Rami Looks Good In a Tie & Sometimes Championships Are Simply Child’s Play

Cubs tied the Royals today in Spring competition and it was great to see Rami step up to the plate, look healthy and chalk up an RBI to contribute to a 5-5 final score after nine innings. I think the Royals are going to surprise some people so it would’ve been interesting if this game counted and they had gone on until someone finally won. However, in order for the Cubs to surprise anyone this year and return to NL Central dominance, they are going to need an effective, healthy Aramis Ramirez.

In a completely unrelated thought I just had after finishing watching the Bird/Magic documentary on HBO…there is something to be said about a team that knows and owns their roles. There is a large sum of value, completely intangible of course, when every member of your team puts on their uniform in the exactly appropriate mind frame. When all of your teammates are getting ready for competition focused on solely what is expected from them and why they are on the team to begin with, you will experience many more W’s than you will L’s in the long run. And often, as is the case when you compile a great number of W’s, it can often lead to a championship.

I speak from experience in the most amateur level of team sport competition. Now again, this is right after watching the Bird/Magic doc so it is inevitably directly related to basketball, however indirectly related to all team sports, including baseball and for this blog’s purpose, indirectly related to Hendry and Lou’s efforts in making the right decisions in assigning the right guys to the active roster for the start of the season coming just short of two weeks from now.

The experience level from which I speak is what I like to call organized-recreational-pick-up-campground-league basketball. Basically because that is exactly what it was.

One Summer day, in the early to mid 90’s, my younger brother approached me with an idea for a march madness style campground basketball tournament. My family was always camping and were seasonal for years. Every weekend would be spent camping at Moose Meadow campground in CT, playing basketball, playing softball, playing pickup football and then for the guys: trying to meet as many girls as possible. My brother and I were friends with a real tight group of guys who were also mostly seasonal. We would hang out every weekend with basically the exact same agenda each and everyday. And it was a schedule that is responsible for some of my all time favorite moments from childhood.

Around 9am everyday at the campground, we would be awoken by the sound of someone dribbling a basketball. The campground had just put in a full court basketball court…the greatest thing to happen to Summer since S’mores.

The dribbling was always by the same kid.  One of my best friends, Kyle. Kyle and I grew up together, participating in the same activities and often on the same teams from the age of six. Kyle’s family was out at the campground seven days a week during the Summer where as my family came out only on weekends. Kyle was and is a Red Sox fan and also a die hard Celtics and overall basketball fan. If Kyle was awake, he was either shooting hoops or walking around to see who was awake to shoot hoops with him. That often didn’t prove necessary as his dribbling woke most of us as our sites were by the court.

9am, awoken by the sound of Kyle’s dribbling. 9:30am wrap up breakfast and head to the basketball court. Meet up with everyone by 10am (some were slower in getting out than others). 10am-12:00pm, three on three basketball. 12noon lunch. 1:00pm Adult Softball.

Oh man, the adult softball game.

This was supposed to basically be a softball pickup game of campers 18 and over for a serious game of softball without including and letting kids get in the way. It was a simple game, for nothing on the line but bragging rights, yet was always treated like Game 7 of the World Series by those who played in it. The simple fact that you got to participate in the adult softball game was an honor bestowed upon very few people still in their teens. With the frequency that we were at the campground and the close relationships we formed with the regulars who played at the game, we were usually allowed to play as well.

It was a thrill to be a part of and we saw some amazing, dramatic pick up softball games on that field. An old school campground baseball diamond with the dirt entrance/exit road lining the first base line, a giant 45 degree hill lining the third baseline, and forget ivy lining the outfield. From left to right the outfield quickly turned into the outfield wall comprised of forest…trees that felt like brick if you were one of the unfortunate ones to chase a flyball into it like smacking the wall at Wrigley. And if you were in charge of manning right field, your outfield wall mark was made up of a few very thick, very solid, very unsafe waist high giant tree logs. Another obstacle I’m sure if Sam Fuld had been a camper at Moose Meadow, would’ve run head first into time and time again.

Now, come about 3:30/4pm the softball game is over and it’s back to the basketball courts. 4-6pm basketball, 6-6:30pm dinner 6:30-8:30 basketball. We played A LOT of basketball. Anyway, all that time spent on the basketball courts, playing with and against each other proved to be very valuable. The same type of value hopefully this Cubs team is getting out of Spring Training…the knowledge, acceptance and possession of your own and each other’s strengths and ability you bring to the table that is most needed for the overall betterment of the team.

