The Cubs are betting everything on the Boston Red Sox pedigree and the A-ball players who just got the boy-band treatment at a downtown hotel.
While insiders haven’t been overly optimistic about the chances the Cubs will sign Masahiro Tanaka, they remain bullish on their “Core Four.” All weekend, the Cubs Convention buzz revolved around a Japanese pitcher and a deep farm system.
But Albert Almora was only 10 years old when the Red Sox finally took down the Evil Empire in 2004. Javier Baez hadn’t yet turned 12 or moved from Puerto Rico to Florida when Theo Epstein became the youngest general manager to win a World Series.
Jorge Soler, the 21-year-old Cuban defector, didn’t exactly grow up reading Peter Gammons’ “Sunday Baseball Notes” in The Boston Globe. Kris Bryant — whose father had played in the Red Sox system and listened to Ted Williams talk hitting — was also born in 1992.
So the Cubs showed a clip from “Four Days in October,” the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, during last week’s rookie-development program, as a way to introduce new hitting coach Bill Mueller.
“One of our big things is ‘When It Happens.’ We’ve kind of tied it into the ‘W’ flag,” said Jason McLeod, the vice president of scouting and player development. “That could be when it happens on the back field when you’re working on groundballs or it could be the apex of a career moment.”
That’s how McLeod cued up the clip of Mueller facing Mariano Rivera in front of 34,826 fans at Fenway Park. The New York Yankees had the greatest closer of all-time on the mound, three outs away from sweeping the American League Championship Series.
“The great thing was Soler was kind of sitting there watching,” McLeod said. “And all of a sudden he goes: ‘That’s him!’ It was like: ‘Yeah, this guy was really f------ good!’”
Kevin Millar — a “Band of Idiots” ringleader who enjoyed bantering with the media and took heat off everyone else in the clubhouse — drew a lead-off walk in the ninth inning. Trailing 4-3, Red Sox manager Terry Francona winked at pinch-runner Dave Roberts in the dugout.
“We talk about my walk. We’ll talk about Roberts’ stolen base,” Millar said in the film. “But we forget about the at-bat Billy Mueller had off Mariano Rivera. He had to hit a ball to the right side. And this was probably the only guy in our lineup that really did a lot of damage off Mariano.”
“Four Days in October” showed Rivera exhaling and looking back toward Roberts at second base, with shots of fans closing and covering their eyes, all set to that kind of dramatic “Friday Night Lights” music. Mueller hit .353 with a .918 OPS in 18 career plate appearances against the great Rivera.
National radio play-by-play guy Jon Miller described the scene in real time: “Here’s the pitch. Swing and a groundball up the middle. Base hit, center field. Here comes Roberts, rounding third. And he scores the tying run. Boston is still alive!”
McLeod joined the Red Sox scouting department in 2003 and had grown up in San Diego, playing with Roberts at Rancho Buena Vista High School.
“It gives me goose bumps thinking about it, because I was sitting seven rows behind home plate when it happened,” McLeod said. “Dave was my high school center fielder. It was freaking awesome. But with the video, right away, they were like: ‘Holy s---!’
“It was only like a three- or four-minute clip. And then when it was off, I’m like: ‘Which of you guys want that moment? Who wants to be up there?’ You could tell Albert was like: ‘I f------ want it!’
“Bryant (was the same way). It went right into Bill talking about his preparation and how he didn’t get caught up in all the hoopla, because it was so loud. And then when Dave stole second, (the noise) got even louder. But (Bill said): ‘My preparation, my routine allowed me to not get caught up in it.’”
Mueller — an ex-Cub with a 2003 AL batting title and a .373 career on-base percentage on his resume — took the job in November after working as a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He gave careful responses to the media on Saturday, not wanting to pretend like he has all the answers about Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney.
Mueller also didn’t want to get into the hype surrounding all these young players, who retweet fans telling them how great they’re going to be at Wrigley Field. They post video and photos on Vine and Instagram, so the 2004 ALCS isn’t exactly their frame of reference. But the Cubs think they will be their best hopes in October. Especially if Tanaka winds up with the Evil Empire.
“Handling the moment” is how Mueller summed up his message to the prospects. “This is going to be real for you guys. And how are you going to prepare for that particular moment?”