Glenn Beckert, RIP: “The closeness is real”

2020-04-13 GlennBeckertRonSanto

Glenn Beckert (right) and Hall of Fame third baseman Ron Santo display their 1968 Gold Gloves. Rawlings presented the award, but Beckert preferred the Wilsons that Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins broke in for him every spring.

When the 1969 Cubs sputtered down the stretch as the Miracle Mets heated up for keeps, Glenn Beckert wasn’t quite as exhausted as several teammates. That’s what missing a month on the disabled list—with a badly jammed thumb after a collision tagging Reds pitcher Tony Cloninger to start a double play—can do for a fellow who was as reliable at second base as the season was long.

Beckert died at 79 Sunday morning. Decades after the 1969 collapse and before his death, he wasn’t unaware of the toll manager Leo Durocher’s whiplash style took on several Cub regulars and especially their bullpen. But he thought those Cubs—enjoying celebrity to levels previously unknown to them, in and out of Wrigley Field—were drained more in the brain than the body.

“Tired? I don’t know, we came up short,” Beckert told Peter Golenbock for the oral history Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs. “More than anything, I think we were emotionally drained. None of us were accustomed to the crowds and the intensity. An awful lot of what happened was mental. The whole thing was a sobering experience, but we were young.”

Not that Beckert ignored the physical side. Durocher’s unwillingness to use his decent enough bench or to trust his bullpen deeper than Phil (The Vulture) Regan flattened the Cubs—a team with four Hall of Famers (Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, and Ferguson Jenkins)—into burnout that September.

“Leo had stuck with his horses, and maybe that hurt us the last month of that season,” Beckert told Golenbock. “Who knows? That’s second-guessing now. But there was no platooning with Leo. I knew I was somewhat tired, and I had an injury before that. [Shortstop Don Kessinger] was getting a little weary, not only physically, but mentally. Ron and Randy [Hundley, stubborn everyday catcher] were hurting.

“We were playing banged up, and maybe that was the time when we could have used a couple of days’ rest,” Beckert continued. “We had a good bench. Papa [Paul Popovich] was the best utility infielder in baseball, the greatest hands, and he could have come in for a week. But that’s looking back. It’s history.”

Mets manager Gil Hodges went the other way completely. “As well as any manager in the game,” Wayne Coffey wrote in last year’s They Said It Couldn’t Be Done, “Hodges understood the importance of making every player feel involved, keeping every player fresh, giving everyone on his club a slice of ownership in what the collective team was doing.”

Durocher “brought us closer to a pennant than anyone else had in a generation,” said Santo in due course, even though he’d been the Cub above all who could be counted on to give Durocher the benefit of the doubt. “But he also brought disruption and chaos.”

“For Durocher’s part,” wrote David Claerbaut in Durocher’s Cubs: The Greatest Team That Didn’t Win, “his feuds, his attempts at intimidating young players, particularly pitchers, and the general tension he generated must have worn on the players.”

And the wear was more severe because of his unwillingness to rest his players and to use his entire roster more wisely. Despite the occasional protestations to the contrary, the team was tired. One need only look at the statistical crumbling, evident in the records of individual players, to draw that conclusion. Only [pitcher] Bill Hands and Billy Williams averted a season-closing freefall . . .

. . . Durocher compounded the fatigue factor by daring his players to admit they were tired . . . in August, when asked by a writer whether he planned to rest some of his regulars, Leo exploded. Cursing at the writer, Durocher called an impromptu team meeting to embarrass him. “Are any of you tired?” he hollered. “Anybody want to sit down for awhile? This man wants to know. Go ahead—anybody who’s tired just speak up.” Not wanting a quitter label and knowing the answer Leo wanted, the players were mum.

Beckert and Kessinger are remembered as a formidable double play combination; Beckert turned 71 double plays in 1969 (he’d turned 107 the year before, arguably his best individual season) but he also committed 24 errors and had a fielding percentage nine points below the league average while being worth five defensive runs above the league average at second base.

He earned his only Gold Glove in 1968, and for his career he did have range factors slightly above the league average. Also in 1969, Beckert found himself on the first of four straight National League All-Star teams.

Yet Durocher’s rejection of the fatigue factor hurt Beckert and Kessinger down that crucial 1969 stretch. Which might be seen through strange eyes, considering Durocher once smiled admiringly when told Beckert was native to a portion of Pittsburgh “where they hit first and ask questions later.” No matter.

“The fact is that when it counted most,” William Barry Furlong wrote in Look during the offseason (in “How Durocher Blew the Pennant”), “both Don Kessinger at short and Glenn Beckert at second were letting ground balls by them that they’d have gobbled up earlier. And what Santo says about it now is, ‘Next season I’m sure Leo will rest the regulars from time to time’.”

As a hitter Beckert was a tough strikeout (he walked seventeen more times lifetime and, after 1966, never struck out more than he walked in any season), which may explain the number one reason why he was made a number two hitter. That was a time when middle infielders were often thought to “belong” at or near the top of the batting order, almost regardless of their actual batting skills.

Like former Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson, another tough strikeout whose career wound down as Beckert’s began, Beckert’s on-base percentages (1969: .325; lifetime: .318) weren’t really the kind you needed from your top two lineup slots. (Kessinger’s—1969: .332; lifetime: .314) But once he did reach base Beckert was as intelligent as it got; he’d score 90+ runs in a season three times in his eleven-year career and led the National League with 98 in the Year of the Pitcher 1968.

