Jay Cutler handles benching with the utmost professionalism

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
6:31
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Football players talk a lot about the importance of "tape."

Tape is where you find answers and tape is where you want to shine. In what might have been his last news conference at Halas Hall, Jay Cutler got some great stuff on tape.

For a guy known for a lack of composure on the field, he continued his impressive streak of keeping it together under duress off the field.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler and Jimmy Clausen
Joe Sargent/Getty ImagesJay Cutler admitted he did not take the news well when he was told he would be benched for Jimmy Clausen.
In his first comments since his surprise benching by coach Marc Trestman on Wednesday, Cutler impressed NFL people from coast to coast. He was self-effacing, respectful, funny and insightful in talking to local reporters, a group with which he has had an up-and-down relationship.

It was the second straight week in which he looked a lot more professional than Trestman, who has been reduced to a defensive, mournful soul who is likely seeing the end of his professional dream.

There are no winners in the Bears' situation, save for Jimmy Clausen, who gets his first start since 2010 this Sunday against the Detroit Lions. At 5-9, the Chicago Bears aren't just subpar, they're getting embarrassed on a weekly basis. Cutler has been part of the problem, and in this case, he's the scapegoat for the organizational dysfunction that has crippled the historic franchise.

Chicago is used to the Bears missing the playoffs, but we're in rare territory here as the Bears are operating like the Oakland Raiders.

While Cutler's reputation as a sourpuss has been solidified through years of televised grimacing, he has been very good with Chicago media this year in his podium appearances. He even joked about the now-famous miscommunication Monday night when he answered three questions in the postgame media room and left before reporters had scurried over from the locker room.

"Glad you guys could make it," he said. "I missed you after the game."

It figures this happens now. Cutler isn't going to win a Super Bowl in Chicago, but he won the room in Lake Forest. I can't speak for anyone else, but I found him sympathetic Thursday. If he's gone, he's going out, well, professionally.

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For Cubs, $155 million bet on Lester is an absolute must-win

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
7:58
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
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Jon LesterAP Photo/Paul Beaty"That's the biggest thing for us" with Jon Lester, Theo Epstein said -- "the comfort level."

CHICAGO -- For the rest of his career, Jon Lester's name will be synonymous with his contract.

As in, "Jon Lester, who signed a $155 million deal in 2014 ... "

When you're Lester, who agreed last week to a six-year, $155 million contract with the Chicago Cubs, that's what happens.

Poor guy, right? If we all had those kinds of problems on our shoulders. I'd take that kind of stress for several fewer zeroes.

But being the $155 million ace for the Cubs is real pressure, and there are outsize expectations that come with such a grandiose amount of money -- and those aren't imaginary. Being the face of the much-touted rebuilding process only adds more layers.

For all the talk about the "new" Cubs, the organization has made this season -- and the ensuing ones -- an all-or-nothing chase for a World Series, or, as Cubs president Theo Epstein put it Monday, "the single greatest pursuit left in sports." When you dump three seasons to build up from the studs, there is an expected payoff.

So Lester has to be a $155 million pitcher, a $20 million-plus-per-year pitcher. Some guys can't handle that. Some think they can, but they can't.

Lester, a serious man with a serious mien, doesn't seem to be worried.

"I played in Boston for eight years," he said at his introductory news conference at the Spiaggia restaurant on North Michigan Avenue on Monday afternoon. "I think I'm pretty prepared for a lot of things. You just have to accept it. I can't change it now. It's obviously next to my name, it'll always be next to my name, whether it's a good start or bad start. It's how I go about my work. I just have to believe I'm going to be prepared for every start, and that's all I can control."

Lester has won two World Series rings, but that's in the past. He's in Chicago now, where people expect the worst and always, always follow the money. But Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer go way back with Lester from their Boston days.

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
David Banks/Getty Images"I like to win," new Cubs ace Jon Lester said. "People who know me know I'm not very happy when we lose or I lose."
"There won't be any surprises," Epstein said. "That's the biggest thing for us, with the comfort level. Sooner or later, someone was going to have to put their trust in us, we were going to have to put our trust in someone. To do it with someone you know well, there won't be any surprises off the field, there won't be any surprises in the clubhouse, there won't be surprises on the field. He is who he says he is."

That's a sentence that stuck with me. He is who he says he is.

"I like to win," Lester said. "People who know me know I'm not very happy when we lose or I lose."

Lester said Epstein and Hoyer convinced him the Cubs were ready to win in 2015, which has been the new organizational mantra since the end of the 2014 season. I agree, if winning means 82 games. But I like the attitude, and if you want someone to project you're for real, Lester is the guy.

Lester said he enjoys talking to teammates about former teams. He talked to Jeff Samardzija in Oakland about the Cubs' ascent, and said Ryan Dempster, a former Boston teammate now working as special advisor to Epstein, gave it to him straight.

What did he ask Samardzija?

"If everything I was hearing was true, as far as about winning," he said. "Are these guys close? That was my question to Jeff. Are they close? Are they there?"

Obviously, Lester said, the answer was a good one.

When you ask Epstein about the lefty, he ticks off words like "serious" and "driven" to illustrate his character.

"He's at his best in the most important moments, I think because he's so driven and focused and not swayed by outside variables like pressure or tension, things of that nature," Epstein said.

But it's not just about character. No one signs a pitcher and calls him a flake or a doofus. It's about talent. Can Lester, who had a fantastic contract year for Boston and Oakland last season, maintain his level of performance through his 30s?

"He's really, really good," Epstein said. "Let's start with that as a baseline."

But he also will be 31 when he throws his first pitch as a Cub. The Cubs are in fantastic financial shape, with a slew of young, cost-controlled hitters with the team or in the minor leagues. Still, $155 million is $155 million.

Did I mention his deal is $155 million?

Throughout the past couple months, Epstein has described free-agency chases of this magnitude as a high-stakes game of poker, not for "the faint of heart." But as would any professional gambler, the Cubs crunched the numbers. They know the percentages and think they will work out in their favor.

Lester did his research, and so did the Cubs.

"Historically, nine-figure deals for starting pitchers in their 30s haven't worked out," Epstein said. "So you're looking for ways to make the best bet in an inherently risky endeavor. There are a lot of mitigating factors in there, but I'm not going to say it's without risk, because it's not without risk. Contracts like this always carry risk. Jon, we've been around him since he's 18. So I know exactly what shoulder program he's been on since he was 18. I know how well he's executed that shoulder program, how diligent he was. I know what his MRIs look like.

