In Which Gump Returns

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
- Walt Whitman

A lot has been written, debated, moralized, demoralized and mythologized over Lovie Smith’s tenure as Head Coach of the Chicago Bears. He was a relative unknown upon his hiring. Even in the beginning, he spoke little but of what he did speak was immeasurably important to Bears fans reeling from the bland as vanilla swirl Dick Jauron era.

His goals were clear and direct. Fans rejoiced when Lovie acknowledged beating the Packers was important and part of his job. As well as winning the NFC North and ultimately a Super Bowl. During his introduction as Bears Head Coach, Smith stated:

“Tough, hard-nosed football, that’s what Chicago football is all about,” he said. “That’s what I’ve seen at times. The consistency probably wasn’t there. That’s why probably the coaching change was made.

“I think they can win. They just need a little boost, just a little bit more energy, a change of scenery. That’s what I think I can bring.”

And did he bring it on the defensive side of the football. It was a glorious return for the Monsters of the Midway.

The confidence was never lacking either:

“I’ve gone through the proper channels to be a head football coach,” Smith said. “To me, this is a normal progress of a coach in the league, and the next step is being a head football coach. I’ve been successful on all those different stages and am excited about the next step.”

He would then go on to coach the Bears to a 81-63 regular season record in 8 seasons.

And yes, he would beat the Packers with more regularity than currently experienced in the Cutler Multi-Coach Era. And he was a part of 3 divisional titles. Alas the Super Bowl looked promising up until Peyton Manning stepped on the field. And shortly thereafter Rex Grossman.

2 out of 3 ain’t bad?

His undoing was the zero progression of an offense to complement a dynamic defense. Mike Martz was a disaster. Mike Tice was moronic. False starts, J’Marcus Webb and a lifeless blank stare on the sideline lit up the local sports talk show phone lines. The drums of discontent beat louder after each putrid offensive showing. Jerry Angelo was subsequently fired. Smith earned a reprieve directly from Virginia McCaskey for an additional season. A 10-6 record yielded no return to the playoffs, thus ending the Smith Era here in Chicago.

The Bears divorced themselves from Smith for nearly 2 seasons. The offense is undeniably more talented and paradoxically never more infuriating. The defense, the hallmark of Bears football, is embarrassing. Cade McNown may have taken snaps for the Bears at a higher quality than this current porous Mel Tuckerized squad.

Smith remains a polarizing figure to Bears fans. Some laud him for the Super Bowl appearance and defensive supremacy. Many more are critical of the non-playoff appearances and the unbearable progression of an offense accompanied by the infamous Cigar Shop statuesque sideline demeanor.

However, his reputation amongst his former players is beyond reproach. He is seemingly both idolized and idealized as a head coach, father figure and all around good man. This sentiment was reviewed and explored by Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune:

All these years later they all circle back to Smith, the heartbeat of that team, the calm leader with the contagious confidence. One by one they echo similar sentiments.

Lovie treated us like men.

Lovie never had to scream and yell to get his point across.

Lovie always had our attention and our respect.

With Smith returning to Chicago this weekend as coach of the Buccaneers, those compliments have become entry points into the Lovie legacy.

It is impossible to argue against the respect and reverence shown by players to Smith. Brian Urlacher to this day would probably still run through a wall for his former coach. Others such as Hester, Briggs and even the beleaguered Grossman go to bat for Lovie Smith at every opportunity.

That level of respect can only be earned. A paycheck and coach’s whistle grants nothing. Just ask Marc Trestman.

As for tomorrow’s game, the significance is dimmed by the losing records possessed by both teams. The Bears are still pretending to having a puncher’s chance toward a playoff run while Tampa Bay looks to secure the league’s top draft pick. In typical fashion, Smith downplays the significance of the game yet his return to Solider Field on the opposite sideline warrants in the very least a positive reception from the home crowd.

Smith really cannot lose tomorrow. Tampa Bay is a tear down reclamation project that only seems to have accomplished beating MRSA. On the other hand, the Bears are arguably the NFL’s most disappointing team to date. A loss to Smith’s Bucs tomorrow might elicit a volume of booing and chants for Trestman’s dismissal. If so, the only person at Soldier Field who could relate would be Lovie Smith.

