Drawn to the Dugout: The Next Cubs Manager

From the legendary Cap Anson to Joe Maddon 140 years later, the Cubs have had more than their share of unique personalities at the top step of the dugout.

Hall of Fame gentlemen like Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, Frank Chance (yes, that Tinker to Evers to Chance group), Rogers Hornsby, Joe McCarthy, Gabby Hartnett, and Leo Durocher all had their tenures as north side skipper.

Of course, only in Chicago could a manager lead his club to the first World Series title since Chance was at the helm, end the honeymoon before it even began, become a polarized figure and turn into non-surprising news when his contract wasn’t renewed nary three years later, right?

But thanks, Joe. Seriously and sincerely.

Thus begins the search for who will lead the Cubs starting with the 2020 season.

While the list is pretty short at this stage, the purported front runner, David Ross, is somewhat polarized himself. But should he be?

If strictly comparing resumes to other candidates like Joe Girardi, Mark Loretta and Joe Espada is the main factor, then Ross literally does not compare – he simply hasn’t coached before. Despite having a reputation for most of his playing career as a coach-on-the-field for his knowledge and quick thinking, he has never held an official seat. Much less one that is on par with someone like Girardi, who has won a World Series as a manager.

But does that really matter?

Aaron Boone had no managerial experience when he took over the New York Yankees in 2018. They won 100 games and reached the ALDS. This year they won 103 and are currently in the ALCS.

Alex Cora was a first time manager when he was handed the reigns of the Boston Red Sox in 2018. They won the World Series.

Bob Brenly led the Arizona Diamondbacks to a World Series title in 2001 in his first season as manager.

The point is, a first-time manager finding success is far from unprecedented or unrealistic.

This is not to advocate Ross for the job. This is saying why he could, not should, be the choice. I always liked him as a player and I believe he will make a fine skipper some day, but I certainly have no crystal ball that is locking him in to the Cubs dugout for next season.

All the candidates are sound.

But has this been boiled down to Girardi vs. Ross?

Image result for David Ross

Experience and success-wise, Girardi has no competition here.

There are some other intangibles that may put Ross ahead of the pack, however. One inherent issue with experienced coaches, especially former managers, is the pushback on baseball-related issues they can give to the front office. In today’s sabermetric, analytics-driven game, the old guard baseball guys tend to have some strategic friction with their bosses. Reports of this happening with Maddon and Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer were surfacing as far back as the Cubs’ magical 2016 championship season. It is unlikely the Cubs brass will want to invite similar issues back with their new manager.

Furthermore, the actual role of field manager has been reduced somewhat in this modern era. With a lot (some say too much) of data available, many game decisions are made by the front office and crucial personnel – bench and pitching coaches to be exact – to help the manager along.

Youth, money and control are other considerations. Strong hearsay and between-the-lines rumblings indicate that Epstein/Hoyer may want a younger, more passive type of manager who won’t push back with them (too much) on baseball-related decisions, and someone they won’t have to pay a large salary to. Someone like Ross would check all those boxes, where Girardi, although still fairly young, would not. With a World Series title, nearly 1,000 wins and experience managing in a major market under his belt, it is highly unlikely that Girardi would be the pseudo “Yes Man” that the Cubs brass seems to be searching for. They’d also have to pay him a lot more money than any other candidate.

My initial reaction a couple weeks ago was that Loretta, the current Cubs bench coach would be the practical – albeit boring – selection. Added to which I figured Ross’ interest would be a token interview just to appease Cubs fans, and that maybe he would be brought on as Loretta’s bench coach at most. It would seem now, however, that Ross is the likely target, and that Girardi, ironically, has become the token interviewee. ‘Grandpa Rossy’ also has plenty of marketability to consider. The fans adore him, and he has an endearing personality and sense of self-deprecating humor (there was that whole Dancing With the Stars thing, after all) that automatically lends itself to the role. How that may translate into success on the field would be anyone’s guess.

The other blowback from Cubs fans about Ross is whether or not he is still too close to a number of current players. It is well known that his former teammates Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant among others are some of his best friends. Would he be able to put that aside and act managerially? Would he be able to relate to them no longer as a colleague but as their in-game boss? The answer to that, I believe, is yes. Something that is often forgotten by Cubs fans is the ‘Grandpa Rossy’ nickname that Bryant and Rizzo bestowed upon him was more than just a friendly jab at an old backup catcher in his final season of his playing career. It was a sarcastic nod at the fact Ross could be a prick – in a good way – for his ability to light a fire under the players and get their attention. The youngins on the club thought he was being a curmudgeonly old man. They realized after ’16 that he actually always had a point.

