Frankie O: Worlds apart

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Frankie O: Worlds apart

By Frankie O
CSNChicago.com

At least in my sports life, worlds apart is how I would like it to be, unfortunately, its not going to happen. The problem with a sports affliction is that it wont go away, even if you move to a new city with plenty of issues in its own right. You dance with who brung ya. What happens eventually is that those worlds will collide, with the collateral damage ending up everywhere around you. As anyone who has read me before knows, moving to Chicago was never a part of the master plan. (Neither were my weight or age, but well have time for that later!) Life happens and then nothing else is the same. For me, Im never going to quit my teams, who would? As you would expect, my rooting interests has caused situations I could never have foreseen. Again, what else is new?

The Sixers-Bulls rivalry has been pretty much non-existent for my entire lifetime. My guess is that it will stay that way even whenever-next September-they start playing games again. Thats cool with me since out of the Chicago teams, the Bulls are the team I can openly root for, without feeling too much heat from my Philly brethren. It was awesome being here for the second Three-Peat. And Ill take D-Rose over Allen Emphasis on the I-version any day of the week.

The Phils and White Sox have played one inter-league series and I honestly cant remember who won. The part I do remember was that the game I went to was rained out, so I had to spend the rest of my evening at Jimbos Lounge on 32nd and Princeton. Oops! What happens at Jimbos stays at Jimbos! In the September make-up game I saw Joe Borchard hit the longest hit ball Ive ever seen live- it short-hopped the wall beyond the right field concourse- and that includes the Albert Pujols Show during the 2003 Home Run Derby at the Cell. As far as Cubs-Phillies, theyve gone back and forth over the years, with the Phills having a decided advantage lately, which definitely makes my work life a lot easier. But I dodged a huge bullet when the Cubs gagged against the Dodgers in 2008 preventing a NLCS clash for the ages. Everyone at the bar wished me well as the Phillies went on to the title, but I knew it had to hurt. Thats a feeling Im very familiar with.

Of course, for me, it never has been worse than the Flyers-Blackhawks Stanley Cup final to decide the champion of the 2009-10 season. The ups-and-downs were dizzying. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Im no Dickens, but it was Tale of Two Cities that even he could not have imagined. Thats as conflicted, well thats wrong, the conflict wasnt inside me, thats as awkward and tortuous a time as Ive ever had. There was the outcome, obviously, but also the fact that it happened over a span of two weeks. A lot of my friends here actually asked me who I was rooting for. Honestly? At least when Kaner asked me, he did it with a knowing smirk! It was as if I was supposed to turn off my lifetime of suffering with the Orange and Black. Most of the folks here though, didnt have a problem with me being a Flyers fan, especially after the Hawks won. Theres nothing like having a reminder of your teams success serving you a cold one.

And of course that brings us to the next big event on the Frankie O Armageddon Tour: Its Bears vs. Eagles on Monday Night Football. Actually, since Ive lived here the teams have played 10 times, with my Birds winning six, including a glorious stretch of five in a row. Recently though, the Bears have won 3 out of the last 4. Most importantly, in the only playoff encounter, Chicago native Donavan McNabb and the rest of the Eagles closed out the original Soldier Field with a 33-19 victory. Now that was a fun week. The similarity of the two major cities that I have called home is that they are sports-mad. The madness is most acute concerning their pro football teams. The weekly hype preceding a game only makes those fan bases more rabid. For Chicago its about being an original franchise and also being the home of the most dominant single team ever. (I wonder what year that was? LOL!) For Philly fans its about a bitter lifetime of defeat and disappointment. Oh, sure weve won it all: 50 years ago! See what I mean?

This Monday, for the third time ever on Monday Night Football, they will battle once again. Coincidentally, I was at the last Monday night game they played on September 12, 1994. I was already living with my future boss, who we all know is from the Southside, and had visited Chicago for the first time with her during the previous July, so I jumped at the opportunity to go to the game. This was during the infamous Rich Kottite era of Eagles football. The Eagles got out to a 30-0 lead. Game over, right? Not so fast. Eric Kramer threw 3 fourth quarter touchdowns, and had the Bears knocking on the door for another at the end of the game, but then the defense woke up and sealed the deal for a 30-22 victory. That Eagles team had a season much like that game. They started out 7-2, but then tried to hold on but could not, and lost their final seven and Kottites job. I couldnt get to Chicago fast enough! And I did, that next January.

