CHICAGO — "Antonio!"
Anthony Rizzo, padding across the carpet in the Chicago Cubs' home clubhouse three hours before game time, grins as he moves toward Grandpa Rossy, whose suddenly thick Italian accent works nicely with his graying beard and warm smile.
They embrace. This is their daily greeting. David Ross, 39, retiring after this year and the glue of a team tighter than the Wrigley Field seats, stresses the importance of saying hello to everybody each day.
"You've gotta invest in people, right?" Ross says. "You're not going to be very good if you don't invest in human beings. I think that's really important and gets lost in baseball sometimes."
It is early May, and the Cubs are 25-6, their best start since 1907. This team is taking the Curse of the Billy Goat and turning it on its horns.
Hot? We're talking Mrs. O'Leary's-cow-kicking-over-a-lantern hot.
"This is not baseball reality," protests club president Theo Epstein, ever cautious of the fires and goats the long season contains.
But this absolutely is the Cubs' reality: a team stocked with such unusually close and longstanding friendships that the threads weave through this clubhouse the way those tangled vines of ivy envelop the outfield fence outside.
Unravel these threads, and they run all the way back to Atlanta. Boston. Beijing. Las Vegas. Southern California.
Untangle these friendships, and you find a starting pitcher who takes the mound for each start wearing a teammate's spikes. An ace and a fleet leadoff man who forged their relationship while shopping for knockoff name-brand watches years ago in China. A guy they tease as "Grandpa" living in a suite on road trips because, many years ago, he was kind to a young rookie in another clubhouse in a faraway city.
Unpeel several hours a day of what essentially is baseball's version of an ongoing cul-de-sac party, and layer by layer, one of the great baseball stories is being authored before our eyes.
Invest in people? You bet.
Welcome to a week in Wrigleyville, courtesy of B/R, who spent six days with the Cubs from May 8-13. Best story? You pick.
The Suite Life of Grandpa Rossy and J-Hey
Not long after signing an eight-year, $184 million contract last winter, the first thing outfielder Jason Heyward did for the Chicago Cubs was make David Ross cry.
News of Heyward's arrival had barely broken when Ross' cellphone buzzed with a text message from Vijay Tekchandani, the Cubs' traveling secretary: "Hey, just to let you know, you've got a hotel suite on the road all year courtesy of Mr. Heyward."
As Heyward surveyed his new landscape, he noted that Ross plans to retire after the 2016 season. He knew that Ross' wife, Hyla, and children Landri (seven), Cole (six) and newborn Harper probably would be traveling frequently.
He thought back to his first major league spring training in Atlanta, in 2009, when Heyward was a nervous 19-year-old kid and Ross, 32, was a caring veteran.
"He always looked out for me," Heyward says. "Being very young at the time, with not a lot of experience at the major league level or in life in general, he made sure I was good to go."
Inside this spacious, newly renovated 30,000-square-foot circular Cubs clubhouse, the circumference of which places each player's locker 60 feet, six inches from the center, their cubicles are a quarter-turn around the clock from each other. Not even shouting distance. More like just talking-loud distance.
But for three years in Atlanta, Heyward and Ross lockered next to each other. Ross dispensed advice. Wisdom. Psychology. He helped guide Heyward's formative years in the baseball world.
Now an established big leaguer with a windfall contract, Heyward dreamed up something better than a thank-you note.
"There are a lot of class acts in this game," Epstein says. "People do some generous things that never [publicly] see the light of day.
"But that's as poignant a gesture as I've seen."
The idea "just came about," Heyward says. "I thought it would be something nice to do.
"I know how special it is to have teammates like he was my first three years in Atlanta. You don't take it for granted.
"I wanted to say thank you from the bottom of my heart, as a teammate and as a friend, for what he's done for me."
Not that Ross, in the second season of a two-year, $5 million deal, couldn't afford to upgrade himself here and there on the road. Still.
Ross texted Heyward immediately, protesting, "I don't need that. You don't have to do that."
No matter. Done.
"He sent me a long text back, talking about all I had done for him, and he wouldn't be where he is without me," Ross says.
He smiles now. But when he read that text to Hyla that night, his voice cracked, and the waterworks started.
