Know your enemy: La Russa, Sveum and The Cubs Way

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Know your enemy: La Russa, Sveum and The Cubs Way

ST. LOUIS When Tom Ricketts began looking for a new executive to run baseball operations last summer, the Cubs chairman wanted a sense of how the other 29 major-league teams ran.

Staffers analyzed how teams spent their money and where they got their returns. The Red Sox model had fascinated Cubs executives, so it was no surprise that Theo Epstein became the target.

But the Brewers stood out for being so resourceful in building that homegrown core. The Yankees made headlines for signing big-name free agents, but they probably didnt get enough credit for developing their own talent.

Maybe one day the Cubs will get their renovated version of Wrigley Field, Sheffield Avenue closed off on gamedays and a PBS documentary, just like Fenway Park.

But if this works, the Cubs wont be one-dimensional, simply stealing from the Red Sox. They already went behind enemy lines to hire first-base coach Dave McKay, who spent 26 seasons on Tony La Russas staff and will receive his World Series ring on Saturday at Busch Stadium.

On some level, The Cubs Way will borrow from the Cardinals.

Thats the reason Im here, McKay said. I remember (former Cardinals pitching coach) Dave Duncan and I talked last season when we were in (Chicago. We saw some) article where Mr. Ricketts was talking about the plans.

We were saying to each other (were) worried about it these guys are going to get good fast.

No one knows how long that will take. But McKay says first-year manager Dale Sveum reminds him a lot of La Russa, the future Hall of Famer.

Ive even told Tony: Hes got a lot of you in him, McKay said. (Its) the attention to detail, routines, making sure that they get the message. I really think these Cubs are on the right track. Im happy to be a part of it. I think there are some big things to happen here.

When Sveum interviewed for the Cubs job, he could say that he played for La Russa, Jim Leyland and Joe Torre near the end of his big-league career, a point where he was thinking about managing. That time around the As in 1993 left an impression.

(La Russa) was always ahead of the game, Sveum said. Hell push the envelope. Hell try things that I dont think other managers (would).

Watching a guy like that, you learn, and I think a lot of people learned in the postseason about (how he used) a bullpen. (He) kept going to them and it probably won them the World Series.

Sveum recalled how La Russa put him in left field one day, even though he had never played the position before.

The thing with Tony was he always gave the bench players an opportunity. But hed always put them in situations where they were going to succeed.

Sveum laughed: Meaning me, because I was always on the bench. You feel good about yourself, except when one day I had to face Randy Johnson and he struck out 17 that day or something like that.

He just (put) faith in people: Oh, just go out there and you cant screw it up that bad. But, sure enough, when you do that, the guy you put in the lineup would get two hits that day. (He) had a great feel all the time for what his role players could do off certain pitchers.

So Sveum will get inside players heads, push his team to run the bases aggressively and hammer away at fundamentals. Utility man Joe Mather who spent a decade in the Cardinals organization recognized the methods.

Our camp this year, the feel, Mather said, resembled a lot of what Tony liked to do over in St. Louis. I feel like theyre trying to attribute a lot of the really good things and good ideas that St. Louis had here. Its a great place to start.

The Cardinals made the playoffs nine times in the 16 seasons McKay worked with La Russa. Thats the sustained success the Cubs are talking about.

The organization as a whole doesnt have enough impact talent yet. The new collective bargaining agreement shredded the financial advantages Epstein had planned to exploit in the draft and internationally. Its still too early for players to start tuning out Sveum.

But at Clark and Addison, there is finally a sense of stability, and that could go a long way.

Everything I feel like always starts from the top, Mather said. Thats going to be our owners, down to Theo, down to Dale. Theyve really taken a lot of responsibility and put themselves in the position to be accountable for everything. They set up a good program for this organization.