In his rookie season 1965, alas, Beckert had the honour of looking at a Sandy Koufax curve ball for strike three and flying out to right field twice during the Hall of Famer’s perfect game that September 9. According to Koufax biographer Jane Leavy, Beckert’s roommate Santo called back to him after the strikeout. “Hey, Rooms,” Santo asked, “what kind of fastball does he have.”

“So-so,” Beckert answered—right before Williams looked at a similar curve ball for strike three to end the Cub first.

In 1971 Beckert heated up at the plate enough to threaten for the National League batting title—until he ruptured a thumb tendon trying to make a play on a bouncing infield grounder. A few more injuries to follow turned into a trade to the Padres after the 1973 season. Beckert played two more seasons and retired when he realised an arthritic ankle had sapped what remained of his play, though he ended up collecting back pay from the Padres for their releasing him while he was on the disabled list.

It’s not that Beckert was all that sorry to go. “The Padres had the world’s ugliest uniforms, puke yellow and brown,” he’d say later, “and it was a bad experience, going from . . . Scottsdale in spring training to Yuma, Arizona . . . It was like where they filmed Lawrence of Arabia. The sand and the wind. It was like Stalag 17.

He was originally a Red Sox draft who was left exposed to the minor league draft from which the Cubs plucked him. When National League Rookie of the Year (1962) second baseman Ken Hubbs was killed in the crash of his Cessna plane in spring 1964, the Cubs finally settled on Beckert as Hubbs’s successor, bringing him up in ’65.

“A hardscrabble player who sometimes seemed eager to join in collisions at second base,” Bill James wrote in The New Historical Baseball Abstract, “Beckert was the Billy Herman of the 1960s, a pretty good second baseman, and the best hit-and-run man in baseball.”

Beckert made a successful second career as a grain futures trader. His Cub teammates remember a fellow with a fine, dry wit and a friendliness that was priceless. Twenty-seven years after they first met behind a minor league batting cage, Beckert stood as best man at Jenkins’s second wedding.

“Just knowing Glenn was a player who wanted to play every day and knowing he was behind me defensively, that always gave me a good feeling when I pitched,” the righthander told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Jenkins also gladly broke Beckert’s new gloves in for him every spring, something the Sun-Times said wasn’t one of Beckert’s more pronounced abilities. “He’d just hand me his Wilson A2000s, and I’d take care of it,’’ Jenkins said. ‘‘I’d pound a fungo bat into the pocket, put hot water into it, put a ball into it and wrap it nicely overnight. I broke in at least a few gloves for Beck.”

Hitting in front of Williams did Beckert more than a few favours, though whenever Williams fell into a rare slump Beckert would needle him by telling him to start hitting again so the second baseman might reunite with some badly-needed fastballs.

“I was happy to have him up there in the lineup and happy just to have him as a teammate,” Williams told the Sun-Times. “He was a great teammate and a fun guy to be around. He was quick-witted. He and Santo and myself, we used to go out and really enjoy life.”

As often as Beckert dealt with injuries during his playing career, they were nothing compared to the fall he took down fifteen concrete steps in 2001. He was hospitalised long and rehabilitated hard. Then he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006. It cut down on the frequency with which Beckert usually attended Cubs conventions and games at Wrigley Field.

“I’m thinking about the good times,’’ said Williams, himself now caring for his wife who battles late-stage dementia. ‘‘That’s what you do when something like this happens, when a person you spent a lot of good times with passes away. We had a really good group of guys on the Cubs back then. Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of us left.”

The departed among the 1969 Cubs now include Beckert, Santo, reserve catcher Gene Oliver, right fielder Jim Hickman, starting pitchers Hands (who had a career year as a ’69 Cub) and Dick Selma, relief pitchers Hank Aguirre and Ted Abernathy, and especially the irrepressible Banks.

Those Cubs experienced two more pennant races with the same results, before Durocher was finally fired in favour of the sometimes-indifferent Whitey Lockman. Most of the team bonded personally as well as professionally, showing up in annual droves after Hundley first established fantasy camps that enabled frequent reunions.

“What you see with us in [the fantasy camp] is just the way it was in the clubhouse when we really played,” Beckert told Claerbaut. “Some guys are outgoing, some more inward. But the closeness is real, maybe because we played together so long.”

He’d had the habit of calling and meeting his old teammates and friends frequently before his accident and illness. Missing those calls will be nothing compared to how much they will miss Beckert himself. But that will be nothing compared to how much his daughters, grandchildren, and longtime companion Marybruce Standley will miss him.

Grandpa Skipper

2019-10-23 DavidRoss

David Ross gets a World Series-winning lift from the Cubs in 2016. Now he gets to manage them.

If you take the word of Chicago Tribune columnist Paul Sullivan, the only successor to Joe Maddon who was ever on Cubs president Theo Epstein’s radar was David Ross. And if you read Epstein’s foreword to Ross’s 2017 memoir, Teammate, in which Epstein described Ross in terms that sounded like a job description for a manager, you probably figured the same thing:

The watchful eye from the dugout to make sure we respected the game and played the Cub Way. Unselfish, team-first, winning baseball. The glare when someone did something that wasn’t Cub. The rare harsh word when it happened again. The high-fives and pats on the rear when it got fixed. The instinct when to know when to create levity and when to get guys locked in. Reminding the young players how good they are. Reminding them they can get better. Words to keep the team grounded when winning seemed easy. Words to lift up the team when losing just one more would end the season.