"I had probably the nicest room I've ever stayed in when we were in Las Vegas," Ross says of the exhibition-season-closing March 31-April 1 games against the Mets. "Enormous."
Phoenix, Cincinnati, the suites are grand. Separate living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms. Perfect for when the family comes in, because now he can put his baby in a smaller area to sleep away from the noise his other two kids make.
"Just to have your son be around the guys, teach him some life lessons like, 'Hey, when you come in, look the guys in the eye,'" Ross says. "Say hello. Say what's up. Learn the guys' names.
"Little things I've learned over my career that are important. If you want to be on a good team and be a good teammate, you've got to invest in people."
The No-Hitter and China
It's Tuesday night, and word is breaking that Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg has agreed to a seven-year, $175 million extension with the Nationals. Within the next 24 hours, the media crush will descend on reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, scheduled to become a free agent following the 2017 season. Yes, he would love to remain a Cub for a long time, Arrieta will tell them, but there will be no hometown discount.
That will be the case no matter how many joyous occasions he has spent with the Cubs, such as his recent start in Cincinnati. You know, the one with the no-hitter…
Donatos Pizza in Cincinnati ("Every Piece is Important") has been family-owned since 1963. The thin crust and generous portions of pepperoni are catnip to guys such as Dexter Fowler and Grandpa Rossy.
So when there was none in the clubhouse on the Cubs' first day in town last month?
"Me and Dex are like, 'Let's order some tonight, we'll hang out, have a beer or two,'" Ross says. "Golden State was playing, and we were like, 'Yeah, we'll watch that.'"
What happened next, neither Stephen King nor Steven Spielberg would have concocted: Arrieta fired his second no-hitter in his past 11 regular-season starts.
So Fowler and Ross invited everyone to their pizza party, and 22 of the 25 Cubs showed up happy and hungry to Fowler's suite. They called room service for beers and waters, and as the Warriors played the Houston Rockets on television, what already will go down as one of the great nights of their season played out.
"Everyone's there," Arrieta says. "Some guys had a little language barrier, but we get around that. We find ways to still communicate without Jorge [Soler] being able to speak perfect English or us being able to speak perfect Spanish.
"Those are the things you try and figure out how to do for your teammates. We just sat around, and everybody was going over their experience during the game, what they were doing, what they wouldn't do, what they wouldn't say."
That Fowler hosted was perfect because, well, talk about flashbacks…
In 2008, Fowler patrolled center field behind Arrieta as the future Cubs played together on a United States Olympic team that won the bronze medal in Beijing. Current Cubs reliever Trevor Cahill also was on that team.
Together, Fowler, Arrieta and their teammates prowled the Olympic Village, gobbled food at the McDonald's McCafe and dreamed big league dreams.
"He loved watches," Fowler says, chuckling. "I remember we went to this bazaar in China to get these fake watches, and Jake would negotiate the prices. And he was like, 'Look at the watch I got, look at the watch!'
You might say.
"It was called the Silk Market," Arrieta says. "It basically was like a Costco, six of them stacked on top of each other, one huge building. On one floor were all the tailors. You go in, pick out fabric and they'd make you a suit in two hours. One floor was all luggage. One floor was all jewelry and knickknacks. The next one's all sporting stuff. Just a really, really unique experience."
At Olympic Village parties, when all of the athletes from various sports were meeting each other, dancing, laughing, swapping stories, Arrieta vividly recalls Fowler being in the midst of everything.
"When he's in the room, there's probably some jokes being passed around, and there probably will be some dancing," Arrieta says. "That's just the kind of guy he is."
As a free agent last winter following his first season with the Cubs, Fowler fielded texts from Arrieta, Heyward, Ross, Rizzo and Jon Lester, among others, urging him to re-sign with the Cubs and wanting frequent updates.
Meanwhile, as the winter progressed, he drove the five minutes from his Las Vegas-area home to meet Kris Bryant at Bryant's parents' house a handful of times. The backyard batting cage Mike Bryant built years ago for Kris remains a go-to workout spot.
"Has everything," Fowler says. "L-screen, pitching machine. He's got some weights in there, too."