"He's left-handed, and left-handed pitchers tend to perform better throughout their contracts than right-handed pitchers," Epstein continued. "He's got the right kind of pitch mix that will allow him to age gracefully. He doesn't get hitters out just one way, especially now that his curveball is back in the mix, where he's working both sides of the plate. The cutter is a weapon that ages very well. If you look at Andy Pettitte, he aged extremely well through his 30s. He's a reasonable [comparison]. The second half of Jon Lester's career you want to look like Andy Pettitte."

When people talk about the next stage of using advanced analytics to predict performance, it's all about forecasting health, specifically pitching health.

"There's a lot of time and money spent to figure out a way to keep a pitcher 5 percent healthier," Epstein said. "That could mean tens of millions of dollars."

The Cubs made their bet on Lester staying healthy, and he made his bet on them being able to win. Is he the right man for the job? At $155 million, he better be.

Cutler-Kromer drama only adds to disastrous season

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
5:00
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- If only Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler performed on the field the way he did on the podium Friday.

In the wake of a blockbuster Chicago Tribune story detailing internal rifts and organizational dysfunction on the worst NFL team money can buy, Cutler was seemingly humble, forgiving and open -- no mumbling, good eye contact -- as he talked about the odd tale of his offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer ripping his play to an NFL Network reporter last week against Dallas and then apologizing for it.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Images/Nam Y. HuhJay Cutler has committed 21 turnovers for a floundering Bears offense.
Cutler looked the part of a franchise quarterback, even if most of us believe that performance was the one script Cutler could follow.

Kromer couldn’t have gone into this coaching gig -- a job that doesn’t involve calling the plays or coaching the quarterbacks, that’s Marc Trestman’s domain -- with expectations of a long, fulfilling relationship with Cutler. Even being optimistic, the life span of a Cutler coach ranks somewhere between fly and hamster.

But while Cutler has gotten a lot of coaches fired in his career, this was a rare self-immolation. Can a coach plead temporary insanity by reason of Cutler-itis?

As NFL Nation Bears reporter Michael C. Wright reported, his sources tell him Cutler isn’t happy with Kromer. You don’t need Deep Throat to figure that out. But he wasn’t listed on the injury report with “hurt feelings,” so I assume he’ll play his usual style of uneven, turnover-prone football Monday night against the Saints.

Imagine if every person who’s worked with Cutler had to kowtow about it? The receiving line would be like a mafia wedding in the movies. You think Chicago traffic is bad?

If I were Cutler, and man, do I wish I had his hair and his paycheck, I wouldn’t be happy about the situation either. He has enough on his plate without his coaches ripping him, anonymously or not. We can joke, but this train wreck of a season isn’t on him. He's part of the problem but not the Problem.

This season, 5-8 and going nowhere, is on general manager Phil Emery, Trestman, team president Ted Phillips and certainly on the head McCaskey, George. Yes, it’s the players who keep screwing up, but the people above them are the ones who share the bulk of the blame.

This unseemly situation epitomizes the 2014 Bears, a collaborative disaster in which the players don't listen and the coaches don't adjust, and no one is happy.

Kromer had to meet the media Friday, and it was sad to watch as he apologized before brushing off probing questions from an inquisitive media bunch. He was obviously instructed to keep a tight lid on his thoughts. It made him look weak and foolish, two words no one uses to describe Kromer, a widely respected coach who is now the talk of the NFL.

Fall guy, though, would fit him perfectly. I bet most folks in league circles can sympathize with him.

Let’s get this straight: An assistant coach talking anonymously to a reporter isn’t news. It’s not particularly smart to rip your own star player to a national reporter, especially when it’s the incendiary Cutler, who was signed to a now-ridiculous contract by the general manager. But it’s not some wild and outrageous act.

Anonymous coaches and scouts, not to mention players and agents, are how this league’s media, not to mention all of major college and professional sports’ media, get stories. You’re either naive or a media hypocrite if this offends you.

As Cutler said, the shock wasn’t that Kromer talked out of turn, it was that he apologized.

“I think we were all a little bit surprised,” he said. “I think not so much that it happened, but that he stepped in front of us and apologized; he was owning up to it. Because like I said, everyone has made mistakes and said things in the media and said things to other players in passing that we regret, but not many of us step up in front of everybody and apologize and own it the way he did. I think we left that meeting in a better place than we started.”

Without Kromer admitting to the faux pas, the only story was that someone in the Bears organization was credited for showing “buyer’s remorse” over Cutler’s deal. Even that’s not that big of a deal, considering Cutler’s 21 turnovers and the offense’s inability to score.

“There’s stuff floating around every day about a source here, a source there,” Cutler said in a cogent piece of media analysis. “You can’t get caught up in that kind of stuff. I guess to answer your question, if he wouldn’t have apologized, we’d be talking about the Saints today.”

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Lester signing brings ray of hope to Cubs

December, 10, 2014
Dec 10
12:24
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
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Jon LesterBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsWith Jon Lester now in tow, the Cubs can go into a season hopeful instead of hopeless.
CHICAGO -- We’re used to waking up to snow in December, but on Wednesday morning, Chicago Cubs fans woke up to a rare ray of sunshine.

In the toddlin’ hours, the Cubs and free agent pitcher Jon Lester agreed to a six-year, $155 million deal.

At the winter meetings in San Diego, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, “It's not often you get to win the lottery,” which makes me wonder if Maddon knows how the lottery works. They pay you, Joe.

[+] EnlargeTheo Epstein
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriAfter bottoming out, the Cubs are on the way up under Theo Epstein.


It’s Lester who won the lottery after turning down a $70 million offer from the Red Sox last season. He gets six years, with a vesting option for a seventh, and a reported $30 million signing bonus, which will be doled out over the life of the deal.

But yes, the Cubs won something this week: A better chance to win. Sure they won some respect too, but that isn’t worth the price of a shot and a beer in the Hazleton Way.

While his signing is symbolic, more importantly, Lester represents something tangible.

Lester, who turns 31 in January, is a proven No. 1 starter coming off a fantastic season. He’s not a savior, but rather a baseball missionary. He joins Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel at the top of the rotation, with second-year man Kyle Hendricks. There’s room for one more free-agent starter, if the Cubs desire.

