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)

Mini-Ditkas: Da Coach unveils kids' T-shirts

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
9:00
AM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- On a warm, late, summer night Tuesday, Peek Kids, a friendly children's boutique in the Bucktown neighborhood, was packed to capacity as a special visitor sat by the front window, hunched over a table with a pen in his hand. Natalie Merchant's "Carnival" played as children munched cookies and popcorn.

Starting at 6 p.m. sharp, Mike Ditka arrived at the store, plopped down in a large brown leather chair and did the two things he does best: be Grandpa Ditka, Chicago's football ambassador, and push Ditka-related merchandise, in this case, $34 kids' T-shirts.

[+] EnlargeMike Ditka
Courtesy Jon GreenbergMike Ditka signed autographs Tuesday at Peek Kids, a children's boutique in Chicago.
Mini-Ditkas, indeed.

When Ditka got to Peek, the line stretched to the back of the store, where "stadium snacks" were served. Parents and children waited patiently for an autograph, some small talk and a picture.

"I'm not going to bite, but I might punch you," Ditka said to one little boy.

"Look at you," he said to a little girl in pigtails. "You're going to be a heartbreaker."

As every member of the 1985 Bears likes to joke, until the Bears win another Super Bowl, that team will always have lines waiting to meet and greet them, and companies willing to pay them for the association to past greatness.

For Ditka, his annual busy season is upon him.

"If I wasn't doing this, I'd be sleeping, because that's what I do," Ditka said. "I'm a professional sleeper."

In between paid speeches, ESPN TV duties, radio appearances, promotional spots, and visiting his restaurants in Chicago and suburban Pittsburgh, of course.

Ditka's appearance came hours after some controversial (in my opinion, tone deaf, but expected) quotes were released about the Washington Redskins name debate. But those opinions won't slow his popularity in Chicago.

Wearing a short-sleeve, black Tommy Bahama shirt, sunglasses and his trademark slicked-back pompadour, Da Coach signed footballs, posters and T-shirts in a special in-store appearance to celebrate the San Francisco-based Peek's new Ditka-inspired shirt line, which is only available in Chicago.

Peek is big on inspirational quote shirts, with Ditka and Vince Lombardi joining the likes of Thomas Edison and Ben Franklin.

"We're known for our graphic tees with positive messages for kids, so this just fit perfectly," Peek director of marketing Marideth Post said.

The two shirts contained inspirational quotes attributed to Ditka: "Before you win, you have to believe you are worthy," and, "You never really lose until you quit trying."

Some of Ditka's most famous barbs, such as, "See that? That's your IQ, buddy! Zero!" or, "Those who live in the past are cowards and losers," weren't considered "positive messages of empowerment."

"Well, I think you got to watch some of the quotes, some of them might be censored," Ditka said.

Needless to say, there were no kids boutiques in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, where Iron Mike grew up.

"We had a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, and it lasted about two years," Ditka said.

While Peek produced the shirts, this partnership was brokered by Ditka's daughter-in-law Stacy, who was an early customer at Peek's first Chicagoland store in Northbrook. She founded DitkaKids.com, which carries, naturally, Ditka clothes for kids. That business has been around for more than two years.

"He loves his grandkids so much, so he was all over this," Stacy Ditka said.

A recent story in Crain's Chicago outlined Ditka's many endorsement deals, but he scoffed at the idea that he's overexposed with sponsorships.

"That's a little overdone, that was exaggerated," he said. "I've been the luckiest guy in the world. I don't go out seeking all this stuff, people come to me. I'm never going to get rich off it, but it doesn't matter. If it helps sell the product, I'm glad to do it."

Even Ditka is a little amazed at the public's fascination with him. But he takes every picture.

"It's a little bit of how I can give back," Ditka said. "If they like it, fine. I don't understand it myself, but if they like it, it's OK with me."

Seven points? Rose's return all that matters

August, 17, 2014
Aug 17
12:13
AM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive


CHICAGO -- The fans got what they came for Saturday night: Chicago native Anthony Davis tearing the roof off the joint.

OK, I'm told most paid for vintage Derrick Rose in The Return, Part Whatever. They got a taste of that too.

