The 28th Annual Cubs Convention began Friday at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers and day one of the convention went the same as many before. Cubs fans filled the hotel with the same enthusiasm as in year’s past as they attempted to familiarize themselves with the new surroundings.
There was plenty of optimism about the upcoming season but more about what lies down the road for the Chicago Cubs … and Wrigley Field.
The Opening Ceremonies of the 2013 Cubs Convention had a different twist and feel to it. The familiarity of the Hilton was long gone and so was the old format. Opening Ceremonies began with a New Year’s Eve countdown then the first of three videos on two large screens.
The first video focused on the past and the history of the team. There were highlights from the early days of the franchise and to be quite frank, it was good to see the Cubs recognize that the team has a history prior to the beloved ’69 team. There were archival photos of the team before Wrigley Field and they even mentioned Albert Spalding.
The video also showed highlights of some of the greatest players to ever put on the Cubs uniform … Ron Santo, Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson and Sammy Sosa were included.
After the first video, Tom Ricketts greeted and welcomed the large crowd by saying, “I have no doubt this is going to be the best convention ever.” Ricketts also introduced the 11 RBI scholarship recipients before focusing back on the team.
The second video centered on the future of the team … the prospects in the system, the facilities being built in the Dominican Republic and in Mesa and the systems being implemented throughout the organization. The video showed clips of Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Shawon Dunston Jr., Dan Vogelbach and Pierce Johnson, just to name a few.
At that point Pat Hughes welcomed the crowd with his familiar refrain and after a long winter to hear his voice say “Chicago Cubs Baseball is on the air” put a smile on everyone’s face in the crowd.
Pat Hughes introduced Len Kasper, Jim Deshaies and the Cubs of yesteryear. Kerry Wood received the loudest ovation … and maybe the loudest of the night. Ernie Banks looked good and appears to have lost quite a bit of weight. Mr. Cub sat next to Dale Sveum as the coaching staff, the minor leaguers and the current team was introduced. Many players paid their respects to Ernie Banks as they took their place on the stage. While many of today’s athletes might not know the history of the game in which they play, nearly all of the Cubs prospects and players recognized Mr. Banks.
Darwin Barney and Tony Campana received the loudest ovation and the crowd even chanted “Tony! Tony!” for the speedy Campana. Starlin Castro received a warm welcome and Alfonso Soriano received the loudest ovation he’s received in several years.
After the third highlight video, this one focused on the 2012 season, Starlin Castro threw out the ceremonial first pitch and a majority of the crowd sang ‘Go Cubs Go!’ to close out the Opening Ceremonies.
WGN Radio’s Sports Night
WGN Radio’s Sports Night was next on the list … and the can’t miss Friday night event hosted by David Kaplan, Andrea Darlas and Brian Noonan once again did not disappoint. First up was Dale Sveum and hitting coach, James Rowson.
Dale Sveum and James Rowson
Dale Sveum lives 20 minutes from the Cubs’ facility in Mesa and has already been there several times in recent weeks. There were 40 or so minor leaguers at the facility last week and he knows many of the players, including Darwin Barney, Jeff Samardzija and Matt Garza, will be there well in advance of pitchers and catchers reporting on February 10. Sveum said he is expecting Garza at the facility in a week.
The Cubs’ skipper explained that once the holidays are over it is time to get back to baseball and back to work.
Sveum laughed off being shot by Robin Yount over the off-season. Sveum said he was shot by “only a BB” and it was not as big of a deal as the media made it out to be.
James Rowson explained that the Cubs came up with an off-season plan (program) for each player as soon as the season was over. The Cubs brass had a staff meeting earlier this week while they were all in town for the convention to go over certain details on each player and make sure the entire organization was, and is, on the right page. Rowson said they will know right away if a player has not followed the off-season program.
When asked about patience at the plate and teaching hitters how to be selective, Rowson explained that each hitter is going up to the plate looking for a hit, not a walk. The key is not to swing at pitcher’s pitches and to drive the ball.
Even with his team losing 101 games, Dale Sveum found positives in last season. Several players received exposure to the big leagues, even when it did not go well, as was the case with Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters. Sveum pointed out the importance of getting minor league players experience in stadiums with third decks. But the bottom line last year was several players were put in positions that they should not have been put in.
Dale Sveum does not plan on addressing last year with the team before camp this spring. There is no reason to talk about last year as Sveum sees it. This is an entirely new year, it is time for the organization to move forward and work toward making the playoffs.
Sveum said there would be a bunting tournament in Spring Training this year but he would not be involved this time around. Sveum hinted there would be other things this spring that focus on the fundamentals of the game.
Dale Sveum is more than happy that the Cubs replaced and repaired the playing surfaces at Wrigley Field this off-season. As Sveum put it, the Cubs went from having the worst field in the majors to one of the best. The playing surface was, and has been, a challenge for several years … not only for the Cubs but for visiting teams as well.
Sveum also leaked the news of the Cubs’ plans for the new clubhouse. The Cubs are going to replace the small, outdated clubhouse with a state of the art facility. Sveum was in a meeting earlier in the week and helped finalize the plans. The Cubs are hoping for the work to be completed before the end of the season.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer
The Cubs President of Baseball Operations and General Manager joined the Sports Night crew shortly after 7:30pm CST. Theo Epstein started the half hour discussion by saying that compared to where the organization was a year ago, they are very happy with where the organization is going.
A year ago, they felt that Starlin Castro was the only core player. But not only did they sign Castro to a long term extension over the last year, but they also identified players such as Anthony Rizzo and Jeff Samardzija as a part of the core moving forward … plus Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora in the system.
Epstein explained that last year was rough on everyone and that no one likes to lose but at some point you have to have a plan. They had to prioritize the future last year at the trade deadline despite the fact the team was playing well at the time.