If he can continue to do that, and keep his sharp baseball mind in-tune, then maybe Ross would be the right guy after all.

Or maybe it’ll be someone else, in which case you can disregard everything you just read.

Image result for David Ross

 

Photo credits: https://twitter.com/NBCSCubs/status/1179075357405859840

https://www.en24.news/2019/10/mlb-2019-joe-girardi-and-david-ross-candidates-to-take-command-of-the-chicago-cubs.html

 

Advertisements

The Clowning of Germany Schaefer

1876 was a big year in America.

Our nation celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The Centennial Exposition, essentially the first World’s Fair, was held in Philadelphia, drawing as many as 10,000,000 visitors (1.)

The National League was officially formed. And in Chicago, a young lad named Herman “Germany” Schaefer was born to German immigrant parents.

Growing up on the city’s south side, Schaefer was drawn to baseball, where his fine defensive skills began to the draw attention of pro scouts by the time he was 18. After stints in semi-pro ball and upward through the Western League, he finally made his Major League debut in 1901 with the Chicago Cubs.

He would go on to become a valued player throughout his 15-year MLB career, playing with the Cubs, Detroit Tigers (where he was an important factor on two World Series-appearing teams in 1907 and 1908), Washington Senators and New York Yankees. He was a defensive wizard, with great range and hands that befitted a sharp baseball mind and brilliant sense of timing. He was a master of deception and grace, even successfully pulling off the hidden ball trick in the 1907 World Series.

Image result for Germany Schaefer

But it wasn’t just his solid play that earned him notoriety in the big leagues; it was his antics. In short, Germany Schaefer was an absolute clown.

Some of his well-known goofy highlights include:

  • Wearing a raincoat and galoshes to the plate during a drizzle
  • Hiding and scaring a drunken umpire at a bar as a voice from above – only to be ejected from a game later by that umpire when he fessed up
  • Sporting a fake mustache to the plate, possibly in an attempt to re-enter a game, pretending to be another player
  • Homering off a fellow jester, Rube Waddell, only to carry his bat around the bases as if a rifle and pretend to “shoot” the pitcher repeatedly, with both men laughing at the skit
  • Changing his nickname from “Germany” to “Liberty” when World War I began

Additionally, Schaefer was an adept trash-talker and sign-taker. But perhaps his two greatest hits, were his called shot off Doc White in Chicago in 1906, and his stealing of first base in 1911.

On June 24, 1906, Schaefer and his Tigers were in Chicago to play the White Sox. Detroit was down 2-1 in the top of the 9th with a man on first and two outs. Detroit skipper Bill Armour inserted Schaefer to pinch-hit for pitcher Red Donahue. After storming back to the dugout, upset that he’d been taken out, Donahue watched as salt was poured into his wound by the stunt Schaefer pulled. What happened next is best, (if perhaps hyperbole’d), accounted for by Tigers outfielder Davy Jones, in Lawrence Ritter’s excellent The Glory of Their Times: 

Just as he was about to get into the batter’s box, he removed his cap and faced the grandstand, bellowing “Ladies and gentlemen, you are now looking at Herman Schaefer, better known as Herman the Great, acknowledged by one and all to be the greatest pinch hitter in the world. I am now going to hit the ball into the left field bleachers. Thank you.”

Much to the dismay of the chagrinning Chicago crowd, Schaefer blasted the second pitch from Doc White into the left field seats. Just like he said he would.

He stood there watching the ball, and after it left the yard, he sprinted to first and slid head first into the bag. He leaped up, yelling “Schaefer leads at the Quarter!” Then he took off and slid into second and yelled “Schaefer leads at the Half!” as if he were a prized race horse. He did the same thing at third and finally home, where he declared “Schaefer wins by a nose!” He walked over to the grandstand again, saying “Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your kind attention.”

In the Tigers dugout, every player was laughing so hard – except Donahue – that it was a chaotic scene (2.)