Sounds a lot like the way Grandpa Rossy was during the Cubs’ run to the 2016 World Series conquest. (Which so wasn’t Cub, right?) Especially when he had to handle his buddy Anthony Rizzo’s Game Seven jitters.

Especially when Ross himself needed a big lift after a horror of a Game Seven throwing error one inning, providing it himself the next when this spaghetti bat whose baseball knowledge was ten times as valuable hit a gassed Andrew Miller’s 2-2 service into the left center field bleachers, for his final major league hit en route the Cubs’ stupefying win.

Found reposing alone with his wife and children in the Progressive Field visitors clubhouse, Ross was asked whether he’d now rethink his intended retirement. “Oh, God, no,” he replied. “How can I top this? If I come back, it’ll be to get my [World Series] ring and maybe yell at [Anthony] Rizzo from the seats.”

Ross picked up his World Series ring the following Opening Day in Wrigley Field. Now, despite the Cubs having to go through the hiring process even as a matter of formality under the rules, Ross will get to yell at Rizzo and any other Cub who might need it now and then from the dugout again. This time, as their skipper.

“[I]f you’re looking for a leader to take the Cubs back to the level they believed they’d be at for years after that ’16 title,” Sullivan writes, “those are exactly the qualities you’re seeking—a motivating, demanding, reassuring and fun-loving guy.”

It could be fun loving for Cub Country, too, especially considering the biggest weakness among several that they had in 2019. This year’s Cubs didn’t intimidate pitchers quite as much as they found pitchers absolutely unconcerned about giving up hits because those pitchers got to see them run into outs as if there were free tickets to the nearest clown show at the end of each out.

He might have earned the nickname Grandpa Rossy for his sanguine style as a team leader, but it doesn’t mean Ross is going to be that indulgent a grandpa now that he has the bridge. He won’t stop the Cubs from having fun again, he’ll probably encourage it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll forget to break out the bull whip when need be.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’ll be a lack of laughter over Ross’s hiring. He’s never managed. And the continuing trend of skippers without the backup experience still draws mixed reviews. For every Aaron Boone there’s a Gabe Kapler.

Stop snarling, Yankee fans. It wasn’t even close to Boone’s fault the Yankees got shoved to one side and away from this World Series, and—contrary to popular belief (namely, yours)—Boone did better in his first two Yankee regular seasons (203 wins) than any manager in Yankee history except Ralph Houk (205 wins). Even Joe McCarthy (201), Casey Stengel (195), Joe Torre (188), and Joe Girardi (192).

So Boone was silly enough to let a faltering Aroldis Chapman finish what he started and refuse to put Jose Altuve aboard with a man on and two out to pitch to a glove-first/ spaghetti-bat on deck? There have been equal or worse mistakes in Yankee history, postseason and otherwise, and by skippers with more time in service than Boone.

In his twelfth Yankee season Stengel forgot to align his World Series rotation to give Hall of Famer Whitey Ford three starts—and cost himself the 1960 World Series. Houk in his third had no answer other than expecting the Dodgers to drop dead at the sight of Yankee uniforms—and got swept in the 1963 Series.

Girardi in his final year failed to demand a review of a hit batsman who actually got hit on the bat knob . . . and watched the next Indian hit a grand slam in a division series to push the Yankees to the brink of a sweep they avoided and beat only to lose that pennant when the Astros out-scored them 11-1 in Games Six and Seven.

Ross should have few problems if the front office gives him even a marginally better bullpen than 2019’s, his hitters actually meet balls with their bats, his defenders tighten up, and his baserunners quit auditioning for the next Three Stooges revival. Not to mention the Cubs overcoming a few years of dubious drafts since Epstein yanked the front office inside out.

And remember: Ex-catchers do rather well as major league managers in any era or game culture. It only began with Connie Mack and two Philadelphia Athletics dynasties.

Al Lopez won pennants managing the Indians and the White Sox. Long the third-string backup to Hall of Famer Yogi Berra and his backup Charlie Silvera, Houk won three pennants and two World Series in his first three seasons on the Yankee bridge. The Yogi himself won a pair of pennants managing the Yankees and the Mets. Gil Hodges converted from catching to first base—and managed the 1969 Miracle Mets.

Johnny Oates won three AL Wests managing the Rangers. Joe Torre won an NL West with the Braves a decade plus before his pocket full of pennants and World Series rings with the Yankees. Mike Scioscia won a World Series behind the plate for the Dodgers and on the bridge for the Angels. Before Mike Matheny married his Book and lost his clubhouse, he took the Cardinals to some postseasons and the 2013 World Series, though he lost to the Red Sox. Girardi won three AL Easts plus a pennant and a World Series with the Yankees.

And that’s a former catcher who managed the first Astros World Series winner two years ago and is trying to win their second in a) franchise history and b) three years right now.

Of course, not all catchers become postseason managers, either. Bob Boone, Del Crandall, Doc Edwards, Herman Franks, Rene Lachemann, Jerry Narron, Tony Pena, Paul Richards, Muddy Ruel, Joe (Ol’ Sh@tf@ck) Schultz, Birdie Tebbetts, Jeff Torborg, and Wes Westrum, among others, call your offices.

