Cubs believe Rizzo will lead by example

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Cubs believe Rizzo will lead by example

Anthony Rizzo doesnt want to hear that this is his team now.

The media and the marketing department havent driven this idea alone. Last winter Theo Epsteins front office told Cubs fans they were getting someone mature beyond his years.

Manager Dale Sveum recognized those qualities as far back as spring training and knew he would become an important piece to the clubhouse puzzle. Veteran utility guy Jeff Baker said so last weekend after he was traded to the Detroit Tigers.

The relaunched version of the Cubs returned to the North Side on Thursday night, with almost 33 percent of the schedule left to find out what theyve got. Dusty Baker who has never known this market to be very patient watched his first-place Cincinnati Reds get beat 5-3.

When Rizzo was on the verge of being promoted from Triple-A Iowa, a team official tried to downplay all the hype and observed: Hes not (bleeping) Babe Ruth. But the Cubs are going to put a lot on his shoulders. Just dont expect any Knute Rockne speeches.

When people say stepping up and being a leader, its not like Im going to get (up) on a stool, Rizzo said. Its just kind of doing it by example. You get those big hits, which are always nice, but its about showing up to the field every day and preparing hard and other guys see that. Players see you running balls out hard and they see you working hard. Thats my definition of being a leader.

Rizzo again found himself in the middle of the action with an RBI single in the first inning. He negated his leadoff double in the fourth when he ran to third base on a groundball to short and got thrown out in a 6-3-5 double play, the kind of aggressive mistake the Cubs (44-66) will live with for now.

Rizzo took out catcher Devin Mesoraco with a hard slide on Starlin Castros game-tying, two-run double off the wall in the sixth inning. He worked an eight-pitch walk against Sean Marshall in the eighth before Alfonso Soriano crushed the game-winning, two-run homer toward the batters eye in center.

Rizzo, who turned 23 on Wednesday, is one of 12 players who werent on the Opening Day roster. Between Kerry Woods retirement and the flurry of deadline deals, the Cubs lost roughly five decades of major-league service time.

Cubs people have long predicted that Brett Jackson will become the most popular dude in Wrigleyville, a guy who loves to play hard and get his uniform dirty and doesnt mind the cameras.

Fair or not, Jacksons strikeouts are going to become a daily watch (nine in 16 plate appearances), and Rizzo knows what that scrutiny is like after hitting .141 with one home run in 49 games with the San Diego Padres last season.

Its tough because everyone has their opinion, Rizzo said. Its unfair to base everything just on results. Bretts a hard worker. He does everything he can. Hes going to get better. If he hits, he hits. If he doesnt, he doesnt. But he brings the same approach to the field every day. Thats the biggest thing.

When the Cubs returned to Petco Park this week, Rizzo stood in the visiting dugout with the San Diego media and refused to make excuses.

The ballpark could have been a T-ball field and I wouldnt have a hit a ball, Rizzo said. I wasnt hitting the fastball, or pretty much anything.

Rizzo kept most of his answers boring and didnt gloat about his numbers (.301 average, nine homers, 24 RBIs in 37 games). When asked to identify the problem, he said: Probably between my ears.

Remember that Cubs executives saw Rizzos monster numbers in the Pacific Coast League and reminded everyone that it was a mistake to rush him last season. They had to wait until he had checked off all the boxes (while pushing back free agency by a year). So its convenient to say now, but there is a roadmap for Jackson to follow this winter.

General manager Jed Hoyer who brought Rizzo to San Diego in the Adrian Gonzalez deal and got him back in the Andrew Cashner trade recalled an exit meeting at the end of last season.

(Manager) Bud Black (and I) sat down and said: Hey, until you can catch up with a mid-90s fastball and above, youre going to struggle in the big leagues. You need to shorten your swing. You need to level your swing out.

I give him a lot of credit. We had a hard conversation with him and he made those adjustments.

Vindicated is too strong (a word for us). Its six weeks. Hes going to have ups and downs like any young player, but Im really happy for him.

Rizzo has already sidestepped the media blitz in two cities. He keeps his head down and will stand in front of his locker to face questions. He has developed a quiet routine. The Cubs will expect him to be initiating hard conversations and running that clubhouse for years to come.

Follow the leader: What makes Theo Epstein an unstoppable force for Cubs

Follow the leader: What makes Theo Epstein an unstoppable force for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. — The day after Fortune magazine ranked Theo Epstein No. 1 on its list of "The World's 50 Greatest Leaders," Anthony Rizzo led the team in a standing ovation and asked the Cubs president to offer a few words before the morning workout.

"I only have one thing to say about that," Epstein told the group. "It's about f------ time."

