Cubs need Ian Stewart to forget the buckle, bring the belt
BY GORDON WITTENMYER email@example.com March 24, 2012 6:54PM
Chicago Cubs third baseman Ian Stewart takes a short break during infield practice as workouts continue on Tuesday February 28, 2012 at Fitch Park in Mesa, Arizona. | TOM CRUZE~Sun-Times
Updated: April 26, 2012 8:26AM
MESA, Ariz. — By the time third baseman Ian Stewart got to the big leagues in 2007, the story was already famous among Colorado Rockies players who weren’t even there.
‘‘You heard the stories of his BP at Coors [Field] as a 17- or 18-year-old,’’ said Jeff Baker, a former Rockies and now Cubs teammate.
It was right after Stewart was drafted 10th overall in 2003 and the Rockies brought him to Denver for a tour of the facilities and some batting practice.
‘‘He came in and was hitting home runs in the third deck there,’’ Baker said. ‘‘Which Brad Hawpe would do occasionally, which [Todd] Helton would do occasionally. But it was by no means normal. And this kid was doing it from Day 1.’’
The Cubs believed that power, that upside, that 6-3, 215-pound raw athletic ability was still there when they traded for Stewart in a four-player deal in December, despite nagging injuries and declining numbers since his 25-homer season in 2009.
It was a big reason the Rockies passed on drafting Evan Longoria with the second overall pick in 2006. In fact, it was widely believed that Longoria wouldn’t be available at No. 2 to the Tampa Bay Rays. They even put all of their efforts into drafting Tim Lincecum.
‘‘Stewy had the same swing then that he has now,’’ Baker said. ‘‘And he’s still got the tremendous power and power potential. He also plays well defensively. He’s pretty much the same guy.’’
So what happened? What made the Rockies’ one-time franchise third baseman — at age 26 — a player they were willing to trade without a more attractive alternative at his position than 38-year-old Casey Blake?
Some of it might be the series of minor and sometimes nagging injuries, including a left wrist issue that cost him the last six weeks of 2011 and could require monitoring throughout this season, though it hasn’t seemed to affect his swing or power so far.
It also might have something to do with his placid demeanor, especially in contrast to Rockies teammates such as the emotional and hard-driving Troy Tulowitzki.
‘‘I feel like sometimes I’ve gotten a bad rap because I’m not very emotional, like if I strike out, I don’t throw my helmet,’’ Stewart said. ‘‘You don’t get to see stuff flying everywhere. I don’t curse or yell out loud. I think sometimes that was looked at like I didn’t care about my results. I had coaches on separate occasions ask me if I care about the game because maybe I don’t act like I do.’’
Stewart said that’s more about a conscious effort to control his emotions to prevent him from taking at-bats into the field or vice-versa.
‘‘I wouldn’t say it’s a gift, but I just have a way of being able to handle adversity on the field without letting it overtake my other aspects of the game,’’ he said. ‘‘And sometimes that can be perceived as not caring. But that’s definitely not the case. I’m just able to hold my emotions in and keep them in check.’’
The Cubs were aware of the perceptions but came to their own conclusions after doing background work. They determined a change of scenery would resolve any related concerns. If anything, the Cubs had to rein in an offseason workload that might have been too intense.
What’s certain is the Cubs will take the likeable, easygoing Stewart all day if it comes with the kind of Gold Glove defense he has shown in camp and 25 or so home runs.
When he unloaded on a long home run against the Texas Rangers on Thursday, it was his first home run in a major-league game — spring or regular season — since Aug. 23, 2010. He’s 7-for-24 (.292) this spring with three of his seven hits for extra bases.
‘‘It’s huge,’’ manager Dale Sveum said. ‘‘For us to be a team that scores runs consistently, our corner guys have to hit. Otherwise, we could be in trouble scoring runs.
‘‘He’s put some good swings on the ball all spring training, really. He really hasn’t had any poor at-bats.’’
Stewart is ready to make the most of what he calls an ‘‘opportunity’’ with the Cubs, if not change a few perceptions.
Not that he wanted to leave the Rockies. He still has a lot of good friends on the team, and he married the daughter of one of his Rockies minor-league managers, who still manages for the organization.
‘‘This is probably even better for my career and my family to come here to a situation where this team feels like they need me,’’ he said. ‘‘Just that alone makes me feel good, makes me feel wanted here. So it didn’t end the way I wanted it to there, but it’s begun here better than I would imagine it would so far.’’