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Cubs 2019 preview: Why Kyle Hendricks can’t stop talking to himself

But seriously: “Hendo?” Come on, man. A “Hendo” spits streams of tobacco juice like a human fire hose. A “Hendo” stands on the field in front of a crowd of 40,000 and adjusts his protective cup like nobody’s watching. A “Hendo” leads with his instincts, wears a minimum of 10 days’ scruff on his face and has the serene composure of a rabid badger.

That’s the nickname Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks chooses to wear across the back of his jersey during baseball’s annual Players’ Weekend? Is something wrong with “the Professor” — merely one of the most perfect monikers in all the major leagues?

Well, yeah. Hendricks, 29, a Dartmouth graduate (in economics modified by math) who thinks the game on a preternatural level and plays it seemingly without a pulse, considers “Professor” a bit too obtrusive when adorning a uniform. Cubs superstar infielder Javy Baez has no problem going with “el Mago,” which means “the Magician.” Catcher Willson Contreras is A-OK wearing “Willy the Beast.” Hendricks is more comfortable taking a pass on such showiness.

“Just having it on my back and my jersey while I’m in a big-league game facing the best in the world, it just seems a little pretentious,” he said a little over a week after reporting to the Cubs’ spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona. “I love the nickname. It’s very humbling that people gave me that, and I understand why it fits in a lot of ways, but for me to take it myself and go on the field with it? That’s a different thing.”

Kyle Hendricks #28 of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning at Wrigley Field on July 19, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

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He catches his share of playful grief in the Cubs’ clubhouse for the decision, from no one more so than bullpen catcher Chad Noble. No one in the organization goes back longer with Hendricks than Noble, whom Hendricks describes accurately as a “wild, nuts, crazy” kind of guy. Noble calls Hendricks “a Dartmouth guy, and I’m saying that negatively.” But what the pair discuss most of all as the right-hander warms up before games is — what else? — hitting. Specifically, they discuss how bad Hendricks, a career .091 hitter with a not-so-meaty slugging percentage of .103, is at it.

Noble — and all the Cubs, with the possible exception of Hendricks — are fairly dying to see the California native belt his first home run. Or at least loft one into a blustery wind and get luckier than a skinny turkey at Thanksgiving as it carries into the basket at Wrigley Field.

“If a homer happens this year, it happens,” Hendricks said. “But, God, I’m waiting for someone to not throw 95 [mph]. I can’t even get around on 90. I would love to have some more hits. I’ve got to get on base first.”

It might take a long ball to crack the stoic countenance of a man who has pitched unflappably in the highest-stakes games, gliding between mound and dugout after half-innings, seemingly without drawing a troubled breath. Will we ever see Hendricks lose his cool?

“I probably couldn’t stay calm if I hit a home run,” he said. “If there’s one thing I’m going to show emotion on, it has to be that. Maybe not running around the bases, but by the time I got back to the dugout? I guarantee I couldn’t help myself. The guys would just roast me. They’d be going crazy, getting loud. I wouldn’t even know what was going on. I’d be so lost.”

Mostly, though, the rest of the Cubs simply continue to marvel at what teammate and close friend Mike Montgomery calls Hendricks’ “nerves of steel” on the mound. Staff ace Jon Lester likens him to an emotionless chess player, always a move or two ahead of the competition. Hendricks’ gift for appearing utterly unruffled in the eye of a storm was evident as the Cubs churned to the World Series title in 2016 and continues to be what distinguishes him — the youngest member of the team’s rotation — from the rest of the starting staff.

If being boringly excellent is wrong, the Cubs don’t want Hendricks ever to be right.

“You can’t always be like a John Lackey or myself or somebody that gets fired up,” Lester said. “That doesn’t mean you’re good. You have to do what’s unique to yourself and what works for yourself, and he does that better than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

***

It was 2014, Hendricks’ first spring training with the Cubs, when former minor-league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson described him in a manner that eventually would become the norm.

“He’s intelligent, and I think he has a real good feel for himself, and he understands what he has to do to be successful,” Johnson told MLB.com. “His routine and his plans are all very, very good.”

But Johnson added this: “He knows he has to stay poised, with his stuff, but I think he’s more rattled now, though you’d never know it. That’s the unique part of it. He’s in big-league camp, a little bit nervous, and you’d never know.”

How does Hendricks, who came to the Cubs at the 2012 trade deadline in the deal that sent veteran starter Ryan Dempster to the Rangers, remember that period of his career?

“It was overwhelming at times,” he said. “I was lucky that I had a lot of good, veteran guys that were part of the team at that time. [Jake] Arrieta was around. Edwin Jackson was a huge help for me, actually, just showing me the ropes, where to be, when to be where. But as far as how I felt inside, [Johnson] was probably 100 percent right. It was just all so brand new. I was just trying to find my way.”