After my brother asked me to help him organize a tournament style basketball competition across the state against other kids at other campgrounds, we had an amazing time. Three years running, four teams participating in round robin style each year. Sometimes the kids and teams playing were repeat competitors, sometimes they were brand new teams and faces. Every year, however, we had basically 90% return rate of the players on our team. Moose Meadow had skills much at the same level as the other teams, but the one thing we had the others didn’t have was an unspoken knowledge of each other’s talents, personality and intangibles brought to the table.

We had Dan, our campground league equivalent to Michael Jordan. He was always the best player on the court and always the go-to guy in crunch time. Tall and athletic, the only one of us who could dunk and the same kind of quiet, confident likability that Jordan possessed. We knew that no matter who was on the floor with Dan, he was the offensive leader. He was to be deferred to in crunch time and the offense ran through him. Knowing his talent was a key ingredient to our team’s success and that it was our’s and not the other team’s was a reason to show up ready to win every game in and of itself. The games were always close for the most part. But when push came to shove, Dan gave us the advantage on paper almost every time.

We had Kyle. The Kevin McHale of our squad. Possibly our second best offensive player, best rebounder and a solid leader by example. A great guy to have in team meetings, timeouts, half times, etc to keep spirits up and the one with the strongest basketball IQ.  He was a student of the game.  Tireless energy and incredible sportsmanship. When the competition got too heated, Kyle was always the one to keep things level headed and appropriate. You respected Kyle as a leader of the team and looked to him to lead by example on the court and off.

We had my brother, Sean. The only guy in competition with Kyle as our second best offensive player. Sean was the best at running his mouth and getting into an opponent’s head. He had good offensive skills and the outgoing personality to keep things fun. One year he shaved his entire head except for the letter M on top for Moose Meadow. A complete showman, he was all about winning, got upset when others made mistakes but never was harder on anyone than he was on himself. People knew they’d get a lot of effort and production out of Sean because you knew underneath the showman shell, you knew he expected only the highest performance out of himself in each and every game. It made you want to play harder and deliver as well.

We had the Corbin boys, Jerry and Heath. Two of the nicest tough guys you’ll ever meet. They were total role players who knew their place in the offense and on defense. Especially defense. They contributed a level of commitment to the team matched only by their love for the game and the team itself. The passion they brought to the court and desire they shared with the rest of us to not be the guy that let’s the rest of the team down made them solid in their role as solid role players…not expected to perform like campground league all-stars, but to contribute consistently as best as they possibly could. They were also the first two people to get in a teammates face if one of their own was getting out of line, which let you know they’d be the first to get in an opponent’s face if they were out of line in the way they were acting when it came to someone on their team. Quality people, with a heart for their teammates and desire to win like only brothers could share.

And then, we had me.  It feels weird to really try to describe myself as a player except to say that I was proud to wear the Moose Meadow jersey (Kyle would go on to tell me, after reading this, that he saw me as the Bruce Bowen of the squad). I understood everyone’s role on the team, even the bench players that I haven’t mentioned here. Even at that young age, I could tell that having everyone proud of what they bring to the table was the one intangible that separated us from the rest. We weren’t ball hogs.  We weren’t all trying to be the star of the afternoon. It made us special and it deliver three straight campground league tournament championships with an overall record of 14-1 for the three years we participated. People knew their roles, the chemistry was great and everyone kept the energy, positivity and level of performance high in every game for not ourselves, but for each other because no one wanted to let any of our teammates down.

And BELIEVE ME, I realize this all sounds ridiculous because it was only a bunch of individual five on five pickup games, organized into a tournament of kids from different campgrounds played in the woods in front of crowds of tens (ok, maybe 10). I realize that completely. But I don’t care what level of organized sports one may talk about. A complete team of teammates understanding their roles, respecting the breakdown of every single player’s role on the team and carrying an understanding, devotion and level of commitment to not let down the guy standing next to you is an equation that equals winning.

Hopefully this is something this year’s Cubs team takes away from their experience in Arizona in this year’s Spring Training. If it is, it could make all the difference come October as to what kind of story they’re able to tell when their run with the organization has finally come to an end.

UPDATED 6/8/11: This link started getting a bunch of views again today. Dan and Kyle came across it and started sharing it on Facebook. Since it was brought to my attention again after writing it a year ago, I have read it about five times now today. Always fun to look back, whether it’s in this blog or in life in general. Give me a time machine and I’d go back and spend another summer with those guys in a heartbeat. Good times. (Also, this idea might be necessary if any of us are to actually live long enough to see the Cubs win a championship).

Go Cubs Go!

That’s the Ticket x3!

Game On!  Let’s make these games count already!

I got my tickets for when the Cubs come to NY and I can’t wait!  Have a ticket to three out of four games as I have to see as much as I can in person this year with the Cubs’ only trip to NY coming first thing in April, only a month away!