{Author’s note: It has been a hell of a long time. Sorry for the endlessly updating. Writing is definitely an exercise requiring regularity to maintain viewer interest. A credit to Mr. BigBadBill for the posting with such regularity over the years. Admittedly, this is a rather weak effort on my part.}

In Which They Make Their Pitch (Again)

Yeah, I know, I used this pic last year. Sue me.

So where were we? Oh yes, ESPN has the Bears in the top 6 teams vying for the #1 draft pick. A lot would have to happen for that to work out but it’s nice to know people are talking about them. Oh, and if the Bears do get the pick? ESPN says they should draft a QB. Given Cutler’s insane contract and the Bears continuing ineptitude as an organization overall I don’t see that happening. But it’s fun to think about. The Bears are also a three point favorite against the Vikings this week. Since it’s a home game that’s Vegas speak for it’s a pick ‘em. I’m not sure I care enough to care at this point. Certainly the team seems to be giving not one fuck about anything right now. If they don’t why should fans?

In other news, Derek Rose had another oopsie and will be out for a bit. Given the Bulls’ history with injury reports I fully expect Rose to lose a limb before this week is done. I don’t want him to, he seems like a nice guy and all, but it just seems to be the way things are going for him.

The Hawks just continue to be the Hawks. And as maddening as that is to fans who seem to think they should remain unbeaten every season, they’ll be fine. There are players in their minor league system who could start in the NHL but prefer to stay here due to the way this team is built and their belief in the organization that runs it. That should tell you all you need to know.

So, let’s move on.

This week Rick Hahn, who still works for the White Sox, spent his time answering questions for the Trib and the Times about the Cubs. He was very diplomatic but clearly confused. He seemed very sure he was not a part of Team Theo. And I, for one, believe him.

Still, since we’re on the subject, let’s take a look at the former lovable losers. It appears that they are about to bust out the big boy checkbook and put a real team on the field. While appearances can be deceiving Phil Rogers says it may actually be true.

Who doesn’t like fun with math?

Had any National League team had a starting rotation that put up those totals last season, it would have ranked first in ERA, first in WHIP and second in strikeouts per nine innings.

Lester and Hammel were used because they represent the combination of starters that president, baseball operations Theo Epstein and executive vice president, general manager Jed Hoyer are looking to add this offseason—a big-ticket, front-end guy and a worker bee. Instead of Hammel, the Cubs could wind up with someone like Jake Peavy or Justin Masterson. If they did, the numbers would be a little less impressive.

With Peavy, the projected rotation would be coming off a season in which its five pieces went 44-35 with a 2.90 ERA, 728 2/3 innings, 1.14 WHIP and 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings. With Masterson, the numbers are 44-31, 3.23, 654 2/3 innings, 1.19 WHIP and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings.

However you slice it, if the Cubs add Lester in the spot occupied by Edwin Jackson—who is signed for two more years but no longer guaranteed starts—they would have a starting rotation that is capable of chasing a Wild Card, if not overtaking the Cardinals and Pirates to win the National League Central.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,’’ Epstein said. “It’s easy to talk about wanting to bring in two guys you like but a lot harder to do it. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves but [the opportunity we have is] a credit to our pitching infrastructure: [coaches] Chris Bosio, Lester Strode and Mike Borzello, our catching, our advance scouting and our defense. We’ve actually had some pretty good staffs the last couple of years without household names.’’

While the Cubs won only 73 games in 2014, they finished with a 15.7 WAR on the pitching side. That was a distant second to Washington (26.2) in the NL, surprisingly ahead of teams like the Dodgers (14.2) and Cardinals (13.5).

“That would probably surprise most people,’’ Epstein said. “Without the big names, we’ve found ways to get things done with execution, good scouting, good advance scouting and pitchers taking a big step forward, guys who were bought low—like Arrieta—in trades or on the free-agent market. We have to maintain that.’’

The next moves are crucial for Epstein and Hoyer. As Epstein has been saying, this is a volatile market in which many teams are trying to make the same kinds of upgrades as the Cubs.

The Red Sox, for instance, are looking for almost exactly the same combination of starters—one stud, one worker bee to line up alongside Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly and a fifth starter from a pack of unproven candidates.

