Cubs could learn from Braves that winning culture starts at the top
BY GORDON WITTENMYER May 10, 2014 12:46AM
ATLANTA, GA - MAY 09: Shortstop Andrelton Simmons #19 of the Atlanta Braves tags out left fielder Ryan Kalish #51 of the Chicago Cubs during the game at Turner Field on May 9, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 477583017
CUBS AT BRAVES
The facts: 6:10 p.m., Ch. 9, 720-AM.
The pitchers: Jeff Samardzija (0-3, 1.62 ERA) vs. Ervin Santana (3-0, 2.41).
ATLANTA — Eric Hinske, the Cubs’ first-year coach barely 10 months removed from his last game as a big-league player, recalls the three years he spent in Atlanta near the end of his playing career — and about what it is that made the Braves’ clubhouse culture unique.
Then he points to the upper deck in left field, where 19 postseason pennants are hung, including 17 from the last 23 seasons.
“Look at the flags up there,” he said before the Cubs opened a three-game weekend series at Turner Field. “It’s just a thing that’s expected and part of this organization.”
Hinske has a harder time explaining the details behind it, the value of the stability of the Braves’ front office and clubhouse, a way of doing things handed down by Bobby Cox, policed by veterans such as Chipper Jones, and carried on since their retirements by Fredi Gonzalez and a handful of homegrown players raised in the system.
“It’s hard to put your finger on it,” said Hinske, who remains revered for his role within that culture during a three-year stretch that included two playoff runs and a go-ahead home run against the Giants in the 2010 playoffs.
“The bottom line,” he said, “is winning a baseball game. No one talks about themselves or anything like that. You come to the field to win that day.”
As the Cubs continue a long and precarious process of rebuilding from the ground up, it’s done with an eye toward organizations such as the Braves — one of the best at blending expectations of decorum with expectations of winning. That outlook made them one of the most successful franchises at blending outside players with homegrown core guys.
“It starts with having a plan of what you’re looking for and then from the very top on down, making everybody accountable for that,” said Cubs radio analyst Ron Coomer, a former Cub who experienced that in Minnesota (1995-2000) and with the Yankees (2002). “It’s very simple.
“You bring the players and you make the players understand before they come or when you draft them, this is how we do things, and it’s non-negotiable,” he added. “With the Twins, [manager] Tom Kelly had all the support from [owner Carl] Mr. Pohlad to [general manager] Terry Ryan and had success, and his players played a certain way and did a certain thing a certain way.
“When I got there, [Kent] Hrbek had just left, but [Kirby] Puckett played as hard as anybody on the team and ran every ball out. Who was not going to follow in Puck’s footsteps?”
Cubs manager Rick Renteria compared the Braves’ ability to build that kind of team culture with what the Cubs are trying to do — starting with the scouting and player development machinery the Braves mastered for years under executive John Schuerholz.
“It does start at the bottom,” Renteria said. “As much as we might want to rush things. … I think we’re doing that.”
Turning that talent in the farm system into a confident, professional, self-policing — and winning —major-league culture is less precise, and at least as much art as science.
“It was the same in New York,” Coomer said, “from [GM] Brian Cashman calling me, saying, ‘Welcome to the club, and by the way you’ve got to shave your goatee and get a haircut.’ Hey, that was Mr. Steinbrenner’s way, and you knew what you were signing on for. ‘And, oh, by the way, we’re supposed to win a World Series or else you’re out.’
“I loved that accountability factor. … That’s what they’re trying to do here.”
With an obvious Steinbrenner, Kelly, Cox, Jones, Jeter or Puckett.
“It doesn’t happen overnight, but you have to stick to it, and you can’t vary from [the plan],” Coomer said. “It gets to the point where sometimes you just can’t have everybody in your group.
“Some guys go away, some guys can’t play that way, some guys are selfish — whatever the case may be. But those guys weed themselves out quick if you stick with what you’re doing.”