Veteran coach Dave McKay wins over Cubs by going back to basics
BY GORDON WITTENMYER firstname.lastname@example.org March 31, 2012 5:36PM
Updated: May 2, 2012 8:25AM
MESA, Ariz. — Like it or not, the culture and attitude change the Cubs are trying to achieve starts in the St. Louis Cardinals’ dugout.
‘‘It kind of does,’’ said new Cubs utility player Joe Mather, a product of the Cardinals’ system. ‘‘And, honestly, it’s a great place to start.’’
In fact, when the Cubs are in St. Louis in two weeks for the Cardinals’ home opener, they even might see some of it in the reflection and glare coming off the Cardinals’ new World Series rings.
It’s already reflected in the impact made this spring by Dave McKay, whom manager Dale Sveum brought in from retired Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa’s staff as soon as he found out he was available and willing to join the Cubs.
‘‘I was very fortunate to get Dave,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘He’s one of the best, if not the best, outfield and baserunning coaches in the game.’’
The message from Sveum, McKay and the rest of the Cubs’ overhauled coaching staff was apparent in some of the first workouts at Fitch Park early in camp, when McKay echoed perceptions Sveum expressed the moment he got the Cubs’ job in November.
McKay told players that even though the Cubs played hard, there was a feeling in the Cardinals’ dugout that if the Cubs led in the sixth inning, ‘‘if we could somehow get it back in the seventh or eighth, you might lie down.’’
One example McKay used from the Cubs-Cardinals games last season drove home the expectations this new staff has. He recalled Matt Holliday’s hard slide in late July that broke up a double play, upended shortstop Starlin Castro and drew so much outrage from the Cubs that manager Mike Quade was ejected. It also ignited a comeback that led to a Cardinals victory in a season in which they reached the playoffs by one game.
‘‘If we don’t break that up, we don’t win that game,’’ McKay said. ‘‘If we don’t win that game, we don’t win a world championship.’’
McKay said he’s most impressed that every player has responded, buying into the repetition, the aggressiveness, the expectations and the daily accountability the coaching staff demands.
Utility player Jeff Baker, who has played for the Cubs under three managers, said the big difference is that the basics preached from the first day of camp have been reinforced all the way through, with accountability attached.
‘‘You don’t want to be that guy,’’ Baker said. ‘‘You don’t want to be that first guy that gets made the example out of.’’
Mather said it’s the same stuff La Russa, McKay and other Cardinals coaches stressed in their camps, ‘‘but I think he’s pounded it in a little bit more here.’’
It’s hard to imagine significant improvement on the bases and in the field from a poor-fielding team with below-average speed that returns mostly intact. But McKay and players swear they’ve seen a difference.
‘‘I tell you, he’s a smart guy,’’ said left fielder Alfonso Soriano, one of McKay’s projects in camp. ‘‘I feel like I have better timing, and I feel more confident in left field with the way he’s teaching me. In seven years [as an outfielder], this is the most I’ve gotten from an outfield coach.’’
McKay spent his first talk with outfielders warning them he was going to start from such a basic level that some might be tempted to tune him out. It hasn’t happened yet.
In one of his first drills, he shot fly balls from a machine so high into the air that they knuckled coming down. Without explaining his objective, he watched the first few balls hit the grass before somebody finally got a glove on one. That one, too, hit the grass.
He then reviewed the basics of centering a routine fly all the way down, as if to catch it on your forehead, and giving yourself margin to react. Two-handed catches are way up in camp this spring.
Fielding ground-ball hits to the outfield like an infielder — again, centered — when the runner isn’t a threat to stretch it is another emphasis. So is driving throws through the cutoff man.
‘‘I once fined [John] Mabry for overthrowing the cutoff man when he threw out a runner at the plate to win a game,’’ McKay said. ‘‘That’s the message you send: ‘Great throw. Now don’t do it again.’ ’’