As the only one able to outdo himself, Schaefer would launch another gem in 1911, also against the White Sox. Only this one was so profound that it would prompt a rule change: He stole first base.

Schaefer had one of the best seasons of his career in 1911. The 35-year old hit .334 with an .809 OPS in 125 games. And on August 4th, he would change baseball. It was the bottom of the ninth in a scoreless tie at Griffith Stadium in Washington. Clyde Milan was on third, with Schaefer on first. He stole second, in an attempt to draw a throw to get Milan to break for home. Fred Payne, the Sox catcher, didn’t take the bait and now it was second and third.

On the next pitch, Schaefer led off in the other direction and broke for first, swiping the bag back and drawing confused looks from everyone.

Hugh Duffy, managing the Sox that year, came out to argue with the umpire. Since play hadn’t been officially stopped, Schaefer took off for second again, this time getting caught in the rundown that he originally wanted. But Milan was pegged at the plate, the plan having backfired. In typical Schaefer-esque comedy, he and his teammates tried to argue that it should’ve been a dead ball since the Sox had 10 men on the field when Duffy came out to protest the play (2.)

In the end, the Senators would win 1-0 in extra innings.

Needless to say, a few years later MLB introduced the rule that you could not steal a previous base once you advanced.

All things considered, Schaefer had a remarkable career. Though his statistics weren’t flashy (they were far from bad either), he provided immense worth to each team he played on. Not only for his defensive prowess and quick-thinking, but for the immeasurable intangibles in the forms of humor, wit, and silliness.

Baseball could use more goofballs like him.

 

 

Sources:

(1.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centennial_Exposition

(2.) https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/2594238c

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germany_Schaefer

https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/schaege01.shtml

 

Photo Credit: https://www.detroitathletic.com/blog/2012/08/23/the-madcap-life-of-germany-schaefer-baseballs-clown-prince/

(Found via Google search)

 

 

 

It Was a Badly Good Season (I Guess), So Now What?

If some Cubs fans considered the 2017 season to be disappointing, then, by comparison, 2018 was an unmitigated disaster.

It certainly feels that way mere hours after a disappointing 2-1, 13-inning loss to the Colorado Rockies in the NL Wild Card game, but it’s not really like that. Or is it? Yes, there were plenty of injuries to deal with. Yes, there were 42 games in 43 days to close the season. Yes, they were tired. (Newsflash: All teams are tired by the end of September.) The simple fact remains that the Milwaukee Brewers caught fire in the final weeks, and the better team won the division. With the St. Louis Cardinals also having an excellent stretch run, the Cubs played like a 3rd place team in the last month, going 17-13 in their final 30 games. Although that seems decent enough with a sizable division lead like they had entering the month, each loss proved crucial with those two teams hot on the heels. Still, 95 wins and a trip to the postseason despite major issues first with the rotation, later with the bullpen, and throughout the season with the lineup, shouldn’t necessarily be something to bemoan. And yet the eye test all year was at best mercurial and at worst, awful.

Related image

So what went wrong?

Typically, most fans wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) gripe too much about a 95-win campaign that had their team as the best in the National League for the majority of the season and make the playoffs. Unless of course, expectations are so high that anything other than a division title and deep postseason run feels like failure. Such is now the state of the Cubs and their fans. Did the players just fail to execute? Were there poor coaching decisions made? Are some of these guys just not what they were expected to be? Did the league adjust? All the above, perhaps. But while the lack of a sustained power run had the Cubs and their fans feeling stuck like a duck in a pen, the issues that led to this quick playoff exit more or less began last year.

0 for the offseason

Winning the offseason seems kind of cool when you’re slated to dominate, but it doesn’t always translate to success. Pitching was addressed last winter by Theo Epstein & Co. in a big way but the moves as a whole failed monumentally. Closer Brandon Morrow was a risk to take on given his injury history, and overuse of him in the second half by Joe Maddon compounded the chances for a problem. Sure enough, what started as elbow pain led to a season-ending shutdown. Yu Darvish was the big splash for the Cubs, but he was awful from the get-go before, aptly, a season-ending injury. Tyler Chatwood was a flier taken by the front office and despite having promising stuff, was even worse than Darvish. Although the team seemed to win games he pitched, he had an amazing inability to throw strikes with any consistency whatsoever. If Chatwood was attempting a pre-spectacles Rick Vaughn impersonation, he nailed it something fierce. The big moves made by the front office in the offseason backfired, no question. (The acquisitions of Cole Hamels and Daniel Murphy later on however, were excellent. But that’s another story.)

