the defensive shift and into right field, sparking the 10th-inning rally with a leadoff single.

How do you top the biggest moment of your life? Schwarber doesn’t spend much time on those existential questions, looking out from the stage at the never-ending sea of people celebrating during the Grant Park rally, raising his arms and saying: “Let’s do it again next year!”

Why Cubs fandom was inescapable in covering the greatest story in sports

Why Cubs fandom was inescapable in covering the greatest story in sports

I wished I got punched in the back of the head.

OK, maybe not exactly, but it was more about where and when the punch occurred.

My roommate was among the epic crowd of people outside Wrigley Field after the Cubs put the finishing touches on their World Series championship, and he took a punch or an elbow to the back of the head as people were getting trampled. The most apt comparison I heard likened the mob to Jon Snow nearly suffocating in the "Battle of Bastards" on "Game of Thrones".

Soaked in champagne, I was 350 miles away in Cleveland, living out my lifelong career goal of covering the Cubs team that finally put the 108-year championship drought to an end.

It might seem crazy, but there was a definite internal conflict going on amid the madness. A part of me wished I was back in Wrigleyville for the legendary celebration even though I was witnessing — and had witnessed — history with my own eyes.

Why?

I grew up a Cubs fan.

There is so much weight in those six words, but it at least begins to scratch the surface of why I wanted to be a part of the post-Game 7 celebration mob and why I sat in a dark screening room in downtown Chicago last Wednesday night with a tear in my eye.

********

"To cover the Cubs team that finally ends the drought and wins the World Series."

That was my stock answer whenever anybody asked about where I hoped to be five, 10 years down the road in my career.

Saying nothing about how hard that question is to answer in this field, it really was my main motivation. I couldn't truly think beyond that. It was all I ever wanted from my career in sports journalism.

Baseball and the Cubs have been so prevalent in my 30 years of existence. They're synonymous with oxygen or food. This June will mark the 26th year I've played baseball in some form, and my spring and summer months are still planned around the Cubs schedule, though now it's based on work and covering games instead of attending and watching games.

I don't identify as a Cubs fan now — haven't for years — given my time in the journalism field and the need for objectivity.

But I can safely say I was rooting for the Cubs to win it all last fall. I'm sure 9-year-old Tony was a major contributing factor in that rooting interest, but as much as anything else, I was rooting for the story, as USA TODAY Sports' Erik Brady so aptly put it in his column about Michigan basketball last week.

In a way, this was a tragic career goal in that I had absolutely nothing to do with the product on the field. I couldn't control a thing about the Cubs winning the World Series. All I could do was document it by typing on a laptop.

At the 2016 Cubs Convention, a Chicago reporter saw me talking to my mom and sister, who were all decked out in Cubs garb, having a blast at the convention as lifelong Cubs fans enjoying all the "Embrace the Target" talk and still riding high after the surprise 2015 postseason run.

"Your family is Cubs fans?" the reporter asked.

"Yep," I responded.

"That's kinda f---ed up," he joked.

I laughed and agreed with him, "Yeah it kinda is."

I mean, he's right. How many people covering a baseball team grew up a fan of that squad?

["Reign Men: The Story Behind Game 7 of the 2016 World Series" premieres Monday night at 9:30 p.m.]

How does somebody who grew up a Cubs fan cover the team objectively? To be honest, it was simple at first. When the team loses 100 games, it's easy to be removed and report on what's happening with no clouded judgment. It's not hard to avoid cheering in the press box.

By the time the Cubs started that surprising 2015 run, I had learned how to practice the necessary objectivity, and more than anything, I was stoked just to be covering a Cubs playoff team. I wanted them to advance because it meant more playoffs to cover.

Like Joe Maddon always talks about five stages of a player earning his "big league skin," I was in the stage of "just happy to be here."

I morphed all my personal motivations into an altruistic goal: I wanted the Cubs to win the World Series for my mom and my sister and the rest of my family and friends who lived and died with the Cubs. All the people who felt like weeping or punching through a window in 2003. And 2007. And 2008.

I knew the emotions of the fan base because I had felt them — and lived them — all before.

