“That Thing The Cubs Do” hits all the right notes

There is a charming scene in “That Thing You Do,” an underrated gem by Tom Hanks. The Wonders are about to make their national TV debut and, just before the curtain rises, drummer Shades Patterson shakes his head over his buddies’ meteoric rise and mutters, “How’d we get here?”

You just know similar flashes of perspective have gone through the minds of MLB’s Wonders, the Chicago Cubs’ Fab Four of Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell.

“How’d we get here?” indeed.

Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber (left to right)?

Cubs president Theo Epstein conveniently went along with the musical analogy when trying to interpret the breakthrough success of the young club about to play for the National League pennant.

“This is like our first record,” Epstein said. “You put that record out, and then things blow up and it’s a wonderful time of innocence and exceeding expectations, bursting on the national scene.”

I swear, sounds like Epstein could have been reading from the “That Thing You Do” script.

In Chicago, Joe Maddon plays the part of Mr. White, the Hanks movie character who discovers, nurtures and unleashes The Wonders. Maddon’s confidence in playing and trusting the kids has given them an instant sense of belonging.

“We’re good baseball players,” Schwarber said, simply. “That’s why we’re here. You can’t look at it as young. We’re baseball players. We know what needs to be done, and so whatever situation comes up, we’ll get it done.”

That’s what Schwarber says. But when the final notes of the National Anthem fade out Saturday night and the first pitch of the National League Championship Series is about to be delivered, I know what he’ll be thinking in the Cubs dugout.
“How’d we get here?”

In the mind’s eye, it’s always Oct. 13, 1960

I stepped into a “Twilight Zone” episode today.

Rod Serling had a thing for heart-tugging in writing that iconic television show. He specialized in segments where adults were transported back to scenes of their youth, and found everything unchanged.

So I stepped back to Oct. 13, 1960

I made my way back to Squirrel Hill, Beacon Street. It wasn’t unchanged, because the block has undergone major redevelopment in 55 years. The triplex where we lived was gone, but I knew exactly where it would still be, and glancing up to where our living room was I could relive the moment that changed my life.

I had returned home from Colfax Elementary about 3 o’clock and turned on the television to watch my usual after-school cartoons. Instead of Bugs Bunny, a baseball game was still on. Disappointed, I plopped down on the sofa, ready to wait it out.

Then this guy in a No. 9 black-and-white uniform hit a ball over the wall. Bill Mazeroski isn’t what changed my life. The reaction to what he had done did. Immediately, car horns went off outside of my living room window. I looked out to see excited people burst through their front doors and hug in the middle of the street.

That is what grabbed my attention— the power of such an act to unify people in a common euphoria.

As I began to make regular journeys to Forbes Field, sitting high up in the right field stands, I would see the same bonding effect. Whenever a Pirates player lined a ball down the third-base line, into the left-field corner, from my vantage point you’d see people rise in waves as if orchestrated by the ball whistling by them.

That’s all it took. I was hooked by baseball, its virtuosos, its followers.

I have spent 43 of the ensuing 55 years — my entire adult life, that is — covering this game and its people. I got to meet extraordinary individuals, from Andrew McCutchen to, yes, Bill Mazeroski.

As The Gunner would say, “How sweet it is!”

Postseason pre-mortems: Home field? Whatever

What we’ve learned from the early phase of this postseason:

  • Stressing over home-field advantage isn’t worth the trouble:

Thus far, visiting teams are 6-2. Most of the angst is over gaining home-field for the Wild Card Games. Forget it; this year’s Cubs-Rangers sweeps made visiting teams 6-2 in the one-and-dones.

  • The Wild Card scenario puts an unprecedented premium on having an Ace:

This, of course, is a Pirates perspective. Two seasons of hard work have been undone in nine innings by Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta. The Bucs themselves are in a good place here, with Gerrit Cole.

  • The NLDS has Buccos Nation pining for a best-of-3 Wild Card Series:

Seeing the Dodgers and Mets — two teams against which the Bucs went 11-1 in the regular season — is pouring salt into the Wild Card wounds. Pittsburgh is lobbying, loud, for an expansion of the play-in round.

Sorry. It’s not going to happen. The whole idea behind having two Wild Cards play-off was to give a rightful advantage to division winners. Having them sit and wait for five days would be giving them an unfair disadvantage.

  • Clint Hurdle, even better than you thought:

Seeing hungry, energetic rookies grab the stage — Kyle Schwarber in the Wild Card,  Tommy Pham, Stephen Piscotty in NLDS-1 — dramatizes what a disadvantage the Bucs have had without such young blood. Experience is not a handicap, mind you, but there is also something to be said for trusting young players and giving them a role.

Once the pain of the Wild Card ouster subsides, appreciation of how this team managed to win 98 games will grow.

Something Wild: Bucs, Yinzer Zealots ready for THIS

From the moment the Cardinals bounced the Pirates out of the division race — really, from the moment they took a 6-0 lead in the third inning of that Sept. 30 game — I was thinking and saying, “This is actually a good thing.”