Epstein always understands his audience — whether it's professional athletes, Democratic donors, Cubs Convention diehards or the pesky media — and knows how to deliver a one-liner with perfect timing.

Epstein loves baseball, but he's not some poet or romantic, dropping F-bombs at the right moment and calling BS when he sees it. Of course, Epstein has a huge ego. There's no other way to end 194 combined years of curses between the Cubs and his hometown Boston Red Sox. But Epstein also didn't crash all the late-night talk shows this offseason or cash in with a quick book on leadership skills and management philosophy/fluff.

The day before, Epstein had been awoken by a text message from a national baseball writer, asking for a reaction to the viral list that ranked him two spots ahead of Pope Francis. Epstein didn't even know this internet attention grab was coming and released a copy-and-paste statement to reporters, calling it "patently ridiculous" and writing: "Um, I can't even get my dog to stop peeing in the house."

But the Cubs didn't hold that pre-stretch meeting to roast Epstein, moving it to an off-limits area of the spring-training complex to settle something about South Carolina and March Madness brackets without it winding up all over Twitter. Years ago, while touring the construction site in Mesa, Epstein turned to strength coach Tim Buss and said something sarcastic like: Take a good look around, Bussy, you'll be fired by the time this is done.

Buss survived and became a Speedo-wearing star at Camp Maddon, where the manager recently nominated him to become Madonna's dance trainer. That weight room in Arizona now has a mural depicting the raucous celebration outside the Wrigley Field marquee after the Cubs won their first World Series title since the Teddy Roosevelt administration.

When the 2017 Cubs are booed on Sunday during the Opening Night pageantry at Busch Stadium, they will be a reflection of Epstein's complex personality — colorful, edgy, confident, self-motivated, analytical, instinctive, inclusive, really, a worst nightmare for St. Louis Cardinals fans who used to love watching a one-sided rivalry.

"He understands that we're not robots," said Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman Epstein drafted for the Red Sox, traded to the San Diego Padres and then reacquired as a foundation piece on the North Side. "He does his due diligence. You see the guys in here being good people, and that comes first. He's not bringing in guys that have talent and bad reputations, because it's cancerous in the clubhouse.

"He does a good job of being very approachable, especially with the players, and easy to talk to, and not coming in there and being this dominating, intimidating figure in the clubhouse where everyone perks up."

Yet even the character-driven narrative can sometimes oversimplify and undersell a Cubs Way that obsessively gathers information and sees the world as an endlessly complicated place.

It's not scouting vs. analytics or head vs. heart or good guys vs. bad guys. It's all of that, all the time, when you oversee one of the most popular teams in the world, eight minor-league affiliates and employees covering everywhere from Latin America to the Pacific Rim.

The Cubs dug enough to know that an ugly incident involving Aroldis Chapman would publicly surface before the Los Angeles Dodgers agreed to — and backed out of — a controversial deal with the Cincinnati Reds during the 2015 winter meetings.

Once Chapman served his 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball's domestic-violence policy — and the New York Yankees took the bigger PR hit and the Cubs looked like a legitimate World Series contender last summer — Epstein gave up top prospect Gleyber Torres in a blockbuster trade for the mercenary closer.

Epstein hired and fired two handpicked managers with completely different personalities — Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria — and didn’t hesitate when Joe Maddon used an escape clause in his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays to become a free agent after the 2014 season.

During that year, Epstein shocked the baseball world by giving Manny Ramirez a second (or third or fourth or fifth) chance and hiring him to be a player/coach at Triple-A Iowa because he thought it would help Javier Baez. "Javy Being Javy" led to a National League Championship Series co-MVP performance last year.

The Cubs indulged Tommy La Stella when he refused to report to the minors last summer/took a New Jersey sabbatical — just in case they needed a left-handed pinch-hitter for a particular playoff matchup.

"Look, Theo's been successful everywhere he's gone," said Mike Hazen, the new Arizona Diamondbacks general manager and former Red Sox executive. "It's not a coincidence. It's not by accident. He's probably the smartest person I've ever worked for. He's as driven a person as I've ever worked for. He's passionate about baseball, about the draft, about player development. Every small decision is monumental to him — with everything.

"That wasn't like in a micromanaging way. When I was the farm director, every game report, every night, if there was something in there that he had a question about, I would get a phone call or an e-mail: 'Hey, what's going on with this? What's going on with that?' He was locked into everything. He has a huge capacity to make decisions and give advice on so many different levels."

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Epstein doesn't want a preview to revolve around the idea of his next job, because he's in the first season of a five-year extension worth in the neighborhood of $50 million and not at all looking to leave Wrigleyville, a place where he can keep winning big while walking to work and raising his young family.

