The walls may be crumbling at Wrigley Field, but nothing can chip away at Steve Stone’s baseball acumen. Widely respected as perhaps the best ‘color man’ in the game today, Stone doesn’t hedge when it comes to speaking his mind. Sit a spell and read this one. You youngsters (and not-so youngster) out there may learn something.
The Heckler: How did you originally get involved in becoming a color man in baseball?
Steve Stone: I retired from baseball and I got a call from Chuck Howard who was a Vice President of ABC sports. He asked me if I wanted to do a couple of games on Monday Night Baseball at the time. They had Al Michaels, Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell, Bob Uecker and Don Drysdale. I was the sixth added to that particular crew. I did it on a three game tryout basis, and here it is 23 years later and I’m still doing it.
TH: How did you originally get approached by the Cubs?
SS: Harry (Caray) was my broadcaster when I was with the White Sox. I talked to Harry just by coincidence that year and they were looking for somebody. They asked me if I’d be interested and I said very much so. He said, “Would you like to talk to Jim Dowdle.? I said fine. He said, “We’re not sure if we’re going to do anything yet, but we’ll bear it in mind,” and in 1983, I came to the Cubs. It was Harry’s second year, it was to be my first year, and Harry and I spent 15 years together.
TH: You have a unique knack of being able to predict what is going to happen before it does. Would you attribute that to your knowledge from having played the game?
SS: Everybody has a different style, and I think playing the game is part of it. Playing the game and not being particularly good, a lot of the time you have to be more observant. I think I was pretty observant as a player. I think I am pretty observant as a broadcaster, and it’s knowing tendencies. It’s knowing what each and every hitter is capable of, what each and every pitcher is capable of, and watching the fielders for tells. By tells, I mean sometimes the fielder can tell you by the way he’s positioning himself or where he moves, just exactly what is going to happen as far as the pitch selection is concerned. I just watch a lot of things and sometimes you guess right, and sometimes you guess wrong, but I think the fan at home is also thinking about the same thing. At the end of the day, I’m broadcasting for him or her or them, because that’s my audience. It’s young people, it’s older people, it’s baseball aficionados, it’s first timers, it’s fans of not only the Cubs, but maybe of the Cardinals or anybody else. You take into consideration your entire audience because that’s who we really work for. We work for them. We don’t work for the players, we certainly don’t work for the organization, or at least at this point, we’ve always been employees of WGN. So I think you have to understand who your audience is, and I think at the end of the day, it works out well.
TH: You mentioned the players. You recently had an incident where the players were supposedly upset with some things you said on your broadcast. Does that affect you in any way with what you say on the air when commenting on the game?
SS: No, it doesn’t affect it at all. This is not anything that is new. Nowadays, they are a little bit more sensitive than they’ve been. I believe that I have a very fair broadcast. I mention when they do things well. I mention when they do things poorly. I mention when they make physical mistakes, but I don’t really spend a great deal of time on that because this is a tough game. Physical mistakes happen. I get frustrated with the mental mistakes, as do just about all fans that watch the game. As far as the players are concerned, what I have always said is about 95 percent of the time we say things that are very good and very positive and very complimentary. And the players almost without exception, and there has been exceptions to this … the players don’t come up to us and say, “Thank you very much for saying this, this and this, that was very nice.” Because then we find ourselves in a no win situation if we say something critical, it doesn’t matter if it’s about a player, a coach, or a manager. They seem to take exception to the fact that we’re saying it. In the end, if my salary was paid by the players, or the coaches, or the manager, then you would probably have some concern. But it’s not, it never has been and it never will be, and I think that the only thing people ask of you is that you’re fair. I want the Cubs to win. I’ve only been from a local basis a Cub broadcaster, and I’ve been doing it for a long time. And if the fans will notice, I’ve been doing it longer, and have been here longer with this organization than everyone currently in the dugout, on the field, or in the front office. That’s just a fact. And I heard a wonderfully smart woman say the other day that everyone without exception is entitled to their opinion, but they’re not entitled to their own facts. I try to just make my opinions known certainly, but the facts of a guy struggling; when a guy’s two for forty, I don’t know how you make that look good. That’s the fact. When a guy makes a gigantic mental mistake, it’s a fact that he made it. There’s not much you can do with it.
