Column: Chicago Cubs announce a new hire — but no, it’s not Cody Bellinger

The Chicago Cubs announced one of their most important offseason decisions Monday, naming John Steinmiller, formerly with the Blackhawks, as their new senior director of media relations.

It’s not exactly bringing back Cody Bellinger, but it’s newsworthy, and that counts for something during this Cubs offseason, where President Jed Hoyer has been biding his time while waiting for the prices of free agents to drop.

At least the Rickettses aren’t messing around in this key position, which serves as the bridge between the local media and manager Craig Counsell and his players.

Steinmiller, who replaces veteran Jason Carr, has been in the business since 2005 when he began with the Milwaukee Brewers. His relationship with Counsell should serve him well, and he has a familiarity with most of the Chicago media, including me.

Steinmiller still took the job, which is commendable.

There may be no more thankless job than that of media relations for a professional sports team, especially a major market team like the Cubs. You’re dealing with managers who might be in a cranky mood after a crushing loss, players who decide to leave the clubhouse without talking to the media after hitting a game-winning home run, and writers constantly asking: “Is Jed talking today?”

The relationship between the media and athletes has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, with less access for reporters, fewer stars who feel the need to talk before or after games, and front-office executives who only deal with national writers at the expense of their beat writers.

The main responsibility of a media relations boss is to make sure the team always comes out in the best light, or if it’s a particularly controversial news story to perform some damage control. Steinmiller should be well-prepared after working for the Blackhawks, where damage control has become an art form in the last few years.

The last time I saw Steinmiller at a Blackhawks game, I accidentally stepped on the Blackhawks logo in the postgame locker room, which drew a much-deserved reprimand from one of his media relations assistants: “Hey, get off the logo!” Instead of a lifetime ban, I got off with a warning to watch my step.

Everyone deserves a second chance, though I’ve avoided the Blackhawks locker room since. Fortunately, the floor of the Cubs’ clubhouse is simply a weathered carpet without any logo, so there will be no worries about a repeat offense unless stepping on Clark the Cub counts.

Steinmiller also reminded me that day of the time I wrote in the Chicago Tribune that Counsell was “tragically unhip,” apparently making fun of the new Cubs manager back when he was running the Brewers. I couldn’t remember writing anything like that, but a quick Google search revealed Steinmiller’s memory was accurate.

While writing a Cubs-Brewers series preview in August 2018, I wrote of the competing managers: ”Hipster Joe Maddon matches wits with the tragically unhip Craig Counsell.” Oof. I have no reason to believe Counsell is unhip, tragically or otherwise. The Tribune regrets the error.

Counsell has been around for a long time. He probably doesn’t need any assistance from Steinmiller on how to deal with the Chicago baseball media, which is much larger — and a bit snarkier — than our peers in Milwaukee, except for the Marquee Sports Network, the Cubs-owned outlet that treated former manager David Ross like he was part of the network and thus blameless during the team’s end-of-season collapse.

Hoyer obviously saw otherwise and made the right call on replacing Ross with Counsell, whose $40 million contract is the largest of any manager in MLB history.

Counsell seems to have a quirky sense of humor, which will likely be necessary as he begins the long grind when spring training starts in two weeks in Mesa, Ariz. As former manager Lou Piniella said in spring training 2007: “This is no push-button operation, I can tell you that.”

After an uneventful start to the offseason, the Cubs have made a couple of big moves since the calendar turned, signing Japanese starter Shota Imanaga and reliever Héctor Neris. Everyone still expects Hoyer to re-sign Bellinger, but until he’s in camp it’s mere guesswork.

“Anyone can do a deal,” Hoyer told fans at the Cubs Convention. “Anyone can say yes to an agent’s asking price. If you do that, you’re going to run out of money really quickly.”

I doubt the Rickettses will ever run out of money, no matter how much they give Bellinger or anyone else. But if Hoyer signs Bellinger at a bargain price, his strategy will have worked and most fans will be satisfied. If Bellinger signs elsewhere, the Cubs could be looking at another 80-win season.

Everything really hinges on one decision.

The 2024 season is almost here, but there’s still time to make a move or two. Hopefully Hoyer gives his new media relations director something to do as Steinmiller begins his new job on Feb. 5.

Those press releases don’t write themselves.


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