It wasn’t quite the D-Rose Tent Revival at the United Center during Team USA’s 95-78 exhibition win over Brazil, but the man the fans came to see put on a few classic moves to let the hometown crowd know he’s baaaaaaack.

That’s seven a’s, one for each point he scored. It was the best damn seven-point performance Chicago has seen in some time -- because Rose was actually back in live game action.

Rose, who got a small cut above his eye in the first half, was pleased with his night and explained that his mission was “playing hard on defense, taking shots when I have the shots and letting the game come to me.”

[+] EnlargeDerrick Rose
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesDerrick Rose didn't score up a storm Saturday during Team USA's exhibition victory against Brazil, but that he was healthy and playing again at the United Center was what every Bulls fan wanted to see.
It was all part of “a process,” Rose said, as he primes for the FIBA World Cup next month and (knock on wood) another return season for the Chicago Bulls.

He did all those things: play defense, push the ball, shoot when he had a good look. But I can speak for everyone in attendance when I write it was just good to see Rose play basketball in person again. He can have rust, lint, asbestos, whatever. But he played basketball in Chicago, and the normalcy of it -- Rose fitting in -- was welcomed.

“I think everybody’s excited,” Rose said. “It was cool, but I can’t get big-headed about it. Just gotta keep poised.”

Big head or not, Rose said he is used to the applause. But he also said he would have trouble sleeping Saturday night. All part of a process, I guess.

As for highlights, there was a burst and a floater to end the first half, a blocked shot, a nasty drive to the basket that ended with him splitting free throws, a killer crossover and a switching-hands, MJ-homage basket in the third quarter.

And, um, well, I saw him yell at Stephen Curry on defense once. There’s that veteran leadership. This city eats that stuff up.

Rose played under control throughout his 24 minutes, 11 seconds, and maybe those surgically repaired knees are too strong now because on a breakaway in the first quarter he soared quite high and missed a dunk.

“That’s my second missed dunk,” Rose said with a chuckle. “I missed one in practice too. I just got to get used to holding the ball a different way when I dunk.”

Rose said the Team USA balls are a little slicker than the NBA ones, though I’m sure Bulls coach and USA assistant Tom Thibodeau would tell him a good craftsman never blames his tools.

Of his crossover move against guard Raul Neto, which ended in a layup over Anderson Varejao, Rose said, “It was just a play. I guess people want me to do it every time. I just saw an opening, and I went for it.”

Well, we -- I mean they -- do want to see that every time Rose touches the ball. But he went on to explain in detail how he knew he had Neto cooked.

“I just read how he was defending me,” Rose said. “When I came off the pick, it looked like he was confused, and I saw he didn’t have control of his feet a little bit. I look at all those things as an offensive player. And the big was on the other side of the lane, so when I came off [the pick] it was like I had the whole lane to myself.”

While Rose’s humble quotes are very popular in these parts, hearing Derrick talk basketball strategy is music to my ears. Because, in case you forgot, Rose is pretty spectacular when he's on the floor.

(Read full post)

Crisp Clausen commands confidence

August, 9, 2014
Aug 9
12:21
AM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Jimmy ClausenDavid Banks/USA TODAY SportsJimmy Clausen "was poised for a guy who's been here so little time," Bears coach Marc Trestman said.

CHICAGO — In the event that Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler comes down with, well, pick an injury, the Bears can feel slightly more confident in their backup plan after the all-important first preseason game.

I never thought I'd write this, but I'm slightly more confident in Jimmy Clausen.

(Knocks on wood.)

(Throws salt over shoulder.)

(Crosses myself, even though I'm Jewish.)

I don't know if Clausen is the next Josh McCown -- who is, really? -- but he showed he can throw a little bit -- at least against third- and fourth-stringers of the Philadelphia Eagles.

In the Bears' 34-28 victory over the Eagles in both teams' preseason opener Friday night at Soldier Field, Clausen outplayed Jordan Palmer in the backup-quarterback derby, at least according to Twitter and a few press-box wags.

