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Cubs 2019 preview: Kyle Schwarber knows who he is, won’t let others define him

Kyle Schwarber is the Babe Ruth of our time. We know this because multiple national sports outlets called him that very thing — ‘‘the Babe Ruth of our time’’ — in headlines early in the 2017 season.

That was after he had captivated baseball with his prodigious power during the Cubs’ drive to the 2015 National League Championship Series and awed the masses by coming back from the injury abyss to help lead the team to victory in the 2016 World Series.

So what if a few months later in 2017, the Cubs’ experiment with batting Schwarber leadoff having gone down in flames, he was demoted to Class AAA Iowa? The barrel-chested left-handed slugger already had been mythologized far and wide. It was too late to un-paint the picture, to take it all back.

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Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs poses during Chicago Cubs Photo Day on February 20, 2018 in Mesa, Arizona. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

He had been portrayed as a Ruthian figure. He was ‘‘The Schwarbino,’’ a nod to, of course, ‘‘The Bambino.’’ He was the guy who launched ‘‘Schwarbombs’’ into the great beyond, who even had a home-run ball in a case — right where it had landed, amazingly — atop the videoboard in right field at Wrigley Field. The way fans and media hungered to look at Schwarber? The things he already had done, despite so little experience at the big-league level?

‘‘That’s what stories and books are written about,’’ teammate Kris Bryant said.

But the mythologizing of Schwarber — a catcher-turned-left fielder who was second on the Cubs with 26 homers last season and quietly led all NL left fielders in assists with 11 — undoubtedly also made it easier for critics to take their cuts at him. He’s even worse in the outfield than he was behind the plate! He can’t hit lefties! He belongs in the American League as a DH! The Cubs should trade him yesterday! He’ll never be a superstar!

‘‘Just tell Schwarbs he can’t do something,’’ manager Joe Maddon cautioned. ‘‘And then just stay out of his way.’’

The truth, in hindsight, is that saddling the man with Ruthian expectations and tearing him down before his 26th birthday (which arrived during spring training) were unfair. Schwarber is neither myth nor bust. What is he? A talented, hardworking player with room for growth in his game and a scant 1,274 big-league plate appearances — about the same as Willson Contreras has and half as many as Bryant has, just for some perspective — under his belt.

How else to offer a more accurate portrayal of Schwarber? Consider these 10 things:

1. His first clubhouse was a police station.

Greg Schwarber rose from beat cop to chief of police during his 32-year career in the Middletown (Ohio) Police Department, and some of the memories he has of preadolescent son Kyle — the Middletown PD’s No. 1 fan — tagging along are priceless.

There are none better than the time Greg was driving Kyle home from school when the radio crackled with news of a search warrant being served on a drug house and a potential suspect bailing out of an upstairs window. Greg steered to the scene and ordered his son to stay in the locked car. Having gotten up to speed and been assured the situation was under control, he turned to leave, only to spot Kyle at the center of a cluster of local officers and federal agents, ready for whatever the next move was.

‘‘Kyle doesn’t know a stranger,’’ Greg said.

Young Schwarber idolized the police so devoutly — mom Donna had been a dispatcher in Middletown, and older sister Lindsey serves in the department today — that he eagerly allowed himself to be stashed in boxes and sniffed out by canines during ‘‘National Night Out’’ demonstrations in the community. Mostly, though, he loved spending those last one or two hours of his dad’s shift at the station. As he got older, he worked out in the police gym and continued to pester everybody.

‘‘It’s like the [Cubs’] clubhouse,’’ he recalled during spring training in Mesa, Arizona. ‘‘Everyone’s in there giving each other crap. I’d get crap, too, just being the kid there. I kind of got my first taste of what it’s like to be in that family environment at a workplace. It stuck with me.’’

2. Lots of people assumed he preferred football, but they were always wrong.

Schwarber was an all-state linebacker — No. 45 — at Middletown High School, which sits a little more than 40 miles north of Cincinnati, and the Middies were a solid squad in a football-mad state. High on his list of favorite sports memories: the upset of superpower Colerain in 2008, when Schwarber was a sophomore starter. Colerain entered that day ranked No. 1 in the state and riding a 35-game regular-season winning streak. Believe it or not, it remains Colerain’s lone conference loss this century.

A year later, Middletown played on the road at Moeller — another football giant — in the opening round of the state playoffs and shockingly won by blowout. Schwarber’s voice lifts as he describes the excitement that beat in his teenage chest.

‘‘These are highlights in my life that I’ll never forget,’’ he said. ‘‘I was playing with a bunch of my best friends. It was awesome.’’

But he enjoyed playing baseball even more, and he proved it — beyond a doubt — on the day of Ohio State’s football spring game in 2010. Schwarber, an avid Buckeyes fan, had been invited to ‘‘The Horseshoe’’ as a football recruit, an opportunity that certainly thrilled him. He had a conflict on his calendar, though: a regular old baseball game. He slung his gear bag over his shoulder and headed to the diamond instead.

