Cubs developing knack for making top prospects like Ian Happ feel needed

David Haugh
Chicago Tribune

On the day last year Cubs catcher Willson Contreras arrived in the major leagues for good, teammate David Ross hugged him as if he had escaped captivity rather than Triple-A Iowa.

A few lockers away, Miguel Montero shook hands with the guy he called a future All-Star. The catchers suddenly competing for playing time with Contreras couldn't have provided a warmer welcome without placing a mint on his hotel-room pillow.

"Unbelievable," Contreras said.

Ian Happ can relate. The newest Cub knows the city from visiting his brother, Chris, a former currency trader who used to live on the Gold Coast. Chris, who's six years older, accompanied Ian to Chicago after his call-up, but Cubs teammates looking out for the kid eating up somebody's at-bats have made any brotherly advice a bonus.

"I was with these guys in spring training for a month-and-a-half and got to know them, so they've all been welcoming," Happ said. "This team is so inclusive and everybody is so accepting when guys come in to help the team."

A stark local contrast immediately comes to mind. At Halas Hall, anticipation surrounds quarterback Mike Glennon's availability Tuesday because Glennon reportedly reacted negatively over the Bears drafting Mitch Trubisky, his eventual replacement, second overall. The fact Glennon had yet to meet Trubisky before last weekend's rookie camp only fueled that fire.

If the Bears were more like the Cubs, Glennon would have offered to follow Trubisky on his long drive to Lake Forest in case Trubisky's 1997 Camry broke down.

In pro sports, collective unselfishness can be an intangible as important as talent. This is why character matters so much when drafting and signing players to fill the clubhouse with men mature enough to find the humility necessary to create harmony. This is as much of the Cubs' identity as any of manager Joe Maddon's slogans. This is why Maddon scoffed at the suggestion that Happ playing at someone else's expense might not go over well with those whose status he affects most.

"I'd like to believe that's not going to occur here," Maddon said. "I really would not want to be a part of that in the clubhouse. Hopefully, that would (be more likely to) permeate a group maybe at the college or high school level, where the parents are arguing my son's better than yours, and the kid goes home and hears it all the time.

"You're not going to hear that here. I want to believe, and I do believe, that our guys are pulling for one another."

With the exception of infielder Tommy La Stella going AWOL last summer after a minor-league demotion, the Cubs have given Maddon every reason to believe that. Jason Heyward, making $28 million a year, was benched during the playoffs but never publicly complained. Kyle Schwarber, who missed all but three games of the regular season to injury, dramatically returned as the designated hitter for the World Series, and nobody whined about Schwarber taking his at-bats.

Before Contreras and Happ, Maddon successfully orchestrated the installation of Addison Russell at shortstop in 2015, which required supplanting popular former Cub Starlin Castro. And Castro unselfishly stepped aside to second base, without making a fuss, the way players must in a winning organization. But it cannot be taken for granted that every player will.

"When you start getting self-centered, man, it's going to go bad in a hurry for you and your group," Maddon said. "So I believe everybody out there wants Ian to do well. We all want each other to do well."

Any other reaction, Maddon said, would represent "a real loser's mentality."

The Cubs organization has come a long way since then-incumbent shortstop Ryan Theriot challenged Castro, then a hot 19-year-old prospect, at spring training in 2010.

"He's going to have to come and get it," Theriot said.

Six months later, the Cubs traded Theriot and Castro came and got the starting job the following May.

It was Castro whose name Javier Baez mentioned first when asked what Cubs player embraced him tightest when Baez was called up amid much hype in 2014.

"He made me feel like family," Baez said of Castro.

Now, Castro plays for the Yankees. The culture of acceptance he helped create remains in the Cubs clubhouse.

Former Cubs outfielder David DeJesus extended his career to 12 seasons based largely on his ability to be a great teammate. The first free-agent Cubs President Theo Epstein signed, DeJesus appealed to management mostly for his reputation for staying positive and professional. The team-first mentality DeJesus passed along to Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, among others, came from watching Carlos Beltran as a rookie with the Royals. DeJesus later took the same approach with Kevin Kiermaier on the Rays even though Kiermaier's presence made the outfield more crowded. He practiced what his manager, Maddon, preached, then and now.

"Joe takes out the fear that limits players and just says, 'Enjoy your time on the field because it's a long season and we're going to need everybody,'" said DeJesus, now an analyst for CSN. "As a player, you know you were in that situation once too so you want to be honest and open with new guys on what to expect. You want them to succeed. That's what the game is all about, passing it on from generation to generation."

The millennials have been called the Me, Me, Me Generation but the young Cubs challenge that notion every time a phenom bursts onto the scene, with Happ the latest example.

"I love this team and this city, especially when the weather is nice," Happ said.

Chicago's warmth makes Happ want to stay awhile.

dhaugh@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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