"I’m excited about what they did tonight," said Bears coach Marc Trestman, who added that "the competition will continue."

Finally armed with a decided schematic advantage -- sorry, Charlie Weis -- Clausen showed his strong training camp showing wasn't a Bourbonnais myth.

"I thought he moved the team well," Trestman said. "He was poised for a guy who’s been here so little time. I think we saw something there as well."

I think everybody would like to see Clausen against better competition next week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but we don't need to go to the film to see that Clausen's passes had more zip than Palmer's.

[+] EnlargeJordan Palmer
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJordan Palmer completed eight of 11 attempts for 104 yards, with a touchdown and an interception.
Palmer's deep passes didn’t look as crisp, and even his 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zach Miller (who had six catches for 68 yards and two touchdowns) was more due to Miller's effort in the middle of the end zone. Trestman credited Palmer for improving after an early interception and for "moving the football team."

As for the numbers, Clausen went 7-for-13 for 150 yards and two scores before David Fales replaced him to start the fourth quarter.

Palmer went 8-for-11 for 104 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

Cutler went 9-for-13 for 85 yards and a 10-yard touchdown pass in his two series. He also wore a Cubs hat to the postgame news conference, proving that Javier Baez's home debut really ruled the day in Chicago.

It's tough for me to judge quarterbacking in this kind of environment because of the quality of competition and the vanilla play calls -- a heavy dose of short passes to tight ends and deep passes down the sideline. But I'm sure Trestman knows what he's looking for to make a decision.

Clausen obviously has more talent and experience, even if his experience quarterbacking the Carolina Panthers was pretty frightening for all involved.

If there was one play by which most of us amateurs knew Clausen was the guy, it came in his third possession.

After a 7-yard run by Sinorice Perry, it was second-and-3 from the Bears' 27-yard line. Clausen dropped back into the shotgun with two receivers to his left, one to his right. Clausen saw blitz and audibled from a run to a pass. He threw a perfect strike to a streaking Chris Williams, the former Canadian Football League star, who bobbled it before reining it in and running down the right sideline for a 73-yard touchdown.

"It was a great release by him," Clausen said. "I just tried to look the safety off and give him a chance to score on that. He just ran underneath it and made a great play."

"Perfect throw, perfect throw," said Williams, who tweaked his hamstring on the play. "You can’t beat that throw right there."

Later in the quarter, Clausen hit Micheal Spurlock on a 20-yard out pattern and found a wide-open Spurlock again for a 22-yard touchdown. Nice play, but let's just say it wasn't against the A-team defense.

"Normally, in zone [coverage], you've got people around you," Spurlock said. "But no one was around me. I appreciate them not being around me to give me a touchdown."

Clausen appreciated it, too, I’m sure. Preseason games means nothing, unless you're trying to win a backup job.

Maybe Clausen isn't the No. 2 quarterback next week, but I'm betting he will be by the end of the preseason. Adjust your season predictions accordingly.

Baez buzz is there, inside Wrigley and out

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
8:39
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- It was Baez Day at the ol’ ballyard, and even with a Chicago Bears preseason game to cover Friday night, how could I miss it?

Sources told me happy days are here at Wrigley Field again, so I had to see this for myself.

Javier Baez is the first of the Chicago Cubs' so-called Core to make the majors, the last first-round draft pick of the pre-Theo Epstein regime. And after three home runs in his first three games -- the only other time that’s happened was in 1954 -- Baez's Chicago arrival was met with the proper anticipation.

The Cubs don’t want unreal expectations on Baez -- though his start made that fairly impossible -- but they do want fans to enjoy this moment.

[+] EnlargeBaez
Jon Greenberg/ESPNJavier Baez T-shirts were on prominent display around Wrigley Field on Friday.
“It’s great for the fans,” Cubs president Epstein said before Friday's 4-3, 10-inning loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. “Our fans have been awful patient with us and with the entire organization. It’s a nice day for them to get to see a player in person they’ve read a lot about. It’s great for our players, too. The clubhouse has had a little bit of a buzz the last three games.

“Our fans deserve to get excited. I’m just happy for them that there are things for them to get excited about.”