Grandpa Rossy has reasonable odds of joining either one or the other group. The bad news is that a lot depends on how reasonable or unreasonable the Cubs are from here. The good news is that you won’t see Ross tearing his hair out over Cub mistakes. He hasn’t got any left to tear out. Almost. A bark under the park should suffice.

He even gets his own unique entry in the land of trivia contests: Name the only manager ever hired for the job two years after he finishes as a runner-up on Dancing with the Stars. Look out, you Dancing Nats, here come the Cha-Cha-Cubs!

Maddon era ends with a Cubs whimper

2019-09-29 JoeMaddon

Joe Maddon watches from the Busch Stadium visitors’ dugout on his final day as the Cubs’ skipper.

What was long enough presumed was made official Sunday. The Joe Maddon era in Chicago ended with the Cubs’ regular season finale, and a 9-0 loss to the National League Central-clinching Cardinals while they were at it.

The final decision came Friday, apparently, despite the Cubs taking one from the Cardinals to start the weekend, when Maddon and president Theo Epstein met over a bottle of wine, and Epstein affirmed there’d be no contract renewal.

And it may not be quite as simple as saying that, if only the Cubs could have played just  last weekend the way they handled the Cardinals the first two games this weekend, Maddon might have survived.

Getting swept by the Cardinals in the Cubs’ final season set at Wrigley Field last weekend merely finished breaking their backs for the year. They still had another week and weekend to play and, until they hit St. Louis Friday night, the Cubs still looked and played broken—and against the Pirates, yet.

But the plain truth is that the Cubs were broken long before last weekend. And the breakage wasn’t Maddon’s fault entirely or exclusively. Maybe ESPN’s Jesse Rogers said it best after Sunday’s news broke: “Maddon’s dismissal from the Cubs boils down to one sentence: He wasn’t able to outmanage the mistakes the front office saddled him with.”

That happens only too often and not exclusively with the Cubs. But it feels magnified anyway because the Cubs delivered in 2016 what was long presumed impossible. And enough people in Cub Country and elsewhere really thought it was the opening salvo for a dynasty-to-be.

The dynasty that isn’t hit their wall in their own venerable playpen at the end last year. They slip-slid into a National League Central tiebreaker with the Brewers and lost that game. Then settled for the NL wild card game against the Rockies and lost that one, too. Scoring a grand total of two runs in both games, 22 innings worth of baseball.

The Maddon era qualifies cumulatively as a raging success, but its finish qualifies as a raging flop. For two straight seasons Maddon presided over a team that didn’t achieve what their talent demanded. He wasn’t necessarily in a great position to continue the earlier success, but he wasn’t necessarily able any longer to call his team to account before trouble spots became chronic.

Enemy teams came to salivate, not shiver, at the prospect of Cubs on the bases—they led the National League in baserunning outs this year. The other guys had only to put the bat on the ball and often as not save their prayers—this year’s Cubs were the league’s most error-prone defense.

“When you make a lot of errors in the field, when you make a lot of errors in the baserunning, that’s momentum,” pitcher Cole Hamels told Rogers. “That’s an area that could get corrected. There’s still a lot of players in here that are still learning.”

Hamels could have been talking about accountability, too. This year’s Cubs seemed to lose that. Maddon’s isn’t an in-your-face style of leadership, but as Rogers notes it’s believed that even when he did call players in to account for their mishaps, mistakes, and misses, “he didn’t address matters strongly enough . . . or the message didn’t get through.”

It’s not easy being as well respected as Maddon is for keeping his sanity when everything and everyone else around you has search parties out trolling to retrieve theirs. Neither is it easy to discover your remarkably sane and becalmed manner in keeping your clubhouse on message and on task no longer keeps it either.

“[P]eople — players, coaches, general managers, fans, even writers — came to see it is possible to work your butt off and still be a reasonable human being,” wrote Yahoo! Sports‘s Tim Brown. “You can be the boss without being condescending. You can lose and find hope. You can win and recognize that’s about an inch from losing.”

You can even manage the Cubs out of the wilderness, back to the Promised Land for the first time since the Roosevelt Administration (Theodore’s), and keep them in contention for the two seasons to follow, and still keep your marble (singular) when everything around you dissipates.

Which is probably the best reason while Maddon may not remain unemployed for very long. The rumour radar seems to be trained on the Mets, the Phillies, and the Padres as prospective new employers. The Padres job is open since Andy Green was pinked last week; the Mets and Phillies jobs may be opening very shortly.

A rumoured-enough possible Maddon successor is David Ross, whose clubhouse leadership and work as Miguel Montero’s co-backup behind the plate was invaluable to that 2016 World Series conquest. Ross retired after that Series. Don’t think for a moment that the Cubs didn’t miss him in the clubhouse from that point forward.

That was another problem after the ’16 triumph. The Cubs’ most tangible clubhouse leadership came by way of imports from other teams: Ross, Miguel Montero, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Jason Heyward. Their homegrown core led by example enough mostly but didn’t develop, or didn’t feel comfortable developing, more direct and over influence.

Ross retired after the World Series conquest. And Montero blew his leadership cred when he a) complained publicly about losing ’16 postseason playing time to Willson Contreras and Ross behind the plate; and, b) blamed Jake Arrieta publicly for the June 2017 day the Nationals ran wild on the bases (seven attempts, seven thefts) against Montero’s arm.

The latter got Montero run out of town post haste. Lackey retired after the 2017 season. Lester really started showing his age this season. Heyward is still a plus defender but a minus hitter.