I had always seen the Cubs and their championship drought through my own lens and those vantage points of people around me: Chicagoans, Cubs fans, people who have had the Cubs ingrained in their lives whether they liked it or not.

Obviously the 2016 Cubs were a perfect blend of youth, hunger and determination that helped them turn a blind eye to the pressure and weight of 108 years.

But I never really thought about the drought any differently because all I ever knew as a Chicago native born into a "Cubs family" was three decades of hearing about the "Lovabale Losers" label.

It wasn't until a conversation with Matt Szczur in the clubhouse in spring training that I realized these Cubs really didn't think of the magnitude of the situation. Certainly not the way I did.

Szczur, for example, has been with the organization longer than any player, but he still had only been fully conscious of the Cubs and the championship drought since 2010, the year he was drafted.

For him, it wasn't 108 years. For Szczur and the other guys — except for maybe World Series MVP Ben Zobrist, the Eureka, Ill., native — the Cubs' drought and much-ballyhooed curse really only mattered to them for a few years. It wasn't a lifestyle.

********

Sitting on a workout bench in a cramped Pasadena hotel gym, hours before the Cubs and Dodgers were to do battle in Game 3 of the 2016 National League Championship Series, I grabbed my phone and started frenetically typing.

I felt the urge to jot down some thoughts that were swimming through my brain as I stared down a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Win or lose, the Cubs were on the precipice of history and here I was, covering the team and tasked with trying to describe and chronicle this momentous event that stretched far beyond just words on a screen.

It wasn't predicting the future. That did not happen. But I just had a feeling a storm might be coming for the 2016 Cubs.

That usually means a harbinger of doom, but storms don't always have to be bad. For example, a storm is a welcome sight during a drought.

Like...say...a 108-year championship drought.

The problem is, even though I started writing this column way back in October, I didn't go back to it until last week. Even after the Cubs won their first pennant in a lifetime, even after they clawed back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series to force a Game 7.

I thought maybe I'd return to it after the surreal parade and rally two days after Game 7 and seeing the five million faces displaying the same emotions I had buried deep inside.

Nope.

Maybe a few weeks later, after some time had passed to gain perspective?

Nope.

OK, well then definitely when we replayed all 11 of the Cubs' postseason wins on CSN around the holidays?

Nope again. Still blocked up.

The Cubs Convention in January didn't help cure my creative constipation. Neither did a two-week trip to Arizona to delve back into the beat and the energy of a new season.

Even seeing my mom's dining room table overflowing with Cubs World Series memorbilia or attempting to describe the experience to family and friends couldn't truly unwrap the words and emotions tucked away.

All those probably helped unclog the writer's block bit by bit, but just like somebody struggling to open a pickle jar, that one last push was still evading me.

That is until last Wednesday night.

After debuting "Reign Men: The Story Behind Game 7 of the 2016 World Series" for the press, CSN employees got an opportunity to see the documentary in a private screening.

Fifty-two minutes and countless goosebumps later, it felt as if a weight had been lifted.

I've seen, heard and read plenty on the Cubs' epic World Series run and even replayed it over and over again in my mind.

But nothing truly took me back to those moments and the magical fall like "Reign Men" did.

Like all sports, baseball is very much driven by an "on to the next one" mindset.

Strike out? Move on. Botch a groundball? Move on.

It works the other way, too: Hitting three homers on a Monday doesn't help bring a win Tuesday night.

There's always another pitch, another at-bat, another game, another season. That's part of the beauty of the game.

But what about when you want to slow things down, take it all in and enjoy the moment?

The game moves too fast for that. Life moves too fast for that.

It took a couple days, but I realized part of what struck me so much with "Reign Men" was it represented a vessel to go back, to relive an event I had been dreaming about for nearly three decades. In so many ways, it still feels like it was all just a dream: My ultimate career goal realized.

I'll probably spend the rest of my life trying to truly wrap my head around this World Series and the impact the greatest story in American sports history had.

But for now, it's baseball, so time to jump to the next inning.

"Reign Men: The Story Behind Game 7 of the 2016 World Series" will debut Monday night at 9:30 p.m. (after Blackhawks coverage) on CSN and a special re-air will be shown Thursday night at 7 p.m.