It’s probably unrealistic to expect the Cubs to cut their rotation ERA by a full run from the 4.19 figure that starters have posted in 2012-14, the three seasons of the Epstein-Hoyer-Jason McLeod rebuild, but there is a significant base of talent already in place.

Arrieta and Hendricks, acquired in trades from the Orioles and Rangers, look like long-term pieces. Holdovers Travis Wood (arbitration-eligible after a down year in 2014) and Jackson are on tenuous footing with Jacob Turner, Felix Doubront and Dan Straily on the roster, and prospects C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson and Eric Jokisch also expected to work in big league camp this spring.

It was the depth of pitching options that allowed the Cubs to trade Jeff Samardzija and Hammel last July, and a successful offseason would underscore the wisdom of the trade that brought shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney from Oakland.

As focused as the Cubs are on adding pieces, Epstein points to the continued development of Arrieta and Hendricks, as well as the power arms in the young bullpen, as vital in the effort to give Joe Maddon a winning roster.

“If we bring in a couple pitchers we believe in but the other guys regress, we’re not going to get where we want to go,’’ Epstein said. “We need to maintain the culture we have around the pitching staff, where guys see improvement, we get the most out of the pitchers—or most of our pitchers, anyway—and hopefully add a couple of pitchers to the group who have the talent and the character to take it to the next level.’’

Like Epstein said, it will be easier said than done to add the right pieces. But the result could be well worth the risks required.

Excluding Edwin Jackson the Cubs do have a pretty decent pitching staff. And teams never get worse by adding quality arms. The one thing Coach Maddon will have to address is the free swinging attitude of his young hitters. While strikeouts from a power hitter are expected and meaningless, for the most part, a team can’t have 5 or 6 guys who swing like ceiling fans at the plate. Rizzo had a boat load of homers last year and almost no RBI associated with them. You can’t win many games if all your best hitters are grabbing bench.

Another problem with power hitters is that they have a maddening way of turning triples into singles. That’s not nearly as helpful as you might think.

Speaking of the Sox, as I was earlier, sources I spoke to said they were never really in the Victor Martinez race. While they certainly need a left handed bat between Abreu & Garcia, they seem to be looking for a more long term solution. And several of them said that they believe the answer might be in their own system. Look for several young players to get some extended time at Spring Training.

That said, the Sox need pitching. Lots of it. Our buddy Phil Rogers, he works for and is not affiliated with any team, took some time to talk to Hahn without asking him about the Cubs.

The results were much more salient.

David Robertson is a free agent. The White Sox need a closer and have the payroll flexibility to pursue him. But don’t make the mistake of trying to put one and two together.

“We don’t feel the need to go out and get a so-called proven closer,’’ White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said Tuesday. “We certainly want to have multiple upgrades, and if some of those upgrades give us viable back-end options, that’s great.’’

In that sentence, the key words would seem to be “multiple upgrades.’’

The White Sox will look to spread around their spending to add at least two or three arms who can improve a bullpen that was the team’s biggest weakness in 2014, when they improved from 63-99 in 2013 to 73-89, with an eye on contending for a postseason spot in 2015.

Among the relievers who are expected to return are right-handers Zach Putnam, Jake Petricka and Daniel Webb. Hahn and his evaluators, most notably director of baseball operations Dan Fabian, have decisions to make on arbitration-eligible relievers Ronald Belisario and Javy Guerra, whose salaries could jump to an estimated $3.9 million and $1.3 million, respectively. Nate Jones, who had Tommy John surgery in late July, isn’t expected back until late in 2015.

Ideally, the White Sox would add a veteran right-hander who could be in the mix alongside Petricka for the closer’s job along with a left-hander to match up against big left-handed hitters in the seventh and eighth innings. But Hahn isn’t likely to pursue a premium piece like Robertson or Andrew Miller, who will command large contracts.

“Look, it’s been widely reported we do have a little economic flexibility this year,’’ he said. “But that doesn’t mean you necessarily run right out on the free-agent market and pick up anything you can afford.’’

Hahn said he isn’t discounting the potential of Petricka, who in his rookie season picked up a team-high 14 saves in 18 opportunities.

