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

 

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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)

 

 

 

Remembering Old Hoss

Today, on the 121st anniversary of his death, we’d like to offer a tip ‘o the cap to one of the greatest pitchers the game will ever see, and the namesake for this very website.

This dapper gent not only holds the unbreakable major league record for wins in a season with 59 in 1884 (and is also tied for 5th with 48 wins in 1883), but he also taught endless ensuing generations the art of donning the competitive mustache, as well as being the first known human daring enough to flip the bird at the camera.

Fare well, sir.

The Weird Keeps Getting Weirder

Even the unwritten rules are made to be broken.

Take a look at the way bullpens have been used by most teams this postseason for proof of that. The various ploys have worked in some cases, most recently by the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLDS after a back and forth series battle with the Nationals. But extending some key personnel could have an effect on their NLCS date with the well-rested Cubs.

The pitching matchups will again be the focal point. The Cubs repeat their DS rotation, as Jon Lester anchors the staff with a Game 1 start vs. Kenta Maeda at Wrigley Field. Game 2 is where things get extra interesting as Kyle Hendricks takes the hill for the Cubs vs. in all likelihood, the mighty Clayton Kershaw. Hendricks exited his Game 2 start against the Giants early after taking a liner off his right forearm, but he is 100% and ready to go. Kershaw recently started Game 4 against the Nationals and then appeared out of the bullpen to close Game 5, though he only threw seven pitches in the clinching victory. Kershaw could appear on short rest for Game 5 in LA, or with full rest in Game 6 back at Wrigley. The third game then, takes place at Dodger Stadium and pits Jake Arrieta against either Rich Hill or Julio Urias, with John Lackey starting Game 4 against the other of the Hill/Urias probables.

Both bullpens will of course be factors too, as we’ve seen skippers Joe Maddon and Dave Roberts both play a lot of musical chairs with their options. One notable roster move was made by Maddon, activating LHP Rob Zastryzny as an option out of the pen to play the matchup game against the Dodgers’ several left-handed bats. Like we saw in the Cubs-Giants division series, every small play counts, particularly on defense. The Cubs have the advantage there and will need to lean on that to effectively shut down the Dodger attack. Offensively, the Cubs never fully got going in the DS, at least from some of the heavy hitters you might expect, but they managed to score runs in other ways. Not the least of which was the absolutely fantastic 9th inning comeback in the clinching Game 4. Again, it comes down to never knowing what will happen. It’s worth repeating: Playoff baseball is weird. Really, really, really weird.

So there you have it and here we are. As is well-known, anything can happen in baseball and particularly when it comes to the playoffs, things are impossible to predict. (How many people banked on a Rangers-Red Sox ALCS for example?) So strap in for an exciting series. I’m already on the edge of my seat.

Oh, and this is a side note. Actually it’s a pet peeve. Or more accurately, it’s a major psychotic hatred:

I personally am extremely superstitious in general, and about baseball in particular. I adore baseball history and folklore too. But folks, please stop talking about curses. And goats. And black cats. And all the other completely BS narratives that come with the Cubs’ World Series drought. Aside from some asinine TV commentary, most of this subject matter is spewed as little piss ant pot shots from other team’s fans, or those poor saps who like to launch some schadenfreude for their own personal glee. Enough already.

Yes, it’s a historical fact that the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908. Yes, it’s another historical fact that they haven’t appeared in the World Series since 1945. That is where the facts end. All the talk about curses, goats, et. al. are nothing more than sad, wives tale excuses about why the team has unsuccessfully endeavored to return to the Fall Classic for 71 years and they have disturbingly been woven into the fabric of baseball history. Please stop perpetuating these deplorable cop-outs. It’s bad enough that too many misinformed, disrespectful people use it as endless ammo to annoy and ridicule. It will be great when that no longer will be the case.

Peace, love and baseball.

The Professor Runs a Strict Class

Before the season began, my prognosis for Kyle Hendricks was simple: That he could be one of the most effective number five starters in all of baseball.