Hendricks, who wore No. 79 in that 2014 camp, was becoming more adept all the time at talking himself out of trouble. Not out loud, mind you, but in between his ears. He’d begun silently speaking key phrases and sayings to soothe his nerves in his second season at Dartmouth: “Breathe.” “Simplify.” “Focus on what you’re doing here.” Perhaps neither brilliant nor deep, but enormously helpful.

Ever the analytical sort, Hendricks had given this strategy a great deal of consideration. He’d even given it a name: “self talk.”

“How do I deal? Do I acknowledge these feelings at the time, or do I just try to suppress them?” he said. “The more you go through those cycles — every five days, you’re going through it — I guess you learn from repetition and the fear gets more and more dampened down.”

Hendricks recalls in detail what he told himself, and when, during his most memorable moments with the Cubs. One example: Game 2 against the Cardinals in the 2015 NLDS, his first postseason start. The Cubs had been shut out by their longtime tormentors in the series opener, and leadoff man Matt Carpenter had just taken Hendricks deep for a 1-0 lead in the the first inning. As the crowd at Busch Stadium — then a house of horrors for the Cubs — went bonkers, Hendricks noticed Carpenter in the dugout essentially telling teammates, “We’ve got this guy.”

Hendricks turned his back to the scene and briefly crawled inside his head: “OK, it’s fine. That’s just one. It’s 1-0. There’s nothing I can do about it. Screw it. It’s over. Now make a good pitch.” The Cardinals didn’t score again off Hendricks until the fifth, by which point the NLCS-bound Cubs had pushed six runs of their own across.

A year later, in the third inning of the biggest game in Cubs history — Game 7 of the World Series in Cleveland — Hendricks was on the ropes. The Indians had just tied it at 1-1 on Carlos Santana’s single, and Jason Kipnis followed by reaching on a Baez error that left runners on first and second with only one out. Hendricks then fell behind 3-0 in the count to Francisco Lindor.

“I knew it was a major turning point there,” he said. “If something happened there, an extra-base hit, the energy would’ve exploded and I’d have been out of the game like that. But that was a very similar emotion and experience that I’d felt a lot of times. So I just told myself: ‘Step off the mound. Just breathe. Nothing else matters. All I can do is make a good pitch here.’ ”

Lindor fouled off a 3-1 fastball perfectly located down and away before being retired on — again, perfect — a sinker down and away. Hendricks retired Mike Napoli to end the threat, helping to turn momentum back in the Cubs’ favor.

Score another one for self talk.

“It’s all in my head,” he said.

***

A little over a year after the Cubs won it all, Hendricks found himself in a circumstance that made him more outwardly nervous and emotional than he’d ever been in a baseball setting. He closed his eyes and told himself to breathe, to simplify. “Focus on what you’re doing here,” are the key words he remembers using.

What was he doing there? He was getting married.

Hendricks attributes his quiet nature to having moved several times as a child. More than once, he had to fall in with a new baseball team right in the middle of a season. Making close friends never was easy for a kid who hadn’t been around long and seemed always to have to prove himself anew.

“After a while it was like, ‘Why am I going to connect and get so close to this person if I’m going to be moving again in a year?’ ” he said. “I didn’t want to think like that, but I was young. I didn’t know.”

Wife Emma has helped unlock a part of Hendricks that he — Mr. Smart Guy — didn’t know existed.

“She grew up, born and raised, in the same household, had the same group of childhood friends, is so close with everyone, is such an open person,” he said. “I try to learn those things from her.

“It has opened me up with the Cubs, too, in a lot of different ways, things I hadn’t tapped into before in my childhood. I’m still learning a lot about myself, opening up more and being open with my teammates more, building those relationships on a human level with these people. All it had ever been for me was baseball. It’s just really cool to be able to finally step out from that a little bit and realize everything else that you do have around you also.”

Hendricks still laughs about his first game in the big leagues. It was in Cincinnati in July of 2014, a day before his first start. He was minding his own business in the dugout — quiet as ever, not at all comfortable yet with his new teammates — when Anthony Rizzo threw his glove down in front of the home dugout and challenged any and all Reds comers to a fight. Hendricks barely had time to be scared to death as he was rushing onto the field.

“I remember thinking, ‘Is this the big leagues? Is this what happens in the big leagues?’ ” he said. “You’re in the chaos. You get in there with your teammates. Obviously, I don’t want to be throwing punches or getting hit, but you want to be there for your guys. We were wearing the same logo on our chest, so we were all part of it together.”

He feels the personal connections so much more deeply now. It’s all part of his ongoing evolution into the best pitcher — and strategist, and teammate, and friend — he can be. If another benches-clearing brawl happens tomorrow, “the Professor” will fly even faster into the eye of the storm. He’ll try to stay calm if he can. Then again — who knows? — he might go all “Hendo” on everybody.