40 games

That’s how many (39 in the regular season) games the Cubs scored 0 or 1 run. That’s just about every fourth game. That number put them second in MLB, just one behind the hapless Baltimore Orioles who had 40. Now for a team with a powerful, well-rounded and deep lineup, this simply shouldn’t happen. The Cubs still managed to finish 4th in runs scored in the NL, but the biggest dents came before the All-Star break when starting pitching was erratic. After the break, there was a noticeable downslide in production that didn’t level off when the starting pitching got dialed in. They were always fighting a level of disparity there. Nobody expected this hitting crisis though, and yet here it is. Injuries again played a part, as Kris Bryant missed significant time and Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward among others all spent time on the DL at different parts of the season as well. Hey, it happens. But that still doesn’t explain scoring just two runs in the final 22 innings of the season – at home – in crucial games. Not to mention very sporadic run production all throughout September, including splitting a key four-game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates when they may has well have went to the plate batless during the first two games.

What now?

Changes should at least be coming somewhere in the lineup for 2019. With the exception of a major jump from Javy Baez that put him in MVP consideration, the only consistency was found in Rizzo and 37-year old Ben Zobrist who eclipsed the .300 mark for the first time in his solid career. Heyward and Albert Almora were real good in stretches, but not sustained. Willson Conteras fell off massively in the second half. Daniel Murphy was outstanding when he first joined the club in August before going largely silent in the final couple weeks. There are plenty of adjustments to be made there. Murphy is not likely to be back in ’19, and it may very well be time to move on from some others despite their upside. The twist here is figuring out how to navigate the roster with regard to the checkbook, as entering 2018 the 25-man roster was essentially locked up for the next three years.

As for the staff, that’s another issue altogether. In addition to “Panic Joe’s” (Maddon’s questionable in-game alter-ego) strange tactical style, he also added Jim Hickey and Chili Davis during the offseason to handle the pitching and hitting duties, respectively. The latter of whom is under scrutiny after an offensive season, especially on the vital stretch run, that left a lot to be desired.

“As an offense we need to mature a little more and develop a little more,” Rizzo said. “At times we did this year as a unit. And at times, not so much.”

In the end, the players must execute. But some things are open to further inspection. The offensive struggles, even if indirectly related to Davis’ tutelage, point to another debatable move by Maddon. Coupled with his celebrity manager status and occasional disagreements with Epstein and Jed Hoyer over the usage of his bullpen (which directly led to key injuries), not all may be coming up roses in the clubhouse.

Yet the Cubs wasted little time today announcing that Maddon would return in 2019, the final year of his contract. While quelling any speculation before it got out of hand, this still sets up two subtexts for next season: If the team starts out hot and wins consistently, they’re “playing for Joe.” If they struggle early on, then “Joe must’ve lost the clubhouse. Fire him.” This may or may not affect the simple desire to just play baseball, but it’s worth noting.

In some ways, even despite arguably the best managerial job of his Cubs tenure through most of the season, Joe is further under the microscope than ever before. Should Epstein have let him go, it would not have been unprecedented: The Red Sox, Yankees and Nationals all replaced their managers after making the postseason last year. All the credit in the world can – and should – be given to Maddon for transforming the clubhouse culture and being the ideal ringleader for the new Cubs regime. But it’d be fairly easy to opine that the buck stops there with him. It might be equally easy to draw comparisons to other iconic Chicago coaches who were great with personnel but less so at actual coaching, contributing to a degree of perceived underachievement (see: Mike Ditka). Maybe the $6M on his contract for his final year matters, or maybe Epstein & Co. want to play this second window out with as much common ground as possible. Maybe both.

In any event, some things are due to change, perhaps significantly for 2019.

On a side note, the 2017 and 2018 seasons just go to show how abnormally perfect the 2016 season was for the Cubs in terms of health, production, pitching and defense. It all came together that year in a way that is rarely, if ever, seen. Perhaps that’s why the bar is raised to such a skewed level. But I digress.

Even more so than after the 2017 season, the 2018 winter should be very interesting in Cubland.