Shane Victorino (whom the Cubs signed to a minor league deal) joined them, and the trio sometimes got their throwing in on the street in front of the Bryants' home.
"Kind of like I did when I grew up," Bryant says. "Playing catch with friends in front of the house. It was just three big leaguers playing catch in the cul-de-sac like I always did.
"It was a pretty cool moment for me and my dad. My dad loved it."
So did the neighbors. One of the men and his three sons, roughly high school age and all well over 6'0", emerged to visit a few times.
"It was cool for them because when you're that young, you see guys who are professional athletes, and you're like, 'Whoa,'" Bryant says. "They don't ever look at me like that. I'm just their neighbor.
"But then they see Dexter, and they're like, 'Whoa, that's cool.'"
Sadly, no photos exist of these cul-de-sac throwing sessions. Bryant says he ordered his father to pocket his cellphone.
"Brought back lots of memories," Bryant says. "I played whiffle ball in that same cul-de-sac with my neighbors.
"I think too often in this game we get too caught up in numbers and how you're doing, and you have to go back to those times on the street when you were playing whiffle ball with your friends. It makes it a lot of fun."
The days of whiffle ball and fake watches race by far too quickly, don't they?
"It's funny because I still have a few of the watches in a box back at the house, and every now and then, I'll still wear one," Arrieta says. "They're fake, but they're really good fakes. You can't tell unless you hold it in your hand. Then you can kind of tell from the little things.
"It was a critical time in our young careers and a really cool memory for us to have and to share as we continue to move throughout our careers."
As the stories flowed and the pizza disappeared that April night in Fowler's Cincinnati suite, the bonds strengthened even more, among all of them.
"Guys started talking about what they were thinking during the no-hitter," says Ross, who caught his first no-no that night. "You're talking, recapping what everybody was thinking.
"J-Hey was laughing because Ben Zobrist was almost all the way into right field making sure he caught that last pop-up, and J-Hey was like, 'Get outta here, you're in my area, I ain't dropping this ball!' Just that kind of stuff, giving each other a hard time.
"And you know you've got a good team when everyone shows up. There was no, 'the Latin guys weren't there.' Some teams, you have that divide, and I don't blame them because some people don't know English, right? But Soler was there, Stropy [reliever Pedro Strop], Ronny [closer Hector Rondon]…"
On television, the Rockets took down the Warriors 97-96—their only victory in the best-of-seven series.
On Arrieta's wrist, there was no fake watch.
"All real watches now," Fowler says, laughing. "We've moved on up, from the minor leagues to the bigs.
"Now, we can afford the big-boy watches."
The Guitar Heroes
At 7:06 p.m. on a foggy and chilly early May evening here, John Lackey throws the first pitch of his seventh start with the Chicago Cubs. He is clad in his usual footwear, though anyone looking closely may be confused.
On the tongue of Lackey's size-13 Nikes, in cursive lettering, reads "Jon Lester."
The tongue's tag is embroidered with the No. 34. Lester's number.
"We have the same size feet," Lackey explains, laughing heartily. "I wear his shoes, for God's sake."
That's how close these two are.
"Pretty much whatever he gets, he gets two of and hooks me up," Lackey says. "He takes good care of me."
They bonded in Boston, back when Lackey signed as a free agent in 2009 for $82.5 million over five years. That was before Lester hit his big payday, so Lackey, five years older, took care of him.
Now after signing with the Cubs for six years and $155 million two winters ago, Lester, 32, picks up Lackey, 37.
It took everything the Cubs had two winters ago to woo Lester, who seriously considered San Francisco and Boston. While romancing him, Epstein leaned on their relationship from Boston, and even sent Lester camouflage hunting gear with Cubs logos.
The Cubs president memorably said he wanted Lester so badly that he would have waited in a deer blind with him.
"I was prepared to soak myself in deer urine," Epstein quipped at the time.
Signing Lackey last winter for two years and $32 million involved neither deer blinds nor urine. His friendship with Lester—and Ross, another ex-teammate in Boston—was such an attraction that the Cubs easily secured him for less than market value.
Lester pestered Lackey with recruiting texts nearly every day of his free agency, and he shot several texts Epstein's way, too.
