There’s always been plenty of pomp and circumstance surrounding the Cubs, no more so than the past few months of the offseason that lead into the team’s most anticipated Spring Training in over a decade. But this has never been an organization one would readily associate with higher learning.
Sure, you could hearken back to the days of the infamous College of Coaches, but that still-born brainchild quickly lost its accreditation after a few arduous seasons in the early 60’s. In the ensuing four decades or so, the Cubs managed to keep the place running with a colorful faculty while still doing little to embrace both the philosophical and scientific schools of thought on the game.
Anyone recall that graduate workshop called Superstition in Baseball in which professor emeritus Dr. Lou lectured on the definitive existence of Cubbie Occurrences? Or that survey course in cybermetrics led by that adjunct professor named Sveum? How about Nicknames 308 with Dr. Quade?
As you’d expect for a sports organization, they’ve had plenty of Jim classes, taught at times by Drs. Marshall, Frey, Essian, Lefebvre, and Riggleman. History has been a biggie too, even down to that course in Dutch history that was led by a T.A. named Wendell and basically consisted of the study of windmills.
Two of my personal favorites were Dr. Dusty’s Apologetics 405 lab and Professor Elia’s lecture on excoriating elocution, even though I only scored a 15% in the latter.
Man, those were the days; you could breeze through the spring and summer classes with all the effort of a Syracuse basketball player. But ever since President Epstein and Dean Hoyer came into town, they’ve been cleaning things up, even expanding their offerings.
The Cubs have always been liberal, but now there really is some art to what’s being taught. From new computer programs to rookie symposiums, the organization has finally established a firm foundation for what it hopes will become a legitimate institution.
To that end, they went out and hired the best prof money can buy, Dr. Joseph Maddon, a cool academic whose suave delivery and vast topical knowledge leaves him equally amenable to students and trustees alike. He’s like Donald Sutherland’s character from Animal House, sans the unseemly fraternization with students and the butt shot.
But make no mistake, this guy knows what he’s talking about and he’s just the tenured scholar this team needs to lead classes at Cubs University. Speaking to the media before Saturday’s game against the Rockies, Maddon discussed his approach to leading this nascent baseball conservatory.
“It’s like running almost an amateur group that’s trying to become professionals. And because of that, it made me think the other day it’s almost like ‘Cub University.’ Or ‘The Cub University.’”
Jason Hammel, who allowed a three-run homer to Nolan Arrenado in the game, has studied under Maddon in the past and understands his skipper’s methods. “You know you’re going to get a good one-liner out of Joe,” Hammel said. “I hope he’s not comparing us to a college team. The excitement and the energy, I’m assuming, is what he’s feeling.”
Then again, being a college team, even one of the Division II persuasion, wouldn’t be that bad if you could just play the Phillies often enough. But I do believe Maddon is likening his team to a group of students, particularly when it comes to a brand of baseball that hasn’t really been seen on the North Side in a while, maybe ever.
Gathering more talent allows the Cubs to expand their previously limited curriculum, of which Maddon said, “It’s broad. We really promote liberal arts. We’re a liberal arts education in baseball.”
But while some fans have bought into the process for quite a while though, others are growing a bit anxious at the seeing the team graduate under the 5-year plan set forth by leadership back in 2011. Given that we’re just entering Year 4 though, everything appears to be going according to plan.
Cubs University is renovating its campus and has added a sports psychology department led by (actual) Dr. Ken Ravizza and if Friday’s virtual waiting rooms were any indication, applications for the upcoming semester are up significantly over the last few years.
As for the players, Maddon said: “Nobody’s on scholarship. It’s a non-scholarship university. There’s no entitlement program here whatsoever. It’s all earned. E-A-R-N-E-D. And I think these guys get that.”
That doesn’t sound like the same old Cubs. Sure, there’s still be loud music, but it’ll be Maddon’s melange of classic rock rather than Sosa’s salsa. And there’ll be plenty of beer, though fans will be shotgunning $10 cans of Goose Island rather than bonging Beast Ice.
The team and the ballpark are the same, but the paradigms that have long driven them have been torn down and rebuilt as surely as the bleachers. Still, you don’t earn any credits for planning; only with practical application that we’ll truly see the results of the revamped CU.
So while this orientation in Mesa is a relaxing intro, I can’t wait for classes to start in earnest.