Spring training is coming to a close, with teams doing a bit of final preparation before the regular season begins Sunday. While the thought of tuning in for games that actually count for something is exciting, it's always sad to say goodbye to spring, when every team looks primed for a big year and every good play is a sign of a great season ahead. The weather is impeccable, the access unparalleled and the hijinks unpredictable.
The good vibes were in full effect in Mesa, Arizona, this year at the spring home of the Chicago Cubs. From baby bear cubs to karaoke, from mimes to clowns, skipper Joe Maddon got right back to work this spring selling his unique brand of motivation. I even got to see some of the fun first-hand.
Now, I'm admittedly biased, but there were some magical moments in Mesa. Will that translate to the regular season, where the Cubs are early favorites to win the World Series? If that reality plays out, it'll be important to remember where it all started in the spring. So here are a few of my favorite moments from the Cubs' preseason:
A touching reunion
It all began with the kind of surprise you never see in this age of 24/7 media coverage and Twitter leaks. One day after multiple sources reported that free agent Dexter Fowler had signed a three-year deal with the Orioles, the former Cubs outfielder strolled into spring training to announce that he'd decided to take a pay cut and return to Chicago. Not a single one of his teammates knew that he was returning until he arrived.
Just try not to smile while watching this bear hug with Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
Fowler and Cubs president of baseball ops Theo Epstein were mighty proud of themselves for pulling off the surprise.
A retirement tour
When Cubs catcher David Ross announced that 2016 would be his final year, the team decided to take a page out of Derek Jeter's book and give Ross a seasonlong farewell. First, Rizzo and third baseman Kris Bryant started an Instagram account, @GrandpaRossy_3, to document his last season and #yearlongretirementparty.
Ross was more than happy to play along.
Especially when the gifts started to arrive.
New Cubs slugger Jason Heyward, a former teammate of Ross' in Atlanta, decided to keep the party going by announcing he's going to upgrade Ross to a hotel suite for every single road trip the Cubs take this season. Party in Grandpa Rossy's room!
Fowler's return and Ross' retirement gifts were a sweet way to get the Cubs' 2016 season started, but from then on camp was all about Maddon's tricks -- the kookier the better. In late February he rolled up to morning stretch in a souped-up, spray-painted van blasting Earth, Wind and Fire.
Strength coach Tim Buss emerged in a clown suit and traveling secretary Vijay Tekchandani, coach Dave Martinez, players Munenori Kawasaki and Taylor Davis popped out in 1970s costumes.
In another throwback moment, Huey Lewis suited up for a day with the ol' ball club ...
Huey Lewis at Cubs camp. Yup. pic.twitter.com/HEGCbsBgFa— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) March 26, 2016
One day the Cubs were taking their stretching cues from a mime ...
... the next day, a superhero (aka Coach Buss). The hijinx weren't limited to humans, though.
See if you can catch one of the guys saying of a cub's stumble, "That's how I walk [after] a night out with Rizzo."
The coaches and special guests weren't the only ones getting in on the fun. Cubs players got to play dressup at camp, as well.
They celebrated St. Patrick's Day with one of their favorite mottos ...
And paid homage to old-timey football coaches with tight polyester shorts.
Extra points to Rizzo for pairing them with a tee bearing the Cubs' new slogan, "Embrace the target."
After signing with the Cubs in the offseason impossibly likeable infielder Kawasaki won over his new teammates with a rousing rendition of Aerosmith's "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing."
Not to be outdone, Rizzo showed off the results of the piano lessons he's been taking this spring.
Had a great time rockin out for the boys today. pic.twitter.com/fz7zpSLR75— Anthony Rizzo (@ARizzo44) March 30, 2016
He even revealed his softer side by busting out a bit of Adele's "Hello."
But Rizzo doesn't seem quite as advanced just yet on the drums. If professional musicians are more your thing (and who can blame you after that butchering of Vanilla Ice), here's guitarist Ed May helping the Cubs get their stretch on with a little live AC/DC.
The best part of following Cubs spring training is getting to see how excited the guys are to get back to work after the offseason. Whether it's old pals Rizzo and Bryant, who cemented their bromance with the super-couple moniker "Bryzzo"...
... or new guys like Heyward trying to get in on the fun.
All three guys hit the links together and Rizzo offered up his own remix of "Damn Daniel," creepin' on Bryant.
And on their final day in camp, the guys gathered to celebrate Grandpa Rossy's last day of spring training.
May the magic of Mesa continue all season long. There's no doubt Maddon's still got some tricks up his sleeve and the biggest trick of them all would be to get this Cubs team something they've wanted for 108 years and counting ... but that's a story for another time.