Mostly, everyone viewed Lackey's arrival as a fait accompli. The Cubs needed another starting pitcher. And pitching for in-division rival St. Louis last season, Lackey spent plenty of time at Lester's Chicago home, and he hosted Lester in St. Louis.
"Things that were happening over here, the way they were building the team, the way he saw the future, there were some pretty good selling points," Lackey says. "Our wives are friends, our kids are friends; it's real easy."
It all goes back to Boston, between 2010 and 2014. Former teammate Jake Peavy got Lackey, Lester and Ross playing guitar, and so many nights ended with them in someone's room, strumming.
So just before the Red Sox traded Lester to Oakland in July 2014, he left a present in Ross' locker: a guitar, signed, "To Rossy, thanks for everything, Left-hander."
"I promised him I would pick it up every day," Ross says. "Next thing I know, I went to his Christmas party that offseason, and me, him and Peavy ended up playing a song together."
The first song Ross learned was "Colder Weather" by the Zac Brown Band.
"We'll do Jason Aldean or Luke Bryan, mainly country stuff we've learned," Ross says. "Just easy cowboy chords, G, C, D, E-minor. Stuff like that. And we're always trying to find new stuff. [Lester] will be like, 'Hey, have you heard this new song? This one's easy to play!'"
The question is, at this point, is there anything Lester won't give to his friends? Cleats, guitars…
"He just ordered me a new bow for hunting season," Lackey says. "That's pretty sweet. He does stuff like that all the time."
Says Lester: "He did a lot for me when I was younger in Boston. A lot of the stuff I do here, I learned from him. I'm just trying to pay him back. It's not a matter of getting things for guys or tipping guys; it's just a matter of how you treat people.
"One thing I learned from Lack is he treats everyone on the staff, down to lowest on the totem pole, the same as a 20-year veteran. We've got a young group here; hopefully it helps pave the way for their thinking through the years."
The late Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson always said that 1984 was easily his most difficult season despite a historic start because, after his Tigers went 35-5, everybody expected the world, and all you could do was disappoint.
Under threatening skies that have already washed out Monday's game (May 9) this week and foisted a day-night doubleheader upon the Cubs and Padres on Wednesday, Epstein is beginning to squirm like ol' Sparky.
"We know there are going to come times with great challenges," Epstein says, with the Wrigley Field scoreboard behind him showing the Cubs' lead in the NL Central is already eight games. "We're almost looking forward to it because that's when you find out about yourself."
The game is all about challenges, some far more dire than others.
In late August 2006, a rookie pitcher for the Boston Red Sox named Jon Lester was diagnosed with anaplastic large-cell lymphoma.
In late April 2008, a minor league first baseman for the Red Sox named Anthony Rizzo, Boston's sixth-round pick in 2007, was diagnosed with limited-stage classical Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Each man not only beat cancer, but is thriving today in Wrigley.
In Lester's first eight starts this season in Chicago, teammate Rizzo smashed three homers and collected six RBI.
Their first encounter was in May 2008, shortly after Rizzo's diagnosis and a treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Epstein, then Boston's general manager, brought a frightened kid to Fenway Park for consultation with a man who had just finished what Rizzo was starting.
They ushered Rizzo and Lester into then-manager Terry Francona's office, shut the door and left them alone.
"Very few people in the world would have just the right words for someone in that situation," Epstein says of Lester. "But as an elite ballplayer himself who had just gone through it and beaten it, he was the perfect guy."
Epstein remembers how nervous Rizzo's parents were that day.
Rizzo remembers Lester's words of wisdom.
"Some of the things he said to me are some of the things I still pass on to kids today," Rizzo says. "He made me feel good. He just kind of said whenever I feel good, go out and do whatever I do, normally, when I was going through treatments.
"That's exactly what I did, just stay positive, and here I am now."
Says Lester: "Tony didn't really talk a whole lot. It was more asking questions about how treatment affected me, how long it took me to come back, the working out stuff."
Looking across at Rizzo's baby face that day, the emotions from his own battle came flooding back to Lester.
"I told him, 'Man, if you feel up to it, go work out,'" Lester says. "Go hit some balls off a tee, go field some ground balls. Go to the mall. Whatever you like to do.
