MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs have an All-Star at catcher, an All-Star at first base, another at second, a Rookie of the Year at third, a Gold Glove-winning All-Star in center, and a Cy Young winner on the mound.
And then there’s The Legend.
He’ll be in left field on most days.
When he’s not lifting cars off trapped motorists. Or hanging out with his blue ox.
Kyle Schwarber has been a major-league player for all of 78 games, including playoffs. That’s less than Arismendy Alcantara. But nobody on this team inspires more awe when he steps to the plate — or as many social media hymnals when hits a baseball.
“And it doesn’t matter who’s pitching,” teammate David Ross said. “It’s given me a complex about how bad I am.”
That was Ross last fall marveling as Schwarber called shots through a rookie-record home run binge in the playoffs – reserving a place in Cubs lore with a wild-card shot off Pirates ace Gerrit Cole into the Allegheny River, and his video-board moon landing at Wrigley Field against Cardinals lefty Kevin Siegrist a week later in a division-series clincher. Then he homered off Mets ace Matt Harvey in the NLCS.
Teammates said later he called both the river shot and the homer off Siegrist.
All of which has overshadowed the less elegant fact that he arrived in Mesa this spring as a very raw catcher forced to play left field to keep his bat in the lineup with a lot left to prove as a big-league player.
Of course, then he started breaking windshields and denting luxury automobiles in early spring batting practice (drilling a BMW Tuesday), and the Legend of Schwarber grew another few feet. And all that stuff about his fielding was forgotten again.
How comfortable is this 22-year-old kid with all the Bunyanesque attention and adoration from Cub faithful?
“This can keep going on if the fans like it,” he said earnestly. “But I’m still going to stay me.”
Whether that changes if he becomes the All-Star power hitter and clubhouse leader many in the organization believe he will, it’s a balance that has seemed part of his nature since he became an overnight college hitting star as a freshman at Indiana.
“I’ve had great players over my time, but I tell all the guys I coach what separates Kyle Schwarber is he’s as humble as they get,” said Schwarber’s college coach Tracy Smith, the one-time Cubs farmhand now coaching at Arizona State. “There’s no ego. He wants to win.”
Smith said the work ethic that has impressed so many Cub officials since Schwarber was drafted in 2014 also was there since the coach got to know the lefty slugger as a teenager – the biggest reason Smith believes Schwarber will overcome his Deadspin-hyped defensive woes from the playoffs to become a legitimate major-league left fielder.
“He’s athletic enough he’s going to figure it out,” Smith said. “It’s just a matter of reps.”
If the Cubs want to speed up the process, just tell Schwarber he’s not good enough to do it. Smith did that when Schwarber was a freshman, adjusting to major college catching.
“We told him, ‘We’re going to recruit [another catcher] because your ass can’t catch,” Smith said. “And what does he do? He goes out and turns himself into a first-round catcher. So I’m not going to put anything beyond that kind once he sets his mind to it.”
Schwarber nodded when reminded of that story. “Backing down from things is just not something I’m going to do,” he said.
“I’m a firm believer in not letting anyone tell you that you can’t do anything. I’ve seen too many instances where people have been told that, and it worked out differently.
“If someone tells me I can’t do something, I’m going to try to do it to the best of my ability. If it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough, but I’m going to give it my best shot.”
Schwarber doesn’t seem affected by his troubles in left field in October, when the worst plays of his young career were spotlighted on the biggest stage of his career.
“What are you going to do? You made a couple bad plays? I’ll own up to it,” he said. “I should have caught the balls, but I didn’t. It’s going to happen. Just happened to be where people saw it a little bit, but what are you going to do? People are always going to have their opinions. I can’t blame them.
“I’m definitely going to get better at that for this coming year.”
The Cubs will be sensitive to Schwarber’s workload this spring, team president Theo Epstein said, as he spends extra time in the outfield along with his work to improve his catching skills, along with preparing to hold down a spot in the middle of the Cubs’ batting order.
“We think he’s capable of handling it,” Epstein said.
Either way, the Legend of Schwarber looks like an unstoppable force a week into spring training.
Which is nothing new to Smith, who watched Schwarber seem to get bigger and stronger with the size of the challenge or the magnitude of the game.
When their Indiana team played a series of nonconference games in Arizona Schwarber’s junior year, scouts and team executives already in the Phoenix area for spring training, flocked to a game to see him, and he hit a homer and showed surprising speed by beating out an infield hit.
Leading up to the draft that season, Smith said, some scouts would talk about how much they liked watching him hit.
Others? “They’d go, `Hell, I love getting here and watching him walk to the plate,’ “ Smith said. “Because he just walks with this aura of confidence.
“The ironic part is he’s tough, but he’s a nice guy. But when he locks in to compete, he’s as fierce a competitor as there is.”
Even in practice.
Smith remembers once promising the team dessert at a scheduled team dinner if Schwarber homered in batting practice – and he hit the next pitch so far over the wall it cleared a second fence enclosing the ballpark concourse.
Another day in practice, Schwarber called his shots on home run balls all the way around the field, starting in far left field and working his way to the right-field line.
“He actually was talking as he was swinging,” Smith said. “Yeah, it’s special.”
In fact, the Legend of Schwarber goes back with Smith to the first time he watched him play at Middltown High in Ohio, just outside of Cincinnati, after an assistant coach had talked him up for several seasons.
Middletown’s opponent that day also had a well-regarded catcher, so when Smith told a recruiter for a prominent summer program the player he came to watch, the recruiter said, “Wrong catcher.”
Schwarber went on to hit three homers in the game against a left-handed senior who was drafted that year by the Reds.
“So I’m running around the park saying, `Wrong catcher!?’ “ Smith said.
The Legend of Schwarber.
It has only reached mythical levels since he was drafted – last year hitting 37 combined home runs in 153 games between the minors (16), majors (16) and big-league playoffs (five).
And as the damage has continued in parking lots in Mesa, virtual altars are being erected over his exploits. He actually autographed a broken windshield last week.
“You can’t pay attention to that stuff because once you do, that’s when you get a big head and things start to go wrong,” he said. “I’m always going to stay the same person I am. Always know where you come from. I’m from small-town Ohio.”
Hard to remember this is a guy who has only been in the big leagues for half a season.
Imagine the possibilities once he’s been around for two or three more years.
“I can’t look down that far,” he said. “We’ve got more important things to worry about this year then 2 ½ years down the road. So my mindset is focused on how to dominate today, and after today how to dominate tomorrow.
“We’ve got a lot of important things to do this year.”