But nobody expected Albert Almora, Jr. to stop hitting, or David Bote to become a defensive liability, or Hamels to be injured, or Contreras and Kyle Schwarber running the bases like trucks with flat tires, or Kyle Hendricks developing a seeming allergy to winning on the road. (At home in ’19: 2.05 ERA; .206 batting average against; 0.87 walks/hits per inning pitched. On the road in ’19: 5.02 ERA; .290 BAA; .141 WHIP.)

Hendricks himself reflected a major Cub dilemna this year. At Wrigley Field, if you don’t count that final weekend’s implosion, the Cubs played like a world champion in the making. On the road, they played like the 1962 Mets without the laughs. They dealt with key injuries, of course, and in abundance enough—but so did the Yankees and the Astros, and those two were deep enough to keep on winning.

Which is why Epstein himself may have some splainin’ to do. He didn’t exactly retool the retooling-needy bullpen with solid bulls. He depleted the farm to win the ’16 Series and beyond. The Cubs haven’t drafted a single major league-quality pitcher under the Ricketts/Epstein regime; the scouts haven’t mined deeper for jewels. Their 2018 round one pick, Nico Hoerner, proved a pleasant surprise. His September callup turned into a presence in the Cubs’ 2020 scheme, almost unexpectedly.

More than just the manager may be different next year. Hamels is about to test the free agency market. So does trade deadline acquisition Nicholas Castellanos, whose torrid play after joining the Cubs was too far from enough to help. So does relief pitcher Steve Cishek.

Aging utility man Ben Zobrist—whose season was disrupted by a harsh divorce, harsh enough to prompt his leaving the team to tend his children through it—may or may not retire. And there may (underline that, gang) be trade winds blowing around Almora, Kris Bryant, Jose Quintana, and the should-have-been-purged Addison Russell, whose too-much-proven domestic violence embarrassed everyone around the Cubs.

Maybe, too, Epstein overshot when he said last winter he wouldn’t even think about extending Maddon (if at all) until after this season was done. If it made Maddon too lame a duck maybe that extended to the players. Nobody likes that coming unemployment is a given for the boss you happen to love.

So why not send that boss out with a bang instead of a whimper? If the Cubs couldn’t stay the course to the postseason, the least they could have done was finish what they started and try forcing the Cardinals into an NL Central tiebreaker.

No such luck. Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty could have thrown from a sitting position, maybe even in a deep leather sofa Sunday afternoon. The Cardinals buried the Cubs, 9-0. It seemed almost like a mercy killing. And even a Cub win wouldn’t have forced the tiebreaker, after all: the Rockies beat the Brewers in thirteen in Coors Field. On a walkoff wild pitch.

But it might have shown a little pride.

Things in Busch Stadium began quietly enough and within reason with an RBI single by Paul Goldschmidt and a run-scoring Area Code 6-4-3 dialed by Marcel Ozuna in the first. The quiet lasted just long enough for Dexter Fowler—another element in the Cubs’ 2016 triumph allowed to leave—to hit one into the left field seats with Flaherty himself aboard on a base hit in the second.

And the Cardinals didn’t wait for the Cubs to regroup in the third, either. Ozuna singled home Goldschmidt and, after Yadier Molina walked, Matt Carpenter sent one over the right center field fence. Then Goldschmidt continued the party with a one-out bomb in the fourth.

It got so bad that Maddon sent Zobrist out to pitch the eighth. But Maddon wasn’t trying to be cute, even if there’ll be those sourpusses who decide he’d just surrendered completely without even a whiff of a fight back. He really did want to give a little gift to his 2016 World Series MVP, a personal favourite from their days together in Tampa Bay.

Zobrist walked Fowler to lead off but got a prompt line out to right center from Tommy Edman before walking Goldschmidt. He got a pop out to second baseman (and former Cardinal) Daniel Descalso. Then, he struck Molina out on 2-2 for the side. Molina couldn’t resist a sly grin as he lingered a moment in the batter’s box. Zobrist enjoyed the moment thoroughly. (He can also brag, wink wink, about a 0.00 lifetime ERA if he wants.)

It was a pleasant gesture and a pleasant way to accept the gift. God and His servant Jolly Cholly Grimm only knew how often the Cubs’ regular relievers got torched with men on and two outs during the season. Maybe Zobrist’s unlikely ability to wiggle into and out of trouble gives the front office a hint about fixing that bullpen. Among other things.

Wrigley agonistes

2019-09-22 JoeMaddon

Joe Maddon (left) and Anthony Rizzo after the Cubs’ Sunday loss.

“Adversity,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon pronounced before they played their first home game this season, “is good for the soul, brother.” Did Maddon and the Cubs absolutely have to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy?

You want adversity? This year’s Cubs laid it on themselves good and thick. This weekend and this month. Right down to the moment Maddon decided it was a good idea with a 2-1 lead to send a gallant but past his single-game sell-by date Yu Darvish out to pitch the top of the ninth Sunday afternoon.

He probably did it because when everything else was said and done Brother Joe couldn’t or wouldn’t trust practically his whole bullpen as far as he could throw any home run pitch surrendered by Cardiac Kimbrel this weekend without the benefit of the ball flying off the end of someone else’s bat.

