Chicago Cubs

Te'o among five Nagurski Trophy finalists

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Te'o among five Nagurski Trophy finalists

It may not be the Heisman Trophy, but Manti Te'o is nonetheless up for a prestigious award.

The Football Writers Association of America released five finalists for the Bronco Nagurski Trophy, given annually to the nation's top defensive player, with Te'o joining South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner and Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner.

Clowney is an often-unblockable pass-rusher who has recorded 8 12 sacks this year going up against bruising SEC defensive lines often keying on the South Carolina sophomore. But Jones is generally regarded as the best defensive player in the SEC, racking up 10 12 sacks, five forced fumbles and an interception for the No. 5 Bulldogs.

Milliner helped Alabama's defense to plenty of success, although it's worth noting Nagurski voting closed Nov. 9 -- a day before Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Werner has terrorized ACC quarterbacks, collecting eight sacks and five quarterback hurries.

Te'o is the second Nagurski finalist in Notre Dame history, joining Shane Walton (2002) in that designation. While Te'o will admit all the award attention he's received is neat, the personal accolades are a secondary goal to the Irish senior captain.

"I think when my name is being tossed around as a national champion, that's what I'm looking for," Te'o said Wednesday. "You ask any Heisman winner that wasn't a national champion what they would rather be, and I think they would rather be the latter, a national champion.

"So that's what I want. I rather be holding a crystal ball than a bronze statue. That's just me."

The Godfather, Anthony Rizzo, lays down new law in Cubs clubhouse

The Godfather, Anthony Rizzo, lays down new law in Cubs clubhouse

MILWAUKEE – Javier Baez broke the code of silence when he mentioned to reporters the latest thing for a Cubs team that designed a Party Room for their state-of-the-art clubhouse at Wrigley Field, turned Jason Heyward’s Rain Delay Speech into World Series mythology and interviews each other in the dugout for pretend TV segments after hitting home runs.

“He doesn’t know how the Italian way works,” Anthony Rizzo said. “There are supposed to be team things that stay with the team.”

Baez let it slip before Friday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, replaying the dramatic 10-inning comeback victory from the night before at Miller Park. If you see the Cubs instantly disappear from the dugout, or a TV camera shows a shot of an empty dugout…    

“We got this new thing,” Baez said. “I don’t want to be the one saying it. I’ll just let him say it. But it’s really fun. When somebody’s mad, everybody walks in and we do some fun things that get us hyper. You guys ask Rizzo.”

The Godfather gave a cryptic response. Omerta is expected to be part of The Cubs Way.

“It’s a team retreat,” Rizzo said. “It’s not just me. It’s anyone who needs to let out some steam this late in the season. It’s a team thing. It’s a long season and you go through ups and downs. And there’s times where you get to that boiling point where you just want to kill anything in your way.”

Rizzo needed to vent and called his teammates into the visiting clubhouse on Thursday night after striking out with two runners on in the eighth inning of a tie game that could swing the National League Central race.

“Throughout the year, you go back in the tunnel probably 25 times,” Rizzo said. “You got to take it out somewhere. You can only stay sane so long. It’s September. It’s a team (thing) now.

“It’s worked. We’re 3-for-3 on it. But it’s not me gathering. It’s just whoever feels like it’s time – you’ll see the team rushing off the bench and going for a nice little retreat.”

In many ways, Rizzo sets the clubhouse tone with his laid-back vibe off the field and intense competitive streak on the field. Tom Verducci’s book, “The Cubs Way,” detailed a scene before last year’s World Series Game 7 where Rizzo got naked, played “Rocky” music, quoted movie lines and shadowboxed until reliever Hector Rondon joined “in on the hijinks, picked up an aerosol can of shoe cleaner and sprayed it in the direction of Rizzo’s groin.”

“This is strictly in-game,” Rizzo said. “You can’t do it, though, and be selfish and go on a nice little retreat when we’re winning. It’s got to be the right timing. It helps, too, because it’s been fun the last couple weeks since we started doing it.”

One obvious benefit: There are no annoying TV cameras. Like in late July when frustrated pitcher John Lackey bumped into Rizzo in the Wrigley Field dugout and exchanged words with the face-of-the-franchise first baseman.

“We’ve come together now,” Rizzo said. “It’s not about anyone. It’s about us. When things go wrong for a certain individual, we rally around him. And that’s what we got to keep doing from here on out.”

Javier Baez stars for Cubs while his mind drifts to Hurricane Maria and family in Puerto Rico

Javier Baez stars for Cubs while his mind drifts to Hurricane Maria and family in Puerto Rico

MILWAUKEE – Javier Baez tries to use baseball as an escape, but his thoughts inevitably drift toward Puerto Rico and the damage and destruction Hurricane Maria has inflicted on his beloved island.  

“I’ve been doing my best to stay in the game,” Baez said. “But, really, my mind has been over there, trying to find out about family, how they’re doing.”

Baez could compartmentalize enough in the ninth inning to deliver the two-out, two-strike, game-tying RBI single on Thursday night at Miller Park, setting the stage for a dramatic 5-3 comeback victory over the Milwaukee Brewers that created a huge shift in momentum for the Cubs in the National League Central race.  

But several Cubs have been distracted during this nightmare hurricane season, seeing the haunting images on TV and thinking about more than magic numbers. Baez finally made contact with his brother, Gadiel, before Friday’s game in Milwaukee.

“He finally found a spot that has service. Everybody’s disconnected,” Baez said. “It’s been really, really crazy over there. They say there’s no trees in Puerto Rico right now.

“It’s really bad. (But) there are still people smiling and trying to get through it. We got no (other) option. Our whole family is over there. I think if we work together, the process is going to be faster and the help is going to be (stronger). Hopefully, everybody stays together and just tries to help.”

Baez has been using his social-media platforms, asking for prayers and helping raise funds through the GoFundMe page started by catcher Rene Rivera’s family and supported by teammate Victor Caratini.

Known for his flash and highlight-reel moments, Baez is actually more of a low-key personality off the field, close to his family and developing into one of the most important and dependable players for the defending World Series champs.       

“Sometimes, when you are going through difficult moments,” manager Joe Maddon said, “getting out there kind of is that little island that you need just to park your brain for a couple hours.

“You keep reading about it. You’re talking four-to-six months without power. When you read those lines, you know it’s devastating. But live it.

“Again, as an athlete, when you’re going through difficulties outside of your occupation, sometimes it’s the best place to be for those couple hours. And then you go back to reality afterwards.

“Javy has been on the stage. He’s had the bright lights shining on him for a long period of time for a young guy. He’s learned how to handle this pretty well.”

Baez starred for the team that made it to the World Baseball Classic championship game in March. He could feel the pride and energy and what that meant to Puerto Rico during an economic crisis.

“Our whole island, they were there for us,” Baez said. “If we really work together, we can get through it faster, and everything’s going to be OK over there.”