Cubs’ secret weapon is strength coach Tim Buss
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter July 12, 2014 10:56PM
Chicago Cubs strength coach Tim Buss (left) talks to his players before their game Friday afternoon at Wrigley Filed during warmup and stretching drills. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times
Updated: July 13, 2014 2:28AM
CINCINNATI — The first person shortstop Starlin Castro thanked publicly for helping him return to All-Star form is the same guy first baseman Anthony Rizzo sees first on most mornings on the road.
But Cubs strength coach Tim Buss is no All-Star whisperer, mostly because nothing he ever does comes in the form of a whisper.
‘‘Under the radar’’ is more like it, said Buss, a quick-witted, sharp-tongued taskmaster with a scruffy beard and mussed hair.
‘‘Underpaid’’ is more like it, according to right-hander Carlos Villanueva, who is among Buss’ legion of believers in the clubhouse.
What’s certain is that Buss, 41, has survived six managerial changes, two front-office regime changes, two ownership changes and scores of millionaire ballplayers in his 14 years on the job because of contributions rarely seen publicly but felt deeply by players such as Castro and Rizzo — and recognized throughout the organization.
‘‘It’s no coincidence,’’ Villanueva said. ‘‘Bussy’s a lot of things. He’s our strength guy, he’s a comedian, he’s a shrink.’’
Maybe a secret weapon?
‘‘He’s part of the reason a lot of us have what success that we do,’’ said reliever James Russell, who has stayed off the disabled list during a five-year Cubs career despite ranking among the top 10 in the National League in appearances the last two seasons.
As the Cubs go through a painful transition that has sent more than 100 players through the big-league clubhouse since Theo Epstein took over, Buss has been the constant.
Nobody escapes the wry jokes that come with his boisterous laugh and big personality. But Buss’ biggest strength is seen during the part of his 12-hour workday when the lights go on in the weight room.
‘‘He jokes all the time, but when you’re talking about work, bro, he doesn’t joke,’’ said Castro, whose big rebound season started when Buss spent a month last offseason in Castro’s hometown in the Dominican Republic, pushing him in early-morning workouts.
On the morning Starlin Jr. was baptized, Buss didn’t allow for a day off. Instead, they got up two hours earlier to do their work.
Castro credits Buss with helping make him an All-Star this season, but Buss scoffs at that notion.
‘‘I was just making sure that he knew exactly what the organization needed from him,’’ Buss said. ‘‘And that’s a lifestyle change and to make sure that if he wasn’t going to be successful, it wasn’t going to be because he was out of shape.’’
Buss might have played a role in Rizzo’s All-Star season, too, though he scoffs at that, as well. But a morning workout routine on the road that started about this time last season has continued this season, with Buss and Rizzo connecting in the gym daily during road trips.
He’s ‘‘very unique,’’ Russell said of the combination of humor, work ethic and personal investment the Cubs get with Buss.
‘‘From the outside, he’s a really good strength coach,’’ Russell said. ‘‘I’ve never seen somebody get more angry at guys getting hurt and take it so personally.’’
Villanueva said it sometimes includes chair-throwing.
‘‘He makes us work hard, but he does it in ways where he keeps it loose and fun and helps you stay sane whenever you’re kind of getting your butt whupped a little bit,’’ Russell said.
Hitting coach Bill Mueller, who played for the Cubs in Buss’ first season with the team in 2001, said he has seen a personality that has grown since then and is impressed with the studied, ‘‘progressive’’ approach that belies the smirking exterior.
‘‘He’ll motivate you the right way and keep everything loose around here, which is very needed in this clubhouse, especially during this process that we’re going through,’’ Villanueva said.
‘‘You can’t be serious all the time; it’ll mess with your mind. But when it comes to work, he’s firmer than he looks like.’’