“He certainly did an admirable job in the role,’’ Hahn said. “If the mix we have indicated him coming back [as closer], we’d certainly have confidence in him doing that.’’

Hahn said the White Sox will explore trades to add pieces as well as pursuing free agents.

Hahn will look to upgrade the starting staff but is sufficiently encouraged by the potential of left-hander Carlos Rodon, the club’s top prospect, to believe the rotation can be strong without adding major parts.

Unless the White Sox add a right-hander to go with Hector Noesi, they could have four left-handers in their 2015 rotation, as John Danks remains a fixture. He has two years left on his contract, and the club believes he can contribute by throwing 175-200 innings with a league average ERA.

“If we wind up having a heavily left-handed rotation, it is going to be because those are the best guys,’’ Hahn said. “I don’t think anyone is going to shy away from running Chris Sale or Jose Quintana out there against a heavily right-handed lineup, given how they’ve handled that over the years. Carlos Rodon could fit into that mold in the not-too-distant future. If we were to add a starter, our preference would be from the right-handed side from the balance standpoint, but it’s a matter of looking at the five best guys who are going to give you a chance to win.’’

Hahn said he is receiving trade interest in shortstop Alexei Ramirez, but it seems the White Sox would need to be blown away by an offer.

“Given how we view our club, where we view it over the next couple of seasons, we currently view Alexei as a big part of that,’’ Hahn said. “Being strong up the middle is a priority for any good club, and we don’t intend to take a step back there. We’re open-minded, we have depth in that area, so it’s reasonable to hear his name out there. I get that. But it’s certainly not something we’re pursuing on our end or eager to convert on.’’

The same sources I mentioned earlier said that it would take a boat load of talent for the team to part with Ramirez. You don’t just dump a Gold Glove candidate / Silver Slugger winner / All-Star for a rosin bag. Besides, if someone does come calling for a short stop the Sox have several in the minors who could fetch a good young arm or two. And, while not mentioned above, it’s well known that Ramirez is a solid mentor to Abreu and the team is loathe to lose that relationship. Especially since it was relationships that brought Abreu here in the first place.

Oh, the $60 MIL helped, to be sure, but it wasn’t the sole reason.

This just in; the Gatorade guy just scored on the Bears first team defense and the Bulls just announced a Peg Legs for Peace promotion. Make of it what you will.


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In Which Enough Done Been Said

Packers - 55 / Bears - 14

Our very own Big Star has already started a thread and the comments are priceless, so I’ll send you there.


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In Which We Look to the Near Future

I have a rare day off and decided to spend it with you. You better appreciate me bitches. Oh, sure, I’m also going to spend some of it with my doctor but that’s an afterthought. It’s only you who matters to me.

You know that, don’t you baby?

Okay. Sorry about the creep factor.

Anyway, I would like to point out that, thanks to parity, 3-5 for a football team isn’t a death sentence. And, in fact, pre-parity, the 1978 Bears started out that way and ended up in the playoffs. In other words it can be done.

Now, can it be done by your Chicago Bears? Logic took one look at their remaining schedule and burst out laughing.

Logic has kind of a scary laugh.

Think Ultron on a bender and you get the idea.

Nevertheless the Bears will play the Packers on Sunday night. It was supposed to be a big game. And, for the Bears, it is. My local watering hole penned this game onto the calendar and scheduled a pig roast with all the trimmings. In August it seemed like a great way to cheer a Super Bowl bound team on to victory over the hated cheese heads. Then the season started. And it started with a resounding thud. And, despite glimpses of what we were all hoping for, it hasn’t really recovered.

But now the team has had a bye week. They’ve had an extra week to prepare for a team that they have had astounding luck against. All of it bad, Cutler is 1-10 as a starter against them, but luck nevertheless.

Mark Potash, who is legitimately smarter and better looking than me, takes a look at what fans may be in for.

After a one-week respite where Joe Maddon and Nik Wallenda provided a nice diversion, the reality of the Bears disappointing season resumes center stage this week.

It’s like waking up and realizing your nightmare was real: the Bears are still 3-5, coming off a 51-23 loss to the Patriots, with a trip to Lambeau Field coming up Sunday.