TH: There were a lot of expectations on the team this year. Do you think that’s why they have been overly sensitive, and that maybe the pressure has been getting to them and that is why they have been acting out?
SS: I have no idea. I can’t really comment on what this team is doing because I’m not in that dugout or locker room everyday. I think people have a tendency to believe that players are affected by day-to-day pressures. I don’t believe that that’s the case. I think everybody goes out there trying to do the best that he can on a daily basis. I know that when I played for 14 years, that’s what I tried to do. Expectations are part of the game and the expectations are very lofty this year, but at the end of the day, this team has the capability of winning the World Series. They certainly can win the Wild Card. Unfortunately as I’ve been saying for about the last month or so, they’re not going to catch the St. Louis Cardinals. There’s another thing that is just reality. Barring something unforeseen, and I can’t even speculate as to what that would be, they won’t win the division. But if they get in the playoffs, if they’re one of the final eight, this is going to be a very difficult team to handle, because they can out pitch most everyone. I don’t think there would be a team that is overjoyed at facing the Cubs in a short series.
TH: How would you compare the game the way it is now to when you played the game?
SS: The same amount of players, the mounds the same, 90 feet to the bases. At the time, the few generations before us thought we were making too much money. I think the players should make as much money as they possibly can. Athletes today, and here’s a fact – the athletes today are bigger, stronger, faster, and quicker than they’ve ever been in the history of the game. Look at times in the Olympics. On an every four year basis, records continue to fall. People jump higher, they jump farther, and they run more quickly. The same athletes that are doing that are doing this today. That being said – are they smarter baseball players – probably not. They haven’t had as much schooling in the art of baseball. Is their baseball acumen as good as it was? Do I think that the offensive aspect of the game which seems to have been taken over by the smaller ballparks is good? I don’t really know. Baseball is going through a renaissance period. I do know that. I promised myself when I was a player, and I heard some of the older players talk, that I would never really say, “Boy, back when I played we were so much better.” I don’t really know. I played against and with a lot of Hall of Famers. I have broadcast for guys that will be in the Hall of Fame. Many of the guys that will be in the Hall of Fame of recent vintage, I played against or with. There’s great players in every era. It’s very difficult to take an era and say would this guy be that good then. I think the greatest player that ever lived is playing in our time. I think that’s Barry Bonds. I played with Willie Mays, he was my teammate. I played against Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente. I played with Dick Allen and Billy Williams. I played against Pete Rose and Johnny Bench. I played with all of the guys of recent vintage that are considered as good as anybody who ever played the game. In my estimation, and this is not a fact but an opinion, Barry Bonds is the greatest player of all time, and we’re getting a chance to see him on the field everyday in our lifetime.
TH: Speaking of Bonds, St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan recently commented that if Bonds didn’t go up to the plate wearing all of that armor, team’s would pitch to him and he wouldn’t get walked all of the time. By wearing that and leaning over the plate the way he does, it makes it very difficult for pitchers to throw strikes and umpires to call the pitches. It seemed he had been on a downward trend in 1998 when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire had their home run race. Do you think that has allowed him to become the prodigious hitter he is?
SS: That’s Dave Duncan’s opinion. Does he have any facts to back that up? Does he know what would happen if Barry Bonds took off the armor and stood an inch away from the plate? Understand something. Barry Bonds has been on the plate since his days in college. Barry Bonds has choked up on the bat since his days at ASU. Barry Bonds came into the game a little lead-off hitter. He has matured as an older player. Barry Bonds is hitting the ball better now than he has hit it his entire career. He did hit 73 home runs one year. He is probably going to track down Hank Aaron. What he says to you if Barry Bonds took off the armor, and if the umpires called a different strike zone, and if he moved off the plate and if the pitchers pitched him differently, well if Barry Bonds was 7’9” and in the NBA, maybe he’d never hit any home runs. But we don’t deal in ifs. All we can deal with is what is, and this guy is a destructive force who nobody wants to pitch to.
