When I watched the Cubs jumping around and hugging after winning the World Series last November, I have to admit I had some mixed emotions.
The fan in me – the one who attended his first Cubs game as a six-year-old in 1972 – was jumping around and celebrating with them.
The former Cubs employee in me walked that tightrope between elation for the people I knew who still worked for the team and the despair for all the people like me who weren’t around there anymore.
But I have to tell you … as I watched all the guys in Cubs uniforms celebrating the drought-breaking championship last November 2, my eyes started tearing up with excitement when I saw Lester Strode on my TV screen. I still get goose bumps when I think about it.
As much as anyone, Lester Strode is my direct link to the good old days. He’s a Cubs survivor. He’s been through the good and the (oftentimes) bad.
And after 28 years coaching in the Cubs’ organization – nearly half his life – Lester is about to be getting a World Series ring.
My first year as a full-time member of the Cubs’ Media Relations office was 1988 – which coincided with Lester Strode’s final year as a player.
Near the end of that year, I remember Bill Harford – the Cubs’ director of minor league operations – calling me into his office to give me the list of coaching assignments for the following year. That list included Strode.
“I guess I was fortunate or blessed and in the right place at the right time,” said Strode – who made 18 relief appearances for Triple-A Iowa that year. “I was actually released (he had been on St. Louis’ Louisville roster) and was headed home when a good friend of mine, Bill Harford – who now has passed away – happened to give me a phone call. He asked me if I was still interested in playing. He offered me a job as a reliever at the Triple-A level. I didn’t know what was going to happen once that season ended.
“Near the end of the season, he came into town and asked me if I would be interested in coaching. He got that hint from our pitching coordinator, Jim Colborn. I got to know Jim during that little time I was around in ’88. He was working with a pitcher in the outfield, and I just happened to throw my two cents in there – and I actually got the guy to do what Jim had been trying to get him to do. I guess he passed that along to Bill. ‘We might have a teacher here in the organization.’
“So at the end of the season, Bill actually offered me two jobs: To continue to pitch in the organization at the Triple-A level, or to take a coaching job. At that time, reality had set in. I wasn’t pitching as well as I had in the past. I knew my career was going the opposite way. I knew this was another opening in the game of baseball, so I decided to take advantage of this opportunity. I told Bill I would love to coach, and he gave me the job.
“In 1989, I started out in Wytheville, Virginia. And then – just like a player – as I learned and understood what my job was as a coach, and as I was making progress in that area, I moved as a player moved.”
Think about the road he has traveled …
“From Day One, when Bill Harford gave me that opportunity … I always looked at it as what you make out of an opportunity,” Strode said. “You know, as a player, I wanted to make it; I wanted to succeed. No excuses, but there were some health issues. And as I look back and be honest with myself, I’m no different than other guys … I didn’t work hard enough to succeed. I had all the talent in the world. But I’ve learned a lot as a coach; for the most part, you’re not going to be rewarded for not giving 100 percent. No matter how blessed you are or how talented you are, you have to be all in when you’re trying to achieve a goal. I think I learned that as a player, and it prevailed for me as a coach. I put a lot of time and effort in trying to be the best coach possible – both on the field and off the field as well.”
Thankfully for Strode, despite all the different managers the Cubs have had over the past decade, he has only had to work with two pitching coaches – Larry Rothschild and Chris Bosio.
“I worked under Larry Rothschild for quite a long time and had an excellent experience understanding how to handle major league pitchers and how to deal with them day-in and day-out. He was one of my biggest mentors,” Strode said. “Now I’m working with Chris Bosio, and we just clicked. I try to be open-minded with whomever I’m working with and try to understand who they are and how they like to go about their business. Chris and I have now been together more than five years. It’s a great working relationship, a great friendship, and we’ve done some great things here for the organization – getting the pitchers ready to perform each and every day as we go through the season.”
And what is his role as bullpen coach? There is so much more to it than sitting there with a clipboard or a spiral notebook.
“The job has changed compared to how it was 20 years ago,” Strode said. “There was a time where the bullpen coach was a guy who had never been a pitching coach or a guy who had never caught. They just looked at it as a guy who answered the phone when it would ring, get someone up, make sure they got their arm ready, and let’s get him into the game.
“It’s changed quite a bit over the years. Now, I actually feel like I’m still a pitching coach. And that’s why I like working with guys like Larry and Chris Bosio … they have the utmost respect for me, knowing that I’ve been a pitching coach and a pitching coordinator. I’ve had experience at the major league level as far as working with major league pitchers. They respect the fact that I’m a guy that understands the ins-and-outs of pitching. They’ve allowed me to continue to be a pitching coach even though my title is bullpen coach – and stay sharp in that area. When it comes to strategy, when it comes to working with the pitchers – whether it be mechanically or talking to them about situations, the mental phase of the game – I’m just as much a part of that as the pitching coach is. The relievers need just as much attention in the bullpen as the starters do in the dugout.
“I always have my scouting book in my hand once I’m up and a pitcher is getting ready. It’s not just getting your arm loose and getting your pitches ready. What situation is he going into? Who is he going to be facing? Can the guy run and steal a base? Is he a first-pitch aggressive hitter, or is he patient? All those different points come into play down in the bullpen. I’m getting them ready physically and mentally, so they can go out there and execute no matter what the situation may be. There is strategy going on and mental preparation going on while they’re getting loose. I try to be very detailed and precise about the information I give them. I don’t want to fill their mind with too much. Just give them some detailed information that can give them direction and help them understand what they’re preparing for.”
No matter how you spin it, when you’re a baseball lifer, it’s all about the pursuit of the ring.
I’m beyond excited for Lester Strode – now beginning his 30th year in the Cubs’ organization and his 29th as a coach. When that ring ceremony takes place next month, I’ll be living vicariously through him.
“I’m looking forward to that ring ceremony. It’s going to be the highlight of my whole career, to be honest with you,” he said. “I thought last year was big – we won it … the celebrating – but the fact that we get that ring kind of seals the whole deal.
“There was a moment after we won that I just thought about all the people that helped me achieve my goal. A lot of people that I felt like winning this thing … they were a part of it. They are a part of me, and they made my career much easier because they supported me. I’m talking about co-workers, friends I’ve made over the course of my career. My thoughts are going to be shared with them as I receive that ring.
“I’m glad I’m able to express these moments with the people who mean a lot to me. I want to let them know the ring isn’t just for me … it’s for all of us. They’re right there with me, and they’ll always be a part of my life.”