My reasoning: Now the Bucs would have a full week to focus on and gear up for the Wild Card Game and Jake Arrieta. Over-thinking anything is another danger, but at least they won’t have the challenge on having to hit the reset button after a last-day elimination, as last season. And we all know how “settling” for Wild Card status turned out that time.

Even by staying alive with a win in the night portion of that Sept. 30 doubleheader to move within two with three to go, the Bucs weren’t going to catch St. Louis, which would have had a far different weekend in Atlanta had the games mattered. It would’ve been the set-up for another last-day disappointment.

No, thank you.

But in all sincerity, this first step could be the hardest of the entire postseason. So consider how stoked and confident the Bucs will be if they do get past Arrieta.

Can they? They aren’t going to beat him, because the likely Cy Young Award winner has been remarkably consistent. But they could out-pitch him. It might have to be a 1-0 or 2-1 game. Gerrit Cole has that in him.

I’m looking forward to a Blackout, 40,000-strong. The Cubs have the Bleacher Creatures in their Wrigley Field. Pittsburgh can show them a whole park-full of Yinzer Zealots. Let’s see how they deal with it.

Wake up call: Get your Wild Card thinking caps on

My season-long fret over the Pirates’ Spring Training declaration of “Central Division title or bust” has been … what if it’s bust? How do you make the mental adjustment to compete in a Wild Card scenario if it again comes to that?

We’re probably a week from finding out.

Even before that head-scratcher of a loss on Monday, the Bucs were looking at a stacked deck of Cards: Having to win out just to tie for the NL Central lead, since the Redbirds don’t figure to lose a game in their season-ending series with hapless Atlanta.

So even if a doubleheader sweep today leaves them two behind St. Louis — how are they going to make up those two games with the Cardinals playing the Braves?

So the best thing about winning two today would be avoiding having to watch the Cardinals celebrate in PNC Park. (Weird scenario: The Cardinals win the day game, and take the field at night in their champagne-soaked uniforms? No thank you.)

So here come the Cubs and Jake Arrieta.

The biggest help in making that mindset switch would come from Arrieta himself. The Bucs have seen a lot of possibly the Cy Young Award frontrunner and would be psyched to prove they can take him. The first five meetings with him have been tight.

The Pirates even won one of the five and were competitive in the other four.

#6 figures to be tight. To win, the Pirates wil have to do it 1-0, 2-1 or something like that.

Gerrit Cole would be just the man to do it.

Morning cup: Scratching a 43-year itch

Roberto Clemente was in right field.

Ron Santo was at third base.

We were in Vietnam, 24,000-strong.

Heck, I was in college.

1972. The last year the Pirates and Cubs were both winners, both fighting for the same thing — the championship of the old National League East. The Bucs prevailed, easy, their 96-49 record beating out the Cubs by 11 games. Bill Virdon managed those Pirates.

Now they are fighting for the Wild Card, which in 1972 was only Denny McLain. Enjoy it.

Wrigley Field certainly is. I’m not saying these are the best fans in baseball, but I will say this is the place baseball fans know how to have the best time.

I happened to be in the upper stands on the third base side yesterday when Javier Baez’s dive play into first base on a bunt prompted a “safe” challenge from the Pirates. As replays flashed on the left field video board, Cubs and Bucs fans animatedly — but garrulously — shouted each other down. “Safe!” “Out!” Everyone had wide smile — even after umpires overruled the original call, a big help to the the Pirates in a two-run game.

Shame that the Giants had to lose on the Left Coast late Friday night, clinching a playoff spot for the Cubs while they were sleeping (not! I don’t think anybody in Chicago is asleep at midnight; but you know what I mean). That kinda ruined a Wrigleyville party.

It’ll be like 40,000 showing up at church today, and being told, “Hey, the wedding was last week.”

Wednesday windup: Ode to Arrieta, in Bucs’ sights

You’re going to be hearing a lot about Jake Arrieta in the next couple of weeks.

He’ll face the Pirates on Sunday, in the finale of the weekend series in Wrigley Field. He also looms in the Bucs’ Wild Card way to the rest of the postseason.

So we need to set the record straight about his remarkable season, which reached the 20-win stage last night.

Noting Arrieta’s 0.86 ERA in 13 starts since the All-Star break, Cubs manager Joe Maddon called his pitcher’s work “Gibson-esque.” Maddon of course was recalling Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA season in 1968.

Ah, but it’s so much better than that.

Gibson was at the lead of a pitchers’ posse that provoked MLB to giver hitters a fairer shot by lowering the mound, a whopping 50% from a height of 15 inches to the still in-use 10 inches.

Think about it … not only is Arrieta putting up numbers not seen since the ‘60s, but he’s doing so with what was meant as a disadvantage for pitchers. … 

That lowering of the mound also dramatically altered what scouts look for in pitchers. Height became a major asset. Makes sense: If pitchers are throwing from lower mounds, we’ll get higher pitchers.