Baez singled off former Cubs prospect Chris Archer in the first. He moved to third on a towering double off the wall by Anthony Rizzo, who watched it soar like Alfonso Soriano, and scored on Starlin Castro's single.

Just like you draw it up, right?

Baez struck out four times after I left. Sorry, Cubs fans, but I had to go.

Baez -- and, next month, outfielder Jorge Soler -- should bring some extra eyeballs to a team that has seen serious attrition in attendance and ratings.

However, through one game, there was not much of a Baez Bump at the gate.

While there was a lot of movement on the secondary market, with season-ticket holders trying to get top dollar in another down season of trading, only 34,937 paid for this game (which was priced in the second-highest tier).

That’s down from 41,534 in the Cubs’ previous Friday home game, July 25 against the St. Louis Cardinals. It was only the sixth-best crowd out of 10 Friday home games, even with the team giving away a very cool “first night game” bobblehead of Rick Sutcliffe, complete with working lights.

One of the fans in the house was the general manager who signed Baez, Jim Hendry. I ran into him on my way out of the park to walk around and soak up the atmosphere.

The crowd outside was busy, with plenty of Rays fans milling about. I saw one dad and son in Rays gear ask rogue mascot Billy Cub for a picture. Not sure if they tipped him, though.

Baez jersey shirts were stacked neatly at the concession stand outside the home clubhouse Friday morning, on sale for $28.

While Baez shirts weren’t available yet (“By the end of the homestand,” a stand worker told me) at the independent stands outside the park, they were selling OK at Sports World Chicago on the corner of Clark and Addison.

“People are coming in and asking about them,” a Sports World employee said.

Baez’s authentic jersey was front and center when you walked into the Cubs’ team store across the street.

For the next month, the Cubs will be trying to walk the fine line of promoting an exciting player but not overselling him.

It’s a nice problem to have. The Cubs again have something to sell besides Wrigley Field.

Javier Baez is the 'awesome' Cubs needed

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
10:00
AM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive


CHICAGO -- “Get your Javy Nagila T-shirts! Get your Javy Nagila T-shirts!”

Sorry, just practicing for Friday. I printed up 10,000 of those shirts!

Just kidding. I’m having a good time.

[+] EnlargeJavier Baez
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiLong-suffering Cubs fans deserve some new excitement, and Javier Baez is bringing it. 
Not that long ago, "good time" was a word associated with the Chicago Cubs that had nothing to do with top prospect lists or the cavorting of Clark the Cub. It was Aramis Ramirez crushing a homer. It was Carlos Zambrano pointing to the sky. It was even Michael Barrett slugging A.J. Pierzynski.

Rebuilding isn't a good time, and the Cubs aren't anywhere close to where we want them to be. But Friday will be a milepost to that destination.

With three homers in his first three games, Javier Baez is so "Good Times," we should call him "Dyn-o-mite!"

He's just a big-swinging, 21-year-old infielder living his dream, and his arrival has been a breath of fresh air for a clubhouse that has seen mostly subtractions.

"He's awesome, just awesome,” Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro told reporters in Denver after Baez’s two-homer game Thursday against the Colorado Rockies. “We're really happy, not just me, but all the team. It's really fun for all of us.”

So, what was that you were saying about guarded optimism on Baez?

Empty protestations aside, if you knew anything about Baez the prospect, you figured this was the best-case scenario for how Baez the major leaguer would make his debut.

An extra-innings game winner in his first game and a two-homer effort in his third? OK, that's just a little better than expected. After three games, he has three homers and three strikeouts. I'll take that ratio.

Baez is the second player in major league history to hit three homers in his first three games, and the last guy did it in 1954. He’s the first Cub since 1900 with a multiple home run outing during his first three career games.

And, no, Baez isn’t a Tuffy Rhodes or any of the random failed draft picks people have been trotting out for what I call “caution columns.”

[+] Enlarge Javier Baez
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiThe numbers agree with Baez, who has three homers against three strikeouts after his first three MLB games.
He is a real-deal prospect causing a major stir for a minor team.

