Blackhawks and Cubs added class acts in Andrew Ladd and Dexter Fowler, respectively, to their rosters in demonstration of what they believe it takes to win.
Speaking recently to a roomful of corporate executives, Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts answered a question about team chemistry by asking everybody to close their eyes.
Imagine your most difficult co-worker, Ricketts instructed the group. Now think of spending more time with that person than your family for the next six months, in board rooms and locker rooms, during meetings and meals, on airplanes and at hotels. Consider having to collaborate with that individual on the job in pressure situations under heavy public scrutiny.
Ricketts then wondered aloud: Would working closely with somebody so incompatible affect your professional performance?
"I think they got the point how much it matters,'' Ricketts said the other day.
Yes, chemistry still matters a great deal in pro sports. Character does too.
A fun, fascinating week in the city just drove that home.
As stunned Chicagoans pinched themselves, the Cubs and Blackhawks asserted themselves as championship favorites in their respective leagues with bold moves beginning last Thursday that had more in common than their timing.
The Cubs re-signing Dexter Fowler and the Hawks trading for Andrew Ladd represented two teams pursuing players for their makeup as much as for their talent. The Hawks' two subsequent trades for proven veterans in defenseman Christian Ehrhoff from the Kings and forwards Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise from the Canadiens followed the same philosophy.
The Cubs indeed improved on the field, and the Hawks did on the ice, but both teams considered the potential upgrades in intangibles perhaps the biggest impetus behind the deals.
If Fowler were simply an above-average defender with a little pop in his bat, chances are he would be an Oriole. If Ladd were just a typical top-six forward with solid two-way skills, the Hawks might have been less motivated to give up a first-round draft pick and young prospect Marko Dano. But there's more to both players; Fowler ignites teammates with infectious charisma while Ladd comports himself like a guy who helped a young Jonathan Toews discover the joys of seriousness. Both established reputations for being grinders, leaders, winners.
The best baseball team in the majors and the defending Stanley Cup champions both understand that more goes into winning than just what happens during games. They both drafted well enough to put themselves in position to shape their rosters with guys who believe in high standards of behavior. As Ricketts told the corporate execs, the length of the season forces players to co-exist in close quarters for at least half the calendar year. As another Cubs official kidded after the first week of spring training, "You mean nobody misses the days of (Carlos) Zambrano and Milton Bradley?''
Production trumps everything in sports, sure, but personality goes a long way toward improving it. For teams talented enough to contend, the element that often puts winners over the top — or prevents losers from breaking through — is whether they mesh or clash.
You know, chemistry. The White Sox seek it, which explains the experimental influx of lively guys like Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie and Jimmy Rollins … but Mat Latos? The Bulls lack it, though it's not as easy as it sounds to get two offensive-minded All-Star guards with $95 million contracts to share the basketball, let alone the spotlight. The Bears aren't good enough yet to prioritize it but, like 31 other NFL teams, were busy last week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis evaluating how prospects interact as much as how they will play on Sundays. The Hawks and Cubs live off it — and feel much healthier now after their most recent moves.
Cubs players sure weren't whooping and hollering because of Fowler's impressive slash line in the second half of 2015: .272/.389/.463/.852. They know how Fowler will respond to adversity and what to expect from him every day. They know they can depend on his effort and attitude. But perhaps the biggest evidence this wasn't a deal defined by numbers is the fact Fowler sacrificed $20 million more in guaranteed money from the Orioles for the comfort the Cubs provided.
Similarly, Ladd feels comfortable knowing the dynamic of the dressing room he will walk into Sunday when the Hawks take on the Capitals. Ladd actually could assimilate quickly enough to help the three other new Hawks adapt quicker. He won't be fazed when coach Joel Quenneville starts juggling lines or pounding the glass. Nothing about the Hawks' pace will surprise a 10-year veteran with two Cups. The only thing that really has changed about the dressing room since Ladd left in 2010 is the new carpet and lockers.
Ladd's temperament appealed to the Hawks as much as his 17 goals and 17 assists. Former Hawks teammate Brent Sopel, traded with Ladd and two others to the Thrashers on July 1, 2010, believes that mentality, combined with his familiarity, will accelerate the transition.
"This won't be like (Antoine) Vermette last year struggling in the regular season after getting traded to Chicago because Ladd knows the system and what Joel expects,'' Sopel said. "You usually never know what kind of guy you're getting in a trade but you do now. You're getting an elite player who has the leadership skills of an NHL captain.''
You're getting a terrific player who's an even better person.
Making it a priority to find those kind of guys can change the course of a season or the direction of a franchise. Just look at the Hawks and Cubs.