3. He knows he still has much to learn in the outfield.

Schwarber — fresh off losing 20 pounds during the offseason — had a nightmarish 2018 Opening Day in the field in Miami. More than 10 months later in Mesa, seated outside in shorts and flip-flops on a wet, 45-degree afternoon, he couldn’t help but laugh while recalling a pair of plays gone bust in that game.

‘‘A guy was on second base, and a ball was hit in the gap,’’ he said. ‘‘I come running with a full head of steam: ‘I’m going to throw this guy out.’ I, like, fell all over myself.’’

As for the other one, a deep, catchable ball he misplayed into a triple: ‘‘I think I dove headfirst into the wall and missed the ball. I was like, ‘Jesus, just slow it down a bit.’ That was a perfect example.’’

A perfect example of what he wants to stop doing way wrong and increasingly do right: get to the same balls elite outfielders such as Jason Heyward and Albert Almora Jr. routinely get to and generally be more trustworthy in the field. Heyward called Schwarber’s improvement in 2018 ‘‘amazing.’’

‘‘Last year, he wound up doing a great job getting to the baseball,’’ Heyward said. ‘‘As I keep telling him, there are a lot of balls you don’t realize you can get to that you do get to. I think he started to see that even more for himself last year. It’s all about getting to know yourself, trusting the game. But he’s an athlete. He works hard and takes pride in it. He can move some. That’s why I’ve tried to let him know, ‘You’re going to get to more things than you realize.’ ’’

One of Schwarber’s biggest goals for 2019 is to know when to go get a ball — and when to slow his roll. It might sound simple, but it isn’t.

‘‘Our other outfielders are fearless, great athletes, but they go out there and know the situation,’’ he said. ‘‘I know I can get to that point, but I just want to be a little smarter out there.’’

4. Doubting him, however, is dangerous.

‘‘It’s just like Joe Maddon says: Say Kyle can’t do something, you better get out of his way because he’s going to do it,’’ Greg Schwarber said. ‘‘He uses it as motivation. He has done it his whole life. It’s the same now as it was growing up, just at a hugely different level.’’

The Schwarbers remember watching Kyle in his early years in baseball, a born competitor, a thoughtful, intuitive player, large for his age, preternaturally strong — and slow as the day is long. A coach used to tease him: ‘‘It’s OK to have a piano on your back, but don’t stop and play it.’’ It’s a funny line, but a kid wired as Schwarber was didn’t find much humor in it.

There was a training facility 20 miles away in West Chester Township that specialized in teaching acceleration, so there Schwarber the middle-schooler — ready to run and in a hurry to do it — went. According to his father, he went from being one of the slowest players on his teams to being one of the fastest. To many, it was a startling transformation.

It’s not about straight speed today with Schwarber, who talks instead in terms of ‘‘efficiency.’’ Or is it? Statcast’s ‘‘sprint speed’’ metric ranks him near the middle of Cubs’ position players in 2018 at feet traveled per second — in his case, 27.1 — while running all-out. The gap between him and (just to name two) Contreras and Addison Russell, who were faster, was equal to the gap between him and (just to name two) Ben Zobrist and Tommy La Stella, who were slower. The MLB average: 27.0.

Upshot: Schwarber officially is faster than most. No one should call him slow ever again.

5. He dropped the F-bomb on Theo Epstein the first time they met.

No one believed in Schwarber, then an Indiana University catcher, more than the late Stan Zielinski, a scout who covered the Midwest for the Cubs. So after the Hoosiers landed in the desert for a tournament in Surprise, Arizona, in February 2014, Zielinski made sure the team got in a session of batting practice under the lights at the Cubs’ facility in Mesa. Schwarber didn’t have much magic in his bat that night, as Epstein, who was on hand and held the keys to the No. 4 pick in the upcoming draft, noticed.

Nevertheless, Epstein summoned Schwarber for a meeting that also included Zielinski, head of scouting Jason McLeod and conditioning coach Tim Buss. The question came innocently enough: ‘‘Do you think you can catch?’’

Schwarber considered himself self-taught at the position. At least, he hadn’t received any serious instruction before college. Yet he had worked hard at the craft and was looking forward to redoubling his efforts under the guidance of a professional organization. Did he think he could catch? The implication that he couldn’t rubbed him the wrong way.

‘‘It [expletive] pisses me off when people say I can’t catch,’’ he responded.

He instantly wished he could pull the word back into his mouth, but, well, that’s why they call it the F-bomb. Five years later, he shudders at the memory.

‘‘I walked out of the interview: ‘Man, I just blew it,’ ’’ he said. ‘‘I cussed in front of the president. They’re probably like, ‘Man, what a hothead.’ But then I ended up getting drafted by them.’’

The day after the meeting, Schwarber went 4-for-5 with a three-run homer and a triple in a victory against Washington. It couldn’t have hurt his cause.

6. You’re damn right he still thinks he could have been a catcher.

Back in 2015, Maddon spoke of ‘‘working the plan’’ with Schwarber. The plan was to get him out from behind the plate and into the outfield. The Cubs had made the determination that catching wasn’t Schwarber’s strong suit and that his long-term viability with the team depended on a position change.

