Last night at Gino's East on E. Superior in Chicago, the Cubs' Michael Barrett took photographs with fans (as you see above) and signed autographs, and in addition, there was a silent auction of autographed memorabilia from just about every member of this year's Cubs team (I myself am now the proud owner of a Jason Marquis signed ball). This was all for a very good cause, Project 3000, the foundation begun by Derrek Lee and Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck to fight Lebers Congenital Amaurosis or LCA, a disease which is robbing their daughters of their eyesight.
At the end of the evening I was able to sit down (well, actually, stand up, as he had been sitting for much of the evening) and ask Michael a few questions.
BCB: To what do you attribute the success of the pitching staff so far this year?
MB: I think that our pitching staff, we’ve got great chemistry among our starting pitchers, which I think is important. I think that when they went out and got Jason Marquis and Ted Lilly to add to what we already have what characteristic I love about them is they’re competitors... They’re athletes. And I think it’s a great addition to the guys we already have – like Zambrano and Rich Hill and even Guzman who are tremendous athletes as well. When you get those guys and mix them together and all of a sudden, as long as they stay healthy, they’re just going to rub off each other. One guy pitches well, the next guy wants to pitch even better. And they’re competitive like that and they have the athletic ability to out-do one another over and over and over again, really, as good as their stuff is. So I think that’s what we have going right now. And most good starting staffs have that competitive energy in a positive way where they’re just consistently trying to be better than the next guy. And so far that’s kind of the feeling I’ve had is that these guys want they want the other starters to do well. They want they to pitch well, but at the same time they watch everything they do and they just want to go out there and do it a little bit better and do everything they can to help the team win.
BCB: What’s going on with Carlos Zambrano?
MB: It’s always been a slow start. April’s never been his best month. May and June the time that I’ve been here in the last three years have been his best months. I think it’s a matter of getting into a little bit warmer weather for him that he’s accustomed to. I think also that he’s such a passionate guy. He’s such a fierce competitor that the start of the season really moves him. Maybe moves him out of his element sometimes. So, for him, it takes a little while to calm down. His arm angle is very important. When he gets his arm angle he just dominates. He knows that. It’s just that sometimes it’s easier said than done.
BCB: That’s like we saw last Friday in his first inning.
MB: The first inning he didn’t have his arm angle. As the inning went on he started to get it then the second inning had it and that was the difference in his start.
BCB: Tell me a little bit about how you and the rest of the team are reacting to Lou Piniella’s managing style.
MB: We’re still adjusting to it. You know, I haven’t really been around management that has made that many double switches this early on and it’s great in a way that he really has confidence in the entire team to use them in a situation or whatever… he feels very comfortable in utilizing the whole team in whatever way it takes to win. I think that it’s interesting. You don’t see a lot of managers have a lot of confidence in their entire team, entire bench, or the entire bullpen. But he does. I think that it’s an adjustment on our players’ part that when they’re not playing, it’s not a day off. It’s a day to help the team in another way. And we’ve got guys that care so much like Mark DeRosa. He came in as an everyday second baseman. He has given that up to be, to do whatever it takes to help the team win. Playing third base. Playing shortstop. And those are the type of players you have to have on championship teams. And Lou has shown he will do whatever it takes to win and to use whoever it is.. I mean, I may end up somewhere else other than catching. You just never know. Like [Sunday's] game, we were all scratching our head like who’s going to play second, who’s going to play left, trying to keep up with it.
BCB: Would you have gone out to play shortstop? Some of us in the bleachers thought that might be next.
MB: At that point I would have, at that point I just wanted to win the game. I would have done whatever it took. It’s a true mark about what we think of him as a manager to put our own personal desires to play one position, our own desires to want to start to help the team win. We believe in him to do the right thing to help the team win. And when you have that connection it really shows and over the course of the season it’ll show even more.
BCB: How do you feel about how you’ve done so far this year?
MB: I got off to a little bit of a slow start, got hot, now I haven’t got a couple hits, hit the ball hard…
BCB: That ball you hit in the 10th inning yesterday -- that was really a rocket.
MB: Yeah. I’ve hit right at some guys. Had some bad at bats. Had some good at bats and had nothing to show for it. Therefore that usually equals slump. I’m in a mini slump and I know that.
BCB: What do you do to get out of that?
MB: I just focus on defense. I just focus on getting my pitchers through. Contributing every way that I can. If it’s blocking a ball I’m going to find a way to contribute to help the team win if I can. I’m gong to find a way. I’m just more accustomed to doing it with the bat than I am right now.
BCB: Are you looking at any teams in particular…what do you think about what the Brewers have done so far?
MB: The Brewers have a very good team. Usually when you talk of the Brewers you don’t talk about having the chances of playing in October and stuff, but they have the team this year to do that. If they all stay healthy like any other of the championship caliber type teams they have a chance. They have built a rotation and a bullpen that’s as good as any staff in baseball. And on top of that they have some young offensive threats. If Prince Fielder continues to stay healthy, he’s got MVP type talent. Their lineup is going to be strong.. There’s a lot of pressure on the young guys at the top of their order which could be a huge difference. There’s a lot of pressure on Rickie Weeks, a lot of pressure on J. J. Hardy and they’re stepping up. They have just stepped up to the challenge right now. If they continue to play like they are, that is a good team.
BCB: You have so many new teammates this year. Has there been anything about any of these guys that has surprised you, that you didn't expect?
MB: Alfonso Soriano – great, great guy. I always knew he was a good guy but as a teammate, great teammate. Great guy. He reminds me so much of Vladimir Guerrero. Just a fun-loving, just a very good competitor. A fierce competitor but as far as a clubhouse, teammate guy, just a fun loving easy going guy that comes to play baseball every day.
BCB: How about Felix Pie?
MB: Felix Pie is very exciting… him and Soriano hang out together a lot and Soriano’s taken Felix under his wing, which I think has given him a lot of confidence and given him that guy on the team that he needs right now to bring him up. And as far as energy. He just has so much energy and we need that … as a veteran team, we need young blood, it rubs off on the rest of the veterans. So he’s one of those guys who does that. Oh, Soriano.. Something that stands out about Soriano… defensively. Center field he did a good job. In left field he’s doing a great job. He threw Jim Edmonds out at home plate, which ended up being the turning point in that game with the Cardinals in St. Louis.
BCB: Neal Cotts gets overlooked at times, but the impression I have of him is he works harder than just about anybody on the team.
MB: Yeah. Neal Cotts is slowly becoming the hardest working guy I’ve ever been around. He’s got tremendous stuff. It just takes a little time to get used to the National League. You’ve got bunt plays now, you’ve got … when you’re in the American League everything relies, every team pretty much in the American League relies on the three run homerun. And in the National League it’s a little different. So it’s a little different mentality for him. You know, hitters take a different approach in this league, like in St. Louis he hit Taguchi on an 0-2 fastball where I think over time he realizes that in that situation you have a little bit different mentality there on the hitter’s part. He’s not trying to hit a homerun, he’s trying to move runners and do situational type hitting, which in the American League there’s not a whole lot of guys that do that. I think there’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment period but as far as stuff goes, he’s got as good stuff as we have on our entire team.
Many thanks to Alan Lieberman of Lieberman & Associates, Matt Kramer, Michael's rep from Barrett Baseball, and Linda Marshall of Linda Marshall Communications for helping arrange the interview with Michael Barrett, a key cog in this year's Cub team and a truly nice guy.
Finally, among other things I learned in discussing baseball and the Cubs last night is this: the Cubs are 5-0 in May for the first time since 1937.