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.

Wake-up Call: Cubs surge into first place; White Sox continue slide

Wake-up Call: Cubs surge into first place; White Sox continue slide

Here are some of Sunday's top stories in Chicago sports:

Willson Contreras is playing his butt off right now for first-place Cubs

Confident Blackhawks youth ready to take the next step

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for coaching staff

White Sox: The big-picture reasoning behind Rick Renteria and bunting

Jose Quintana reveling in first place vibes after 'overexcited' home Cubs debut

What White Sox 'fireman' Anthony Swarzak has done to increase trade value

Go behind the scenes with Kendall Gill at The Big 3 in Chicago

33 Days to Kickoff: Westmont

Willson Contreras is playing his butt off right now for first-place Cubs

Willson Contreras is playing his butt off right now for first-place Cubs

This really is becoming Willson Contreras' team.

The dude is absolutely on fire right now and has almost singlehandedly lifted the Cubs back into first place.

Since the All-Star Break, Contreras has crushed four homers and three doubles while driving in 11 runs in just eight games. 

The Cubs have won seven of those games, including Sunday night when Contreras' two-run shot in the sixth inning turned out to be the game-winner that pushed the Cubs into a first-place tie with the Milwaukee Brewers. (The Cubs also won the only game Contreras hasn't started since the Break.)

In the span of nine games, the Cubs have already erased the 5.5 game deficit they had in the National League Central entering the midseason break.

"He's just playing his butt off, literally, right now," Joe Maddon said. "Everything he's doing is pretty darn good. He plays with enthusiasm, also. You gotta feel that in the stands.

"There's some times he might get over-enthusiastic. I prefer toning people down as opposed to pumping them up all the time. He's doing everything. He's hitting fourth, he's catching, he's handling a really good pitching staff, he's throwing people out, he's blocking the ball really well and he's hitting homers, so God bless him."

Contreras' offense has been amazing, but Maddon credits the young catcher's block on a Wade Davis pitch in the dirt last week in Atlanta with helping to save the season. That play helped ensure a victory by not permitting the tying run to score from third base as the Cubs rattled off six straight wins to start the second half of 2017.

It's at the point now where Maddon cannot rationally find ways to get Contreras out of the lineup, even though the veteran manager is a huge proponent of rest and wants nothing more than to keep his players healthy and playing at a high level late in the season and into the playoffs.

Contreras is like the Energizer Bunny out there, hopping all around behind the plate to block balls, throwing guys out, pumping his chest, screaming obscenities at his first base coach after home runs. He even plays long toss (from the warning track in left-centerfield to about the spot the second baseman normally plays) before games with catching coach Mike Borzello.

The 25-year-old just does not turn down for anything when he's at the ballpark.

So does he ever get weary?

"I do get tired, but when I get home," he said. "When I'm here, I'm never tired. This is my job, this is what I love and you're gonna see me like that all throughout my career."

Contreras credits the Cubs coaching staff with helping him make the mental adjustments that has him in the conversation as one of the best catchers in baseball.

"He's growing up," Anthony Rizzo said. "He's really taking control behind the plate, which is nice. His at-bats just keep getting better and better and it's really fun to watch."

Contreras is on pace for 25 homers and 87 RBI, second only to Kansas City's Salvador Perez in both categories among catchers.

"He definitely has the abilities to be one of the elite catchers," Maddon said. "You gotta consider him one of the elite catchers in the National League already. Because he just does everything so well.

"The biggest next hurdle is just — without pulling him in too much — controlling his emotions a tad more without losing that enthusiasm that he has. Really understanding the game and calling the game and working his pitchers. 

"Mike Borzello does a great job with him. He started out this year and wasn't so good — missing his pitches, missing fastballs, fouling stuff off. But he stayed with it and now you see what he's capable of doing. He is really good right now and he's gonna get better."