When I was a kid growing up in rural Indiana, everyone burned their leaves in the fall. No bagging or mulching, just rake them into a long windrow and set them ablaze. I distinctly remember the first time I was allowed by my late Grandpa Mac to actually tend the fire, when he showed me how you had to continually churn the leaves in order to get them all to burn.
Because they were so tightly compacted, oxygen couldn’t feed the flames below the surface. I marveled at the way the interior of the pile seemed untouched by a blaze that was almost too hot to approach and I learned the value turning things over. At the same time, I came to understand that nothing new had to be introduced in order to perpetuate the fire. Rather than douse the leaves in an accelerant, they just needed to be exposed to a slightly different situation.
So while I would never go as far as to say one coach can make all the difference, hiring Anthony Iapoce may be the Cubs’ way of feeding their club’s guttering fire with fresh air.
“It has to be more about production than talent going forward,” Theo Epstein said during his postmortem press conference, shortly after admitting that the offense had broken at some point in the season. “And beyond that, it’s also trying to understand why we’re not where we should be with some individual players.
“It’s our job not just to assemble a talented group, but to unearth that talent and have it manifest on the field. Are we doing everything we can in creating the right situation to get the most out of these guys?”
Even accounting for my personal confirmation bias in wanting Epstein’s words to reflect my analogy, you have to admit that “unearth that talent” conjures images of turning those leaves over. Or maybe we just set aside any clunky metaphysical conceits and acknowledge that it’s as simple as needing a new message after the old one failed to penetrate beyond the surface.
Chili Davis admitted on his way out of town that he wasn’t able to reach the “millennial players,” which defines everyone on the team if you accept the definition of birth years between 1981-96. By the very practice of throwing out a pejorative generalization like that, Davis exposed some of his own flaws. While there may have been some gripes with what he was saying, maybe the bigger issue came from how he was saying it.
Only the people in that clubhouse know for sure, but there’s a pervasive sense that Davis wasn’t much of a rah-rah guy. He didn’t seem very dynamic, which is a big change from the duo of John Mallee and Eric Hinske that had patrolled the batting cage in previous seasons. From the sound of it, Anthony Iapoce is going to serve as a one-man caffeine boost.
“I drink a lot of coffee,” Iapoce told Jeff Wilson of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram in 2016. “High-energy, I’ve heard that a lot, and I think that’s just being excited about what you do each day.
The more energy you bring, the more enthusiasm you bring and the better atmosphere you bring, you’re getting the hitters to win every pitch.
“The energy just comes from wanting to show up every day. That’s your job — to bring energy and bring enthusiasm to the players no matter what the score is, no matter if it’s a win or a loss. The more energy you bring, the more enthusiasm you bring and the better atmosphere you bring, you’re getting the hitters to win every pitch.”
Remember, folks, he said this almost three years ago. Now compare that to what Epstein said about his team’s shortcomings this past season.
“[W]e could have done more from Day 1 through 162 as far as a complete sense of urgency every day,” the Cubs’ baseball boss admitted. “Being completely on mission every day. Showing up with that assertiveness and that edge every day to win.”
[W]e could have done more from Day 1 through 162 as far as…[b]eing completely on mission every day. Showing up with that assertiveness and that edge every day to win.
Gee, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say the Cubs re-hired Iapoce because they knew his “good crazy” is exactly what they needed in the clubhouse. Or, more accurately, what they are trying to recapture. Again, this is not a matter of one coach making the difference in a culture that has gone somewhat astray. It’s part of a bigger movement, going up and down the line to turn those leaves over.
Does that mean we may not see as much actual turnover in the roster this winter, that the Cubs will simply look to augment the current core rather than seek out high-priced superstars? Lord knows they’re not lacking for fiery players, with Javy Baez and Willson Contreras headlining the group in that regard. The goal, then, is to maintain a steady burn rather than seeing them go cold in a quarter of their games.
The bottom line is this: Epstein and the rest of his front office — which already has a different look following the departure of assistant GM Shiraz Rehman — are going to do everything they can to avoid the fate they suffered in 2018. You can point to the win total and the last four years or whatever you want, but this isn’t about fixing 95 regular-season wins. It’s about fixing zero postseason wins.
And it’s about making sure that an at-bat in the 5th inning is an important as one in the 9th, that busting your ass on a getaway day in April is just as important as doing so against the Brewers on Sunday Night Baseball in September. Anthony Iapoce isn’t solely responsible for tending to the leaves and maintaining the fire, but he’s a big part of the Cubs’ plan to ensure that we’re not reviewing their 2019 season until much later in October.