Photo credit: (Google search) https://www.thinglink.com/scene/982390609039851522

Angry Attack: Cubs’ visit to Rivals Park in 1920 marred by stabbing

The following is non-edited, curated content from a story I wrote that appeared in the Joliet Herald-News on March 21, 2018. 

 

Joliet was a happening place nearly a century ago.

With burgeoning local businesses and a strong sense of civic pride, plus the bonus of being a just short train ride to Chicago, “J-Town” was the place to be in a growing suburbia.

Social pastimes were also wildly popular as the roaring twenties began, in which baseball featured prominently. As it still is today, Joliet and the surrounding areas were a hotbed of baseball talent.

The Joliet Rivals Club, founded in 1907, were no strangers to baseball, having fielded local teams dating back to their early years. Even the Chicago Cubs paid a visit in the fall of 1920 to play against the Joliet Rivals, a semi-pro team named after the very park they played at. Sources also refer to the team by their former name, the Rivneas, a combined name of the Rivals and Northeastern A.C.’s of Joliet, who’s World War I-era roster was comprised of several former major and minor leaguers.

That the Rivals-Cubs game itself was played was not surprising, as in those days most major league clubs scheduled exhibitions against local semi-pro or college teams on their days off. These unofficial games were a means for the team to have real game action instead of a practice, and to give local teams and their fans a chance to see big league stars in action up close.

One such contest took place here in Joliet, on Thursday, September 30, 1920. The circumstances that surrounded this game however, have made it a rather infamous, if forgotten, episode of Joliet folklore.

With the Cubs en route, the buildup to the game was strongly publicized, with multiple articles appearing the week of the game in the Joliet Evening Herald News. An overflow crowd of more than 5,000 paid spectators (roughly 13% of Joliet’s population at the time), turned out on game day, more than twice filling the 2,000-seat capacity of Rivals Park (formerly Theiler’s Park before the Rivals Club purchased the property in 1919), on the corner of Broadway and Russell streets. Hundreds more crowded along the streets beyond the outfield, battling for the slightest vantage point. A parade to the ballpark from the downtown Elks Club where the Cubs were staying got the festivities underway, and once at the park fans shelled out 25 cents for a grandstand ticket, while the big spenders handed over a whopping $1 for a reserved box seat. Joliet mayor William Barber added to the fanfare by tossing the ceremonial first pitch on that autumn afternoon.

IMG_1291
Rivals Park in Joliet, IL circa 1920.

Joliet native Abraham Lincoln “Sweetbreads” Bailey took the mound for the Cubs in what was one of his only six career starts. Bailey, primarily a relief pitcher in his three-year major league career, held a 4 to 1 lead in the fifth inning when the Rivneas mounted a furious comeback that the Cubs couldn’t answer. Much to the delight of the overflow crowd, the Joliet club emerged victorious by a final score of 5-4. This of course was a tremendous triumph for the hometown team to knock off the Cubs, exhibition game or not. But the excitement didn’t end there.

Immediately following the game, as the Cubs players walked to waiting cabs to be taken back to their hotel, a fan emerged from the grandstand and waylaid Cubs third baseman Buck Herzog, igniting a fierce fight. During the scuffle, a friend of the instigating Jolietan brandished a knife and slashed Herzog across the hand and leg. Seeing the brawl unfold, two Joliet players, Frank Murphy and Nick Carter stepped in to subdue the attackers, ending the melee. Herzog returned to his hotel, no worse for wear except for what was later called a “slight scratch” on his hand.

As the story goes, the fan accused Herzog of being “…one of those crooked Chicago ballplayers” before launching his assault. This is significant when considering the motive behind the attack. It’s a longshot, but there is the possibility that the fan, if only a casual one, got his Chicago teams confused and was mistakenly referring to Buck Herzog as Buck Weaver, who just that very week was suspended along with seven of his teammates by Charles Comiskey amid accusations of throwing the 1919 World Series. This misidentified burst of violence then would be doubly ignorant if so, since Weaver’s banishment was highly unjust itself (though that’s another story altogether). But in an era long before the internet or even player names and numbers on their jerseys, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the attacker assumed this third basemen nicknamed “Buck” from Chicago was in fact the other third baseman nicknamed “Buck” from Chicago.