As of September 13, he’s one of the best starters in all of baseball, period.

“The Professor” as he has come to be known from his intensely cerebral preparation before each start, and surgical-like approach to every pitch, has been nothing short of stellar this season. In his most recent start, Hendricks took a no-hitter into the ninth inning in St. Louis, before having an 0-2 pitch blasted into the right field bleachers by Jeremy Hazelbaker. Though his date with baseball history was, for the time, postponed, the shine on yet another dominant performance was hardly dulled. It was his 20th consecutive start giving up three or fewer runs, adding to his MLB-low ERA of 2.03.

Far from a power arm, Hendricks employs scholastic tactics to outwit opposing hitters, with a a variety of speeds (though he rarely tops 90mph on his fastball), and precision locating. The result is a chess match which, more often than not, the Dartmouth alum wins.

Predictions be damned.

The whispers of Hendricks joining the Cy Young Award conversation have now become screams, and for good reason. In addition to his staggering ERA and constant ability to get his team deep into games, Hendricks’ latest win was the 30th of his career and 15th of the season, putting him squarely among the league leaders in that more-sexy-than-vital category. In all, it adds up to a brilliant season for the young right-hander, drawing him more and more comparisons to hall of famer Greg Maddux every day. While that is certainly high praise and a lot of hyperbole given that Maddux did Maddux things for 23 years while Hendricks is only in his third, the approach and execution are certainly comparable.

With a Central Division title nearly within the Cubs’ grasp, followed by the playoffs, it’s sure to be an exciting fall for The Professor and his class.

Checking In At the Break

Well, here we are at the end of the All-Star break, with regular season play resuming tomorrow. With this pause in the daily action, let’s take a look at how things stack up now vs. where I predicted them at the end of Spring Training.  Some prognostications were spot on, while others turned out to be polar opposite. You just never know what is going to happen in a given baseball game, much less a whole season.

American League East 

  1. Baltimore: I dropped the ball here. Picked them fifth, but they are in first. Their offense has been as good as expected, and some surprising bullpen work has helped a lot.
  2. Boston: Picked them second, and here they sit. Solid team. Division title still possible.
  3. Toronto: Picked them third, they are in third. See Boston. Tight race here.
  4. New York: Thought they’d be much better. Picked them first, but they had a disastrous start that has been hard to recover from.
  5. Tampa Bay: Picked fourth, they will finish last. Bad start and little consistency.

American League Central (completely opposite of what I predicted! Knew this division would be a crapshoot.)

  1. Cleveland: Picked fifth, they sit in first. Great arms and potent offense.
  2. Detroit: Picked fourth, but this resilient bunch is squarely in the WC Race.
  3. Chicago: Picked third, and that’s where they are. Red hot start through April and May, but very streaky since. Still solidly in WC contention.
  4. Kansas City: Picked second, but injuries have decimated this group. Still, they sit above .500 and are in the WC hunt themselves.
  5. Minnesota: Picked first. What a disaster. Total 180 from 2015.

American League West

  1. Texas: Picked them first and that’s where they are. Very solid club.
  2. Houston: Awful April, bounced back strong since. Picked second.
  3. Seattle: Good start, dangerous team. WC still possible? Picked fourth.
  4. Oakland. Picked fifth, but they’ll finish better. Mediocre overall.
  5. Los Angeles: Colossal trainwreck despite talent. Worse yet, they still have to pay Albert Pujols for five more years, and Josh Hamilton another year to play elsewhere.

National League East

  1. Washington: The Baker Effect has worked and it looks like they’re headed for a division title. Picked second.
  2. New York: Picked first, but some key injuries have hindered them. Still in WC race.
  3. Miami: Picked third, they are in third. Solid team in the WC race and headed for a strong finish.
  4. Philadelphia: Picked fourth. Real good start, improvement across the board but the Phils are still a year or two away from contending.
  5. Atlanta: Picked fifth. They’re bad.