The timing couldn’t be better. Marc Trestman promised the Bears would be better after a week of self-scouting, self-evaluation and a working vacation for the players. Facing the Packers at Lambeau is an ideal setting to see just how well the Bears have learned their lessons. They lost 38-17 at Soldier Field on Sept. 28 and looked like they had no idea who Jordy Nelson was.

How well are the Bears coached? How well do the Bears learn? We’ll see about that this week. After the Jared Allen-less Bears failed to put any pressure on Aaron Rodgers in the loss at Soldier Field, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker indicated the Bears might try a different tack the next time. Usually they just try to “execute better.”

“Obviously you’re always going to go back and review and see what you can do better. We’ve done that,” Tucker said. “We’ll look to make some adjustments the next time we play those guys.”

Allen is healthy and ready to go for this one. Lance Briggs, who has missed the last two games with a rib injury, could return. End Lamarr Houston is out for the season with a torn ACL. But Willie Young, his likely replacement, is having a much better season.

Marc Trestman insists no single game is more telling than the other. That won’t fly this week. The Bears have their faint playoff hopes on the line against the Packers in a prime-time game at Lambeau Field. It’s Marc Trestman vs. Dom Capers. Mel Tucker vs. Mike McCarthy. Jared Allen vs. Aaron Rodgers. Jay Cutler vs. Sam Shields. And Brandon Marshall vs. Brandon Marshall.

2. Is Trestman’s job on the line? Probably not. But any ­speculation about the Bears making a coaching change during or even after Trestman’s second season should include the proper perspective — the Bears aren’t ­being run by Theo ­Epstein. They’re ­virtually the polar ­opposite, among the least-prone teams to make quick changes.

Since Mike Ditka was fired after the 1992 season, the Bears have had four coaches in 21 seasons, including Trestman — despite making the playoffs just five times in that span. In fact, Abe Gibron is the only Bears coach to be fired in fewer than four seasons. He was dumped in 1975 and replaced by Jack Pardee.

3. The Packers (5-3) are coming off a 44-23 loss to the Saints in New Orleans, when they’re defense allowed 495 yards. But since 2009 with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, the Packers are 17-2 coming off a loss, including 11-0 since 2011 — with three victories over the Bears.

4. Never underestimate the parity and mediocrity of the NFL. That’s not exactly how Trestman put it when he provided his players with examples of 3-5 teams that have made the playoffs in recent years — but that’s the reality of it.

Four teams in the previous three seasons have recovered from 3-5 starts to make the playoffs: the 2011 Broncos (8-8), the 2012 Bengals (10-6) and Redskins (10-6) and the 2013 Eagles (10-6). Prior to that, only 6-of-117 teams in the previous 20 years had made the playoffs after starting 3-5.

The Bears are in a tough spot. But the league is so volatile from top-to-bottom and from week-to-week, that it’s not quite the long shot it once was.

5. Be that as it may, that still makes the game against the Packers on Sunday night a virtual must-win scenario for the Bears. Only 1-of-75 teams to start 3-6 have made the playoffs. But again, it’s recent — the Redskins in 2012 won their final seven games to finish 10-6.

The common denominator in each of those recoveries was a manageable schedule. The 2013 Eagles played one playoff team on their road to the playoffs — and that was the Packers without Aaron Rodgers. The 2012 Redskins also played just one playoff team on their road to the playoffs. The 2012 Bengals beat six straight non-playoff teams to clinch a playoff berth.

The Bears? They have four games against teams currently in the playoffs — the Lions (6-2) home-and-away; the Cowboys (6-3) and the Saints (4-4, but leading the NFC South). And that doesn’t include the Packers (5-3), who figure to make the postseason.

6. Sometimes it’s just not your year. The Bears started the same five players on their offensive line for all 16 games last year. But the five starters from last season have already missed 10 starts this season. The Bears have started six combinations in eight games. Only Kyle Long (knock on wood) has started every game.

Guard Matt Slauson’s season-ending torn pectoral muscle epitomizes the change in fortune. He suffered the injury going all out with the Bears losing 48-15 in the fourth quarter.

“It was a play where I really wanted to get a big-time shot on a guy and I gave it all my power. And it just blew,” Slauson said.