The lineup is still maturing, as fans should expect hiccups from Jorge Soler and Javier Baez, but when Kris Bryant comes up it could become scary quickly with young power hitters.

The Cubs could use to add another veteran bat, a steady on-base guy, this offseason, but there aren't a lot of open spots.

While fans shouldn’t bank on the playoffs in 2015, for the first time since the 2009 season, the Cubs go into a season hopeful instead of hopeless. That means something to the players, let alone the fans.

With Maddon already on board and a wave of young hitters here or on the way, the Cubs no longer have to peddle vague aspirational jargon about sacred seasons and the “Cubs Way.”

Cubs president Theo Epstein can finally say, “Here’s our team. Here’s a real manager. Let’s have fun and win some games.”

Anthony Rizzo started the talk about making the playoffs in 2015 and Epstein echoed it. When he was introduced, Maddon continued the optimistic talk, and, for the first time in awhile, no one mocked it.

But even Maddon admitted that Lester’s signing enhances any message he gives in spring training.

"It definitely makes it more believable to everybody else in that room," he said. "I'll stand up and make the same speech regardless, but when you have it backed up by that particular kind of presence, it adds to it."

Don't worry about the money, the Cubs can afford it. Before arbitration-eligible players and pre-arb deals, the Cubs had less than $50 million in salaries on the books for next season. They stocked away money last season when they didn't land Masahiro Tanaka.

Even before a new TV deal is signed, the team is doing just fine. At least they should be.

It was a tough three years; OK, six years; OK, a century, to be a Cubs fan. After back-to-back playoff appearance, they lost in the traditional way. Then, on purpose.

Not all fans are content with watching minor league at-bats with their tongues wagging. Some just want to be entertained, especially when they’re paying for tickets.

The Cubs weren’t fun to watch.

The new front office, worshipped by some, understood that, and at times, empathized. One admitted to me last season that coming to the park to watch games was often difficult for them too. But they had a budget and a mission.

Wrigley Field won’t be rebuilt in a day and neither will the Cubs.

After bottoming out, payroll-wise, the Cubs finally had money to spend, and that’s what they’re doing. Epstein and Co.’s grand plan, with more than a bit of fortune sprinkled in, had them compile young hitters, who will remain cost-controlled for years, in order to pay free-agent pitchers market value.

Epstein likes to say “free agency is not for the faint of heart,” and Cubs fans who started at Twitter for two days would agree with him.

Epstein knew that landing Lester was no sure thing, and given how long it took for Lester to make a decision, it wasn't. At a Cubs season ticket holder dog-and-pony show this fall, Epstein hedged his bets to reporters, including myself, in his charming way.

“We’re going to have pursuits of players that become public and we’re not going to sign them and there are going to be columns written about how we failed and we have egg on our face and once again the Cubs can’t land their guy,” Epstein said. “Go ahead and write it now, that’s fine, I look forward to reading it and yours will be particularly funny.”

That last line was directed at me. Sorry to rob you of my witty bon mots, Theo.

Now, there are fewer reasons to laugh at the Cubs, but a lot of people are laughing with them.

It’s a long road from the bottom to the playoffs, but the Cubs are on their way.

Cubs strike deal to partner with Wintrust

December, 3, 2014
Dec 3
2:52
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
“Win” and “Trust” aren’t words typically associated with the Chicago Cubs, but in this case, they work perfectly.

On Wednesday, the Cubs and Wintrust Financial Corporation announced a deal that will put the logo of the team’s new “official banking partner” atop the new left field scoreboard this season.

Now that the well-publicized $375 million Wrigley Field renovation is underway, expect these deals to trickle out over the next few months.

Wintrust becomes the Cubs’ fifth “legacy partner,” joining Anheuser-Busch, ATI Physical Therapy, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, and Under Armour, according to a team news release. Wintrust made its Cubs debut on the team’s press conference backdrop for the Joe Maddon hiring last month, and when the renovation of Wrigley Field is complete, Gate D will be renamed “The Wintrust Gate.”

As part of the deal, the bank gets “a video board feature between innings at every Chicago Cubs home game,” or in English, a commercial.

“It was important for us to find a strong local player for our Financial Legacy Partner,” Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts said in the team’s release. “This Legacy Partnership pairs these two Chicago institutions for years to come, and we know our fans will support Wintrust’s role as a critical partner in helping the team achieve its goals of winning a World Series, saving Wrigley Field and being a good neighbor. Wintrust is a perfect fit for us.”

Translated: They paid us a lot of money.

The exact terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but Sports Business Journal writer Eric Fisher noted in a tweet the Cubs’ legacy partner deals have been for seven figures with “at least a decade commitment.” https://twitter.com/EricFisherSBJ/status/540220304740843521

As the Cubs sign sponsors and excavate the bleacher graveyard in left and right field, they’re still working on the fine print of their outfield signage. According to Crain’s Chicago Business, the Cubs are changing their plans. Again.

The Cubs are on the docket for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks meeting on Dec. 4, for “revisions to previously approved Master Rehabilitation Plan.” The Cubs are tinkering with the placement of outfield signs and videoboards in accordance with the U.S. National Park Service. The team is trying to get a federal tax credit worth up to $75 million, according to Crain's and other media reports.

Crain’s reported the Cubs are shrinking the size of their planned right-field videoboard and moving the left- and right-field videoboards 30 feet closer to the foul poles. They are also eliminating one planned sign out of the seven that were approved by the commission.

If Derrick Rose lets game speak for itself, that should be enough

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
7:42
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Derrick Rose played his best game of the season Monday, a clear confirmation that his high-level skills haven't left him through these past two tumultuous lost seasons. In fact, his game has matured.

Did you see that jump pass to Joakim Noah? How about that crossover and no-look dish to Pau Gasol in traffic? Or any number of drives to the rim, floaters in the lane, etc.?

[+] EnlargeRose
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesDerrick Rose admits he's being very careful with his health, not only for the season but for his life after basketball.
After scoring a season-high 24 points to go with seven assists in a season-high 32 minutes in the Chicago Bulls' win over the Detroit Pistons, Rose didn't speak to reporters. Fine enough, his game spoke for himself, especially after missing four of five games because of sprained ankles suffered in the home opener on Halloween. That one game he played, in between sitting some out, he was clearly laboring on bad wheels. In this one, he looked healthy.