On the contrary, it is much more likely that the attacker was in fact referring to the well-known, open accusations Buck Herzog received just a few weeks earlier for conspiring to throw a game on August 31st against the Phillies at Wrigley Field.

“I’m sorry it occurred,” Herzog said, “but I couldn’t resist punching that fellow when he called me a crook.”

Although gambling on, and even throwing games had been occurring for decades, the breaking news of the Black Sox scandal forced the game of baseball at all levels to take a long, hard look at itself as it faced an uncertain future. If an outside force such as gambling could infiltrate baseball, heralded as the cleanest of games, then anyone accused of conspiring against the game was met with a multitude of harsh reactions. We will likely never know the full truth of the reason behind the attack on Herzog at Rivals Park that day, but it is interesting to speculate on both possibilities nonetheless.

Baseball continued as usual at Rivals Park until 1934, when the ballpark was redesigned to accommodate professional softball and later Little League baseball on the site. In doing so, Joliet’s first illuminated softball diamond was conceived. In recent decades, the Rivals Club has shifted focus away from organized sports, and now shares the lot with Haunted Trails amusement park. Yet the historic club remains an important, active participant in an ever-changing, but still baseball-rich Joliet, much as it did in 1907.

And certainly as it did when the Cubs came to town.

Special thanks and photo credit to Richard Rivera, Joliet Rivals Club President.

 

 

Sources:

Joliet Rivals Club, A Centennial Celebration: 1907-2007 by Marianne Wolf

Joliet Evening Herald News, September 26-Oct 1, 1920, microfilm at the Joliet Public Library

Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct 1, 1920

365 Oddball Days in Chicago Cubs History by John Snyder

https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=MT19201001.2.25

 

 

Yu essentially have three years

Ok, so while that headline is just one of countless puns associated with new Cubs ace Yu Darvish’s first name, it’s more or less true: The Cubs have an extremely encouraging three-year window that begins now.

Call it the second three-year window of Theo’s plan, if you will.

The first such pane was a rousing success from 2015-2017, with three straight trips to the NLCS bracketing that oh-so-sweet World Series title in ’16. With pitchers and catchers commencing their first workout of the 2018 season later this week, Phase 2 of the plan has begun with a bang, with the signing of Darvish to a 6 year/$126 million (possibly $150 with incentives) contract. While seemingly a lot of cash, this deal puts Darvish’s AAV at $21 million and even with that hit, the Cubs are still well-under the luxury tax limit which means if Theo & Co. need to add a piece at the break, they’ll be in a very comfortable position to do so.

On the roster side, assuming that any opt outs don’t occur for at least three seasons (which very well could be by design as you’ll see), this Cubs rotation as it looks right now is solidified for at least that long. Jon Lester has three years left on his original deal, Kyle Hendricks won’t be in the arbitration camp for another year, Jose Quintana should stay put for another three years if the Cubs pick up his options, and another new Cub, Tyler Chatwood, inked a three year deal too.

Breaking the rotation down in terms of rollout, though it’s anyone’s guess as to how skipper Joe Maddon and new pitching coach Jim Hickey will adjust it, the rotation could look like this: Darvish – Lester – Quintana – Hendricks – Chatwood, with Mike Montgomery in the very valuable long relief/spot-starting role. I’d think most Cubs fans would feel pretty confident in such a staff, and rightfully so, as it’s one of the best in baseball.

Factor in the big paydays that are coming in the not too distant future for several of the superstar position players, and you have a pretty enviable situation with at least two and likely three years with excellent chances for more deep playoff runs with this roster effectively locked up. And that’s just the immediate future.

Of course, the Cubs expect to be good for many more years after these next three and there are a couple of huge factors to facilitate that long-term success of the club. First, there are some very lucrative revenue streams that are either just starting to flow in or have yet to be tapped, highlighted by a mega TV deal after the 2019 season. Secondly, behind the scenes of all these big club goings-on, is that this steadiness allows proper time and resources to replenish and restock the farm system with the best talent the front office can find. History shows they have a pretty good track record of such a thing.

Once again, the Cubs front office has made moves that show they’re not only going for it right now, but they have orchestrated it with a tremendous business savvy that will serve the organization well for many years. Buckle up, Cubs fans. Yu (ok, sorry!) won’t want to miss this.