But pinch hitter Jose Martinez led off hitting a 1-0 cutter to the back of center field that just did elude a diving Albert Almora, Jr. for a triple. Former Cub Dexter Fowler sent pinch-runner Tyler O’Neill home promptly with a sacrifice fly. Then Tommy Edman singled to right, Paul Goldschmidt doubled him home, and then Maddon reached for Pedro Strop, who followed a prompt walk with two swinging strikeouts.

And the Cubs had nothing left against even a less-than-his-old-self Andrew Miller in the bottom of the ninth beyond Jason Heyward’s two-out single. The home side of their 2019 ended in four whimpers. Obviously, ending 118 years worth of adversity three years ago just wasn’t good enough for the soul, brother.

“If you just play back the tape,” Maddon said after Sunday’s game, “it’s almost unbelievable that it turned out this way.” The problem is that it’s only too believable. On a weekend when the Cubs needed to play like their 2016 selves in the worst way possible, they played like their 1909-2015 selves—in the worst ways possible.

The Cardinals, though, had just enough left. “There was a time when we could have mailed it in,” said shortstop Paul DeJong after Saturday night’s survival. “But we kept pushing. We’re at a point in the year where we smell blood and we’re trying to take what’s ours.”

Thus did the Cardinals clinch at least a postseason trip. Their magic number for a division clinch is two. The Cubs’ tragic number for even wild card elimination is five. They may get to regroup against what’s left of the Pirates for three in PNC Park, but guess who they end the regular season against and where next weekend?

Does Kris Bryant still think St. Louis is a boring town? I’ve never been there but I know this much about their Cardinals: They have been and they are a good many things. Boring isn’t one of them. Even the best baseball fans on earth, which is the reputation Cardinal fans do have, won’t be able to resist letting the Cubs have it but good next weekend.

The problem is, the Cubs are many things except boring, too, but their kind of excitement did the Cardinals the biggest favour of their month and, just maybe, their season. And if you want to talk about karma, be reminded that Bryant had to leave Sunday’s game after spraining his ankle trying to beat a third inning-ending double play.

Now it’s almost impossible to believe the Cubs began the four-game set against the Cardinals with a clean shot at overthrowing the NL Central leaders. And all four losses were by a single run, making for the longest streak of one-run losses (five) the Cubs have had since 1947, the last time they’d lost four straight one-run games.

How much it would have kept the Cubs’ almost-dissipated postseason hopes alive can’t be known now, but in a season during which he’s been second guessed frequently enough one more won’t kill Maddon.

If he wasn’t even going to think about Kimbrel Sunday, and he probably would have been executed on the spot if he did, why didn’t he give Darvish a pat on the fanny and thanks for a job done well above and beyond the call, and send Strop out to open the top of the ninth?

It’s not that that was the single decision above all that sank the Cubs this year. They were done in by a combination of factors, especially their terrible road results. Yet if Strop had a season to forget for the most part his September’s been plenty strong. He has only one earned run surrendered in six and a third innings’ September work, including five strikeouts now in two and a third innings against the Cardinals this weekend.

But the Cardinals had their own issues. They looked pitiful enough at the All-Star break, their shutdown closer Jordan Hicks went down to Tommy John surgery in June, and even the best fans on earth couldn’t resist the itch to demand president John Mozeliak’s head on the proverbial plate.

Then they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and went 44-23 after the break so far, against the Cubs’ post-break 35-30. Mozeliak is presumed safe from the guillotine. The Cardinals don’t necessarily see adversity as good for the soul so much as they see it means time to see what they’re really made of. It looks like they’re made of a lot stronger stuff than even their own fans thought.

Some Cub heads may roll soon enough. A few of those heads may remain Chicago icons for their parts in the 2016 conquest, but a team whose fans too long lamented, “This year is next year,” isn’t really in the mood to go forward saying, “Ahhhh, wait till three years ago.”

Maddon wasn’t offered a contract extension and he’s liable to finish the season as another ex-Cub manager, never mind the one who finally led them to their first World Series conquest since the Roosevelt Administration. (Theodore’s.)

President Theo Epstein’s most recent signings weighed against the net results this year could have him placed on probation, figuratively speaking. This year’s Cubs “were done as soon as ‘urgency’ and ‘October starts in March’ became the alternatives to actually fixing a lineup the front office said ‘broke’ and a bullpen that was an obvious weak link coming out of spring training,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey Saturday.

Strop plus trade deadline find Nicholas Castellanos, Cole Hamels, Steve Cishek, and others face free agency this winter. Ben Zobrist—whose season was disrupted sadly by his difficult divorce, which prompted him to leave the team for a spell to tend his children through it—may or may not retire after it’s over.

And Chicago Tribune columnist Paul Sullivan thinks aloud that, if Epstein’s recent talk about days of reckoning can be believed, it’s not impossible that Bryant, Almora, Jose Quintana, and the should-have-been-purged Addison Russell (it wasn’t a great look when the Cubs stood by him despite his too-much-proven domestic violence) will find new uniforms to wear next year.

Adversity may be good for the soul, but not everybody turns it into postseason possibilities. The Yankees and the Astros underwent a lot more adversity this year, but now the Yankees have an American League East clinch, the Astros have a postseason berth clinched at minimum, and those two are battling to see who finishes with baseball’s best record on the season.

This year’s Cubs were a good, not great team, as Morrissey notes. Maybe Maddon should get a re-consideration considering the Cubs managed to get to within a fortnight of securing just the second wild card at all. Maybe. Maybe not.