So its only fitting that in their next Monday Night tilt that I will be there. I know there is the talk about Monday night games not being the same and I sort of agree. But what isnt the same is the broadcast. Back in the day it was about Frank Gifford(Before he was Mr. Kathy Lee), Dandy Don and Howard Cosell. In fact it was in Philly on a Monday night that Howard famously lost the alcohol laced contents in his stomach on the Dandaroos cowboy boots and was promptly removed from the broadcast. (What can I say? Watching Eagles games affects us all in different ways!) For a young NFL fan, the game, and its announcers were larger than life. Even though thats not the case now, I still love a great Monday matchup, and for me this is one. In a season full of must-wins, this is another, for both teams. Everyone wants to give me grief about the Dream Team moniker that came out of Vince Youngs mouth. A back-up QB that was run out of town from his last job! No real fan would ever say that, we know all too well how that kind of talk turns out. But like Mike Vicks past, we will always carry that with us until they finally do something. So far what they are best at is giving away the football and fourth quarter leads. But then something funny happened last Sunday night. The Eagles stopped turning the ball over, got out to an early lead, allowing them to play on both sides of the ball as they were designed for, and they destroyed what everyone thinks is a talented (I say perennially under-achieving) Dallas Cowboys team. Who are the Eagles? I have no idea. They have the ability to be whatever they want, Im just along for the ride.

As for the Bears, Ive felt that they have tried to fight who they are for a long time. This team has a defense that should allow the team to be in every, or most, games. Its a defense built on patience and forcing turnovers. When they get turnovers, like everyone else, theyre tough to beat. But a lack of a pass rush in this league will get you lit up and against the high-powered New Orleans and Green Bay offenses, this was the case. In fact, in two games, wins, they had 10 sacks, and in the other five games they had 5 sacks, in which they were lucky to go 2-3. So which defense are they? That too, remains to be seen. But I will always question their offensive play-calling and philosophy. I know that comes as a shock! With this offensive line, and the caliber of running back Matt Forte they need to be a run-first offense. (Get off the bus RUNNING!) But sometimes their play-calling is mystifying. Well, maybe not. Mike Martz wants to drop back seven steps in the pocket and throw to a particular spot. The problem is a) These drops frequently get his QB killed and b)His QB is more accurate and has a higher QB rating when he moves OUTSIDE the pocket and c) You need to have receivers who know where that spot is that they need to be and have the ability to catch the ball, not drop it or let a defensive back take it away from them, when they get there. I honestly even less of an idea which Bears team will show up in a given week, although I think it was after taking their bye last year they were able to have a very accurate self-evaluation and played much more to their strengths on their run to the NFC championship game.

So what will happen Monday night? Well one thing, Frankie O is going to have a good time leading up to, during and hopefully, after the game. Among the things I know will happen: I will have at least 2 cheesesteaks during my visit. I will enjoy harassing my Chicago brethren and any other tourists I witness running up the art museum steps in front of the Rocky statue. And I will enjoy the constant complaining in the stands that accompanies any misstep the Eagles make during the game.(Did somebody say boo?) Some things never get old!

And for the game itself? I think the Bears play it close to the vest and feature a heavy dose of Matt Forte, exposing the weakness the Eagles have at the linebacker position. On defense Brian Urlacher will continue to haunt Mike Vick into the mistakes that will be the difference in the game. Final Bears 27-20.

Of course, I could be wrong, wouldnt be the first time. If you cant watch the game, to find out what happened, just come into the bar Tuesday night, the expression on my face and the banter over the bar will tell you all you need to know.

Joe Maddon has no choice but to ignore noise and put his faith in young Cubs lineup

Joe Maddon has no choice but to ignore noise and put his faith in young Cubs lineup

LOS ANGELES – Right around the time Theo Epstein was asked when the Cubs might consider sending Kyle Schwarber down to Triple-A Iowa, Ian Happ became the new shiny object for fans and the Chicago media.

In less than 200 at-bats, Schwarber went from World Series legend to dropping from the leadoff spot to being a platoon player to getting shipped away in a fantasy-baseball trade for pitching. 

Unless the Cubs moved Javier Baez, because Gold Glove-caliber middle infielders on a 25-homer, 90-RBI pace just fall from trees. Not to mention someone already proven on the biggest stages as a National League Championship Series co-MVP and World Baseball Classic star.

Even Happ is coming back down to earth as the league adjusts to him. Still, Cubs manager Joe Maddon has no choice but to block out the noise, trust all this young talent and believe in the players who delivered last October.    

“The best I can do is talk to the player himself, which I’ve done with ‘Schwarbs,’” Maddon said before Sunday’s game at Dodger Stadium, staying upbeat and in character after back-to-back shutouts. “That’s just the nature of the industry. That’s a part of it that makes it so much fun, too, for the fan, the fact that they can interact and throw out their conjecture like that. 

“Internally, it has nothing to do with how we react to anything. And you have to talk to the player, because he’s always feeling these outside sources pressing down on him. He really shouldn’t, but they’re human beings. 