And then Rose spoke Tuesday.

After noting he felt good, Rose admitted he was being careful about his body because he's worried about his body years down the road. It was a candid moment -- athletes own their bodies, like all of us -- but one that was clumsily communicated.

"I'm thinking about long term," he told reporters. "I'm thinking about after I'm done with basketball. Having graduations to go to, having meetings to go to, I don't want to be in my meetings all sore or be at my son's graduation all sore just because of something I did in the past. [I'm] just learning and being smart."

That quote sounds funny, because he's talking about mundane activities that probably wouldn't be affected by sore knees and ankles. Not to discount perfectly relatable fears about aging, he's not a linebacker worried about CTE.

And it was pilloried by some (defended by others) on Twitter and sports-talk radio. It was a good example of what several Bulls fans/bloggers refer to on Twitter as #DerrickRoseSaysStuff.

If you're going to follow Rose, as a fan or a critic, acknowledging DRSS as a fact of life is necessary.

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Joe Maddon brings culture change to Cubs

October, 31, 2014
Oct 31
4:27
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- After a week of silence, Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein had a lot to say. Or write.

On Friday afternoon, the Cubs sent out a 536-word press release, written by Epstein, explaining why the Cubs dumped current manager Rick Renteria to hire erstwhile Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon.

Judging by the reaction Epstein's prose got from his fanboys/girls, you’d think he just wrote the next Great American Novel. Of course, Epstein could fire his closest supporters in a letter and they’d still love him the same. The Cult of Theo is something, man.

[+] EnlargeTheo Epstein
AP Photo/Matt YorkTheo Epstein wants to bring a winner to Chicago, and the aggressive move to hire Joe Maddon could mean that time comes sooner rather than later.
As Epstein has joked numerous times, hopefully he’ll do something to really deserve those cheers, virtual or otherwise. And by that, he means run a playoff baseball team. I think that's coming sooner rather than later.

Judging by this aggressive move -- which was finalized later in the afternoon when the Cubs announced they would introduce Maddon as the 54th manager in team history on Monday -- the Cubs really do plan on winning games next year. They plan on mattering, and not just to the people who run top prospect lists.

Cubs fans should be excited about the future, and especially Maddon's hire. He's a culture changer, and there aren't a lot of those around professional sports.

His introductory press conference will be must-watch TV. I still remember Epstein’s introduction, when one columnist asked why such a good-looking smart guy went into baseball (!!!). Joe’s got a John Slattery thing going on, which fits with the “Maddon Men” theme.

As for this winter, most expect the Cubs to make a run at one high-priced pitcher and perhaps even catcher Russell Martin, who will be a major player in free agency.

All of a sudden, the Cubs are for real and well-positioned into the future with cost-controlled hitters.

As for this move, the breakdown of events, at least by Epstein’s perspective, was refreshing, I suppose. All he really needed was the headline: Cubs Fire Manager Rick Renteria.

In the letter, Epstein set the record straight about how the team carefully, and personally, told Renteria they think very highly of him, just not as highly as they think of Maddon.

As for the timeline of events, Epstein wrote that Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer visited with Renteria on Friday in California to keep him abreast that they were pursuing someone better in Maddon. They continued calling him. What did they say? "Things are great with Joe! He really makes us happy. We'll send the divorce papers soon."

While neither side commented as the World Series finished up, Renteria’s agent released a statement to a couple reporters on Monday that read, in part: “I continue to focus my offseason preparation on achieving the goal we established from the start: bringing a championship to Chicago.”

Epstein and Hoyer were doing the same thing, apparently. But it involves Maddon managing the team, not Renteria.

Let’s be clear. The Cubs absolutely made the right move in dumping Renteria for Maddon, who by all accounts is everything you want in a manager. Maddon knows how to manage disparate personalities, he understands how to use analytics in game situations and he can manage a game, which gets rightfully downplayed, but is still important. Renteria was a work in progress.

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Derrick Rose laces up for regular season

October, 25, 2014
Oct 25
10:35
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Derrick RoseCourtesy of AdidasWith Derrick Rose coming off another lost season, the hype for his latest shoe has been toned down.

CHICAGO -- At a downtown shoe store Saturday, Derrick Rose held his newest signature shoe, the D Rose 5 Boost, up for the cameras.

This season, he plans on wearing it, too.

After playing 10 games over the previous two seasons thanks to two different knee injuries, the Chicago Bulls star is raring to go for his second comeback season. Third, if you count the season he wound up missing.

No need to hype this "Return."

The Bulls finished a 4-4 preseason with a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday in St. Louis. They are set to open Wednesday against the Knicks in New York, then to return to Chicago for a much-awaited home opener against LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers.

While the Bulls lost their final two preseason games, Rose was better than ever, scoring 57 points on 58.5 percent shooting, hitting 7 of his 12 3-point tries.

Rose was on a minutes watch for most of the eight-game preseason slate and didn’t crack the 22-minute mark until the sixth game. In his final three games, he averaged just under 25 points in 28 minutes per. His speed is definitely still there, and his skill at getting to the rim seems intact. Even his jumper, which was missing during the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain, looked steady.

“I think the whole preseason I’ve been switching up my gears,” he said. “I haven’t been playing at one pace the entire time. You see little bursts of speed here and there. You don’t get a steady diet of it. I’ve been trying to use little things in my offensive game, floaters, using the backboard on my floaters, hitting my jump shots. Just using little things to keep them off balance.”

Rose started his Saturday at an event at the Adidas store in Water Tower Place for kids from After School Matters, a charity that supports after-school activities for Chicago teenagers. Rose donated $1 million to it this fall. He spoke to 20 kids, sharing life lessons and taking questions for almost an hour.

Then he trekked to a Foot Locker store, where fans camped out to meet Rose and get his newest shoes. The first 50 got to meet him.

Three years ago, he released his first signature shoe at this store during the NBA lockout. Back then, he was the defending MVP.

The next two years saw massive, glitzy Adidas events, including the now-derided hype campaign for "The Return" in 2012. The hype was toned down a bit this time around, and the result was a more organic, natural feel. That's Rose's appeal. He's a local kid made good.

“You come out here and you got people standing outside wearing your stuff, it kind of freaks you out a little bit,” Rose said.

