By Mick Gillispie / Smokies Radio Network
Today was the day that the major roster cuts were made, and the Cubs reduced the roster from 40 players to 31. Of all the days this spring, it certainly was the most tense inside the Cubs clubhouse. Even though I’ve been in this clubhouse the past three years, and it was still a learning experience on how to handle this situation. Today was a tough day because you feel for guys you know and have been with in the past. Guys like Casey Coleman, Jeff Samardzija, Steve Clevenger and Randy Wells. I’ve seen these guys battle for jobs all spring and all of those four guys had three very different experiences today.
For Steve Clevenger and Jeff Samardzija, this has to rank up there as one of the best days of their life, or at the very least the best day of their professional careers with the Cubs. For Clevenger, a guy that is from my same hometown of Baltimore, he and Welington Castillo have been battling it out for the backup catcher’s job with the Cubs. It was certainly stiff competition for the two former Smokies teammates and they both proved that they can be major league catchers. Welington proved that some of the weaknesses he had in the past behind the plate are now corrected and he is solid defensively. He’s always been able to hit and he improved calling the game and handling the pitching staff.
Steve has always been a good hitter and handles the pitching staff well, but I think this came down to a virtual tie between these two. The deciding factor was how Cubs manager Dale Sveum likes to manage games and he is big on matchups, and Clevenger being a lefty hitter gave him the edge.
For Samardzija, I’m really happy for him that he’s made the club and will be in the starting rotation along with Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Chris Volstad, and Paul Maholm. He said something today in his comments with the media that really stuck with me and shows he’s on the cusp of big things in this game. When talking about how he got this roster spot, he said he’s proud because of how he feels like he really had to earn it. He’s always been such a natural athlete that he could just wake up, go to the field and be the best one out there. This has been the first time that he really had to grind it out, learn to accept failure and overcome it. He’s a guy with a lot of God-given ability, and was a star wide receiver playing football at Notre Dame. He had the chance to go to the NFL, but chose the tougher route in trying to succeed as a major league pitcher. What makes a player great is how they deal with adjustments, and I’ve seen Jeff grow a lot since I first saw him in 2007 with the Smokies.
With Samardzija and Volstad getting spots in the rotation, it means that a few guys were left out like Casey Coleman and Randy Wells who were both reassigned to minor league camp today. Randy has been in the big leagues before as a starter and he really battled for a spot in the 2012 rotation. There was a competition of seven guys for five spots, and everyone really pitched well this spring. It just works out that right now Wells doesn’t have a spot in the Chicago rotation, but he’ll have a chance to continue growing as a pitcher with Iowa. The way the Cubs new management team sees it, and what I think is smart, is that you’ve got to have seven or eight starting pitchers in the organization you feel comfortable letting start in the big leagues. You have the five in the Cubs rotation, but you’ve got to have those guys in the minors that are ready to step in when someone gets hurt. One of those big league starters is bound to get hurt at one point or another in a long season, and I’m sure we’ll see Randy in Chicago at some point this summer. That’s where Casey Coleman fits in as well, he’ll have a chance to grow in Iowa and always be ready if needed at Wrigley Field. I know it’s disappointing for these guys, but that’s just how it went today.
Also Blake Lalli was one of the players sent down to minor league camp today, and I think he did great in his first year at big league camp. Blake is one of the greatest Smokies of all time, and he’s constantly having to battle for respect. Sometimes in this game you get a certain label like “minor league guy,” but Blake’s proven that he can hit big league pitching this spring. He continues to be the guy that’s the first in the clubhouse and the last to leave, and grinds out this game with a smile on his face. He has given himself an opportunity now at the higher levels, and his story is something that all Smokies and Cubs fans should be proud of.
So it’s been an interesting day because you feel great for guys like Steve Clevenger and Jeff Samardzija, even though you know it’s tough right now for Randy Wells, Casey Coleman, and Welington Castillo to be optioned to the minors.