Slauson had started 64 consecutive games in the NFL since becoming a starter with the Jets in 2010. “Before this year I hadn’t had an injury hold me out of a game since high school,” he said.

7. If Trestman had decided to name team captains for the second half, Slauson would have been a good choice. So would Ryan Mundy, Tim Jenning, Matt Forte and Jermon Bushrod — all players who not coincidentally have experience with winning teams.

Mundy, Bushrod and Jennings have been a part of Super Bowl-winning teams, Forte played in the NFC Championship Game in 2011 and Slauson was a part of Jets teams that went to the AFC Championship game in 2009 and 2010. It’s unfortunate that they are background voices with the Bears.

8. Slauson said he already has talked to offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer about having an active role with the team in the second half of the season.

“I said, ‘Look, I want to be as involved as you guys will let me.’ So I’m still going to participate in meetings. I’m going to help wherever I can,” Slauson said. “I don’t know if they’re going to let me out on the field during practice. I would like to be. But I think that’s an organizational call. I don’t think they like doing that.

“But I’d like to be out there. I feel with my knowledge and experience I can help a lot. So even if I’m [at Halas Hall] in the mornings for meetings, I think I can do a lot of good and Kromer was very supportive of that. I want to stay around. I want to help.”

9. Ex-Bears Player of the Week — More than likely, two-time winner Kyle Orton had a really good week during the Bills’ bye, but not on the field. So Henry Melton takes the honor with 1 1/2 sacks, a tackle-for-loss and three quarterback hurries in just 27 snaps during a 28-17 loss to the red-hot Arizona Cardinals.

Melton, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 3 against the Steelers last year with the Bears, is only a part-time player for the Cowboys, but Rod Marinelli is getting the most out of him.

Playing just 44 percent of the defensive snaps, Melton has five sacks, four quarterback hits and 14 hurries this season and ranks 11th among defensive tackles in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

10. Packers cornerback Sam Shields, who has four interceptions in 10 games against the Bears — including one he returned 62 yards in Week 4 — is doubtful with a knee injury he suffered against the Saints. Davon House would replace him. … The Bears are 0-4 against teams with winning records this season — one of six teams without a victory over a winning team. … The Bears’ three victories are over teams with a combined record of 7-19 — the 49ers (4-4), Jets (1-8) and Falcons (2-6). … Julius Peppers, playing 71 percent of the Packers’ snaps, has four sacks, a forced fumble and an interception return for a touchdown. But Clay Matthews has just 2 1/2 sacks. … There have been 317 pick-sixes thrown in the NFL since Aaron Rodgers’ lone pick-six (in 3,523 career attempts) against the Buccaneers in 2009. Drew Brees and Matt Stafford have 12 in that span — the most in the NFL. Jay Cutler has eight.

Clearly Mark wants you to cry.

You know what? Screw it. The Internet Archive has added 900 classic arcade video games that you can play for free online. They also have almost every antique console game as well. So if you pine for your Watara SuperVision system, they’ve got you covered.

Playing Astro Fighter with your friends has got to be better than watching the Bears.


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In Which It’s a Maddon, Maddon, Maddon World

The Cubs have decided to try on their big boy pants and try and put a real team on the field. Many opine that they have done this before only to rip out the, still beating, hearts of fans. And, that’s kind of true. Dusty Baker - IN DUSTY WE TRUSTY - cam here to win it all, made the playoffs a couple of times and watched fans blame some dude in the stand for his team’s inability to win it all even though all they needed was 32 outs. Or 5, depending on your point of view.

Lou Piniella - SWEET LOU!! - came to town as a confident, successful, manager and he left in the middle of a season to go talk to fish.

Both were broken men by the time Cubdom was done with them.

So expectations were ramped down, and I do mean ALL THE WAY DOWN. Cubs fans then lived through the Quade/Sveum/Renteria eras. Theo Epstein found scapegoat after scapegoat .... umm, sorry, I mean promising new blood that will be expertly placed to work with young players.

Of course the reason they had to work with young players was due to the fact that Theo, for good reason, dumped the major league roster he inherited.

For the record, I was not a fan of this move when he did it and I’m not now. I still think the major league club could have been competitive while the farm system was rebuilt. But no one asked me and, to be fair, the team has greatly improved its crop of young talent.

