In 2003, Ron Coomer was a 36-year-old corner infielder hobbling through his final season and “stealing money” from the Dodgers. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t able to make an impact, though. Manager Jim Tracy asked Coomer and Robin Ventura, by then a similarly diminished veteran with a similar penchant for piracy, to show their rookie catcher around and teach him what it was like to be a big leaguer. The name of that guileless youngster: David Wade Ross.
Gosh, kind of lot’s changed since then, huh?
Coomer shared this and more while appearing as the main speaker at Butler University’s First Pitch dinner, a fundraiser for the baseball team. The event was the brainchild of head coach Dave Schrage (sounds like “Shragg”), who came to Butler in July after spending nearly three decades and accruing 732 wins between South Dakota State, Notre Dame, Evansville, Northern Illinois, Northern Iowa, and Waldorf. A baseball lifer, the Chicago native and Creighton alum was initially lured into coaching by none other than Jim Hendry.
The former Cubs GM had joined Creighton’s coaching staff in 1983, Schrage’s senior season. To hear Schrage tell it, Hendry softly broke the news to him that maybe his best bet to keep wearing a baseball uniform was as a coach. After heading to St. Thomas (FL) for a season as a graduate assistant, Schrage returned to Creighton to work under Hendry, who had been promoted to head coach in 1984.
Fast-forward a few years and you’ve got a coach trying to make an impact with his new team and looking for someone to headline the dinner he was planning. Enter Jeff Vukovich, he of the ubiquitous Nationwide sponsorships that run during Chicago sports broadcasts, who used to coach Schrage and who is obviously well-connected when it comes to the Cubs. Vuk worked his magic and got Coomer involved and there you have it.
I suppose that, given the nature of this blog, I could have dispensed with that whole preamble without risking the integrity of what follows, but I’m big on context. I also like a good story, particularly when it involves a little six-degrees-of-separation action. Not only was it cool to find out how Coomer is tied to Schrage, but hearing about the direct connection between the Cubs broadcaster and Grandpa Rossy was an unexpected gem.
That sense of connection through baseball, of relationships and togetherness, was at the crux of Coomer’s talk. He began with the tale of his own baseball career, of coming up with the Twins and playing briefly for the Cubs before moving on to the Yankees and Dodgers. It was Coomer’s time in the Bronx, he said, that opened his eyes to what winning really looked like. Those Yankees teams expected to win and knew exactly what it took to get to the top.
Being around a group that knew they could and should win was something Coomer said he had never truly experienced before. And he said that he hadn’t seen it again until 2015. It didn’t start that way, though, not for the Cubs and not for Coomer.
“Theo Epstein is an incredible mind for our game,” Coomer said of the man whose arrival in Chicago preceded his own by a couple years. “But I looked at (Epstein’s metrics-heavy style) with a lot of skepticism at first. ‘That’s not baseball, we play baseball over here.'”
As he got an opportunity to know the Cubs president and to see how he went about the business of building the organization, however, Coomer quickly changed his mind.
“Theo’s a people person. To me, when you have a guy who can orchestrate the numbers and put a team together by what you’re supposed to need by the computer and also get a group of guys that are good people, that fit the clubhouse, that make a good environment…when all those things start meshing, you start winning championships.
“And then you add the final piece, which is Joe Maddon. When the Cubs signed Joe Maddon, I was a believer. (He) has an ability to let people be themselves, but where he is great is in making people accountable for both their successes and mistakes.”
In some cases, Maddon even makes them accountable for their steaks.
While the expectations hadn’t really been discussed externally, the talk within the Cubs organization was that the 2015 club had a real shot at the World Series. But things weren’t really looking so hot when Spring Training opened. As Coomer tells it, the first day of team activities looked like something out of Major League. Starlin Castro was firing throws all over the place and the execution from everyone was downright sloppy.
“This is the World Series thing you’re talking about,” Coomer wondered to himself. “Hell no.”
Rather than rip into his team or beat them into the ground with drills, Maddon embraced his “Do simple better” mantra and split the team up for a basic relay-throw competition. First prize: steaks. Second prize: a set of steak knives. Third prize: you’re fired. Okay, the latter two I pulled from the greatest motivational speech of all time. While he’s not quite Alec Baldwin, Maddon’s ploy worked and set a tone that would carry throughout the rest of the season.