I wanted to use this blog to also talk about the Cubs’ traveling secretary, Jimmy Bank. Jimmy is a guy that I first heard about from his father, Bert Bank. Bert was a war hero from WWII, having been captured by the Japanese in the Philippines and he survived the famed Bataan Death March in the process. When he came back to the United States he had a distinguished career as a radio pioneer, politician, having served as a member of both the Alabama House of Representatives and the Alabama Senate. He went to school at the University of Alabama before the war, and when he returned to the states he settled in Tuscaloosa. Bert founded the Crimson Tide Sports Network, and also owned a couple of radio stations in town. I worked for one of those stations WTBC, and also have worked for the CTSN for the past several years.
When I was a student at Alabama I first met Bert. I was calling games on the student station and he would come by and talk to me and always asked if I needed anything. I got my first scoresheet from Bert, as he gave me one of Eli Gold’s basketball scoresheets which I still use as a model for what I use today. Bert was always good at giving me advice and was a man I was proud to call a friend. He was certainly one of my heroes.
I first remember him talking about his son Jimmy when I was a student, as he mentioned him working with the Cubs. At the time I never thought I’d meet him, although because of this opportunity with the Cubs I have gotten to know Jimmy. He’s been the traveling secretary for the Cubs since the early 1990s, and it’s a big responsibility. He arranges all the travel for the Cubs from the airplane reservations and having buses, as well as booking all the hotel rooms, giving out meal money, arranging for transportation for players when they’re traded, you name it he does it.
Jimmy came up doing radio and he worked for Oakland A’s owner Charlie O. Finley first in Memphis with the American Basketball Association’s Memphis Tams. Charlie O. would eventually sell the team, but he kept Jimmy with him, bringing him back to Oakland where Jimmy worked for the A’s during the first two of what would be three World Champion seasons in the early 1970s. They were certainly a dynasty with greats such as Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Bert Campaneris, Joe Rudi, and others. They won three straight World Series from 1972 to 1974, and Jimmy still has the World Series rings from the two years he was there.
It’s always good to talk to Jimmy and he still keeps up with everything Alabama football which we talk a lot about. It’s very ironic that we got to know each other after I had first known his dad years ago. Jimmy came on my radio show back in Tuscaloosa last night and we talked a lot about his dad Bert who did so much for our state and our country as a war hero.
One aspect of our broadcast this year on Cubs.com that I’m really proud of is having beat writers and other members of the media join us on the air during the game. Len and I really have a lot of fun with it. I’ve got to give Hall of Famer Marty Brennaman of the Cincinnati Reds credit for this, he’s always done a great job bringing on writers during Reds broadcasts. These reporters bring a good element to the broadcast because they can be much more opinionated than broadcasters can be. These guys are very smart, their job is covering the Cubs and their insight on what’s going on with the ballclub is incredible. I’ve been privileged to spend a month around this group and have learned a lot. Yesterday we had Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune on the air and he was fantastic giving his thoughts about what roster cuts he thought the Cubs may make.
Len had Bruce Miles of the Daily Herald on earlier this week, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know another Bruce that has been on the Cubs beat awhile: Bruce Levine of ESPN 1000 and ESPNChicago.com. We’ve also had Carrie Muskat of MLB.com, Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago, and Gordon Wittenmeyer of the Chicago Sun-Times has become a good friend. He’s really fun to be around and it’s fun to talk to him about baseball, politics, the weather, just whatever – he’s a great guy.
One of the things that’s different between the minors and the majors is how stiff the competition is for stories with the ballclub. To tell those stories properly you’ve got to have talented people covering the team, and I’ve seen that from the media that covers the Cubs. So much news breaks everyday with this team, and these guys conduct themselves professionally no matter what happens. It’s been great getting to know them and I’ve learned a lot from staying out of the way and letting them do their job.
That wraps it up for this post and Len and I are getting set for the Cubs and Padres this afternoon in Peoria. Check Roger’s post below for all the listening information.