Who you gonna call? Ian Happ won’t say who’s on phone, but Cubs hope for slump-buster
Happ’s top-secret red phone is on a dugout party line that includes unlimited long-distance calls for teammates.
Is it the bat phone? A hotline to the Kremlin?
Just who exactly is supposed to be on the other end of that red phone in the Cubs’ dugout when the returning home-run slugger takes the call?
“I can’t discuss that,” Cubs second baseman/outfielder Ian Happ says.
Happ was a co-instigator in the dugout waffle-maker shtick last season, a celebration of “waffled” drives by Cub hitters that became so popular with fans that they sent him enough waffle makers to open a kiosk at the local mall.
The year before that he was Tommy La Stella’s dugout-prop apprentice for teammate “interviews” after La Stella found an old radio microphone in a dusty corner at Wrigley Field.
But don’t ask Happ about the phone he reputedly ordered from Amazon soon after returning from a four-month exile to the minors three weeks ago.
“I can’t say much about it,” Happ says with the grave ambiguity of a secret agent.
If it is a line to the Kremlin, Lord knows the Cubs can use all the Russian interference they can get in their own race this fall.
What seems certain at this point is that La Stella’s legacy lives on with the Cubs 7½ months after he was traded to the Angels and well beyond any spiritual bond he may have shared with a certain multimedia beat reporter.
“I’ve had a lot of motivation from La Stella over the last couple of years,” Happ says.
What seems just as certain: Happ has serious brass.
Four months stewing in the minors after a demotion that served as much a notice to the team as it did a purpose in the player’s development, and the guy who hasn’t been there all year – the kid with one full year in the majors – charges right back into the middle of the road-grizzled group with a bright red phone and a have-fun message?
“I think it speaks to self-confidence,” manager Joe Maddon says. “He is so at ease in a major-league fishbowl. He is himself. He’s not going to overanalyze; he’s not going to worry about what somebody says. He’s doing it possibly to help and try to lift the whole group up and make it more fun.
“Or maybe he’s auditioning for a future job at some point, I don’t know.”
Happ has performed well enough in his return since a hitless opening series that he can put off the telemarketing career change for now.
A heated 15-game stretch (1.024 OPS) earned him an unplanned role at second base as Maddon tried to get his bat in the lineup – and included enough homers that he found himself answering his own phone twice in a four-day span during the current trip.
Whether the phone has a psychological influence on Happ’s performance or whether it does anything at all for anybody else down the stretch in a pressure-packed division race, it certainly can’t hurt, Maddon says.
“If it makes the guys more unified, and they’re into it, I’ll take it,” Maddon says.
Happ’s belief in the unifying power came from an eye-opening experience as University of Cincinnati player.
When he was a freshman, his young, struggling team began photo-bombing postgame TV interviews with enough comedic creativity that it earned national attention.
“And it kind of energized us toward the end of the year,” he says. “Then our coach got fired, a new coach came in, and he was a drill sergeant. And he took it away from us, didn’t let us have any fun playing the game. It was a miserable two years of baseball for me.”
Two years after being drafted ninth overall in 2015, Happ was in the majors – along with La Stella, the microphone, a 24-homer debut and a playoff run.
“That was the first time in a long time that I was able to have fun playing baseball again,” he says. “It’s something I always cherish, being in this locker room, just enjoying winning. You never know how long you’re going to get it for.”