Some History Is Hard to Repeat

If you ask Cubs fans to describe the 2017 season, many will say, “disappointing.” Perhaps that’s because of the way the season ended, in a completely flat offensive effort in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Maybe it’s also because something just looked off about this team all year, and they never fully clicked for whatever reason.

The tunnel vision vantage point may feel somewhat bleak, but stepping back, the panoramic view is pretty damn bright.

For if this season was “disappointing” and yet still yielded a 92-win Central Division title and a playoff run to the NLCS for the third straight year, that’s something to be pretty content with given Cubs history.

There’s that word again: History. As in, the past. As in, last year is over. As in, I think that’s where some of the fans’ disdain for how this season went down began. Here, then, is a good time to remember one of the chief lessons in baseball: No team, game, or season is ever the same.

The Plan worked. 2016 was magical. Not just because of the 108-year World Series drought ending, but in the way it happened. It was as close to an ideal season as any team could have. Literally a dream come true for long-suffering Cubs fans. In addition to having the deepest and most talented team in all of baseball, the Cubs enjoyed a red hot start that carried throughout the whole season save for a rough stretch just before the All-Star break. More importantly, this was a team with the rarity of near complete health all season save for Kyle Schwarber, who’s absence before coming back to be one of the World Series heroes was perfectly filled by the depth and flexibility of his teammates. Throw in the NL MVP, two Gold Glove winners in your starting nine, and two of the five starting pitchers in your rotation finishing second and third in Cy Young Award voting, and you have a recipe for a Championship season. And so it was done. (Not without three exciting series’ in the playoffs capped off by the greatest Game Seven of all time of course, but that’s another story altogether.)

2016 was as close to perfect as it gets. 2017 was not. And that’s ok.

For whatever reason, this year’s team stumbled early and often. The starting pitching wasn’t nearly as sharp, many bats slumped at once, there was a rash of injuries to several key players who missed significant time, the bullpen didn’t always hold serve and the platinum defense of 2016 regressed significantly. It took until after the All Star break for something to finally set right with this group, when they emerged from 5.5 games back on July 15 to win the division at the end of September. But still, something just didn’t look right.

There were notable offensive quirks by many players throughout the year. Kris Bryant hit .295 with 29 homers but only drove in 74 runs. Kyle Schwarber knocked out 30, but only hit .211 and that was due to a surge after coming back from the minors where he was sent after a couple months of living far below the Mendoza line. Addison Russell wasn’t the same, missed time with an injury and didn’t duplicate his production from the year before. Stalwart veteran Ben Zobrist had his struggles, and battled his health all season. Willson Contreras was having a monster year before being sidelined on the DL. Jason Heyward, under much scrutiny after a dreadful ’16, actually managed to hit 30 points higher and improved across the board in every offensive category, and yet still didn’t really pass the eye test and was benched for the second straight year in the playoffs for lack of production. Not that it was just him though, the entire team went flat against the Dodgers, losing four games to one and scoring only eight runs in the five games, all on home runs. The book was closed on 2017 with a major ebb, after not a lot of flow.

As I sit here writing this and listening to the excellent (and in context, very atmospheric) Pearl Jam – Let’s Play Two: Live At Wrigley Field record, I perhaps should be disappointed in the way this season ended, but I’m really not. In fact, I’m encouraged. For a team that battled through a lot of injuries, inconsistent play, individual struggles, and balls-to-the-wall competition in the division from the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals (and earlier, the Pittsburgh Pirates), and still emerge with a third straight trip to the NLCS…well, its something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. So really, 2017 wasn’t all that bad.

Granted, I’d be furious right now had 2016 not happened. In fact, I might start to believe that it never would happen.

In some ways, 2017 sort of felt like playing on house money. Sure I was hoping for a repeat, but baseball is the hardest sport to land a consecutive championship, so expecting one was a little unrealistic, even with the bulk of the 2016 team still here. The good thing however, was there was no pressure anymore. For all of the erroneous Curse believers, it was gone. Mission accomplished, and now we as fans could focus on the present and no longer the forlorn barrage of “what ifs” and “there’s always next year’s.” Cubs fans expect to win now, and make deep playoff runs, and for the third straight year, that’s what happened. Now this team can gear up for 2018 with a renewed focus, new faces on the roster and on the coaching staff (following the firing of pitching coach Chris Bosio yesterday), and perhaps a sense of unfinished business too.