Friday’s series opener against the Tampa Bay Rays at Wrigley Field means nothing in the grand scheme of things for Baez or the Cubs. But as a singular moment in time, it’s nothing to ignore.

For long-suffering season ticket holders, Baez has helped juice sales on the secondary market, according to analysis from SeatGeek.com. He was called up Monday. And by Tuesday, 1,550 tickets were sold for Friday’s game on the secondary market. For this team and this season, that’s very good.

Hopefully, more fans show up Friday, as well. Remember to tip your vendors! And praise Jim Hendry, if you see him. Baez was his last draft pick.

Wrigley hasn’t been too festive the past few years as attendance and interest have atrophied considerably. But Baez is the kind of player who can create a little buzz just by going to the plate.

With all the talk about flipping veterans and patience, it’s nice to simply watch a talented player and expect big things to follow.

Castro and Anthony Rizzo are fine All-Star players. But they’re not that exciting, not offense guys. But they’ve been here through the muck of the past three years and we’re used to seeing their faces. That’s all.

But Baez is new, and new is exciting. Arismendy Alcantara is new. Jake Arrieta is kind of new and has been a revelation.

I’m ready for Jorge Soler, who should be up in September. I’m ready for Kris Bryant, who we won't see until next April, even though he's ready now.

The Cubs are turning into more than a local real estate collective with a softball team, and it’s heartening to see it.

I chuckled at the stories and armchair analysis warning fans to be cautious with Baez. Or what? Nothing’s worse than a sportswriter turned advice columnist.

Fan is short for fanatic, so they should be excited. There’s been way too much anticipation for these highly-touted and almost mythical prospects; now it’s time for the release.

They’re just baseball players, not butterflies. When they’re ready to come up, they should come up and play. And that’s what happened here. Baez got so hot at Triple-A, it made sense for him to be promoted.

And this isn’t a guy who is cowered by expectations.

"Whatever happens, happens," Baez said after his first game. "I’m ready for anything."

You don’t tattoo the MLB logo on the back of your neck if you think you’re a Four-A player.

Cubs president Theo Epstein admitted as much in a conference call with reporters, saying Baez didn’t need to be treated with “kid gloves.”

“Javy is, in some ways, baseball-mature beyond his years," Epstein said.

The great ones typically are. Will Baez be great? Who knows. All I care about is he’s here and he’s taking big swings. That’s enough for now.

New Cavs present dual challenge for Bulls

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
12:44
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- With Kevin Love reportedly going to Cleveland to join LeBron James and Kyrie Irving as the new power trio in the Eastern Conference, this season will provide a true test for Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.

Can he convincingly manage to tell his team that it's championship material while simultaneously convincing the players that they're everyone's underdogs?

[+] EnlargeJoakim Noah and Thibodeau
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhTom Thibodeau will have to convince Joakim Noah and the Bulls that they are title contenders but also underdogs.
If any coach can walk that inspirational tightrope, it's Thibs, the master motivator of Madison Street.

In reality, it's not that difficult of a task for a veteran team like the Bulls. And given the circumstances -- a division rival getting James and Love within a month -- the Bulls are in a pretty good situation as a contender.

Chicago knows it's a good team with championship potential now that Derrick Rose is back, but the Cavs' deal for Love keeps the Bulls from carrying the load as Eastern Conference favorites. The Bulls will be everyone's favorite antagonist to King James once again. A rebellion in the East? Thibs does look a bit like Robert Baratheon.

With Cleveland hyped to the max, Joakim Noah will be free to seethe about the Cavs, who I guess will be considered, "Bath, Ohio, as Hell."

Thibs will stoke that fire all season, trust me.

For Bulls fans, it's a dream scenario, too. Sure, their team failed, once again, to land a big fish into our grimy river of a town, but hey, at least your inferiority complex is intact. This city isn't good at being favorites.

And with no Love in Chicago, it allows a certain segment of fans to bask in the glow of a "gritty," "deep" Bulls team that prides itself on "toughness" and "defensive tenacity." A football team in basketball shorts. That's how some fans like their team.

"Oh, you have three All-Star scorers? Well, the Bulls have Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Noah gritting it up on defense. Taste that Taj shoulder, pretty boy!"

