So I was listening to Fox Sports Daybreak on my way into work this morning and I heard the familiar Chicago accent launch into another typical diatribe. Yes, it was Mike North, and he was getting his panties in a bunch about Jay Cutler and how he's so awful and has the worst contract in sports, and blah blah blah.
I felt the sudden urge to punch my radio in effigy, so I guess I understand how some of my readers feel. But I don't need to agree with North to understand that he's lamenting Cutler's lack of those intangible qualities that elevate someone from just another talented athlete to a bona fide star and leader.
You see it all the time on Yahoo or on the covers of the various Celeb gossip mags and tabloids in the grocery store checkout line too: Stars Without Makeup.
Sometimes these are doctored to make you believe that your favorite glamorous Hollywood celebs are really just hideous trolls. Of course, in watching the Academy Awards Sunday, you might find that some stars are frightening even when they're all glammed up. Other times, it's to show that they're truly fresh-faced beauties. When it comes to baseball prospects, we often see the former, and that's certainly been the case for the Cubs in recent history.
You see, to really make it, a kid has to have more than just a strong arm, sweet swing, and a pretty face. But we sure do love to swoon over those traits, don't we? I mean, Kris Bryant hits one home run in a Spring Training game and all of a sudden people are acting like he's the next Vance Law or something. Javy Baez does it and he's the second coming of Jose Hernandez.
Okay, in all seriousness, I do think Bryant and Baez are going to make it. I feel the same way about Albert Almora and even Dan Vogelbach. Sure, they all have measurable skills. But more than their respective slash lines, it's their confidence that most impresses me. A swagger, a knowledge that they're going to succeed and a will do what it takes to make that happen.
Our story starts a few years ago, during my freshman orientation at Hanover College. I had missed the earlier opportunity due to a family vacation and so was forced to test into German, Calculus, and other subjects after having not cracked a book in months. The results weren't pretty.
In any case, the campus was relatively quiet and the few guys who were there from my floor spent some time hanging out and just trying to overcome the boredom and awkwardness of the situation.
One guy in particular, we'll call him JR, seemed to have sort of an It quality, a charisma that drew others to him. And not like a scary, Pennywise It either. The first time I ever got drunk was with a group that included my roommate and another guy down the hall, all ostensibly led by JR. And mom, if you're reading this: just substitute "euphoric" for "drunk."
My across-the-hall neighbor, Fat Mike, was the oldest guy in the dorm, kind of like Tommy Boy but without the erudite bearing savoir-faire. He was obnoxiously nosy, prone to theft, and went absolutely apeshit during Xavier basketball games.
Fat Mike's one redeeming quality was that he was more than willing to contribute to the delinquency of minors by purchasing beer for them. So after a clandestine exchange that felt more like a deal Jesse Pinkman would have transacted, Mike got his $10 and we got a 30 pack of Coors Extra Gold (again, mom, just sub in "Diet Pepsi"). Rocky Mountain refreshment, my foot.
My one regret about that night is that our mini dorm fridge could not achieve a low enough temperature to make the beer more palatable to my as-yet-untrained tongue. Otherwise, it was a pretty fun time; we headed to a couple of parties, stumbled home from FIJI, and generally acted like dumb college kids.
As is usually the case, friendships ebb and flow and I really didn't hang out with JR much after that. But we were both English majors, so we had several classes together over the years that followed. Plus, when your campus has fewer than 1,200 students, it's pretty much impossible not to rub elbows with just about everyone at one point or another.
Both of us leaned more toward the creative side of the major, even though HC really only offered a degree in Lit. But JR was a theater guy too, so that made sense. I don't think either of us took our classwork all that seriously, though I am willing to bet I buckled down a little more.
Actually, I'm sure he'll tell you that he partied harder than you. I had more of the tangibles that lead to success: grades, awards, etc. In fact, I won the (not so) coveted Meese Literary Award, given to the student most likely to succeed in creative writing. Actually, I shared the award, but let's not split hairs here.
JR, on the other hand, was a little more of a wild-card, a guy who didn't seem to have to try that hard. He made it look easy because he just had this way about him that made you feel like he knew what he was doing.
And so it was that I found myself with him following graduation as we turned in our caps and gowns. Almost too cheesy to say, but things had come full circle for us. There in the room with us was Dr. Smith, one of our English profs.
"So, JR, what are you planning to do after graduation."
"I'm going to get on a plane, fly to LA, and become famous."
Those are his exact words, at least to the best of my recollection. And he said it with nary a trace of irony, sarcasm, or humor. Dude was dead set that he was going to make it.
I, on the other hand, was not confident in what others had told me were my God-given abilities. Thus, I headed from college to a commission-only job selling life insurance. Then to a job waiting tables at Applebee's. Sure, I would get ideas, thoughts, inklings that could lead to stories or even books.
But five Long Island Iced Teas and a couple Bud chasers have a funny way of erasing both motivation and memory alike. Writing a book isn't riding a bike either. But I'm pumping a little air back into the tires and putting the training wheels back on.
Who knows, maybe I can be like Josh Hamilton, though I'd settle for just being AAAA at this point. I'm just happy to be writing.
I guess what I'm trying to say here is that Cubs fans have seen plenty of guys come up through the minors and follow my path. Except, you know, with baseball instead of writing. They looked good on paper, but when it came time to put in the work and to have faith in their own ability, they came up short.
But if everything we're seeing and hearing is true, several of the guys coming up are a lot more like JR. They have the skill and the will, the substance and the swagger, and it's the latter of those those combos that will help them the most.
We love to heap adulation onto the Next Big Thing, and sometimes we do so before said hyped-up prospect has warranted the praise. Or perhaps he's simply not strong enough to shoulder the accumulated weight of history and expectations. This new crop of kids, though, they seem to get it, to want the pressure that comes with performing on the biggest stage.
And while it's not The Globe, the playhouse at 1060 W. Addison has seen its share of characters. And while many have too closely resembled Falstaff, it appears that Romeo, Hamlet, and Othello are on the way. Except, you know, for the tragic ends those characters all met. Maybe Macbeth? No, no, that's just as bad. Well, you get my belabored point.
Rather than goofy and bumbling (while still being subtly witty and complex at times), the Cubs are soon going to have a younger, sharper edge. And that's a performance I'd pay to see.
Now, some of you are probably wondering about my classmate, JR. Well, he did indeed fly out to LA and he's made quite a name for himself. I don't want to ride his coattails into a couple more page views, so I'll just say that he's been on a few TV shows, most notably one on HBO about vampires and werewolves. Oh, and then there's the little website he started; something that pairs well with sour cream in potato chip flavors and has spawned a brewery, a registered 501(c)(3) charity, and a wildly successful line of apparel.
Keep Calm and Cub On!
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