TH: You mentioned that players are bigger, stronger, and quicker now than they were when you played. That being said, why are pitchers no longer able to complete games, and were you on a pitch count when you played and is that something you believe in?
SS: No I wasn’t, and no, I don’t believe in pitch counts. I also believe there should be a four man pitching rotation. But, there’s not, and that’s the way it is. This is baseball 2004. There are pitch counts, and guys keep getting hurt more rapidly than they ever got before, however, for everyone of these guys that gets hurt, you have Greg Maddux winning 300 games. You have Roger Clemens at the age of 41 still able to dominate people because he’s in greater condition now than guys were at that age before. Sandy Koufax had to retire at age 31. I looked at the last years of Sandy’s career. He completed 54 games. Guys will go through a 15-year professional career and not complete 54 games. However, guys will pitch till they’re forty. I’m not sure which is better exactly, but I do know that if you train guys to pitch in a four man starting in the minor leagues, they will pitch in a four man rotation. It seems to me that’s the way you should do things in a day and age where you have more teams than you had years ago. You have less players than you had years ago of consequence because we’re losing players to other sports. So it seems strange to me that before when you had fewer teams and you had more pitchers and you had more talent because they weren’t being diverted to other sports, then you had a four man pitching rotation. Now you have many more teams. You’ve internationalized the game; however we’re finding we actually have less pitchers in the number five spot in everybody’s rotation. It’s probably a 20 to 25 percent win spot in the rotation; why would you go to more pitchers? It makes no sense. But that’s just one of the things in the game that makes no sense to me.
TH: What other aspects of the game today makes no sense to you?
SS: This isn’t “60 Minutes” with Mike Wallace. Next.
TH: Have you ever had any aspirations to manage or be a general manager?
SS: It’s been no secret that I’ve had aspirations for a long time to be a general manager, not a manager. It hasn’t happened, it’s likely not to happen, and if it doesn’t happen, that’ll be okay.
TH: How did the joking with your counterpart on the radio, Ron Santo start?
SS: I have no idea. The four of us, Pat Hughes, Ron Santo, Chip Caray and I travel together. Ron Santo is a very colorful character who does very funny things. We mention him on occasion, and it seems to bring a lot of joy to a lot of people who listen, so as long as that’s the case, we’ll continue.
TH: Last year after the Steve Bartman incident, Moises Alou became unraveled, and Mark Prior seemed to get upset on the mound. Do you think Dusty Baker should have come out and talked to him and tried to calm things down?
SS: I have one comment about the Steve Bartman incident. Steve Bartman did not give up the four hits to the team later. He did not make the error at shortstop. Steve Bartman did not cause the Chicago Cubs not to go to the World Series. The Florida Marlins did. I think that we are in an era where we need to take across the board more personal responsibility for what happens. It’s not the goat, it’s not the umpires, it’s not the fans, and it certainly is not Steve Bartman that kept the Cubs out of the World Series. The Cubs did not go to the World Series last year because they were not better than the Florida Marlins in seven games. They didn’t win as many games as the Marlins during the course of the regular season, and they didn’t beat the Marlins in a seven game series. That’s why the Marlins went and we stayed home. Life’s not fair.
TH: Kyle Farnsworth has a world of talent, but can’t seem to get his act together. As a former pitcher, what do you think the problem is?
SS: The Cubs have a wonderful pitching coach. His name is Larry Rothschild. He’s paid an egregiously large sum of money to be able to figure out Kyle Farnsworth. I think that if it was a very easy thing to do, a combination of Kyle and Dusty and Larry would probably figure it out. But being just a humble broadcaster, it’s very difficult for me to speculate on how he gets to be better. It’s very easy to say we should make him more consistent, but that’s just vague enough to really say nothing, and that’s probably the best thing to do at this point.