Let's be clear. The Bulls are legitimate challengers in the East and the Cavs are going to be hard to beat come playoff time. Their regular-season matchups with be prime-time events. Noah will be "hype."

And if these two teams meet in the conference finals, it will be a series to remember.

We have no idea how it will turn out, but given that the Bulls kept their precious, precious depth and have the length to defend Cleveland's Big Three using Thibodeau's strongside overload zone defense, I wouldn't count on another five-game LeBron knockout like in 2011.

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Gibson, Noah and Butler will be key in annoying James and Love, and Rose will certainly enjoy the task of shutting down Irving. But always remember it's never about man-to-man matchups with the Bulls, but rather how they play together in Thibs' bruising ballet. Even though Pau Gasol has the rep of a defensive lightweight, his presence in the middle of this particular defense will do wonders, way more than the undersized, always late Carlos Boozer.

Love, for example, has shot 42 percent from the field and 30 percent on 3-pointers in five games against Thibodeau's Bulls. This past season, he shot 3-for-15 on 3-pointers in two games against Chicago.

Offensively, if the Bulls can share the ball as expected, thanks in part to the additions of dynamic offensive players Gasol and Doug McDermott to go along with Rose and Noah, it will help neutralize the LeBron Lockdown of Rose this spring.

But this is all speculation and wishful thinking. The Cavs are going to be very good and there's only so much perfect defense one team can play.

Rose is still the only go-to scorer on the Bulls. He looks great in national team camp, and it's up to Rose to raise his game back to MVP standards to give the Bulls a fighting chance against the Cavs next season in the East.

I'm sure Thibs is already in his ears, whispering dreams of championships in one and telling him he's the ultimate underdog in the other.

When does the NBA schedule come out? Because I'll be circling these games on the calendar.

Abreu vs. Rizzo: Bringing the fun back

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
1:25
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Anthony Rizzo and Jose AbreuUSA TODAY SportsAnthony Rizzo and Jose Abreu have helped bring some fun back to Chicago baseball this summer.
CHICAGO -- Anthony Rizzo is having himself a season.

He's no Jose Abreu, but it's close.

If that gets Cubs fans' dander up, then I'm doing my job. Abreu versus Rizzo is my favorite debate on Twitter, where I like to waste away my mid-30s instigating arguments with Chicago sports fans.

And man, do Cubs fans, who outnumber Sox fans, get defensive about their guy. They talk about his age, his contract, his fielding prowess. It's not what he's doing now, they tell me, but what he'll do in the future as a young hitter.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Rizzo
David Banks/Getty ImagesAnthony Rizzo is an All-Star in his second full major league season.
Cubs fans love to talk about the future. They're futurists, really. And we love them for that optimism, which given the state of the team's ballyhooed farm system, isn't that cockeyed these days. In two years, we'll still be having this argument, though Kris Bryant might replace Rizzo as the Cub.

But "who's better" is the classic fun sports argument to have. Remember fun, Chicago baseball fans? Ah, 2008 was so long, long ago.

On one team, you've got Abreu, the mysterious Cuban right-handed rookie slugger who speaks softly and hits everything.

On the other, you've got Rizzo, the clean-cut, Theo Epstein-approved blended left-handed hitter who is second in the National League in home runs, sixth in on-base percentage and first in Cubs fans' hearts. Well, until Javier Baez showed up this week. But he's still top two until Jorge Soler, Bryant ... you get the picture.

While Abreu got picked for the All-Star Game as a reserve, Rizzo made his first All-Star team thanks to an unyielding, hashtag blitzkrieg social media barrage. The next five times he'll make it will be on his own merits, or by the fan vote once Cubs fans wake up from their Ricketts-induced comas.

Abreu and Rizzo might not sell tickets -- the Sox couldn't even give away 20,000 free shirts for Jose Abreu T-shirt night! -- or drive ratings -- Baez's debut drew a whopping 2.0 rating on CSN Chicago's "plus" channel -- but if their teams can be built around them, they'll be in good shape.

As for now, they've got two months to pad their stats.