There was a host of Adidas employees in town for the event, and, like Bulls employees, all are hopeful that Rose is finally healthy. It's tough to sell the signature shoe of a player in a suit and tie. His shoes are selling quite well overseas, and as the line snaking around Foot Locker showed, fans in Chicago still believe in him.

As for the rest of the basketball world, after two missed years, and three lost postseasons, no one is quite sure where Rose, now 26, stands in the NBA firmament.

One recent example: Rose was ranked No. 28 in ESPN.com’s collaborative TrueHoop rankings, or one spot lower than Suns guard Goran Dragic, the victim in a classic Rose dunk from yesteryear.

“I mean, I hear about the rankings here and there,” Rose said. “But I know where I am with my game. I know I’m not a top-30 player, I know I’m much higher. But everyone has their own opinions, so I can’t get mad.”

Statues relocated during construction

October, 1, 2014
Oct 1
1:19
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- It was Moving Day at Wrigley Field on Wednesday.

For the statues, anyway.

While two of their division foes prepare for the postseason, the Chicago Cubs are embarking on construction season on their $375 million ballpark renovation. On Wednesday, they chiseled out the Ernie Banks statue at the corner of Clark and Addison and the Harry Caray statue by the bleachers and moved them to Michigan for restoration work.

[+] EnlargeErnie Banks
Jon Greenberg/ESPNA statue of Ernie Banks was removed for restoration work in advance of construction beginning at Wrigley Field.
No, they’re not putting a Kris Bryant statue in Banks’ spot.

The Banks statue will be placed in a temporary spot next year until the open-air plaza is complete in 2016, according to a team release, while the Caray statue should be back up outside the renovated bleachers near the corner of Sheffield and Waveland next season.

Along with the restoration work, both statues are getting new bases while the Cubs begin Phase 1 of a four-phase construction project that will last at least the next four offseasons.

Phase 1 will focus on the complete teardown of the left field and right field bleachers, culminating in the introduction of a 4,000-square foot videoboard in left field, a giant Budweiser sign in right and potentially five more signs in the outfield. The bleachers will be restructured underneath the seating areas, and will add a new left-field party patio and adjoining smaller videoboard, similar to the one currently below the right-field party patio.

But Phase 1 will also include the digging and construction of an underground clubhouse below current parking lots abutting Clark St. and Waveland Ave.. and structural work in the left field main concourse as the Cubs reinforce and improve the 100-year-old stadium for its facelift.

It was warm and sunny as construction workers put up fencing under the landmark-protected Wrigley marquee, but the Cubs know the weather will soon turn during their six-month timeline.

“It’s a difficult project,” Cubs vice president of communications and community affairs Julian Green said. “Keep in mind this is one of the most unique projects in all of sports.”

Green said there are some natural concerns about winter weather affecting the project, and he sent out a flare that the Cubs need the various city agencies involved in this project to move quickly on permits and other red tape so the Cubs can open for business in April.

“We have 26 weeks,” Green said. “It’s a very aggressive schedule. Notwithstanding the weather issues, it’s dealing with the city of Chicago with permits. We’re talking to the landmark commission today about how we take the ivy off the wall, how it’s stored and how we take off the bricks. Things like that can trigger delays. It’s important for us to have a good working relationship with the city of Chicago, whether it’s the building commission or (permit department). We want to make sure they’re being responsive to our needs as well, because that can potentially impact this project. Again, this is 26 weeks.”

Green said he thinks the city will be responsive to the Cubs’ needs, and that the team has hosted the Commission on Chicago Landmarks board members for tours of the pre-construction project.

Typically, Green said it takes about two weeks to clean up the construction zones and prepare all the wiring, pipes, etc. for the work, but the team is “accelerating that timeline” to get the bleacher work started.

“When this ballpark opens, we have to be able to accept fans,” he said. “It’s difficult to accept fans in a construction zone.”

The team is working on an official groundbreaking ceremony with Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the next couple weeks.

“We plan to hopefully have a really big celebratory event because we know the fans and Wrigley Field deserves it,” Green said. “We want to have a good showing once we have shovels in the ground.”

Competitive team good for Cubs on and off field

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
3:36
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, the architect of Chicago's greatest rebuilding project since the Great Fire, is understandably very optimistic on the team's long-term future, as he explained once again in a news conference Tuesday.

But he's also excited for next year, and not just for another top 10 pick in the amateur draft.

With young talent maturing and some already reaching the majors, Epstein believes the Cubs' goal is to win in 2015, which differs greatly from the past three rebuilding seasons: Lose enough to get a top 10 draft pick and build up the farm system with depth.

[+] EnlargeTom Ricketts, Theo Epstein
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriTheo Epstein's goal of going for a division title in 2015 would seemingly do wonders for Tom Ricketts' bottom line.
That plan seems to have worked quite well. The Cubs' farm system is very highly regarded and fans in Chicago are starting to see the fruit of the front office's labor. The idea is that the Cubs will add some free-agent pitching and a few veteran hitters this offseason.

If the Cubs can be competitive next season, that would be great news for the team's bottom line, as TV ratings and attendance pale in comparison to the team's glory days in 2007-08. Money lost in declining attendance has hurt the team's rebuilding efforts.

And as the Cubs try to lock up a TV deal for around 70 games in 2015, their final 2014 cable ratings are in and they are bad.

Sports Business Journal put out its annual list of regional sports network baseball ratings (numbers from Nielsen) and the Cubs had the fifth-worst average rating in baseball with a 1.50 on CSN Chicago, down 6 percent from last year.

The end of the season showed a slight increase in ratings as young hitters Javier Baez and Jorge Soler came up. Through the first week of July, when the Jeff Samardzija deal went down, the Cubs were averaging a 1.48 rating/52,000 homes, according to SBJ and Nielsen.

Why are ratings important for the Cubs? They're trying to increase revenue in every way as the Ricketts family embarks on a self-financed $375 million renovation of Wrigley Field. They need to show cable distributors and advertisers that this is a viable product now, and not just in the future.

Epstein didn't sound too optimistic about getting his share of a bump in TV revenue before the Comcast Sports Net Chicago deal expires after the 2019 season. The WGN portion of the TV deal expired this season and the Cubs are reportedly still shopping those games.