But getting an equity stake in a big-league franchise would be the logical next step if Epstein decides to stay this involved in baseball once he nears Bill Walsh's ideal of a 10-year shelf life for coaches and executives.

David Axelrod — the Cub fan/former Chicago Tribune political writer/chief strategist to President Barack Obama — asked Epstein that natural what's-next question about owning a team on "The Axe Files" podcast.

"Um, sure, yeah, I think you can do things as an owner that you can't necessarily do as an employee," Epstein told Axelrod near the end of an offseason conversation that lasted more than 70 minutes, "helping the team really get involved in the community and doing some great work, using baseball as a vehicle to do some important work in society.

"My twin brother is a social worker, so I try to view the world through his eyes, and he's always telling me about what's really going on in the trenches.

"The reality is, these days so much of the most important work in society is done by these nonprofits, most of which don't get real government funding, so it's really important to identify the most impactful nonprofits in your community, especially in a city like Chicago right now that is battling so many critical challenges, and then support them.

"Baseball is just bread and circus, right? I mean, what we do is we just entertain the masses. And, of course, at certain moments it becomes really meaningful to people and transcends that. But by and large, it's just bread and circus.

"But there are rich fans who are willing to spend money to get access to games and sit in better seats or sit in the general manager's box or get autographs or have these experiences, going to dinner with players or with general managers. And if you can use that — and raise some money and redirect it to nonprofits — I think that's a great thing and really our responsibility in some ways."

In the meantime, owners will keep trying to find the next Epstein and copy a five-year plan that went from 101 losses to 103 wins. That underestimates: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the Red Sox; the built-in credibility with fans and the media from the moment he arrived in Chicago; an ability to manage up and work around the initial payroll restrictions; and the shadow he casts over the entire organization.

"Theo's got a long memory," said Sam Hughes, the national crosschecker who has worked for the Cubs since 1996. "We spend two weeks together (during the draft). We go every player — from the guy we might select in the 40th round (to the top pick) — and you'd be amazed at how much attention and how thorough we are with each and every guy.

"It's crazy, because you're in that room and it's like a frat party for two weeks, (with) great dialogues going on. But then when you leave, it's like crickets. You don't hear from him. And then he's off to probably paying the same attention to the pro department getting ready for trade deadline.

"But when he's there, he's all on. And then you might not see, hear or talk to him for six months. Out of the blue, you'll get just like a random witty e-mail or something about a player that you liked."

Epstein could always drop the Theo-has-spoken hammer while discussing first-round picks like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber or free agents like Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist. But Epstein would rather listen, ask questions and play devil's advocate.

"He wants you to come to the table with an opinion," said Lukas McKnight, the assistant director of amateur scouting. "He doesn't mind when you disagree with him, which is awesome. It's great to have somebody that is more than respectful of your opinion when it differs from his.

"As long as you're thorough — and as long as you can back it in evidence and talk thoroughly about it — he loves that."

Epstein is 43 years old, but this will be his 26th major-league season, which gives him an incredible network of sources and a database of experiences to draw from as the Cubs try to win back-to-back World Series titles for the first time since 1907 and 1908.

Epstein remembered the 2005 Red Sox opening their season in The Bronx on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" — and how finally winning it all didn't exactly allow manager Terry Francona to relax.

"Yeah, it sucked," Epstein said with a laugh. "We had a bunch of injuries in our rotation, so David Wells had to pitch Opening Day and got hit pretty hard and we lost. And then we came back and Matt Clement pitched (and we) lost. And then before the third game of the season, Tito started having like heart palpitations.

"I ended up going to the hospital with him. We listened to the third game of the season from Tito's hospital room. We felt like if we lost, neither one of us were going to be welcome back in Boston because we were getting swept at Yankee Stadium, even though we were coming back to get our rings.

"So I hope the series in St. Louis goes better. But if it doesn't, I'll have been through it before."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are Blackhawks best team in NHL?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are Blackhawks best team in NHL?

Joining Kap on today's episode of STL is Sam Panayotovich (WGN Radio), David Haugh (Chicago Tribune) and Hub Arkush (Pro Football Weekly).

The Bulls take on the Cavs, playing at home on TNT, so a season sweep of their rivals is a lock, right? Plus, should Dwyane Wade return to the court this season?

Also, the Blackhawks trounced the Penguins last night. Are the Hawks the best team in the NHL? Finally, the guys discuss whether the Cubs can repeat this season, and welcome Scott Podsednik to the White Sox pre and postgame team.

Check out the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast here.