Living the Dream – End of a Century-Old Drought

Living the Dream – End of a Century-Old Drought

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By: Magie Lacambra, MEd, ATC, Gatorade Team Sports Manager

Some things are worth waiting for while others are not. Ask the city of Chicago if waiting 108 years for a World Series Championship was worth it and you will get a resounding, absolutely! Ask the athletic trainers for the Chicago Cubs the same question, and they can hardly contain their excitement.

Originally known as the White Stockings when founded in 1876, the team was nicknamed the Cubs in 1903, a name that became official in 1907. Few people are aware that the Cubs appeared in 11 World Series and were the first Major League Baseball team to play in three consecutive World Series from 1906–1908. They were also the first team to claim the title twice – 1907 and 1908.

It is after this early success that a century-plus drought began.

Over the years, the club saw seven different owners, 56 managers, 15 general managers, countless ball players and 17 athletic trainers all looking for a winning formula. And in 2016, they finally found the right mix of people with the medical staff playing a large part.

Mark O’Neal was introduced to baseball through the St. Louis Cardinals organization during graduate school at the University of Arkansas. O’Neal worked his way through the Cardinals minor league system from 1989 until 1998 when he became an assistant athletic trainer with the Major League club. During O’Neal’s six-year tenure in St. Louis, the club experienced a lot of success, reaching the Playoffs each year. Despite the success of the Cardinals, O’Neal was lured to the Cubs in 2004. Besides the opportunity to become Head Athletic Trainer and build his own staff, the Cubs were an attractive team due to its day game schedule. “April – June, you take your kids to school in the morning, when you get home from the ballpark they are asleep. The day games were really attractive because at that time they had to play 67 day games in Wrigley, so I could be home having as close to a normal lifestyle as one can have in baseball, and be able to see my kids a little more,” admits O’Neal.

Ed Halbur, a Des Moines, Iowa native, loved baseball as a kid and wanted to have a career in the sport. Realizing that he lacked the necessary talent to play the game beyond high school, Halbur studied athletic training in college and graduate school. Following graduate school, Halbur landed a job with the minor league system of the Detroit Tigers as an athletic trainer. Halbur worked his way through the Tigers minor league system and joined the Cubs organization as an assistant athletic trainer with the Major League squad in 2003.

Matt Johnson, a native of La Grange, IL, grew up a Cubs fan. Suffering a wrist injury while playing sports in high school introduced Johnson to athletic training. “When I got hurt and worked with our athletic trainer, I thought, boy this is pretty cool, and decided I wanted to be an athletic trainer for the Chicago Cubs,” states Johnson. During his senior year at Ohio University, Johnson was awarded a PBATS internship during a Cubs home stand. Following that internship, Johnson stayed in touch with Cubs Athletic Trainers Dave Tumbas and Steve Melendez, which led to a position with the club’s Rookie Ball team in 2001 and eventually the Major League Staff in 2011.

PJ Mainville, a Warrington, Virginia native is the final piece of the Cubs’ athletic training puzzle. Mainville began his baseball career in the Baltimore Orioles minor league system. After 10 years, he transitioned to the Arizona Diamondbacks as their Minor League Medical Coordinator from 2007-2010 and then spent the 2011-2012 seasons as the Major Leagues assistant athletic trainer for the Diamondbacks. Mainville is entering his fifth season as Head Athletic Trainer for the Cubs.

These four athletic trainers bring 82 years of professional baseball athletic training experience to the Cubs. With the leadership of O’Neal to grow the medical staff, and bring in Mainville as Head Athletic Trainer, the table was set for success. Mainville is credited for the evolving philosophy for medical care for the players. “PJ brought ideas that were new to all of us, but we all worked hard to adapt to the changes and make it successful,” said Halbur. “We have developed a cohesive group of likeminded clinicians and performance specialists striving for the same goal of optimizing health and performance,” adds Mainville.

Changes and stability also came in the form of ownership and front-office personnel. The Ricketts family purchased the Cubs in 2009 and immediately made it clear they were going to change the path of the team. Their first big move came in 2011 when they hired Theo Epstein as President of Baseball Operations and Jed Hoyer as General Manager – both from the Boston Red Sox. O’Neal believes that his medical staff is part of the leadership team’s overall plan. The Ricketts family also invested in a new Spring Training Facility, as well as major renovations to Wrigley Field. “Everyone bought in to the plan. Everything we do with our scouting and the free agent process and how we can help players from a health perspective. It was the perfect plan executed perfectly by perfect people,” states O’Neal.

The final piece of the puzzle, besides talented players, is Manager Joe Maddon. Every staff member speaks of Joe’s ability to keep the players together and in control. “Joe Maddon has a great way of letting players know that a game in February is the same as in July and same as in October,” states Johnson. This created a new culture that took the pressure off the players, and just let them play the game the way they all know how. The players are talented ballplayers, but also good people that are fun to be around in this relaxed, but guided environment.

Fast forward to October 2016 – the series with the Cleveland Indians was one of the best World Series in the history of the game! Halbur reflects on the series, “It was such a roller coaster of seven games.” “I remember feeling nauseous at the end of the dugout during Game 7 just before the rain delay, the game was tied,” recalls Mainville.

Bottom of the 10th, Cubs lead 8-7, ball hit to Kris Bryant. “About 2 seconds after Rizzo caught the ball from Bryant and everyone was jumping up and down is when I realized we won,” exclaims Johnson. “This took the shackles off of us as well, as we felt we were looked down upon by the other professional teams in the city,” admits O’Neal. Every one of the staff agreed what an amazing experience it was to be part of the World Series and encourage all athletic trainers to follow their dreams.

The team has celebrated, enjoyed a parade with the city and their fans, and visited the White House days before President Obama, a fellow Chicagoan, left office. Now it is spring and time to refocus and keep the plan moving ahead – and see what 2017 brings.