Maybe Baez and his Gary Sheffield swing puts on a show the last two months, but Abreu at-bats have already been must-watch performances all season.

I guess you could say he's tied with Chris Sale, the undisputed best pitcher, as the best baseball player in Chicago.

Fresh off becoming the first player to win AL player of the month and rookie of the month for the second time this season, Abreu, who missed two weeks with an ankle injury, leads baseball in home runs (31), RBIs (86), OPS (.986), slugging percentage (.624) and isolated power (.317), which measures "a hitter's raw power," according to FanGraphs.

He's third in weighted on-base average, or wOBA (.415), and fifth in weighted runs created plus, or wRC+ (164, or 64 percent better than the league average), also according to FanGraphs and seventh in WAR among AL position players at 4.

Lest you think he's just a slugger, Abreu is seventh in the AL in batting average (.307) and 17th in on-base percentage (.362). His recent surge has helped him gain about 30 points in batting average and OBP. He's gone hitless only twice since July 6 (Aug. 2-3), a stretch which includes a 21-game hit streak and 11 multihit games.

His six-year, $68 million contract looks like a bargain, as is Rizzo's arbitration-eating, seven-year, $41 million deal.

After Tuesday night's game, Rizzo's 25 homers were second to Giancarlo Stanton's 26 in the National League. His OBP (.387) was sixth and his batting average (.283) was 22nd. While his 60 RBIs were 14th, his 75 runs scored were fourth, a good measure of how being on base creates offense. His 3.5 WAR was 14th in the NL, while his wOBA (.391) was sixth and his wRC+ (149) was seventh.

While Rizzo, who turns 25 on Aug. 8, is still developing in his second full season in the majors, what's Abreu's ceiling as a 27-year-old rookie?

"I think you can get better," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said before Monday's game. "I don't think he's ever going to get to the point where he hits .500. His numbers are pretty damn good right now."

Even defensively, where the big man is a little better than you might think with a 2.2 UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating).

Rizzo, who is considered a plus defender at first base, has a 0.7 UZR/150, though it's tough really to trust defensive metrics, which are constantly being refined.

Both players are starting to catch on, marketing-wise. Rizzo had the 15th best-selling jersey in baseball, as of early July. Abreu is the best-selling White Sox player. A local memorabilia dealer told me Abreu autographs were flying off the shelf this summer, while Rizzo's are picking up.

[+] EnlargeJose Abreu
Brian Kersey/Getty ImagesJose Abreu is on pace to become the first rookie to hit 40 home runs and 40 doubles.
I hate to trot out the tired "Imagine if Abreu was a Cub!" line, but it's worth considering, if only for bar arguments' sake. The rooftops might have to put up windscreens of their own to protect their customers.

"You've seen it, when he comes to bat, everything stops," White Sox senior vice president for sales and marketing Brooks Boyer told me Monday night. "I was just out there, 'Well, I'm not leaving my spot until Abreu bats.' We haven't had that since Frank Thomas. The vendors stop. It's like time stops when he gets in the box."

On his aforementioned T-shirt night Monday, Abreu showed why he's more than a power hitter. In his first at-bat, he sliced a single to right field and in his second, he shot a bases-loaded single up the middle to score two runs.

Alas, only 17,040 showed up for the game, which includes around 1,500 tickets sold the day before, and that means the White Sox had nearly 3,000 extra shirts to give away.

How do you market a player who speaks English through a translator, mostly sticking to humble messaging, to a sluggish fan base? The Sox will have to find ways.

"You start instead of him being the pitchman that's out there in front, you don't need him to talk to show his skill," Boyer said. "That sells itself. That's something you want to come to see. When that guy gets in the box anything can happen."

Regardless of where you stand, one thing Chicago baseball fans can agree on is that this argument should be a fun one for the next five years. Wait until Bryant gets here to make it multiple choice.

Baez makes Cubs exciting -- and watchable

August, 4, 2014
Aug 4
2:39
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Javier BaezCal Sport Media/AP ImagesIn the 20 games following the Triple-A All-Star break, Javier Baez hit .342 with nine homers and a 1.159 OPS.
When Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer met the media after trading infielder Emilio Bonifacio at the deadline last week, the giant middle infielder in the room was Javier Baez.