Not expecting a lot of long ball seeing that Citi Field’s dimensions are horrendous when it comes to home runs.  So hopefully Lou’s line up table setters in Theriot and Fukudome find their way on base a bunch and Lee and Rami are able to find holes in the outfield to knock them in.  It’s not too hard to find holes in the Mets outfield.  For one, especially without Beltran, they aren’t very good.  Francoeur is a joke.  Bay hasn’t played at Citi Field so getting used to the park and its dimensions will take some time.  As for Pagan, I liked him as a Cub and was sad to see young potential get away.  All in the same, he’s no Carlos Beltran.  All that, plus the fact that the outfield is ginormous (another flaw in the designing of Citi Field) if Theriot and Fukudome can find their way on, we should be starting off those ballgames up a run or two and ready to roll.

Little concerned about Rami’s soreness and the time he is missing this Spring.  I’m watching the replay of today’s Cubs/Indians Spring game right now.  Interesting to see Baker at third.  I figure if he’s making the ballclub, it’s more so for his ability to play second base.  Having a guy who can play third and second wouldn’t hurt as it looks like Lou has wanted to see if Fontenot and Baker both are capable of playing either the left or right side of the infield.  That makes me wonder if perhaps Lou is concerned about Rami as well.

Byrd’s looked pretty solid so far this Spring which is good to see.  We need a guy that can patrol centerfield with authority but also get the job done at the plate.  Rangers fans I communicated with on Twitter were especially disappointed to see Marlon come to the Cubs. I’m starting to see why in watching him perform this Spring and hopefully it continues on into the regular season.

Got my 2010 Cubs club card, my Cubs jacket for early April games, my Cubs jersey and my Fukudome t-shirt ready to hit Citi Field with abandon no matter how warm or cold it may end up being.  Opening Day across the country is always a crapshoot when it comes to the weather and more often than not you end up freezing for at least 2/3’s of the game.  I remember catching one opening day in New York and 50% of the fans in the upper level was standing in the aisles at the corners of the stadium trying to get into the sunny spots and avoid the shade.  Hopefully my dates with the Cubs coming to town in April avoid the usual early season chill factor.

I don’t foresee Samardzija making the club as a starter this year.  We’ll need him to perform well out of the bullpen though with a huge blow to the squad with Guzman’s injury.  Guzman was a guy that made me feel real comfortable with our bullpen and now without him, not sure how this is going to play out.  And Silva?  How do you guys feel about Silva?  I’m not so sure he’s the guy we need to get us through the early part of the season either until Lilly is closer to 100% and ready to step into his usual spot in the starting rotation.

Whatever Lou decides to do, I can’t wait to find out and I can’t wait to see it perform in games that count!

I received a copy of the Maple Street Press’ 2010 Cubs Annual and it’s amazing.  Great coverage of last year with an insightful look into the 2010 season.  All of the photos are in beautiful color and the stat breakdown of each player on the roster is detailed down to the finest percentage of performance.  It’s great to read a high quality observation and analysis of what the Cubs have been lately, what they could truly potentially be in 2010 and what the future holds with a breakdown of the hottest prospects in the Cubs organization.  Two things that really jump out at me right away is that it is as up to date as you can possibly get (the rosters are up to date and accurate…nothing bothers me more than a company that tries to get an annual out to early and for instance, still has Bradley as a Cub and no mention of Marlon Byrd)….the other thing that stands out is that it is 100% Cubs.  That may sound like an obvious observation, but take a trip to Borders or Barnes and Noble or browse on line for a while.  Try to find a preview to the upcoming season that doesn’t simply feed about five pages of Cubs info (that might not be up to date) in a program that runs about 150 pages long.  Hardly worth your money as a Cubs fan.  If you are looking for a truly efficient breakdown of what to expect going into this regular season, pick up a copy of the Maple Street Press’ Cubs Annual for 2010.  You certainly won’t be disappointed.

Hopefully we can say the same thing about our Cubs’ season come Fall and the games hit a point where they could REALLY mean something!  Go Cubs Go!  

2010 Cub Concerns: Head, Shoulders, Knees and ‘Tos

Head

Carlos Zambrano and Carlos Marmol.  A couple of Carloses (Carlosi?)  that we need to worry about in the head category, the mental game.  Zambrano had an awful ’09 by Big Z standards.  Every from Hendry down to Ronnie Woo Woo thinks this year is going to be potentially the biggest of his career. Piniella’s gone as far as saying that Z could hit the 20 win mark in 2010.  Zambrano’s going to have to keep his head straight and lay off the meltdowns if 20 wins is going to be anywhere near Z’s future this season.  He’s projected to once again start Opening Day for the Cubs, a position he’s been horribly unsuccesful in when it comes to which flag ends up flying for the Cubs at Wrigley after doing so.  From Opening Day right on through September, if we’re going to have a chance of picking up the games necessary to catch the Cards and make the postseason, Zambrano has to keep his head on straight and lead the way.  Be the ace we pay you to be Z.  Lead the way.
 
