Walking into the Mesa Riverview Complex is an entirely different experience to what we are feeling now with Cubs playoff baseball. The postseason is loud, fraught with nervous energy, highs and lows, emotions so intense you can sense it right through your keyboard miles and miles away.
Here in Arizona, the atmosphere is different. There is relative quiet. Occasionally you will hear the crack of well-struck baseballs or coaches barking out a mix of instruction and praise or the players themselves as they engage in friendly competition.
It’s just baseball without the bells and whistles. It can seem so distant to what is happening in Chicago.
Yet there is a connection between the two seemingly polar extremes. Everyone is buzzing about the Cubs down here. The players get time off during the Cubs postseason games, stressing the importance of unity as well as serving as a reminder of the ultimate goal for the organization. The viewing party for the wildcard game was loud enough to make you think you were at PNC Park, or at least enough to make you feel like you were in Chicago watching the game somewhere.
More importantly, there is continuity between what is being preached and practiced down here and what is manifesting itself right now in the postseason at the MLB level. Down here they are planting the seeds to perpetuate what you see today — both on and off the field.
Tim Cossins is the Field Coordinator and runs a well-organized camp. He deftly balances respect and approachability, able to keep it all running efficiently and purposefully while keeping things loose at the same time.
On a surface level, players here learn the value of routine and repetition, though it is more than just that. Every drill is applied to game situations. The coaches are always on hand to give immediate feedback when necessary. Physical errors aren’t looked down on, they’re viewed as coaching opportunities. As a former educator, we would call those “teachable moments”. Players aren’t afraid to make mistakes here. They learn from them. Players know exactly what they’re supposed to work on — and the instructors and coaches here keep that message consistent across the board.
I remarked to Anthony Iapoce, the Minor League Hitting Coordinator, how so much of what is done here reflects much of what I had learned both as an MAT grad student and then as a teacher/trainer/coordinator. He responded that a good coach has to be a very good teacher. It’s not just idle words, he lives and breathes it — from organizing instructive, yet engaging activities to keeping the players focused and motivated throughout the camp. As anyone who has taught knows, that isn’t always easy to do when you’re dealing with youth. And down here, it seems to gets younger every year. There are several 16 and 17 year old players on the roster this fall as the Cubs have increasingly looked to get recently signed IFAs started early. Iapoce is up to the task. He’s a bundle of energy out there — he can seemingly keep up with the kids all day long.
We can say the same for Infield Coordinator Jose Flores, who keeps his very young infielders engaged and focused. He is entrusted with some important tasks this year, from coaching Ian Happ on his conversion to 2B to developing several talented, but raw shortstops, all of whom are 18 or under. He has done a remarkable job balancing it all. We could go on and on, but I will just say there’s a great set of coordinators, instructors, and coaches here who all play an important role. The personalities may be different, but the philosophy is the same all the way down the line.
The players seems to know when to put the work in and when they can relax and let their personalities show (as with the HR derby). Cossins told me this is by design. As much as they are teaching players the basic fundamentals of the game, they also want them to fit in and find their identity within the organization. These are talented kids and the Cubs want them feeling like they belong, like they are part of a big family. They want them to play loose and with confidence so that their talent can manifest itself on the field. It parallels what is happening in Chicago right now.
One player down here who has exemplified this is Eloy Jimenez. I saw Jimenez in extended spring training and he was rather quiet. He was one of the younger players in camp and so he tended to just do his work and go about his business. This fall, he has taken on more of a leadership role. Jimenez understands what it’s like to be the young kid in camp, to spend his days miles away from a familiar land and culture. And so, he has taken the latest IFA bonus babies under his wing, joking with them, cheering them on, and lending an ear for all questions. Kwang-Min Kwon and Jonathan Sierra can seemingly always be found somewhere near Jimenez. Iapoce remarked how much more confident and comfortable Jimenez is now even in terms of his body language, even just walking down the hallways. He also called him a good teammate.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Jimenez seems primed to explode on the field. The maturation process is translating to his work in the field and especially at the plate, where Jimenez has put on a show almost day in and day out.
It is important to remember that this is an organizational-wide endeavor. Everyone is on the same page. Cossins lauded the scouting department’s ability to not just find good players, but also good people — kids who are easy to coach, willing to work hard, and are good teammates.
That is not to say there is anything cookie cutter about the kids they bring in. These are not the Stepford Cubs. The personalities range from one end of the spectrum to the other, from the fun-loving passion of Andruw Monasterio to the quietly competitive Kwon to the energetic, confident DJ Wilson to the intensely competitive and passionate Happ — yet they all have the fundamental makeup elements — the coachability, the work ethic, the personality to be a good teammate. It’s encouraging to see Happ seek out Iapoce after a BP session or to see Monasterio intently listen to Ty Wright’s instruction at the end of one day — and then seamlessly apply those adjustments on the next.
The coaches and instructors, in turn, easily transition from one player to the next. There is an impressive interpersonal intelligence that is common to the staff here. Each player is different. Each learns differently and the coaches seem to understand and respect that. Moreover, they’re genuinely invested in the success of these players. Cossins almost sounds like a proud papa as he talked about how much Jason Vosler improved as a player last season. The instructors take pride in how highly regarded the Cubs farm system is while also looking ahead to the challenges ahead to maintain that level of success.
Right now, I’m feeling very good about where the Cubs are now and just as importantly, where they are headed. They are good. And it looks like it could stay that way for a long time.
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