But this hire feels different. Not just because Maddon bought every single reporter at the press conference a drink, although that was fun, but just the general vibe. These are not your ancestors’ lovable Cubbies. Team Theo is ruthless. They will toss anyone, walk over anything, and crush all who get in their way on the path to winning.

And Cubs fans are starting to buy in. Already slightly disturbing when on their home turf I actually had one toss this little bon mot my way; “I don’t care if they sell babies to the sex trade as long they win.”

Yeah, such warmth, don’t you agree?

I get it, though. Mother’s Day & Workman’s Compensation, weren’t invented the last time the Cubs began a season that resulted in them winning it all. Hell, Cy Young was a pitcher and not an award. It’s been a while.

So they got their guy.  You can forget about Renteria, they have. Phil Rogers takes a look at what fans can expect in 2015.

Joe Maddon’s a manager, not a magician. He’s certainly not a mathematician, at least not a conventional one. He proved that with his slogan for the 2008 Rays.

Nine equals eight, it said on the T-shirts.

Maddon’s target was to improve by 27 wins—an almost unimaginable goal—and he asked his hitters, pitchers and fielders to deliver nine more wins per unit, which would get the team to that number. His theme was nine players doing their best for nine innings every day would make the Rays one of the eight playoff teams at the end of the season.

“When you’re trying to make these quantum leaps, you have to simplify it,’’ Maddon said on Monday at the Cubby Bear, a bar across the street from Wrigley Field. “It was all about presenting a realistic, not unreachable, game plan going into that season. I spent a lot of time thinking about that.’’

The season that Maddon brought out that slogan, the Rays improved from 66 wins to 97, and a trip to the World Series. It was an astounding feat, which encouraged him to attempt one that, at least on the surface, would be even greater—winning a championship with the Cubs.

“This is a once-in-107-years opportunity for me,’’ Maddon said, referencing the historic drought that stretches to 1908.

His timing couldn’t be better.

After a three-year talent roundup by Theo Epstein’s front office, the Cubs are far better positioned for a run near the top of the National League than any time in the last century, since the years when Frank Chance was their manager.

They’ve never had this much young talent on the 40-man roster and coming fast in the farm system, and as a bonus, they’ve got two of their best veterans (Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro) locked up to contracts and probably have more payroll flexibility than any other team. Oh, and for good measure, they are getting their revenue streams cranked up with a stadium overhaul and new broadcast contracts.

Having spent three days in Chicago last August, when serendipity found him inside Wrigley Field for the first time ever, Maddon realized the Cubs were going places.

“Why would you not want to accept this challenge?’’ Maddon said. “In this city, in that ballpark, under these circumstances, with this talent, it’s an extraordinary moment. Not just in Cub history but in baseball, today’s game, this confluence of all these items coming together at the same time, it’s pretty impressive.’’

From 2008 through ‘13, Maddon’s teams in Tampa Bay averaged 91.7 wins, second only to the Yankees in the Major Leagues. He did that with an average Opening Day payroll of $57.9 million, which ranked ahead of only the Pirates and Padres.

So to recap, 28th in spending, second in winning. No wonder Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, and general manager Jed Hoyer hopped on a commercial flight from Chicago to Pensacola, Fla., with a connection in Atlanta, to visit Maddon at an RV camp shortly after Major League Baseball informed them that Maddon had exercised his opt-out clause with the Rays. He had joined owner Stu Sternberg and GM Andrew Friedman in working wonders for nine seasons, but Friedman’s decision to jump to the Dodgers changed everything.

No Cubs manager has lasted more than five seasons since Leo Durocher was fired in 1972. Maddon, 60, received a five-year contract—the same term Epstein got when he was hired three years ago—but the expectation is he’ll be in place a lot longer.

“Sixty is the new 40,’’ Maddon said, laughing.

Epstein refers to the silver-haired Maddon as “our long-term manager’’ and “a real difference-maker for us.’’ Maddon’s track record says he will be exactly that, especially if the front office does a good job adding onto a base built around Kris Bryant, the Minor League Player of the Year; slugging middle infielder Javier Baez, Cuban right fielder Jorge Soler and, in the wings, shortstop Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, a catcher with an impact bat.