This might amaze you (mainly because no one before has really looked at it), but do you know how many pitchers 6-foot-6 or taller were among the 324 used by the 20 Major League teams in 1968? Six. Yes – 6, and the Bucs’ 6-foot-6 lefty Bob Veale was one of them.

Pitchers 6-foot-6 or taller in action during this season?


More teams (32), way more total pitchers (876!). Still, the percentage of tall pitchers has tripled, from 2% to 6%.

And, no, 6-foot-4 Jake Arrieta is not one of them.

Tuesday windup: Even Pharrell Williams is Happ-y

When GM Neal Huntington responded within hours of A.J. Burnett’s injury by acquiring J.A. Happ from Seattle, Pirates fans were disillusioned.

“That the best they could do?” was the overall sentiment.

Following Happ’s Pirates debut, they became downright hostile. The Cubs spanked the lefty for nine hits and four runs in 4 1/3 innings on Aug. 4, as he looked positively helpless.

Flash forward and, of course, Happ tonight can further cement his standing as one of the best Trade Deadline pick-ups ever. If not for David Price and his 8-1 record with the Blue Jays, Happ would even lead the conversation about this summer’s best acquisitions.

In seven starts since that first one, not only does Happ have a 1.30 ERA while going 5-1, but the only loss was a 2-1 squeaker to the Cubs.

That makes him another great Jim Benedict-Huntington find, and Ray Searage makeover. However, Clint Hurdle goes out of his way to stress that Happ didn’t just remember how to pitch when he donned Black & Gold.

“We continue to lose sight of how he was pitching in the first half,” Hurdle says, citing Happ’s first 11 starts for the Mariners,  of which he lost only one while posting a 3.31 ERA.

From that point on until his trade, Happ went 1-5 with a 6.65 ERA.

 “Sometimes a change of scenery can give a guy a shot in the arm,” Hurdle says. “He was coming from a team that was being challenged [translation: losing a lot] to a team in a pennant race. You don’t want to be a weak link, and that gets you to reacquire your focus. He knows he’s being counted on. He has been, and he’s showed up well.”

In trying to continue to put on a show tonight, Happ gets a sidebar split: He must deal with pitchers’ torture chamber, Coors Field, but gets to face a Rockies club an MLB-worst 9-28 against lefty starters.

Monday windup: Bucs at head of the clinch mob

Here is an advisory Pirates fans could only see in their dreams for many years, from MLB.com’s Cory Schwartz:

“Based on this weekend’s results, the only team that can clinch anything outright tomorrow is Pittsburgh, who can clinch a playoff spot.”

Raise an Iron City to that (the Jolly Roger, later) …

Clicking at the right time? All season, the Bucs have won only two road series after dropping the first game. The last two: Sept. 7-9 in Cincinnati, and this weekend’s set in El Lay. … 

The Bucs took matters into their own hands in the competition for the best home record in MLB by becoming the first visitor in three months to win consecutive games in Dodger Stadium. That dropped the Dodgers’ home record to 50-24, tied with the Cardinals for the best. The Pirates are currently next at 50-25. … 

Trying to describe Jung Ho Kang’s daring baserunning style, Clint Hurdle often said, “Jung Ho thinks he’s invisible.”

Sure enough, I saw Kang right in the middle of the Bucs’ “costume ball” on their way from Los Angeles to Denver. The theme was Superheroes, with everyone from clubhouse maven Scott Bonnett to Hurdle dressed as a crime-fighting character.

And there was Jung Ho … dressed as Invisible Man. .. 

You do know why the Bucs decided to hold Halloween now, don’t you? World Series Game 4: October 31. … 

Saturday windup: This IS the big one.

Clint Hurdle is always saying that “today’s game is the biggest of the season.” It’s his way of maintaining that one-game-at-a-time focus.

But today’s game IS the Pirates’ biggest of the season.

They’re reeling, in danger of matching their longest losing streak of the season at the worst possible time. A fifth straight loss would wipe out the last of their five-game lead over the Cubs — all in a matter of five days.

Francisco Liriano needs to pitch up to his ace status. He’s facing Clayton Kershaw in Dodger Stadium. He could be facing Cy Young on the moon. Doesn’t matter. He has to give the Bucs a chance to win this game, for two huge reasons.

One, to stop the skid and all the bad vibes in the wake of Jung Ho Kang’s devastating injury.

Two, to give the Pirates a good chance of taking this series. Liriano takes care of this one, Gerrit Cole figures to take care of Sunday’s game against Mike Bolsinger.

The Cubs called out the Pirates earlier this week, and are in the process of doing the same to the Cardinals this weekend. Time to put your foot down, as Hurdle likes to say.

By the way, for those disappointed with how infrequently I’ve had posts here, given the other time-consuming demands of canvassing the Bucs … from here on out, I’m gonna throw up something at least once a day, usually more. There’s only 15 games left. Time to step up. Something else Hurdle is always saying.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 96 other followers