As you may recall, that team went on to win 97 games and eliminate both the Pirates and Cardinals before falling to the Mets in an NLCS sweep. One could reasonably argue that the Cubs were the better team and that they simply ran into a pitching-fueled juggernaut that nothing could have withstood, but Coomer also felt the Cubs weren’t quite ready to win. They needed to get close enough to the summit to understand how bad they really wanted it.
By the time 2016 Spring Training opened, it was clear that the team was different. They knew from the very start that they were good enough, that they could win. More than that, every single player on the roster expected to win. That might sound redundant, but there’s a big difference between knowing you can win and believing that you will win. That attitude was both shared and encouraged by their manager.
“Where are we going with this,” Coomer recalled asking Maddon about midway through the season.
“I think this is the one,” came the reply.
Indeed it was. As he sat there in the radio booth with the inimitable Pat Hughes during the waning moments of Game 7, Coomer said he had to make sure to keep his commentary within FCC regulations. More than that, he tried to remain in the moment, knowing that he was about to be a part of history. After all, the phrase “The Chicago Cubs have won the World Series” had never before been broadcast in any manner.
During his public speech, and over the course of our conversation prior to the event, Coomer discussed the importance of the Cubs’ focus on character. As fans, we see that in the way the players act in the dugout or the community, but it extends beyond that. For instance, the fact that they voted to hand out somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 playoff shares, which meant paying out the clubhouse attendants just like the players
In the interest of full disclosure, that revelation actually came from 670 The Score’s Bruce Levine, who was at the dinner with Vukovich. But Coomer recounted a conversation he’d had with Anthony Rizzo (“I call him Tony, I’m not his mother”), who had said there was never a question — at least not for him — about spreading the playoff bonuses out as widely as possible.
We talked about Jason Heyward, too, in particular how he had impacted the team throughout the season and during that infamous Game 7 rain delay. You might expect that a guy who’s endured a season-long slump in the wake of signing a huge free-agent deal to avoid the spotlight. Not the case with J-Hey.
“That takes cajones,” Coomer said of Heyward’s decision to rally the team in that pivotal moment.
I then made an observation that I don’t think I’d really articulated previously, which is that Heyward having the credibility and authority to command the attention of the other men in that room spoke volumes. We’re seeing that in the work he’s putting in right now to overhaul the maligned swing that drove much of the conversation surrounding the Gold Glove right fielder last season. Though I’ve watched and written plenty about that, it was great to watch as Coomer demonstrated and explained several of the flaws and how Heyward’s fixing them.
Then there’s the incredible nature of Kyle Schwarber’s comeback and how he was able to perform so well despite seeing very little live pitching over the previous six months. Much of that was due to heavy doses of pitch tracking, having War Bear stand in the cage with the pitching machine cranked up and just watching, watching, watching different offerings. That success, too, came back to character and how Schwarber helped the team and vice-versa throughout his time on the DL.
So what does that mean for next year?
“Schwarber’s gonna lead off,” Coomer said definitively when asked about the possibility. “Not every game, but quite a bit.”
Looking back, I probably should’ve made that the lede. Clickbait, Evan, clickbait.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though, as Coomer admitted that Aroldis Chapman “wasn’t a fit with the group.” While he didn’t come out and offer specifics, other than to say the closer wanted no part of coming into the game prior to the 9th inning, I think you can draw your own conclusions pretty easily. Coomer went on to say that fans are going to love Wade Davis, who seems to mesh really well with the team already.
When his talk had concluded, Coomer assumed the role of auctioneer as the crowd bid on Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo autographed jerseys, Cubs tickets, and Coach for a Day honors for a Butler game (Coach Schrage’s wife actually won that one). My unofficial total had the donations at around $10,000, and that’s without knowing the amounts from the silent auction.
On a personal note, I had a great time at the event. I ended up sitting next to Brian Meyer, one of Butler’s assistant coaches, and really enjoyed talking with him about baseball and the transition of moving to Indy from New Orleans, where he had served on Tulane’s staff. Earlier in the evening, I had a fantastic conversation with Levine about the Cubs and the changing landscape of both the production and consumption of media.
None of the information above really falls into either the “exclusive” or “breaking” categories, but I do think much of it serves to add a little depth and color to the Cubs story we’ve already committed to memory. If, that is, you managed to make it through the whole thing.
For those of you still here, particularly those in the Central Indiana region, make sure to check the Bulldogs out this spring. The games are free, which I think is a pretty fair price, and these guys are building something special. Go Dawgs!