As for attendance, the Cubs sold 2,652,113 tickets to Wrigley Field (an average of 32,742). It was their first increase in attendance since 2008, when they set a club record with 3,300,200 fans. While the Cubs added 9,431 tickets sold this season, compared to last, most of that came on the last game of the season. This year, the Cubs sold 7,121 more tickets to their home finale against the Cardinals than in 2013 against the Pirates.

On the South Side, the Paul Konerko Farewell Tour didn't quite rally a flagging fan base.

The White Sox finished with the third-worst average rating, 1.15, actually up 4 percent and ahead of only the Dodgers and Astros, both of whom have severe distribution problems that limit their games in their market.

Sox ratings fell after the first week of July, when the team had a 1.39 rating/49,000 homes.

White Sox attendance plummeted to an average of 20,896, and 1,650,821 total. It was their worst attendance numbers since 1999. While the league attendance average was just more than 30,000 tickets sold, the White Sox drew crowds of more than 30,000 just six times: Opening Day, two Yankees games, the July 4 game and Konerko's last two home games.

Kris Bryant will be worth wait for Cubs

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
12:23
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Kris BryantGregg Forwerck/Getty ImagesKris Bryant added Cubs Minor League Player of the Year to his rapidly growing list of accolades.
CHICAGO -- The newest Baseball America was piled up on the Chicago Cubs' clubhouse table Wednesday afternoon. The face on the front is a familiar one, Kris Bryant, the publication's biggest crush and its obvious Minor League Player of the Year.

Bryant's name has probably been uttered by reporters as much as any actual Cub this season as he put together a season for the ages in Double-A and Triple-A. For an organization laser-focused on the future, Bryant's promise is as important as the videoboard going up in left field.

On Wednesday, Bryant finally showed up in the flesh at Wrigley Field, months after Javier Baez electrified a wan fanbase with big swings and big misses, weeks after Jorge Soler one-upped Baez with a power-packed, all-around game.

Alas, Bryant wasn't in uniform. Well, he was, but it was the uniform of a minor leaguer on the rise: jagged hair, ballplayer jeans, a young face. Typically, a teammate said, he dresses in head-to-toe Adidas gear because he's got a sponsorship deal.

As reporters talked to Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year Jen-Ho Tseng, Bryant walked down to the field with an entourage that included the Cubs' Big Three -- Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod -- his girlfriend and his father.

Bryant

I've talked more about him than myself since I've been up here. But I get it. That guy's a superstar, or he's going to be.

-- Cubs' Logan Watkins on Kris Bryant
Bryant was at Wrigley to accept the organization's minor league hitter of the year award, another signpost honor that means absolutely nothing the day Bryant comes to the Cubs for real.

The 22-year-old Bryant hit .325/.438/.661 with 43 homers in 138 games between Tennessee and Iowa. It's an awe-inspiring season for anyone, but in the grand scheme of things, it just supported what the Cubs already knew: He's a monster.

Bryant said he hasn't paid attention to his numbers since high school, calling batting average "the devil."

Bryant won just about every award there is to win in the past two years: The Dick Howser, the Golden Spikes, Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year, USA Today Minor League Player of the Year. If the Cubs keep him stashed in Des Moines, he could probably take the 2016 Iowa Caucus.

But all of those honors are ephemeral. They make parents weepy, and agents and farm directors rich, but Bryant's goal isn't to win minor acclaim and earn fawning Twitter followers.

"With the awards, I kind of just throw them in my room," Bryant said. "They're not something I can hold onto. They're just a piece of hardware."

Bryant's season ended in Triple-A, the product of baseball's convoluted rules that limit a player's earning potential. He should've been up here getting his feet wet in the majors with Baez and Soler. But, the baseball reporters say, he might have to start next season in the minors so he's up fewer than the 172 days that would make it a full season of experience.

The Cubs will say he needs to work on playing outfield or polishing his play at third. It's a process, as they say.

Given the Cubs' constant bragging about how how much money they're going to have in the coming years, it's eye-rolling to think about this team worrying about player control (i.e. money) in a time when Tom Ricketts will have his Scrooge McDuck vault of money, but that's how baseball works. A year trumps a month. It makes sense.

Bryant said it was "bittersweet" to come to Wrigley as a fan, though he allowed the novelty was kind of cool. I asked him if he was "envious" of his teammates.

"I don't think that's the right word," Bryant said. "I'm definitely happy for 'em, but at the same time, you want to be in their shoes someday, and I sure hope that day comes soon. But we're all in this together. We all want to win a World Series."

Ah, the World Series talk. If I were Epstein, I'd ban those two words until the Cubs win the National League Championship Series. The pressure can be too much. In 2008, Cubs players talked openly about playing in the Series, how good it would feel to win in Chicago, and the pressure crushed them in the divisional round.

But hey, you've got to have goals, right?

The dour mood around Wrigley has definitely shifted (except for the part-time employees getting hours cut with no explanation) after two-plus years of thumb-twiddling as fans and Cubs players waited for the prospects to develop. There's a dissonance to the plan, one that the beloved baseball executives understand. They know the on-field product is overpriced and at times embarrassing, and they know their plan is going to pay dividends as soon as next year when, as one executive put it, the Cubs probably won't be contenders, but they'll be fun to watch.

Of course, that organizational attitude bothers some players. Why wouldn't it? There were Cubs scratching their heads at Kyle Schwarber's visit to Wrigley overshadowing Jake Arrieta's one-hit shutout on the front page of a local paper.

Bryant said he gets occasional texts from his buddy Logan Watkins about the preponderance of questions he gets in Chicago about Bryant.

"I've talked more about him than myself since I've been up here," Watkins said. "But I get it. That guy's a superstar, or he's going to be."

Watkins said it's not just media. His friends and family ask what it's like to play with him.

"Even in Iowa, it was, 'What's it like playing with Javy and Kris Bryant?' 'It's great, I mean, but we still play the game, too,'" he said with a chuckle.

This happened in 2012 when Anthony Rizzo was tearing up Triple-A. When Rizzo arrived, Reed Johnson joked he was going to stand by him all game so everyone knows he's "still in the league."

"If you ever want to get on TV, just stand by Kris Bryant," Watkins said.

While the players will try to bust up Bryant in the clubhouse, they wanted him up here yesterday. That's why Rizzo has been so outspoken about pushing prospects. Of course, that's why Rizzo has bosses who know baseball, too.

The actual Cubs, especially the ones with futures here, are more sick of hearing about tomorrow than the season-ticket holders and beat writers.

