MESA, Ariz. – There was this afternoon a couple decades ago, when Tommy Lasorda was still throwing the occasional batting practice. What his pitches lacked in oomph they made up for with an amazing failure to reach the catcher, especially his curveball, which he’d flick up there with the introduction, “Know where I live? 643 DP Lane! That’s right, 643 DP Lane!” And he’d bounce another.
On a back field at Dodgertown, the cool evening air coming, a new baseball season just beyond the outfield knolls, everyone laughed along.
It was great theater. Great fun.
For all except the bullpen catcher.
He was expected to block every lollypop flung from the fingertips of this 70-year-old born-again Koufax. Tommy was tireless. So the young catcher took these 55-foot spinners off the shoulders and elbows and thighs and neck, picked himself up, knocked the dirt from his shin guards, squatted behind the plate, and dutifully allowed the beating to continue.
Well, one pitch bounced over his shoulder. With half a smile and still playing to the crowd, Tommy blasted the young man.
“You gotta block that ball!” he shouted.
“I’m tryin’, Tom.”
The half-dozen players leaning on the batting cage moaned in unison.
“Uh-oh,” one said.
“Try!?” Tommy shrieked. Not so much a question as a challenge. Then again, not so much a challenge as an offense to his very soul. Eyes bugged. Fingers jabbed. Spittle threatened his fastball for top-end velocity. The whole thing.
Then, with a wink, he arrived at his point: “I could get a truck driver to try!”
(My sons are very sorry I ever heard that. Anyway…)
Going on 20 years later, Joe Maddon sat behind a folding table here, Theo Epstein to his right, Jed Hoyer to his left. They seem to have a good thing going here with the Chicago Cubs, in youth and talent and promise and … well, you know, that’s a 107-year conversation, the one that never goes away.
It’s taken some time (not all 107 years are their fault) and a good number of losses, but here they are. They’ve been picked to win the World Series. Not by everybody, of course. Not by a lot of people. OK, one that I could find. Still.
They signed Jon Lester, traded for Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero, hired Maddon, and have primed their prospects to arrive in Chicago at a time that coincides with the plan, which was to win before everybody in the front office’s contracts ran out.
Maddon arrived and said, yes, he expects to make the playoffs, because this is a good team and that is – and always will be – his expectation. The young first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, did him one better, telling reporters this winter, “We’re going to win the NL Central. Quote me on that.”
On Thursday, Epstein said: “I think our fans are certainly entitled to get excited. We’ve put them through a lot these last few years.”
Yeah, it’s all (mostly) great, it’s exciting, and at some point they’ll all get on the field and find out if – a small detail here – it actually works. For the moment, a sound plan appears to have led to a commendable product, a capable roster.
Which leads us to something Maddon said when he was hired this winter, something about “respect 90.” As in feet. As in the distance from home plate to first base. As in, you know, trying.
For a clubhouse of men who have been told for too long how terrible they are, to the men who today are being told they are not the problem but the solution, “respect 90” is a beautiful, precise and spirited representation of what all that talent can become. It is literal: “Run hard to first base.” And it is out there: “Be on time. Do the work. Live reasonably. Care.” So, yeah, “Try.” For three or four seconds three or four times a night, be the damn truck driver.
It’s the rare review of a great season that begins with, “Well, first off, they all ran hard to first base most nights.” It’s pitching. It’s home runs. It’s talent.
But the Cubs are close to being relevant again. They sold off three baseball seasons for it. They traded on Theo’s rep and Cubs fans’ patience and sturdy intentions, and now a team sorely overmatched in recent years is, above all else, talented. Now’s the hard part, which isn’t hard at all. Respect 90. If nothing else, honor that.
“It’s honored on different levels by different people,” Maddon said Thursday. “Derek Jeter, to me, respected 90 feet every time he played the game of baseball. He’s the guy that made it even more obvious to me.
“If you can get a baseball player to run hard to first base and he respects that 90 feet, then that will permeate the rest of his game in a positive way. I think it’s that simple, i.e., why Andrew McCutchen became my favorite player a couple years ago. We’re playing in Port Charlotte at 10 o’clock at night. In the ninth inning with two outs, he hits a routine ground ball to shortstop. And beats it out. What does that say to the rest of the Pirate organization?”
(First off, it says the Pirates made McCutchen get on a bus for a spring training night game and left him in for all of it.)
“It doesn’t take talent to run hard or play hard,” Maddon continued. “It just takes want-to, in a sense. So I really believe we’re gonna pull that out of our guys. I really have a hard time understanding why you have to pull it out.
“Part of that ‘respect 90’ is respect in general. … Just respecting the game. … What baseball players – athletes – have to understand, getting back to the entitlement component of the whole thing, this is a pretty cool thing to be involved in. That would be Major League Baseball, or major league football or major league basketball. You work your entire life from the time you’re, I don’t know, 6, 7 years of age to get to this particular moment in your life and then you’re going to treat it that way? You’re not going to respect that? Or respect Mr. Banks, who just passed away? Or the guys that had come here before you? When you don’t do that, you show a total lack of respect regarding what had happened before you, beyond what’s happening now.”
So, yeah, there is something to what Tommy said all those years ago. “Trying” isn’t doing. “Trying” doesn’t mean results. Hell, anybody can try: I need a guy who can hit 30 bombs and drive in a hundred and block this killer curveball. On the other hand, he didn’t yet know these Cubs, who will come to understand – if they don’t already know – that everybody can play. Everybody has talent.
Not everybody, however, goes 90.
“It’s not that tough to do,” Maddon said. “It’s going to start right there for us. We do that, we’re going to be on our way.”
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