View from the Moon: Bears make statement in taking tight end while passing on defensive backs

View from the Moon: Bears make statement in taking tight end while passing on defensive backs

With their second pick in the 2017 draft, the Bears addressed offense and did it in a way that, when coupled with one of their main offseason moves, makes for some very interesting what-ifs for the upcoming season.

The choice at No. 45 was tight end Adam Shaheen, who at 6-foot-6 and 278 pounds becomes the second significant addition at the position following the signing of Dion Sims (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) to a three-year deal. In a sometimes over-specialized NFL, the Bears have brought in not one but two every-down tight ends.

“Yeah, that’s accurate,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “So it opens up a lot of possibilities for our offense.”

The acquisitions of Shaheen and Sims hold some intrigue, if only because of sheer bulk, because the inescapable conclusion with the commitments to big tight ends is that the Bears might be serious about running the football. They ran 28.4 percent of their 2016 plays in personnel packages of two or three tight ends or with a tight end and fullback.

Under coordinator Dowell Loggains the Bears ran the football just 39.3 percent of the time in 2016. Head coach John Fox and Loggains cite the Bears’ frequent need to play catch-up as the reason why, though in 12 of the 16 games the Bears were tied, led or were within seven points at halftime. In fairness to Fox and Loggains, the Bears in fact arguably did not have the physical firepower at tight end to sustain a smash-mouth base of operations.

That said, both Shaheen and Sims also have a fully formed receiver side to their games, which is where the bigger-picture interest lies. Shaheen had 122 receptions over his last two seasons at Ashland. Sims caught 36, 25 and 35 passes in his final three years with the Miami Dolphins. Both Shaheen and Sims were high school basketball standouts; Shaheen played a year of basketball at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown, while Sims was dual-recruited for football and basketball at Michigan State after finishing fourth in voting for Mr. Basketball in Michigan in 2009.

“I definitely think (the basketball stuff) helps,” Pace said. “Half the time, it’s like these tight ends are going up for a rebound and boxing out. And (Shaheen) definitely has it. When we talk about body control and catching radius, the ball is not always going to be on target. And Adam has the ability to do that. We confirmed that through the tape, and Frank (Smith, tight ends coach) was able to confirm it during the workout.”

Why not take a defensive back?

During the NFL owners meetings this spring, Pace said that the draft's depth of talented options was a factor in free-agency decisions as well as the draft. So his willingness to trade down in the second round of this draft was expected, given that it has been rated as one of the best-ever drafts for quality and depth at defensive back.

Of course, these were the same experts’ analyses that concluded that no quarterback would be drafted before the middle of the first round, when in reality three went in the first 12 picks after teams traded up, so ... oh, never mind.

The NFL collective seems to agree with the take on defensive backs: Of the 107 players selected through three completed rounds, 29 (27.1 percent) have been defensive backs (18 cornerbacks and 11 safeties). Meaning more than one-fourth of the 2017 draft picks have been defensive backs.

What wasn’t expected was Pace then making no move at either cornerback or safety even after the trade-down that recovered much of the draft capital expended to deal up to No. 2 for Mitch Trubisky. When the Bears’ pick at No. 45 came around, the Bears instead chose a smaller-college tight end.

First thoughts were that Pace agreed with thinking that said starter-grade corners in particular could be had as late as the fourth round — he reacquired a fourth-round pick in the trade with Arizona, giving him two (Nos. 117 and 119) — or that he had been outflanked by a sudden minor run on defensive backs. In the eight picks from No. 36 (the Bears’ original second-round slot) to No. 43, four defensive backs were snatched up, three of them safeties.

That clearly didn’t bother Pace, though the Bears ended Friday with a plan to take a revised look in the defensive back direction.

“Yeah, we’re going to have to kind of sort through it tonight and we’ll be here late tonight and early in the morning,” Pace said. “Kind of resetting our board and going through it again. We’re going to take best player available, and if it ends up being offensive players, that’s what it is.”