"I get why everyone's so excited, we're just as excited to play with him up here," Watkins said.

Bryant is polished off the field, as well; a baseball junkie with a focused, involved dad, Mike, an ex-minor leaguer himself, who talks about "micromanaging" Bryant's at-bats to find out precisely how he's being pitched.

If you're worried about a hyped prospect failing, don't. This guy's different. Cubs execs say he's the most polished prospect they've ever seen. Watkins said Bryant is unflappable.

"He's such a good kid, he just wears it when we give him [stuff] all the time," he said. "He smiles and laughs it off."

It'll be interesting to see the reaction if and when the Cubs start Bryant in the minors after spring training. He's obviously ready, and Chicago is ready for him.

Wait 'til next May?

Conte done in by Jackson's stiff-arm

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
6:04
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- Before the season opener, Chicago Bears strong safety Chris Conte said he didn’t expect a friendly reception from Bears fans at Soldier Field.

“I don’t plan on having a lot of support [from the fans]. That’s for sure,” Conte said after getting medically cleared from a concussion suffered in the third preseason game. “But I’m going to go out there and play football. That’s what my job is, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

The last time Conte played at Soldier Field, he was center stage in a mishap that cost the Bears a win over Green Bay and a subsequent trip to the playoffs.

Suffice to say, you don’t see a lot of No. 47 jerseys at Soldier Field.

For his grand return, the Bears' strong safety was almost a hero, a first-week redemption story. Almost.

Instead he wound up the GIF’d goat of a 23-20 overtime loss to the Buffalo Bills, the bumbling, stumbling effort of a terrible opening loss. Most of the blame should go on the offense for turning the ball over three times, but the defense, the scourge of last year's season, still gave up 193 rushing yards.

Conte had a game-changing interception in the third quarter which led to a game-tying touchdown, but in the end, he’ll be remembered more for a game-defining trucking by Old Man Fred Jackson in overtime.

The video will be watched over and over again, especially by Bills fans, but there Conte was, getting stiff-armed, not once but twice, by the Bills’ Fred Jackson, stumbling, bumbling, falling as Jackson set up the game-winning field goal.

The NFL’s official Twitter account even posted a video with the words: “MUST SEE: Fred Jackson stiff-arms Chris Conte into oblivion.”

Here’s what happened:

On 2nd-and-5 from the Bears’ 39, Jackson burst through a gaping hole at the line of scrimmage. Lance Briggs shot through a gap in the middle of the line, getting nothing but air as Jackson went left. Jackson had plenty of space as linemen Jared Allen and Stephen Paea got blocked and Charles Tillman got sealed by receiver Mike Williams.

Conte caught up to Jackson at the 20-yard line where Jackson sent him backpedaling with a stiff arm. Conte tried to recover, but Jackson then sent him tumbling to the ground before being pushed out at the 1.

“It was a play where it’s the end of the game -- I’ve got to get the ball out or something,” Conte said. “If I hit him, it’s a field goal no matter what, so I’ve got to try and get the ball out. It’s a desperation play where I’ve got to try and punch the ball or something.”

Very true. But if you watch the video Conte didn’t come to close to swiping at the ball. He came in high around the helmet, and Jackson, a 33-year-old vet, took advantage. Maybe Conte was just trying to slow down Jackson before he went for the ball punch. No matter. Jackson made him pay with his old-man strength.

“It’s one of those things I pride myself on, is my ability to stiff-arm guys,” Jackson said. “He came up high and I knew I would have an opportunity to do so.”

Bills quarterback E.J. Manuel, who was signaling touchdown as Jackson broke free down the left sideline, said he had only witnessed a stiff arm like that in “NFL Blitz,” the old video game, never in the “real world.”

After offseason shoulder surgery, Conte played only one game of the preseason, in Seattle, getting a concussion for his troubles. He was cleared for the game Thursday and started despite his lack of preseason reps. The Bears rotated in safety Danny McCray in the first half, but Conte played all of the second in which the Bears held Buffalo to two field goals.

How did Conte play? He didn’t get challenged much, mostly lining up deep in the secondary. But his interception showed the value that kept him on this team during a defensive makeover.

On 3rd-and-2 from the Bills’ 48 midway through the third quarter, Conte perfectly read a sideline pass to Marquise Goodwin, stepping in front of him for the interception. Conte spread his arms and “flew” in celebration. Five plays later, the Bears scored on an 11-yard Brandon Marshall touchdown catch on the next drive, tying the game at 17-all.

“I felt good,” Conte said. “Just feels good to make a play and have a bunch fans cheering for you. It’s been awhile. I was excited so I kept running. But I probably shouldn’t run too far because I need to save energy.”

In the first quarter, Conte chased down Robert Woods after the wideout burned Tim Jennings down the sideline for a 32-yard gain to the Bears’ 19. Five plays later, the Bills tied the game at 7. The Bears wouldn’t lead again.

As the last line of what still might be a bad defense, expect Conte to be in the wrong place at the wrong time multiple times a game.

Like late in the second quarter, when the front seven let reserve running back Anthony Dixon gain a head of steam through the middle. About 10 yards in, Conte tried to get his legs, to no avail, as the 233-pound Dixon rumbled for a 47-yard gain.

As is the wont of some veteran Bears, Tillman blamed the media for Conte’s troubles in perception.

After the game, a reporter threw the cornerback a softball question about being happy for Conte’s interception that set up a game-tying touchdown and Tillman swatted it away:

“I knew it was coming,” Tillman said, slightly chuckling to himself. “Naw, he’s a great player, he’s a good player and a great player. That’s you guys, that’s y’all’s fault. Y’all do that. Y’all do a terrible job trying to play that question. He’s a good player. I think you guys just pick on him.”

The media, Fred Jackson and the NFL’s Twitter account, I guess.

Lance Briggs kicks off season with BBQ

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
1:30
AM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Thank you, Lance.

We needed a story to get the juices flowing. We needed a starting point to kick off another Bears season that will, no doubt, keep us entertained through the next four or five months.

And you, Lance Briggs, veteran linebacker and barbecue fan, gave Chicago the go-ahead to start our polemicizing.

As diversions go, I give “Lance Briggs’ Day Off” four stars.



This dark comedy about a man driven west to help christen a barbecue joint adjacent to a bowling alley had a little bit of everything to keep me entertained when it debuted Monday afternoon and caught fire Tuesday.