"I like to fish and hunt, so I would go down to the river, just me, and sit in the river and fish. That was my getting away from it. I think that really helped me.
"You sit in the house, you end up thinking, 'Why me? Is [treatment] working? Is it not working?' All that stuff. You end up with all these thoughts going through your head."
At his first All-Star Game in Minnesota in 2014, Rizzo caught Lester, in his last days with Boston before the trade to Oakland, on the field during batting practice.
"I told him to come over here," Rizzo says. "Just messing around, of course."
Sort of. Everyone knew Lester was headed for free agency that winter.
"I know after he got called up in San Diego (Rizzo began his MLB carer with the Padres before being traded to the Cubs in 2012), I sent him a message, and just a text here and there through the years," Lester says. "He grabbed me when we were doing the team picture thing, and he was like, 'Hey, man, you'd love Chicago if you came here.' I said, 'We'll see, man, see where it all goes,' and sure enough."
Sometimes during a quiet moment, Lester and Rizzo still talk about those days, check in with each other and maybe ask, "How ya feeling?" Good? Great.
"Obviously, you don't ever want anybody to go through that," Lester says. "But it's a cool experience now that it's come full circle and everything's turned out fine."
Look out. Kris Bryant, 24, and Anthony Rizzo, 26, have become as adept at tapping the "record" button on their cellphones as they are at depositing homers into the Wrigley Field bleachers.
This spring, they teamed on Instagram to begin "documenting" Grandpa Rossy's final season. Already, there are some classics:
Neither is around to record early this morning before the day-night doubleheader as relievers Clayton Richard and Travis Wood quietly talk with Ross and Lester, chairs pulled into a small huddle. Too bad, too, because as they talk, Arrieta engages on the fringe while laying on the clubhouse floor, working a foam roller under his hamstrings and back before standing and working a small rubber ball under the arch of his foot on the floor.
These are the moments that Grandpa Rossy one day will miss as much as anything.
"They're funny," Ross says. "I don't know the whole social media, but they're always videoing or chatting this and that. They make each other laugh."
Truth? They usually make everyone else laugh, too.
"They've both got similar personalities when it comes to being goofballs," Ross says. "We go for morning workouts on the road, the three of us. Me and Rizz have been doing it since last year; Kris just jumped in this year."
The Cubs drafted Bryant second overall in 2013. As for his pal, credit Chicago GM Jed Hoyer's Rizzo obsession: On Hoyer's GM epitaph, whenever the time comes, it will be written that he twice acquired Rizzo.
First, when Hoyer was running San Diego and traded Adrian Gonzalez to Boston in 2010.
Second, when he reupped with Epstein in Chicago after leaving the Padres, stealing Rizzo for Andrew Cashner and a pair of minor leaguers in 2012.
There are more threads in this complex quilt of relationships.
In Rizzo's first three seasons in Wrigley, the Cubs went 61-101 (2012), 66-96 (2013) and 73-89 (2014).
"He's the burgeoning leader of this group," Hoyer says. "I think this winning probably means more to him than the other guys because he understands it more.
"There's not a lot of guys on this team who had to endure the struggle. Anthony lived through a ton of losses. There was a lot of bad baseball between 7 o'clock and 10 o'clock at night here."
As Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell were added last summer, the Cubs went 97-65. In Bryant, Rizzo found a fellow foundation piece and a fast friend. They eat dinner together on the road. They see movies.
And as you might have heard, the Bryzzo Souvenir Company "puts the ding in dinger":
"I wouldn't say I've taken him under my wing," Rizzo says. "We're friends. Just good friends. I pick his brain as much as he picks my brain about hitting and everything else. I have a little more experience with things—not saying I have a lot of experience—but he helps me out too."
The #Bryzzo "bromance" is such that even Bryant's fiancee has joked about it on Twitter:
"We don't care if anyone teases us," Bryant says. "We're just showing personality, and that's what the fans want, too."
Says manager Joe Maddon: "I love it. They're very sincere together. They're very creative. It's really good for them, and it's good for us."