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

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USA TODAY

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

Championship moments rarely occur in the first round. With a playoff format that drags the postseason out for more than two months, with playoff series taking as long as two weeks, the second season feels like just that. It’s far too early to say what exactly Friday night in Chicago will mean for the top-seeded Celtics, but a sense of a team coming together under unfathomable circumstances may prove to be the turning point in a season that a week ago appeared hanging by a thread.

It happened in three parts.

On the floor the Celtics looked every bit the part of a 51-win team that edged out LeBron’s Cavs for the top spot in the East. Brad Stevens’ small-ball approach came full-circle as the Boston guards lived in the paint against the Bulls, kicking out to open shooters for 16 3-pointers that helped the Celtics put away the game (and series) midway through the third quarter.

Avery Bradley starred for a second consecutive night, tallying 23 points while making Jimmy Butler work for his, while eight different Celtics hit a 3-pointer and the team shot 49 percent. For the first time in the series the Celtics looked dominant, like a team poised to contend with the Cavaliers for supremacy in the East.

“It felt good to play Celtic basketball again,” Avery Bradley said. “We were all smiling, having fun, and that’s what it’s supposed to be. That’s how hard we worked this entire year, to play that type of basketball.”

Isaiah Thomas was naturally somber much of the series. The well-documented death of his 22-year-old sister put a damper on the series before it began, and the MVP candidate understandably chose not to address it on the few occassions he spoke with the media. But Thomas looked more like himself as the series went on. Not only did his numbers improve, he appeared more vocal after made baskets, laughed off trash talk from Bulls point guard Isaiah Canaan, and engineered the Celtics' offense to near-perfection.

His defining moment came late in the third quarter with the Celtics nearing a 30-point lead. After a hard foul he gathered his four teammates in a huddle near the baseline and shouted that the series for the Bulls was "a wrap for these m------------!" This was the same player who two weeks earlier was brought to tears prior to Game 1, and who will bury his sister on Saturday in Tacoma, Washington. Under unthinkable circumstances, Thomas averaged 23.0 points and 5.7 assists in 34.8 minutes in the series.

“I feel like he has grown,” Al Horford said. "And we all have in a way with all the adversity that has gone on. It could have easily gone the other way, but I feel like especially tonight when we got the game in hand, in control, we all just kept on repeating to stay focused to keep it going, keep pushing. We didn’t want to give them any life and we were a focused group and we were enjoying the moment.”

Thomas' journey won't get easier. He'll have another short turnaround to get ready for Sunday's second-round matchup against the Celtics. But like his teammates did in Games 3 and 4, when Thomas flew by himself to Chicago following his return home to Tacoma to mourn with his family, they'll have another opporuntity to grow closer. Brad Stevens kept an incredible perspective on the situation throughout the series, and applauded his team for doing the same while still fighting for wins.

"Bigger things than basketball happened, and that took precedent and it takes precdedent," he said. "I was really proud of our guys for how they treated each other, how they stood together, stuck together. And how nobody pointed fingers, they were just a great support for one another, especially Isaiah."

When Thomas does return, and when the Celtics gear up for their next postseason journey, expectations will have remained the same. Though the Wizards were one of the league's best teams in the second half, and with John Wall and Bradley Beal playing on another level, it'll take more performances like Friday night - both on the court and collectively staying together - for Boston to advance. A 2-0 hole against the Wizards will feel a whole lot different than it did against the Bulls.

That sort of letdown doesn't feel like it will happen again. Though no one would have wished such tragedy to force it, the Celtics came together at a critical moment and came out better for it. Their work isn't done, and they know it. But the way they were able to handle the adversity in Round 1, anything seems possible for Stevens, Thomas the top seed in the East.

"We just try to stay the course in the day-to-day. And if that results in us winning more games or winning in the playoffs, or whatever the case may be, there’s only one goal in the Boston," Stevens said. "Seventeen (NBA championship) banners above us. We don’t have a choice. We only shoot for one thing there."