National League Central

  1. Chicago: Picked second. Historical start, but some injuries plus a rough stretch in the last few weeks before the break brought the northsiders back to earth. Still a sizeable lead in the division.
  2. St. Louis: Picked first. Squarely in the WC race, but overall not as strong as they were in 2015.
  3. Pittsburgh: Picked third. Solid overall club, another WC contender.
  4. Milwaukee: Picked fourth. Below average team, will avoid the cellar.
  5. Cincinnati: Picked fifth. They waived the white flag over the winter.

National League West

  1. San Francisco: Picked first. Even better than expected, impressive having the best record in baseball at the break considering the run the Cubs had been on.
  2. Los Angeles: Still in the hunt for the WC, strong team, but having Kershaw on the DL doesn’t help. Picked second.
  3. Colorado: Picked fifth. Potent offense is giving this club a shot at a .500 season.
  4. San Diego: Picked fourth. They are a fourth place team, not sure what else to say.
  5. Arizona: Picked third. Was expecting more from this club. Injuries have not helped at all.

There you have it, folks. Once again, baseball proves to be the craziest sport to predict. The second half of the season is set to get underway and who knows what’ll happen…

24 in 24 Has Been a Rough Ride

Beginning back on June 17, the Cubs entered a brutal stretch of 24 games in 24 days, with the bulk of those on the road. With six games remaining in that block, it’s been a far from enjoyable marathon.

The 24-game batch got off to a roaring start with a three-game sweep of Pittsburgh. But then St. Louis rolled into town on June 20, sweeping the Cubs in three, and triggering the first four-game losing streak for the Northsiders, capped off by a loss at Miami. After dropping two out of three to the Marlins, the Cubs rebounded with a road sweep of the hapless Reds, only to then be decimated in four straight by the Mets. The Reds came into Wrigley and extracted a little revenge, grabbing two out of three, bringing us up to the current date, a day after the Atlanta Braves steal a win at Wrigley in a makeup game from April.

In all, the Cubs have managed just a 5-13 record in their last 18 games, including two separate four-game losing streaks. What is happening here?

In short, they look tired. It’s no excuse, but over the last few weeks, certain things are very noticeable. First and foremost, the starting pitching, which has been the bread and butter all season, is not nearly as sharp. One through five in the rotation have become prone to ineffectiveness, high pitch counts, walks, and giving up home runs. A lot of home runs in fact. In various times during this stretch the Cardinals, Marlins, Reds and Mets have all bashed Cubs pitchers to 7+ runs in a game. Much of the defense hasn’t looked as sleek-footed either, adding to the struggles. Part of this conundrum can be traced to who’s behind the plate. While rookie phenom Willson Contreras has performed very well in his limited time, it’s a still a small sample size to this point. Miguel Montero has struggled mightily all season both in the field and behind the plate, and with a long stint on the DL one may wonder if he’s been really hurt all season. That leaves 39-year-old David Ross, who has been highly touted this year, and for good reason. The simple fact is the best version of this Cubs team, at least defensively, is when Ross is on the field. The snag there is you just can’t play Ross daily, and now he’s on the 7-day DL for concussion protocol. With a history of concussions in his career, there’s no telling how another bell-ringing could affect ‘ol Gramps.

Offensively there has been a lot of inconsistency as well. Whether that’s partially due to injuries (Dexter Fowler’s absence has been extremely impactful) or virtually a new lineup every day,  it’s hard to tell. There have been some bright spots: Rookies Albert Almora Jr, and Willson Contreras have begun their MLB careers with distinction, and Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant continue to slug well.

The good news: The Cubs still hold an 8 game lead in the NL Central, and are 19 games over .500 for the season. As we’re seeing, it’s great they got off to such a roaring start and built that cushion, because things change faster than people think in the game of baseball. More good news: All the above is correctable. Players will get healthy, pitching and defense can get sharper, and the bats can find consistency. It’s not a question of if.

There’s a whole half of baseball left to be played. Besides, I’m sure most Cubs fans would rather they struggle in June-July than September-October, right?