In the Wrigley Field lunchroom, reporters asked Hoyer if this move would presage the promotion of Baez, who has been tearing up Triple-A pitching after a slow start. It makes sense, right?

Hoyer first demurred at the question and talked about "whiteboarding" the organizational structure as if he was talking to the Harvard Business Review.

Then, realizing he was talking to sports writers, he reiterated the front office's most common talking point when it comes to prospects: You can't rush the maturing process due to outside events.

[+] EnlargeJavier Baez
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonJavier Baez has 76 home runs in 319 minor league games.
"We're not going to change our timetable on any of our prospects based on a moves we made at the big league level," Hoyer said. "When we feel like those guys are ready to contribute, we'll do that."

Call me crazy, but the 21-year-old Baez was ready to contribute on July 31, just as he'll be ready when he joins the Cubs on Aug. 5 in Denver. Once he began playing second base on July 17, his prospect clock was ticking.

While we knew Baez, barring injury, would be up this month, the news was met with great excitement when it was leaked Monday afternoon.

When is the last time Cubs fans had something to be excited about on the major league level?

This move, and the added meaning it represents, certainly qualifies as welcoming news for a fan base that has had to focus more on minor league updates than the daily drudgery of the major league team since president Theo Epstein started his teardown rebuilding project in 2012.

It's apropos that Baez, considered one of the top power-hitting prospects in the minors, hit two homers in his last game for Iowa.

Baez proved he wasn't ready for the majors when he struggled to start the Triple-A season. But he showed the kind of step-by-step adjustment the organization expects out of prospects when he hit .300 in July with 10 homers and a .345 on-base percentage. Nineteen of his 33 hits last month were for extra bases, giving him a .655 slugging percentage.

In the 20 games following the Triple-A All-Star break, he hit .342 with nine homers and a 1.159 OPS. Baez finished his four-year minor league career hitting .260 with 24 doubles, 23 homers and 80 RBIs for the Iowa Cubs.

In summation, he was ready.

The Cubs knew this but there was no rush, considering the only race they are in is for a top-five draft pick in 2015.

The Cubs obviously wanted to play Bonifacio, one of their few certain trade chips, before the deadline. Once he was dealt, I figured the Cubs would wait a few days, maybe a week or two, to bring up Baez.

Less than a week and here we go. After a three-game series in Denver, the Cubs return home for a weekend series against Tampa Bay starting Friday. Good seats still available.

The Cubs had already priced that series at the two highest levels, with Friday and Sunday at "marquee" pricing and Saturday one of eight scheduled "platinum" games. The cheapest tickets were going for about $35 on the secondary market when the news was announced, or $41.66 with tax on the Cubs' website.

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One thing is for sure, the Cubs will be watchable again, especially if Baez keeps hitting. The team is struggling to draw viewers, at least according to Nielsen ratings. I'm guessing Tuesday's game will set a season record on Comcast SportsNet.

While Epstein and his front office are getting their rightful due for the relatively quick transformation of the farm system, it's helpful to remember Baez is the last of the Jim Hendry draft picks, even though Hendry will take no credit for Baez.

Even if he were still the general manager, he'd credit the scouts and scouting director Tim Wilken. In this case, he already knew he was fired after a sitdown with Tom Ricketts and agreed to stay on through the draft before the firing was official.

In my column the day Hendry was canned, I quoted a source who was in the room when Baez was drafted ninth overall in 2011. He said Hendry "acted like this guy would be playing third base for him for the next 10 years."

Ironically, Baez's first home game will be against Chris Archer, whom Hendry traded in the Matt Garza deal, his unsuccessful last-ditch effort to save his job.

Now it's time for Cubs fans to celebrate, or at least it's time to enjoy watching games again, because the new era of Cubs baseball is really beginning.

Baez is up to bat, outfielder Jorge Soler is on deck (expect him up in September) and in the dugout, Kris Bryant is taking Wonder Boy out of its case.

The big league Cubs are almost ready to matter again. It should feel good.

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