MESA, Ariz. – Theodore Roosevelt Lilly III is back.
The Cubs hired Lilly as a special assistant to president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, recognizing a recent history that usually gets glossed over or distorted in this rebuild.
Lilly is a reminder of a Cubs Way that won back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008, jamming more than 6.5 million people into Wrigley Field and turning Clark and Addison into a huge block party.
During the 2008 pennant race, Lilly running over St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina at home plate became the ideal vision of the rivalry for Cubs fans. Lilly has been identified as the guy who smashed the water pipe in Dodger Stadium’s visiting dugout after a heartbreaking three-game sweep.
“I want to stay in the game,” Lilly said. “I would love to keep playing, too, but at this point I’m sure that I’m retired from being on the field. I want to be around the game and I feel like I have something to offer. This is the organization I would prefer to be with.”
Lilly sat in between Epstein and Hoyer behind home plate during Tuesday’s 6-4 victory over the Oakland A’s at Cubs Park. Lilly didn’t have a personal connection with the executives, but they watched the stubborn lefty compete in the brutal American League East with the Toronto Blue Jays. The conversations began in January during Cubs Convention.
“I really liked what he had to say,” Hoyer said. “A lot of guys want to sort of get back in, but they don’t really want to work that much. He made it clear right away that he wanted to work.
“I do like the fact that he was with a Cubs team that won 97 games. They had success. And as we try to figure out how to build a winner in Chicago, he’s a guy that was part of it.”
Lilly looked like just another guy in Wrigleyville, and he didn’t throw 100 mph, but he figured out how to win 130 games and throw almost 2,000 innings in the big leagues.
“He knows how to pitch,” said Jeff Samardzija, the last player remaining from that 2008 team. “He knows how to play the game and most importantly he can (show) that attitude you need as a pitcher. I can vouch that many times Teddy wasn’t 100 percent when he was pitching.
“We called him Teddy Ballgame for a reason.”
A military code had been ingrained in Lilly’s family, with his great-grandfather serving as a Rough Rider under Teddy Roosevelt. Lilly will be remembered for slamming his glove to the ground after throwing the fastball Chris Young crushed for a three-run homer during the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 2007 division-series sweep.
There was the time in 2010 when Lilly dove headfirst trying to steal second base…in an A-ball game…during a rehab start…five months after shoulder surgery.
“Teddy loved to play baseball and I think that gets overlooked sometimes nowadays,” Samardzija said. “What’s the guy’s passion for the game? What does he want to bring to the game? How much does he want to leave on the field? Teddy left it all out there.
“Hopefully, he can take that and turn it into evaluation that’s more than just tools and how hard a guy throws. What’s his makeup as a person and as a player? That’s always very important. Sometimes it’s overlooked, (especially) with all the numbers and computers that play into the game. Sometimes there’s another aspect to it that doesn’t show up on a screen.”
Lilly, 38, will visit minor-league affiliates, do some amateur scouting and take on special assignments while trying to figure out exactly what he wants to do with the rest of his life. He has two young kids and a third one on the way, so family obligations mean he’s not prepared to become a full-time pitching coach.
“Potentially someday,” Lilly said. “Right now, it’s not something that I’m thinking about. The commitment that is necessary – at this point – is not something that I’m ready for.”
Neck issues limited Lilly to only 13 starts with the Dodgers across the last two seasons. But he absolutely lived up to the four-year, $40 million deal he made in December 2006, before the franchise's financial reckoning and while former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry was hooked up to an EKG machine during a heart procedure.
“The experiences that I had the first couple years here winning were incredible,” Lilly said. “They put together a team that was expected to win. We didn’t accomplish the ultimate goal of winning the World Series. But it was such a great experience. We had so many professionals in the clubhouse, guys that went about it the right way. That’s why I’ll always refer to those two years in Chicago as the best years that I’ve had as a player.”