Maddon is as intelligent as he is detailed, and he is as inspiring as he is detailed. He has figured out how to get the most out of his players, and it has as much to do with how he treats them as people as it does seeking platoon advantages or using the numbers provided by his analytic staff.

“When you have talented players, which we do, you put them in the right situations, where they’re not afraid of making mistakes,’’ Maddon said. “Any player who plays for me, or us, can never be afraid of making a mistake. That’s the worst thing you can do—to coach aggressiveness out of a player, to coach fear into a player.’’

You can come up with a long list of players who have performed better for Maddon than any of the other managers they’ve played for. For starters, consider how much better Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Matt Garza and Yunel Escobar have played for the Rays than elsewhere.

Don’t be surprised if Arismendy Alcantara turns into an electrifying player next year or if Castro finds himself as one of Maddon’s so-called super-utility players when the more fundamentally solid Russell is deemed ready to take over shortstop. Maybe Junior Lake will find his confidence.

Maddon is a big believer in the philosophies espoused in “Blink,’’ the Malcolm Gladwell book about trusting the intuition produced by life experience and research. He’s not a guy who believes that players have to “grind’’ over the long season, at least not until they step into the batter’s box or onto the field.

“I’m not a big pregame guy,’’ he said, adding that he doesn’t believe in getting to the ballpark early and going home late, just because it might tell others that you care. He said on Monday that he actually believes one reason hitting totals are down around baseball is because batters take too many swings in the cage, wearing themselves down when they’re trying to get locked in.

Interesting idea, huh?

Here’s another one.

While it remains to be seen if the Cubs can add talent like Jon Lester, James Shields or Russell Martin through free agency, Maddon believes the Cubs can make an immediate jump from 73 wins into the postseason in 2015.

“I’m going to be talking playoffs next year,’’ Maddon said. “I’ll tell you that right now. I can’t go to Spring Training saying any other thing. Why would you report? It’s all about setting your standards, your goals high, because if you don’t, you might actually hit them, and that’s not a good thing. We’re going to set our standards high, absolutely. I’m going to talk playoffs, I’m going to talk World Series this year. I promise you. I am, and I’m going to believe it.’’

As for the Billy Goat, Maddon isn’t superstitious.

“I’m going to see how this is all going to play out,’’ Maddon said. “It’s in our future. There’s no question about that. I don’t know exactly when that’s going to happen, but in my mind’s eye, we’re going to make the playoffs next year. That’s how I’m going to approach next season.’’

You can bet he’ll have a slogan when he rolls into Mesa, Ariz., in February, and a very competitive team when September comes around. But October is the month driving his hiring, and the foundation is in place to play games then too. Maddon’s “extraordinary moment’’ looks like the start of something big at Wrigley Field.

Maddon is famous for being unconventional and much will be made of his use of zoo animals (Chicago has 2 world class zoos he can work with) and his themed road trips (I see flappers for some reason) and basically being he guy who can work with what he’s given, which is going to be key for the Cubs.

Maddon’s teams play tight defense, rely on consistent pitching and timely hitting. All things this club of defensively challenged free swingers is not built to do.

Now the real fun begins. Do the Cubs bring up the kind of players Maddon has had success with? Will he remold himself to to fit in with what Team Theo has given him? Will he bring a championship to Chicago or will he end up in a gutter clutching a Clark doll and peeing on is hands?

I know what fans are thinking. Elliott Harris spoke with a legal bookie who is just shaking his head.

From the fine folks at Bovada, (, Twitter: @BovadaLV) comes this from sports book manager Kevin Bradley: “Even though the Cubs were rumored to name Joe Maddon their new baseball manager, we still opened them at 50-1 to win the World Series last Thursday morning. The media hype surrounding the Cubs hiring Joe Maddon and now them actually hiring Joe Maddon, has convinced the average bettor to bet them regardless of the odds forcing us to drop them all the way down to 20-1.Wh ile I think he’s a tremendous manager and that the Cubs have a bright future with many young major leaguers and prospects, I was comfortable taking money on them at those 50-1 odds and wasn’t going to over-adjust based on a manager, but the overwhelming amount of wagers on the Cubs to win the World Series forced our hand.”

If you want to make a quick buck head on over to Wrigleyville.


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