Just remember, no team, game, or season is ever the same.

Four months until Spring Training…

Sources: https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CHC/2017.shtml

https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CHC/2016.shtml

The Brakeman

One of the overarching and never underestimated compliments of most early deadball-era pitchers (to me anyway), is that they were indestructible. That is, their arms were. A quick glance at the stats of late 19th/early 20th century legends like Cy Young, Pud Galvin, Old Hoss Radbourn and Cannonball Crane among others reveal some hysterical numbers in terms of innings pitched, games started, and complete games.

One of these dapper gents however, achieved a completely asinine feat that the rest did not: He threw 185 consecutive complete games.

Jack Taylor began his pro career in 1897 with the Milwaukee Brewers of the old Western League, a team managed by the great future Hall of Famer, Connie Mack. He broke into the bigs in 1898 after the Chicago Orphans (Cubs) purchased his contract later in the ’98 season where he remained until 1903. On June 20, 1901, Taylor took the loss in a complete-game performance against the Beaneaters (later the Braves) at the South End Grounds in Boston. This game would be the catalyst for nearly five years’ worth of completing every game he started.

Nicknamed “Brakeman Jack” for his occupation in the offseason, Taylor was a non-flashy, but tough-as-nails righty from Straitsville, Ohio.  His breakout season came in 1902 where he compiled a 23-11 mark with a sizzling 1.29 ERA, along with 34 complete games in 34 starts and was the league leader in ERA, WHIP (0.953) and shutouts (8.) After the regular season ended, the Cubs and crosstown rival White Sox engaged in an exhibition “City Series”, something that would become a Chicago tradition for many years. In this particular series, Taylor was accused of throwing a game to the Sox. Though nothing was ever proven, he was nonetheless traded during the winter of 1903 to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Brakeman was dealt along with Larry McLean for Jack O’Neill and a young, unproven and undervalued pitcher named Mordecai Brown. At the time, it seemed the Cardinals’ got the better half of the deal, but not long afterward that table turned as “Three Finger” Brown would go on to a Hall of Fame career with the Cubs and locked his own valued place in baseball lore.

Image result for Jack Taylor 1902

Meanwhile, Brakeman Jack’s complete game streak continued with the Cardinals, sealing up 39 of them to lead the league, along with 20 victories in 1904. Amid repeated accusations of throwing games, none of which were proven, Taylor became a fairly hot commodity. In 1906 he was traded back to the Cubs, and the timing couldn’t have been better, as there he joined an outstanding, now-famous pitching staff led by Brown, along with Orval Overall, Carl Lundgren, Jack Pfiester, and Ed Reulbach. The Brakeman added in his own 12-3 mark on the season, but ended his complete game streak at 185, after “only” completing 15 of 16 games that year. His ERA was a stellar 1.83 and a factor in the Cubs’ team ERA, which ended with an unheard of mark of 1.76 for the season. The Cubs would reach the World Series, but ironically fall to the crosstown White Sox, where the famed “Hitless Wonders” would do enough damage to the elite Cubs pitching staff to take the title. A year later, Taylor helped the northsiders back to the World Series, this time emerging as world champs after defeating the Detroit Tigers. 1907 would be Taylor’s final big league season, though he would bounce around in the minor leagues for several more years before finally hanging up his cleats in 1913. He returned to Ohio, worked as a miner, and died there in 1938.

For his career, Brakeman Jack Taylor would amass a 152-139 record, to go along with a career ERA of 2.65. Certainly nothing to scoff at there, but when you factor in his 2,626 innings and 20 shutouts, it’s hard not to consider Taylor among the elite, if certainly overlooked hurlers of the early deadball-era. The most impressive mark of course, being his MLB-record 185 consecutive complete games. That is absolutely crazy to conceive, in any era of baseball.

They sure don’t make ’em like that anymore, folks.

 

Sources: http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/t/tayloja02.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Jack_Taylor_(tayloja02)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Taylor_(1900s_pitcher)

http://charlesapril.com/2009/08/closer-look-jack-taylors-complete-game.html

 

Photo Credits: http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/t/tayloja02.shtml

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Taylor_(1900s_pitcher)