And set the example for another guy in the head/mental concern category for 2010.  This is finally what Marmol has been waiting for.  After spending years proving himself out of the bullpen as the set up guy, this year, he’s the man.  The owner of the job of Cubs’ closer.  After losing out two years ago in an audition and then only being given the chance to take over for an ineffective, season poisoning pitcher in Kevin Gregg he has now been given the role he’s coveted.  Let’s hope his head stays where we need it to be.  Focused on the task at hand day in and day out and not overwhelmed by achieving a goal he’s had his sights on for years.  Sometimes when we get where we want to be, it’s hard to maintain that momentum and it isn’t always what we thought it would be.  I have no doubt being the Cubs closer will be all Marmol feels it’s cracked up to be…I just hope he kicks off the season right in roughly a month from now and keeps up that momentum through all of 2010.
 
Shoulders
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  I’m a Lil’ worried about Ted Lilly.  He’s saying all the right things as is the organization.  He’s taking his time in getting back and no one expects him to be available come Opening Day.  Not only am I concerned about what we get in Ted when he does return, I’m concerned about what his absence does to our rotation.  Without Lilly as part of the Cubs’ five, we’re looking at Zambrano, Dempster, Wells and then two guys currently sharing the same name on the back of their jersey: TBD.  That doesn’t exactly bode well no matter how much Muskat wants to report that this is Samardzija’s year or that Gorzellany or Marshall or Silva may have enough to do their fair share while we wait for our most consistent pitcher to get back in pinstripes.  Ted Lilly’s shoulder needs to show up in 2010 at 100% because without Ted healthy, we have no shot at the playoffs this year.
 
Angel Guzman is another guy who has seen some down time recently due to soreness in his shoulder and the Cubs are going to look to him as potentially a strong part of the bullpen this year.  With Nady’s elbow working it’s way back through possibly new throwing mechanics from the outfield, you have to acknowledge that once you start throwing different than your body is used to, it could have a negative effect on other parts.  IE: his shoulder.  These three shoulders need to get healthy and be ready come Opening Day.
 
Knees
Really, the only knees I am extremely concerned about are those of our left fielder, Alfonso Soriano.  One day he is saying that he doesn’t feel his knee is where it needs to be considering how much time has passed since his surgery late last year.  Then the next day, suddenly, it’s not feeling so bad.  Well, which is it Sori?  Good?  Not so good?  Hopefully Piniella and the team doctors keep a real close eye on Alfonso this Spring.  The appropriate number of plate appearances to shake off that Winter dust is one thing.  Let’s not push him beyond that though.  He needs to be as healthy as possible to hold his own in the six hole this year and getting to any fly balls he can’t hop too or anything too far left of Byrd’s range in center.  Soriano’s contract is already putting a damper on financial flexibility.  His knees can’t suffer from any sort of damper in the flexibility category as well.
 
Tos
Our man Geo behind plate represents the ‘Tos for this rundown of concerns for ’10 heading into Spring Training.  If the Cubs were the cast of NBC’s The Biggest Loser, Soto’s off-season efforts would’ve taken home the grand prize.  40 pounds lighter and the desire to prove his sophomore slump was nothing but a fluke could spell an amazing 2010 for Soto!  A more serious attitude towards winning and staying in shape, less weed and perhaps less snacks led to Soto’s weight loss.  We need him in shape and turning that bat around on opposing pitchers’ fastballs quick like an athletic catcher and not our fat friend who we like so much we can’t tell him he can’t play, we just stick him behind the plate to play catcher so he doesn’t have to move too much.  From the time Soto saw folks at the Cubs Convention right through reports coming in from Spring Training, the word has been that Soto looks amazing and is going to bring it this year.  With the first games of Spring around the corner, I can’t wait to see what he looks like in action.
 
Lots of competition on the ball club this year in rounding out the bench and guys coming back from injuries and off years should make for a thrilling Spring Training.  Can’t wait to see Sori, Millar, Zambrano, Nady, Soto and what happens in the battle for second base.  
 
Spring Training is here as guys have started to report even earlier than necessary.  You have to love the ambition and commitment.  Add some health to the mix this year, and we could be talking Cubs baseball right into October in the present tense, not looking back like last year.
 
Wells to start the Cubs opener this Thursday against the A’s…Go Cubs Go!