If Schwarber is being completely honest about it now, he’ll admit it still makes him salty. He figures he would have continued to tackle his shortcomings as a catcher head-on — as he had with his running as a nascent player, as he did when he shredded his knee in 2016, as he did when he transformed his body an offseason ago and as he has tried to do as a left fielder since being moved there.

‘‘Yes, I think I could have become a good catcher,’’ he said flatly. ‘‘It would’ve been like anything else.’’

His dad takes it further.

‘‘I think he is very disappointed that he isn’t catching,’’ Greg Schwarber said. ‘‘I think he’s a catcher at heart. Do I think he could’ve been a catcher? I do. I’m not a major-league player or scout, but I know my son and I know what’s in his heart. I think he’s worked past it, but — in his heart — catching was always where he saw himself. Kyle’s personality is a leader. As a catcher out there, he assumed a leadership role. That was important to him. That’s who he is.’’

7. He resents talk of him becoming a DH.

‘‘There’s no better place to play a big-league baseball game than at Wrigley Field in Chicago,’’ Schwarber said. ‘‘You have such rich history, a lot of ups, a lot of downs, and the fans are still with you. And it’s a first-class organization. I’d love to be here for the rest of my life.’’

That’s the sweet stuff. The bitterness comes when outsiders peg him as a lumbering batsman and a natural American Leaguer — who brings his only real talent to the plate four times a night and otherwise chills on the bench — as though it were his destiny. He has heard it and read it and, well, had enough of it.

‘‘I’d love to always be a National League player and be out there for all nine [innings],’’ he said. ‘‘Let me help this team win for the rest of my career. It would be awesome. It’s something that you don’t see much, really, in the game of baseball anymore, a person who stays with the same team for his whole career. That would be a great goal to have.’’

Might being a DH be fun someday?

‘‘Hell, no.’’

8. He wants to have more fun … but also wants to be more boring.

Schwarber admits he isn’t close to where he wants to be at the plate or in the field. If his physical transformation after the 2017 season was a mountain to climb — and it was — then the next mountain has been all mental. He has set veteran Anthony Rizzo’s approach to the game as a benchmark.

‘‘The name of the game is consistency, and that’s what I want to be, consistent,’’ he said. ‘‘A guy like Anthony is the most consistent you can be. I want to keep working a consistent, day-to-day workload like he does. Kind of be boring, kind of be stupid, just have fun and play the game.’’

Stupid? What in the world does that mean? As Schwarber defines it, it can be found at the intersection of doing things the right way and having a blast. Rizzo doesn’t let an 0-for-4 drag him down into a self-questioning hell.

And then there’s a guy such as Javy Baez, who exists on a whole different, magical plane.

‘‘Javy just goes out there and has fun playing the game — and it looks like he has fun playing the game,’’ Schwarber said. ‘‘Who wouldn’t want to be like that? Who wouldn’t want to play with that, like, total freedom?

‘‘You can’t beat yourself up after a rough day or whatever it is. You’ve got to be able to turn the page and know that you can still impact a game tomorrow. All I want to do is win ballgames; that’s all I really care about. But I can be better at it on the mental side.’’

9. First responders are his heroes.

Greg Schwarber thinks his son is a bit ‘‘jealous’’ of sister Lindsey, the Middletown cop. She also served in the Army National Guard. Mom Donna became a nurse after her dispatcher days. Schwarber sees nobility and bravery tied in with these sorts of pursuits and, at the least, holds them in the highest esteem.

It’s with that background that he moved to establish an annual block party in Chicago and a Neighborhood Heroes campaign, both in honor of — and to raise money for — first responders.

The block party last summer in the Fulton Market District raised more than $280,000 for the city’s first responders, supplying everything from trauma kits for EMTs to TVs and Xboxes for firehouses. For his Neighborhood Heroes celebrity golf event in December near his offseason home in Tampa, Florida, Schwarber brought down a dozen first responders from Chicago and four from Middletown to join others from the Tampa area, including military personnel from MacDill Air Force Base.

‘‘We had people coming up to us almost in tears, saying, ‘This was my first vacation in almost 10 years,’ things like that,’’ he said. ‘‘It was special. I have a great amount of respect for what they do, and I would say my family is the biggest reason I started it all.’’

10. He doesn’t buy into the mythology or the criticism.

First, on the Babe Ruth talk and all that nonsense: ‘‘I want to be the best version of me. I’m not trying to be someone else. There’s always going to be people with opinions. There’s going to be a lot of positive things, comparisons with mythical things, and that’s cool, that’s awesome. It’s fun for people to do that. But, sorry, I’m not paying attention.’’

And on the ‘‘can’t’’ crowd: ‘‘Look, my biggest critic is me. And that’s because I know what I’m capable of. I take ownership of my own game, not anybody else. It’s about holding myself accountable to my own standards. I know what I can do, and even if it takes awhile, I know I’m going to do it.’’