An excused absence from a Monday practice? Check.

A vanity restaurant with a sports theme? Check.

A drummed-up controversy because there’s nothing to talk about yet? Check.

I don’t just like this story; I love it. I don’t think Briggs' missing a practice will harm his play against the Bills this Sunday. I just think the story is kind of funny. Maybe I can envision Briggs chowing down on some ribs with a funny bib on and a “What, me worry?” grin on his face. Maybe I like saying "Double Nickel Smokehouse."

I’m half-tempted to drive the two hours or so to the Double Nickel in Elk Grove, California, next week when I’m out West covering the Bears at the Santa Clara 49ers. Anyone want a Double Nickel hat?

Briggs, whom I'm sure will be delighted to talk to reporters about this story, owns 20 percent of the restaurant, according to a Sacramento Bee article. His childhood friend, Cameron Lee, owns the majority stake. At first, I figured this was going to be a money pit for Briggs, but after reading about the idea, it sounds like a quality investment for his hometown. A feel-good story with “fall off the bone” ribs and a side of grits.

On one hand, if anyone can get a little leeway, you’d think it would be Briggs, an 11-year veteran and Pro Bowler, one of the last vestiges of the glory days of the Lovie Smith defense.

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Then again, Briggs is also the guy who crashed his Lambo on the highway. The guy seemingly always asking for raises. Last season, he missed time with injury, and instead of seeming like a sturdy veteran, it was almost as if he were an unhappy relic of another time.

Is he the veteran leader or just a guy on his way out in the cruel, cruel world of the NFL?

We won't know until the season begins, but it's not hard to see why this story caught fire in Chicago.

Like all viral stories nowadays, this was spread by social media. Briggs tweeted about the restaurant opening, while his coach, Marc Trestman, told reporters he was absent from a light practice for “personal reasons.” It was exacerbated by a near-universal pessimism about this defense, of which he's the glowering face.

Last year’s injury-plagued disaster is still fresh in our collective mind, and no one is too confident this defense is going to be any good. It’ll be better, only because it can’t be worse.

Although I can see why it sparked a debate -- who skips practice the first week of the season? -- the fact that people were legitimately arguing about Briggs skipping a Monday practice in order to attend the opening of “his” restaurant perfectly epitomizes the importance of the Bears in Chicago.

For a sportswriter, this is a good thing. The Bears are a cash cow for a reason. In a city rife with segregation and corruption, we can all find unity in taking the Bears way too seriously. That’s why reporters outnumber players in the Halas Hall locker room on the weekdays of a season: Gotta talk to the second-string "three technique!"

Last season, I was chatting with Landon Cohen about bars we enjoyed in our respective college days in Athens, Ohio, when a herd of reporters saw me and ran over to his locker. Who needed B-roll of Landon Cohen? Chicago did.

After all this, one thing's for sure: I'm hungry for some barbecue and some Bears football.

Chicago comes together to celebrate JRW

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
1:32
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Jackie Robinson WestAP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastChicago fans packed Millenium Park on Wednesday to celebrate U.S. Little League World Series Champions Jackie Robinson West. The event started on the South Side and included a parade to the park.
Chicago looked like a championship town Wednesday.

From the far South Side to Millennium Park, the city united to celebrate the amazing accomplishments of the 13-member Jackie Robinson West all-star team. Trolleys carried the team from its home park in Washington Heights through a buoyant South Side to its very own downtown rally, complete with celebrities and thousands of joyous fans.

All of the local networks went to live coverage of this event, with reporters interviewing third cousins, aunts, cousins and joyful South Siders just proud of this group of 11- and 12-year-old All-Stars who captivated a city and country as they won the United States bracket of of the Little League World Series.

“There is something so sweet and grassroots about all of this, an ABC 7 anchor said.

So true.

An all-black team from Chicago’s South Side is the best Little League team in the United States. And it’s very cool how this city responded with pure love. From the famous to the anonymous, a major American city rallied behind a group of pre-teens. I was awed by the absolutely packed crowd at Millennium Park as I watched.

(Read full post)

Jackie Robinson West kids prove 'role models' for city of Chicago

August, 24, 2014
Aug 24
9:48
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
video

CHICAGO -- It was the bottom of the third and the bases were loaded for Jackie Robinson West. Joe Melone clasped his hands in prayer as he stared at the giant video screen high above the street.

Melone, a 43-year-old police detective in Cicero, has no ties to the young players from the Jackie Robinson West All-Star team, but there he was sitting in the middle of State St. wearing a Chicago White Sox jersey with a camouflage White Sox hat praying for a Little League miracle.

“I’m just into the game,” said Melone, who played against a teenage Wes Chamberlain when the ex-big leaguer played for a JRW All-Star team. “I’ve been following these guys since the regionals.”

There would be no miracles in the Little League World Series championship game for the group of South Side boys who took this city -- and country -- by storm the past two weeks. They rallied in the sixth, but ultimately lost to a better team in South Korea 8-4.

[+] EnlargeGreat Lakes Team
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesJackie Robinson West will be welcomed back to Chicago with a parade on Wednesday, and even more fireworks.
After the final out, Queen’s “We Are the Champions” wafted through the air downtown. Not only did the Jackie Robinson West kids win the United States bracket, they won a city’s attention and devotion.

There is no question this team has proved to be Chicago’s most compelling baseball team this summer.

Frankly, this is Chicago’s best baseball team since 2008, back when the JRW kids were, what, 6? These kids were barely walking when the Chicago Cubs blew it in 2003.

It became a running joke how JRW clobbered the Cubs and White Sox in TV ratings the past two weeks. There is a novelty factor, but JRW also played a fundamentally sound, aesthetically pleasing style.

“I wish the Sox had a relief pitcher like [Josh] Houston,” Melone said.

Houston, D.J. Butler, Pierce Jones, Trey Hondras. We came to know these kids, if only through the television.

We’ll get into the “big meaning” of this team’s championship game run, but let’s be honest: These kids were just fun to watch. Baseball is entertainment, and they were entertaining.

There’s a reason Little League baseball, or for that matter, the spelling bee, does great ratings. We can all tap into the memory of playing as children. Instead of watching with anger or envy, fretting about Super-2 status and bloated contracts, you can just watch.

(Read full post)

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