Albert Almora and Kris Bryant heard the roar inside the United Center and saw what a homegrown championship core looks like. Maybe one day they will own this city, the way the Blackhawks do now.
That’s the dream sequence the Cubs are selling, finding their Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and riding down Michigan Avenue for the parade. Watching Tuesday night’s Blackhawks game gave them a taste for how Wrigley Field might feel, once it starts rocking again.
“Amazing,” Almora said. “It was my first hockey game and I was lost. I didn’t know what was going on. But whenever they cheered, I cheered.”
“That was absolutely incredible,” Bryant said. “I’ve never been to a hockey game before and the national anthem there was just amazing. I had the time of my life.”
On Wednesday, a row of six television cameras filmed the 15 prospects working out at Northwestern University’s field house. The audience included Cubs executives Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, manager Rick Renteria and a cluster of scouting/player-development types, as well as the Northwestern women’s cross-country team running laps.
Cubs fans are losing patience and the Chicago media can smell blood (see MascotGate). The entire franchise has pinned its hopes on the players invited to the rookie-development program that will lead into this weekend’s Cubs Convention. The list of speakers includes chairman Tom Ricketts, Epstein, McLeod and Renteria. Hitting coach Bill Mueller and ESPN analyst Rick Sutcliffe would also talk from an ex-player’s perspective.
Kyle Hendricks – the organization’s 2013 minor league pitcher of the year – got the message.
“We’ve been trying to institute a winning way here,” said Hendricks, who completed his coursework at Dartmouth College this offseason, earning an economics degree with a minor in math. “Obviously, it hasn’t been that way in the past. It’s going to be up to me and these guys coming up – the young guys – to change what’s been going on.”
If the Cubs aren’t going to spend big in free agency, they’ll have to hit on guys like Almora, the first player drafted by the Epstein administration.
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“We’re taking it to heart. We’re taking notes. We’re in this for the long run,” said Almora, who will likely begin this season at advanced Class-A Daytona. “(We’re) trying to grasp everything and learn everything. So when we get here, we know what to expect and we know what we have to do.”
McLeod, the vice president of scouting and player development, stressed that point after spending part of Tuesday night chatting with another ex-Cub: Blackhawks president and CEO John McDonough.
“We want to expose them to the market,” McLeod said. “We want them to see what the fans are like here (and see) what a great sports town it is.”
Once again, McLeod made it clear that Javier Baez will be Triple-A Iowa’s shortstop on Opening Day. And the Cubs aren’t going to rush anyone else from the group working out at Northwestern: pitchers Pierce Johnson, Arodys Vizcaino, C.J. Edwards, Armando Rivero, Neil Ramirez and Eric Jokisch; infielders Mike Olt, Christian Villanueva and Arismendy Alcantara; and outfielders Jorge Soler and Rubi Silva.
Even No. 2 overall pick Bryant probably won’t reach Clark and Addison until 2015 after starting this season at Double-A Tennessee. He is a polished Scott Boras client, comfortable saying not too much in front of the cameras, smart enough to have been asked to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship while at the University of San Diego.
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“I have the confidence in myself to go out there every day and compete against the best,” Bryant said. “I think if you have that type of confidence, then the sky is the limit. I really try to just keep that inside – not really show it – and go out there and play as hard as I can.”
All this planning doesn’t mean there will be a storybook ending at Wrigley Field.
It didn’t really matter that the Blackhawks lost to the Colorado Avalanche in overtime on Tuesday night. It made an impression on Johnson, the 43rd overall pick in the 2012 draft who grew up outside Denver playing hockey and rooting for the Avalanche.
“The fans in Chicago? Unbelievable. They’re the most dedicated people,” Johnson said. “Watching all those people go crazy – even during the national anthem – that was awesome. It was so cool. I can just imagine what it’s going to be like when we turn around and actually win a World Series. Oh, man, I’m excited. It gives me chills.”