“How do you prevent that from really infiltrating? It’s just conversation with the guys themselves. That’s about it. You ask the player to really not pay attention and listen to that. 

“But, again, with all the tablets and the different sources available to follow what’s going on, it’s almost inevitable they’re going to hear or read something. So you got to stay positive with them. And we have to have that conversation with them to maintain their confidence.”

The Sunday lineup constructed to face Clayton Kershaw featured eight position players between the ages of 22 and 27: Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Happ, Jason Heyward, Willson Contreras, Addison Russell and Albert Almora Jr.

A team built around offensive firepower woke up that morning ranked eighth and ninth in the NL in runs scored (231) and OPS (.736). A .222 batting average with runners in scoring position placed the Cubs 15th out of the NL’s 15 teams. “The best explanation I can offer is that we’re hitting young,” Maddon said. “You look at the end of last season and how well a lot of the guys that are struggling right now performed under those circumstances. I believe we’re going to come back and do that.

“In the meantime, they need our support. They need our conversations, so nobody’s left in the dark or wondering what everybody’s thinking about around here. They need openness. And if you get that, they’ll come back.” 

[MORE: The learning curve for Ian Happ]

The Cubs have bigger problems, like an inconsistent rotation that has kept this team hovering around .500 and prevented any real sense of momentum. This is still largely the same group of hitters that beat Johnny Cueto, outlasted Madison Bumgarner, eliminated Kershaw and wore down Corey Kluber during last year’s World Series run.

“They’ll get it together,” Maddon said. “We haven’t even come close to hitting that real offensive ‘go’ moment. We haven’t been there and we’re still paddling pretty well. That moment’s coming. 

“Whether it’s Happ making adjustments, Contreras making adjustments, Addison making adjustments, these guys were pretty good at the end of last season in some really difficult moments, so they’ll be back.”

The learning curve for Ian Happ and how long Cubs will stick with the rookie

The learning curve for Ian Happ and how long Cubs will stick with the rookie

LOS ANGELES – The Cubs tried to downplay expectations at first with a top prospect, framing Ian Happ’s promotion from Triple-A Iowa as a short-term solution for a roster facing multiple injury issues.  

And then Happ blasted a two-run homer off Carlos Martinez – an All-Star/Opening Day starter for the Cardinals – in his big-league debut on May 13 and kept hitting to the point where he made it an easy decision for the Cubs to keep him around.

After the initial burst – seven extra-base hits in his first eight games – the Cubs have watched Happ go 2-for-16 with eight strikeouts in his last five games against the pitching-rich Giants and Dodgers.

How much patience will the Cubs have with a rookie learning on the job? And what is manager Joe Maddon looking to see now?

“How he reacts to bad moments,” Maddon said before Sunday’s game at Dodger Stadium, where the Cubs had been held scoreless for 18 straight innings. “If a guy starts kind of losing his mind a little bit, then you might have to back off of him. But if he’s able to handle the adversity well, then you kind of stay with it.

“I expect them all to struggle at different times. He’s probably done as good of a job adjusting over the last couple days to the way we’ve been pitched at as well as anybody.

“I have no preconceived notions of how long to stick with somebody or not. I think it’s up to the player and how you react to the bad moments.

“Because everybody looks good when they’re going good. How do you look when you’re going badly? That’s what really sets a guy apart. So far, I think he’s handled it really well, and he looked good at second base, too. The arm strength really plays there.”

This hasn’t changed Happ’s stone-faced expression or stopped him from making an impression with his athleticism on the bases and that ability to move between the infield and multiple outfield spots.  

[MORE: With Ben Zobrist sidelined by sore wrist, Cubs move Ian Happ to second base]

Happ is also a good student who analyzes video and notices how teams have gone from challenging him with off-speed stuff during his first week in The Show to firing more elevated fastballs in the second week.  

“With all the information that’s disseminated these days, the league adjusts to you quickly, and it’s your job to adjust back,” Happ said. “It’s just always being on top of the way that you’re being pitched and constantly making adjustments to continue improving.”

As Maddon likes to say, all the shiny new toys and Big Data breakthroughs have favored pitching and defense, making it harder than ever for young hitters. 

“Obviously, the ability to scout the other team and break him down is much greater than it ever was,” Maddon said. “Back in the day, it was like a dude back there with a chew goes back to his room tonight and he recaps his notes that he took during the course of the day: ‘Down and away, up and in. Play him with a step to the pull side.’ That was the advance scouting reports. Now it’s broken down to the point where you actually have pertinent information.

“My point is Happ shows up on the scene. They start jumping in there and they probably could gather some intel from the past. And all of a sudden, they got a much better game plan. Now it’s up to him to adjust.”