David Kaplan asked Jed Hoyer about the new playing surface at Wrigley and brought up what Dale Sveum said about the old field. Hoyer acknowledged that Sveum’s statement was accurate … it was the worst playing surface in the game. There were more errors committed at Wrigley Field than any other in the majors last year … and not only by the Cubs’ players but by visiting players as well.
The Cubs completely redid the field … both the infield and outfield with new sod and dirt. Hoyer said that from this point forward there will be less events at Wrigley, both in terms of concerts, charity events, etc.
Theo Epstein said he was happy with the way the first annual Cubs Rookie Program went last week. Epstein did something similar in Boston and views it as a part of the developmental process. Players coming up from the minors not only need to know how to play the game but they also need to know how to find Wrigley (said jokingly), deal with the media, how to handle charity functions and the Cubs must be able to prepare the players properly in every aspect of the game. The plan with the program is to bring in 12 players a year that has a chance to make their big league debut within two years.
The questioning shifted back to the Wrigley Field renovations and Hoyer bluntly said that there are minor league ballparks with bigger clubhouses and better amenities than what the Cubs have at Wrigley Field. Hoyer admitted there is a lot going on within the organization (Dominican Republic, Mesa and Wrigley) and hopefully they will all be finishing around the same time.
Theo Epstein was careful not to disrespect the previous administration but admitted that a lot of things were not up to big league standards when they took over the team. One of the first questions he asked was, “Where are the starting pitchers?” The Cubs need pitching badly throughout the organization but studies have shown that position players taken in the first three rounds end up having better big league careers. Epstein did not rule out drafting a pitcher with the second pick in June’s draft but he said if they do not take a pitcher with their first pick then the following rounds will be about adding pitching. The key, according to Epstein, is to add pitching in volume that way there is a better chance of success. Epstein said later in the session, “When you’re a player development organization, you throw your blood, sweat and tears into developing players.” As for knowing when a prospect is ready, Epstein explained that each player has a list of things they need to improve on and once every item on that list has been checked off, that player is ready.
Jed Hoyer was asked about Alfonso Soriano and the Cubs’ GM said that Soriano has been great, despite the reputation he had before they came in. Hoyer said he is looking forward to Soriano playing left field for the Cubs.
Balance is the key to building a winning team at Wrigley Field. Hoyer explained that Wrigley Field plays as two different parks and they must build a team with balance … and not a team that does just one thing well.
Theo Epstein said they are trying to take an unhealthy organization and turn it into a healthy one.
Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman
Four-fifths of the Cubs’ projected Opening Day rotation led off the second hour of Sports Night … but the “Two Scotts” as Matt Garza called them, were about 15 minutes late.
Jeff Samardzija understands why he was shut down toward the end of last season but he did not like it. He wants to pitch as much as possible and he does not think you can take anything for granted … plus he wanted to see how he would finish the season. Samardzija went through an evolution last season. He explained that he had some success early in the season, then he had to refine what he was doing while constantly making the right adjustments.
Matt Garza said he is feeling good and will be pitching off a mound in a week and a half … later in the interview, Garza said he would throwing off a mound on February 1.
Scott Baker said he is feeling good and that he rehab from Tommy John surgery is on schedule. He said he is on target for Spring Training but he is not sure if the Cubs will allow him to pitch right away.
To say Scott Feldman is a free-spirit would be an understatement and from the way he carried himself Friday night he would fit right in at a left-handed pitcher’s convention.
Scott Baker said that he would have to rely on his catchers this year while he is learning a new league.
There was a lot of talent on the panel … and thoughts of how they could perform during the upcoming season in a Cubs’ uniform.
Darwin Barney, Anthony Rizzo and David DeJesus
Next up on Sports Night was Darwin Barney, Anthony Rizzo and David DeJesus.
After David DeJesus explained that last season was forgotten about as soon as it ended, the focus shifted to Darwin Barney and his gold glove. His teammates have apparently labeled the gold glover “Sir GG” or “Mr. GG”. Barney shared a similar story to the one he told on MLB Network just after he won the Gold Glove … the only difference was that he found out 25 days before the announcement was made but he could not tell anyone. Barney still has not received his gold glove but he already has five different places in his house picked out to display it.
Anthony Rizzo and David DeJesus are very close and Rizzo admitted that he follows DeJesus’ lead and has learned a lot from him.
David Kaplan turned the conversation back to Wrigley and the improvements made to the field. Kaplan asked Barney how he could win a gold glove on the worst infield in the big leagues. Barney said he could not talk bad out the field and pointed out his two errors came on the road. Barney apparently made comments years ago in the minors that he thought he could win a gold glove at second base despite the fact he was a shortstop at the time.
Barney explained that he played short his entire career but realized that when Starlin Castro jumped over him and was promoted to the big leagues that he needed to learn how to play second. Barney went to his manager at the time, Ryne Sandberg, and the two worked on learning how to play second base before games. Barney still played shortstop when the games began. Barney said he owes a lot to Ryne Sandberg and the coaches on the staff last year that helped him learn the position.
All three players seem to be excited about the changes planned at Wrigley Field. Darwin Barney just hopes they are all still with the Cubs when the renovations are done. It is hard for them to complain about Wrigley, after all they are playing baseball at Wrigley Field. But there are several improvements that need to be made to the old ballyard.
The last half-hour was the Cubs’ four broadcasters … Pat Hughes, Len Kasper, Keith Moreland and Jim Deshaies. The broadcasters shared stories and their thoughts about last season and the direction the Cubs’ organization is going. And while JD did not have much to add, for obvious reasons, if Friday night is any indication, the Cubs’ telecasts are not going to skip a beat with Len and JD in the booth.
All in all, it felt like the Cubs Convention on Friday night but it was the direction that felt unfamiliar.