But Maddon didn’t help his cause or his case Sunday afternoon. The much-maligned, oft-struggling Darvish has been the Cubs’ best pitcher in this year’s second half: a .194 batting average against him; a .605 opposition OPS; a 2.70 ERA; a 0.81 walks/hits per inning pitched rate. He gave the Cubs everything he had Sunday until Maddon asked him for what wasn’t left. And failed to see Darvish’s tank on fumes.

Maybe Epstein should get just a little more than mere probation especially since the promised player development machine over the last eight years has been a broken promise except for Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, David Bote, and this stretch drive’s pleasant-surprise emergency call-up Nico Hoerner. As Morrissey reminds, not one homegrown Cub has thrown a postseason pitch or stuck around for more than a full season.

If adversity’s good for the soul, it should be better for a top down rethinking. There won’t be any more baseball at Wrigley Field this year, barring divine intervention. The angels have only so much kindness to spread around.

Could Ross take the Cubs’ bridge?

2019-09-22 AnthonyRizzoDavidRoss

Keeping Anthony Rizzo (left) steadied in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series is probably only one reason David Ross (right) may be seen as managerial material—and closer to a shot at it than he thinks.

When the Cubs delivered the long unthinkable almost three years ago, about-to-retire veteran catcher David Ross couldn’t be found when the celebration moved to the clubhouse. He’d ducked into the visitors’ weight room in Cleveland’s Progressive Field to repose with his wife and his two children.

A reporter found Ross anyway. And, asked the man known affectionately as Grandpa Rossy whether having been big enough in the Cubs’ century-plus-overdue return to the Promised Land had him re-thinking his intended retirement. “Oh, God, no,” Ross replied. “How can I top this? If I come back, it’ll be to get my [World Series] ring and maybe yell at [Anthony] Rizzo from the seats.”

The storybook Cub season gave Ross his happy ending. As for how he could possibly top that, the former catcher who’s worked since 2017 as an ESPN colour analyst may get his answer, perhaps sooner than he thinks. Perhaps as soon as this off season. If not sooner.

With the Cubs’ continuing collapse ramping up speculation that manager Joe Maddon won’t be offered a new deal to stay with the team he shepherded to that Series triumph and kept in contention since, the list of prospective successors has come to include Ross himself.

September began with the Cubs having a grip on the second National League wild card. A critical four-game set against the National League Central-leading Cardinals in Wrigley Field began with the Cubs a measly three games behind them with an excellent shot at overthrowing them for the division lead. There went that idea.

That series is on the threshold of ending with the Cardinals taking the first three at minimum and the Cubs taking in the possibility that any postseason hope they had this time around is all but over. All three were one-run losses. Two out of three were lost in the ninth inning. Saturday night especially.

After the Cubs had four deficit comebacks they handed an 8-7 lead to Craig Kimbrel. The same Kimbrel who owned one of the game’s most dominant relief resumes before he made closing postseason games for last year’s World Series-winning Red Sox exercises in cardiac crash cart alerts. The Kimbrel who only thought he was going to shoot the moon in free agency last winter anyway, and ended up shooting barely past the antennae atop Willis Tower when he finally signed a three-season deal with the Cubs in June.

The same Kimbrel who returned from the injured list (knee) Thursday and surrendered Matt Carpenter’s tenth-inning bomb that proved the winning run. Saturday night Kimbrel saw and raised. With a lot of help from Cardinals catcher/leader Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong.

Saturday night he opened against Molina, starting Molina with a climbing four-seam fastball. And, watching it fly into the left field bleachers. Then DeJong checked in at the plate. Kimbrel opened with another four-seamer that didn’t climb quite so high. DeJong had an easier time sending that one over the center field wall. And the Cubs had no answer in the bottom after Kris Bryant opened with a walk off Carlos Martinez.

Thus the first time they’ve lost four straight one-run games since 1947. Overtake the Redbirds for the Central? Second wild card? Not when they’re skidding while the Brewers are on a 13-2 run that began with sweeping the Cubs the weekend of September 6. It put the Brewers three behind St. Louis in the Central and three up on the Cubs for the second wild card.

This is one hell of a way to play the final regular season series at the Confines. Not even Rizzo’s unexpectedly early return from an ankle sprain Thursday—or his opposite field home run in the bottom of the third—proved inspiration enough. And Maddon wasn’t even aware Rizzo would be ready for duty until he heard it from president Theo Epstein after a pre-game press confab.

Which suggests to a lot of observers that Maddon’s days on the Cubs’ bridge really are numbered. No matter that he’s led them on their most successful run since the years of Frank Chance; or, that he kept them in contention, somehow, some way, despite this year’s battle between the injured list and the bullpen over who could do more to sink the Cubs deeper.

And Ross’s name was thrown forth as a prospective successor by none other than USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale, in a column whose headline began by noting not one major league manager was executed yet—four days before Padres skipper Andy Green got pinked after a grotesque 9-0 loss to the Diamondbacks Friday night. “The biggest surprise in Chicago this winter,” Nightengale wrote, “will be if David Ross is not named their next manager by Thanksgiving.”

The Cubs have been preparing Ross, who helped lead them to the 2016 World Series championship and four consecutive division titles, to the heir apparent, and although bench coach Mark Loretta can’t be completely ruled out, they believe Ross will be the perfect fit.

