Kyle Schwarber spent every home game this season in full uniform, on the Cubs’ bench at Wrigley Field, even though he got no closer to the playing field during a game than the moment he hobbled on one crutch to the foul line for Opening Day introductions – to a standing ovation.
But it’s been just these past few games as the season reached the fall and the imminence of the playoffs became as palpable as the renewed chill in the air that the memories have started to flood through Schwarber’s mind.
“Definitely they do,” said the Cubs’ young slugger.
A year ago as a rookie, Schwarber was a second-half force and the Cubs’ power-hitting playoff hero, setting a franchise record with five postseason home runs as the Cubs rolled to the National League Championship Series.
Now six months to the day since he suffered a season-ending knee injury on an outfield collision in Phoenix, Schwarber will be back on the bench in uniform Friday when the Cubs open this year’s playoffs – the video board with his legendary Game 4 home run ball against the Cardinals still encased on top where it landed, staring back at him from right field.
“As this time has rolled around, it definitely brings back memories for me since I’m out,” said Schwarber, who quickly pivots to dispel any sense of self-pity. “But watching these guys play every day and seeing how they go about their business it’s all really good stuff. I feel if they keep doing what they’re doing, having fun, separating the added ‘pressures’ that we have, we’ll be just fine.”
Schwarber, who had a sudden impact when the Cubs called him up at the All-Star break to add his left-handed power to the lineup, might have impressed the organization as much this season with his approach and attitude as he has stayed in Chicago for his rehab work since that injury the third game of the season.
In addition to a full schedule of physical work, he has participated in planning meetings with pitchers and catchers, soaked up what he could in the team’s war room on draft day, and has helped as much as allowed with video and scouting breakdowns of opponents.
“I like to try to do as much as I can,” he said.
That was part of the idea in having him stay in Chicago instead of spending the year in Mesa, Ariz., doing his rehab work. More important was the relationship building the Cubs wanted to see continue with a player they consider so big a part of their future he became their only untouchable prospect during trade talks with the Yankees that eventually landed closer Aroldis Chapman.
“It’s very important to have him stay connected like that for next year,” manager Joe Maddon said in recent weeks. “Everybody knows what he’s all about. He’s all about winning.”
That has made sitting out such a huge year, and the postseason to come, especially difficult for the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft.
“Looking at him, you couldn’t tell if it’s been tough on him, he’s just been so strong,” teammate Kris Bryant said. “Just a really good teammate through everything. But I’m sure it’s eating at him. He wants to be on the field.”
Schwarber, who’s not sure if he’ll make his return to games during winter ball or spring training, said he’s just trying to keep his focus on being in the best shape of his life with a healthy knee in February.
The Cubs won 103 games without him this year, but everybody from the front office to Maddon to teammates talk about how much he’s been missed. And he’ll start traveling with the club during the playoffs.
“Oh, my goodness, if he was in this lineup the whole year I think we could have won at least 10 more games,” Bryant said. “He’s a game changer. I’m glad we’ll have him back next year.”
Schwarber long ago shed the crutch, and he has begun to jog. But don’t count on any dramatic comeback in the playoffs, no matter how long the Cubs play.
“No chance,” said Schwarber, echoing what team officials have said multiple times over the past month.
Besides, he said, “It wouldn’t be fair to the other players. These guys have grinded out 162, and I wouldn’t even be close to being ready to play a major league baseball game. And the way they’re playing this year, they’re fine without me.”
Except they don’t look at it that way. And they’re certainly not without him.
“Everyone here has seen how diligent he’s been in his work to come back and get healthy for us and be ready for next season,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “He’s been with us all year. He’s one of the guys.”