TH: The Cubs have traditionally built their club for the long ball. Yet they haven’t won a World Series since 1908. It’s a fact that over the years, the wind blows in at Wrigley Field more often than out. The team doesn’t play small ball at all, and has difficulty moving runners along or scoring runners from third with less than two outs. If that style of team hasn’t won for all those years, do you think it might be time to try a different approach?
SS: I think that if there was one specific formula, somewhere between 1908 and 2004, they probably would have found it. After all, there’s been a lot of wars which drained off a lot of talent, and yet the Chicago Cubs haven’t found a way to have the best talent in a given year to win the World Series. My feeling is that in order to be able to win, you have to have a combination of everything. On days when you can pummel people, it’s nice to have power and be able to pummel them. But the reality of the playoffs is that in a short series, you’d like to have the best pitching. They’ve got tremendous pitching. You’d like to be able to pummel people, but in the playoffs, it doesn’t happen all that often. You should be able to finesse people. Major league baseball players should be able to win in a number of different ways. What made John McEnroe a great tennis player, and what makes Tiger Woods a wonderful golfer is they can hit the ball very hard when they want to, and they can play a wonderful finesse game when they have to. In the case of Tiger, he can hit fairways when it’s necessary, and he can drain putts. It’s the long, the short, and the in-between. The same thing with McEnroe. He could overpower you and he could out finesse you, he could come to the net and he could stay at the baseline. He had a very well rounded game and it made him a world champion. To equate it to baseball, it helps if you can lay bunts down when you have to. For instance, as much power as the St. Louis Cardinals have, there’s going to be days where they have to win a 2-1 game. Now getting back to a set of facts, it’s a non-debatable issue that the Cubs are 13-21 in one run games. They are eight games under .500. Last year they were ten games over .500 in one run games. Does it mean the team last year was better – not necessarily. I happen to think this team is better. However, because they don’t bunt very well, because they don’t run the bases very well, because going from first to third seems to be a mystery, because they get a lot of guys thrown out at the plate, which takes into consideration a number of different aspects by the way, and I’m not pointing my finger in just one direction when I say that, and because of that, they’re eight games under .500. Get them back to where they were last year in one run games, and you would see a dramatic difference in where this team would be in relation to the Cardinals. This year, they’re just not as good a team as the Cardinals. However, if you go into a short series, and I don’t care if it’s four in St. Louis and three at Wrigley Field, I think the Cardinals, although they wouldn’t be afraid of the Cubs, would tell you there’s probably many other teams they would like to face other than the Cubs. Because we can put three or four starting pitchers on the mound that are better than the three or four starting pitchers that we face with any team that we’re going to go up against. In a short series, that can dominate the series. So the answer to that question is, it helps to be adaptable, and with the capricious nature of Wrigley Field, you can’t build one team. You have to have a team that has the ability to do a lot of different things. They’re working on it. Don’t forget, this is very early in the administration of Jim Hendry and Dusty Baker. They’ve only played a year and two thirds as an administration. So we have to give them a little time to get to where they really want to be. Then I think we’ll really see something. The building blocks are here for a prolonged period of this team winning baseball games. And in the post-season, you have to be a little lucky. Nobodies been better than the Atlanta Braves over the last 13 years and they have one World Championship.
TH: This is the second year in a row that Jim Hendry has rebuilt the bullpen. What do you think the problem is with the bullpen?
SS: Probably the bullpen isn’t good enough.
TH: I believe you said you think the team will make it as the Wild Card, and if they get there, that anything can happen.
SS: That’s not a startling revelation. Bear in mind last year that the home field advantage the San Francisco Giants had didn’t hold them in good stead when they lost to the Florida Marlins. Home field advantage that the Braves had did not hold off the Chicago Cubs. The home field advantage that the Cubs had didn’t hold off the Florida Marlins, and the home field advantage that the Yankees had did not win them the World Championship. So every team last year that had the home field advantage went home, and the Florida Marlins were the World Champions. Can anything happen in the playoffs? You’re damn right it can!