Epstein himself added to the sense of Maddon’s impending non-renewal, never mind that he can be faulted almost as easily for some of this year’s issues by way of a couple of signings here and a dubiously-retooled bullpen there, for openers. “Honestly, we’ve been essentially a .500 team for months now,’’ he’s quoted as having told the Cubs’ flagship radio station. “If you go back twelve, thirteen months, it’s just been marked by underachievement and uninspired play.”

If Grandpa Rossy’s tires are being kicked as a Maddon successor, the “uninspired” portion of Epstein’s comment looms a little more profoundly.

Ross was a journeyman major league catcher respected for his knowledge of the game, his handling of pitchers (some of whom made him their personal catcher, including Jon Lester with the 2013 World Series-winning Red Sox as well as the 2016 Cubs), and his mentoring of younger players. He’d been one of the Cubs’ clubhouse leaders in his two seasons there, and among the more audible whispers coming from the Cubs’ arterials has been how much his leadership has been missed in the Cubs’ clubhouse since his retirement.

The latter came into very close focus during that 2016 Series. When Ross had one horrible moment in the bottom of the fifth, throwing Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis’s squibbler away and into the seats, opening a door for the Indians to shrink the Cub lead to 5-3. And, when he atoned for it in the top of the sixth, hitting a 2-2 service from spent Indians bullpen star Andrew Miller into the left center field bleachers.

Because the television cameras soon enough panned close enough up to Ross and Rizzo at the dugout railing, where Rizzo gripped the rail almost like he was clinging to dear life onto a skyscraper’s fortieth-floor ledge. “I can’t control myself right now,” Rizzo said. “I’m trying my best.”

After Rizzo admitted he was an “emotional wreck,” Ross replied, “Well, it’s it’s only going to get worse. Just continue to breathe. That’s all you can do, buddy. It’s only gonna get worse . . . Wait until the ninth with this three-run lead.” At the Cubs’ championship rally Rizzo’s voice almost cracked a few times while he credited Ross with teaching him how to be a winner.

A lot of speculation has had former Yankee manager (and one-time Cub catcher) Joe Girardi succeeding Maddon if Maddon isn’t offered a new deal. But Girardi’s Yankee exit came under the same circumstances that might block a new Maddon deal. His young Yankee team still underachieved. He, too, lost touch with his front office and clubhouse. And he, too, had a recent run of head-scratchers.

None more head-scratching than his failure to call for a review at once on a hit batsman ruling for Indians outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall with two out in the bottom of the sixth, Game Two, 2017 American League division series. Every television replay showed the pitch hitting the knob of Chisenhall’s bat. A Yankee review would have meant strike three.

Girardi fiddled and got burned. Now the Indians had the bases loaded. And the next batter, Francisco Lindor, hit one off the right field foul pole near the second deck. Turning a potential blowout into a one-run deficit. The Yankees would survive to be pushed home by the eventual World Series-winning Astros in that American League Championship Series, but Girardi’s non-review call still stung.

Reaching for Ross would be the Cubs’ way of gambling as the Yankees did hiring Aaron Boone to succeed Girardi, with a similar lack of managing experience. How has that worked out for the Yankees? Boone’s managed them to back-to-back 100+ win seasons and a division title this year plus a second straight trip to the postseason. Despite leading baseball in the injured list.

He’s not exactly a strategical genius but if managing is 70 percent or more keeping your players on task regardless of onslaughts such as injuries, Boone should be a Manager of the Year candidate. By the Baseball Writers Association of America and the American Red Cross.

When Ross retired, there was speculation enough that managing might be in his future. All other things considered, it might not be that great a shock, even if it might send Cub Country to protracted spasms of joy, if that future proves to be this offseason, if not a little sooner. And if there’s speculation about him taking a team’s bridge, Grandpa Rossy isn’t exactly in a big hurry to shy away from it. He recently admitted as much to FanSided: yes, he’s got the itch to manage.

“That has definitely crossed my mind, with all the rumors that fly around,” he told FanSided‘s Mark Carman last week, referring indirectly to the Cub speculation, though he also said he wasn’t in that big a hurry to see Maddon’s days on the bridge expire. But Ross is still “flattered” by the thought that people think he’s managerial material.

Former catchers are often the first thoughts teams have when it comes time to name a fresh manager. With good enough reason: their game knowledge is often a given, and historically they win often enough.

Four former catchers now managing have division, pennant, and/or World Series rings on their resumes: Maddon, Bruce Bochy, A.J. Hinch, and Ned Yost. Bochy’s retiring from the Giants after this season; Yost is often rumoured departing Kansas City after this season, too. Their predecessors in triumph include Connie Mack, Al Lopez, Ralph Houk, Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges (who converted to first base early in his playing career), Johnny Oates, Joe Torre, Mike Scioscia, and Girardi.

Put Ross on the bridge of the right team and he could join that company. Whether the Cubs prove the right team, however, may not be entirely within his control.

“It’s a huge honor . . . People think that you’re the best guy to run an organization . . . [but it’s] one of those things that it’s gonna have to be the right opportunity to come back,” he continued. Especially if it’s one of the teams for whom he played.

“I’ll tell you, my heart definitely itches to get into the dugout at times and to be part of something special that I’ve been a part of before, so there’s a push/pull for sure,” he said. “It’s gonna have to be a unique opportunity to pull me away from my family and the sacrifices you make to be in the major leagues.”

The Cubs have been accused of many things in their history. Lacking uniqueness isn’t always one of them.