'If You Think You Look Hot, Wear It'
It is Maddon, one part pied piper and one part refugee from the 1960s hippie generation, who spools together these threads. He fertilizes the relationships and creates the culture that allows smiles, passion and friendships to thrive.
Before the rains wash out Monday's game, he's huddled in his office with Cubs broadcasters Jim Deshaies and Ron Coomer debating the hotly contested, age-old question: Who did the best version of "If I Were a Carpenter"? Was it Bobby Darin? Johnny Cash? The Four Tops? Robert Plant?
"Most people don't even know The Four Tops did it," Maddon exclaims in amazement.
They agree: all versions are great, but Darin's is best.
During Thursday's much-needed day off following Wednesday's split doubleheader, Maddon gets a massage, a quiet dinner and watches two episodes of 11.22.63, the television miniseries based on Stephen King's novel. Really well-done, Maddon says, and it followed the book really well. Which leads to a complaint.
"I'm disappointed in myself; I've got to get back to reading," the manager says. "I feel like my brain is shrinking rapidly.
"I've got to get back to reading, not watching."
For two seasons now in Chicago, and for nine seasons before that in Tampa Bay, he's had a brilliant read on his teams. Nobody working a dugout today combines the elements of strategy, psychology, preparedness, looseness and motivation as well as Maddon.
From his dress code ("If you think you look hot, wear it") to his encouraging teams to arrive later to the ballpark, not earlier, many of today's players relate to him.
This is not new to Lackey and Zobrist, both of whom knew Maddon long before today.
While Lester and Ross were two key reasons Lackey wanted to play for the Cubs, Maddon, who was a coach on Mike Scioscia's staff in Anaheim when Lackey was the ace there, was another.
"We used to sit at the hotel bar together talking baseball, having a beer," Lackey says. "I knew Joe like that. It's pretty cool to be back together with him.
"You could see he was going to be a good manager because he's such a great communicator, good people person. You can bounce things off him, like, 'Why did this happen during the game?' and he'd shoot you straight. I appreciated that."
Older now and under different circumstances, the two no longer have their moments at the bar together.
"He's pretty famous around here nowadays, you know," Lackey says, laughing at the notion. "He can't go out like he could when he was a bench coach. But at team functions, he still hangs out with the boys. And his door is always open.
"You can go in after a game and have a glass of wine with him, anyway."
Maddon created the "Zorilla" phenomenon in Tampa Bay, employing Zobrist as a super-utility man and helping turn him into a star. A native of Peoria, Illinois, Zobrist, who turns 35 on May 26, was looking to finish his career in the Midwest last winter when the Cubs came calling. So many things fit, including the reunion with Maddon.
"It was so desirable, even without Joe," Zobrist says. "But with Joe being a part of all that, it just made it like, 'OK, this would be a slam dunk.'"
Granted, even given the tightness and talent of this club, there is no guarantee that October will end any differently from how every October since 1908 has ended on the North Side. Passing chemistry does not guarantee an A in baseball. But playing happy and loose certainly boosts confidence, and there is the feeling in these early days of something special brewing here in Wrigley.
"I think that's a huge reason why we've been doing so well," Bryant says. "Everyone is close with one another. We hang out at the field together. Off the field, we're just like brothers.
"This is like our house. We're going to celebrate a win together, come in and eat dinner together. We're living the dream right now."
Inside the home clubhouse, those dreams go Technicolor in a private "party room" replete with lights and a smoke machine for team celebrations after each victory.
Across the street at the landmark Murphy's Bleachers, the award-winning ribs fall off the bone and the believers' postgame public celebrations spill late into the night.
Maddon, Epstein and Hoyer spent many hours last winter discussing how they should handle the expectations for 2016, what message they should deliver to the players this spring, and how they should talk to them about taking the next step and embracing the target.
"Then in all the one-on-one conversations at the beginning of spring training, we just learned from them," Epstein says. "They had all thought about it and processed it themselves and had great ideas about how to come together as a team. How to handle the unique circumstances we were going to be facing together.
"In that regard, it's a dream team to be around."
It is that, in many regards. And as the days begin to warm, as these Cubs invest in each other and a city in them, the dreams are growing in their enormity, stretching out further and further toward autumn, every piece as important as the next.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.