09 Sep For the Cubs’ Steve Cishek, High Socks Win Games
By: Kelly Wallace
Before it was the Jason Heyward Walk-Off Grand Slam Game, it was a nail-biter at Wrigley Field. With two runners on, two outs, and the tying run at the plate, the Cubs turned to one of their most reliable offseason additions, righty reliever Steve Cishek, to escape a jam and hold a 3-0 lead. Despite the walk and the single given up by José Quintana, it still felt like the Cubs would escape unscathed, Cishek is one of the most consistent performers in a deep bullpen. He hadn’t given up a single home run as a Cub, and the odds that the Phillies’ Aaron Altherr would step up and hit one were astronomical.
So, of course, Aaron Altherr immediately cranked a three-run homer to tie the game on the first pitch Cishek threw, a 77 mph slider. “Baseball’s baseball,” He says with a rueful chuckle about the improbability of it all. “You’ve got a great swinger,” He explains, when asked about his thought process approaching Altherr. “But what I’m looking at is that he swings at the first pitch 60% of the time. So most times, I can get ahead with the slider, get him out of the zone, and then it’s all good.” Instead, it was a tie game.
Long before he was one of the most trusted arms in the Cubs’ elite bullpen, Cishek was a Red Sox fan growing up in Cape Cod, trying to figure out who he was as a young pitcher. “I was watching Pedro Martínez and Derek Lowe. I wanted to mimic Pedro Martínez’s windup, but have Derek Lowe’s mechanics,” He says of his earliest influences. “That’s what I thought I was doing.” That, if you’ve watched Cishek pitch, is not quite what he was doing. Cishek is a sinkerballer with a pronounced sidearm delivery, even though it doesn’t feel that way to him. “To this day, I still feel like I’m throwing over the top. It’s really hard to explain.” He decides to try anyway. “It’s like I’m able to get my hand on top of the ball for my delivery, if you look, but then obviously, it’s sidearm action…I don’t know, I’ve just always thrown pretty similar to the way I throw now.”
One thing that’s hard to miss about Cishek is that whether he’s on the mound, in the bullpen, or just wandering around the field, he’s in his high socks. “I’ve worn high socks for my whole big league career,” He says, laughing. “It’s kind of my thing.” On-field style matters, to players and fans alike, and Cishek is delighted to have become an unlikely fashion icon amongst the Cubs faithful. However, the topic of just how much leeway players should have with regard to on-field attire remains a point of contention between MLB and the Player’s Association. Cishek thinks it’s important to get it right, and says that there’s been constructive dialogue between the two sides lately. He brings up the fuss over his teammate Ben Zobrist’s black PF Flyers, which Zobrist was told to stop wearing back in May. Luckily, his high socks are safe.
“Kids look up to these players, it’s fun to see a guy wearing cool spikes,” Cishek says. Ben’s Flyers, naturally, are a homage to the pair in The Sandlot. “Look, if I’m a young kid, and I see someone wearing cool, old school stuff like that, it’d make me think about the history of the game I’m playing. It’s only good for the game.” Cishek remembers being that kid, and he doesn’t see any reason for baseball to be upset about some really great kicks.
So what do you do when you come in and give up a game-tying blast with your first pitch? According to Cishek, forget about it. “Right there, I’m pretty confident, it’s a great game, it’s my job to get these runners on base out but then you let it fly and the pitch isn’t where you want it and it’s gone,” He sighs, but he doesn’t dwell. “The team is still relying on me. I can’t let them down. You go on and you try to forget, to the best of your ability. I knew I had a job to continue to do.”
Cishek recovered admirably and needed only six pitches to escape with no further damage. But the unlikely onslaught from the Phillies wasn’t over just yet. Brandon Morrow came in to keep the game tied and surrendered a two-run shot to Dylan Cozens in the top of the 9th. It was also the very first home run he’d given up as a Cub. That made it 5-3, Phillies. “I just couldn’t believe it,” Cishek says. “Everything that happened.”
Luckily, 2018’s Comeback Cubs had some magic left up their sleeves. Kyle Schwarber kicked off the bottom half of the 9th by working a walk, followed by a single from Albert Almora, followed by another walk for Ian Happ. Ben Zobrist was up next, and he grounded into a fielder’s choice, allowing the Phillies to get Schwarber out at home and putting a damper on the burgeoning rally. Then, with 2 outs and 2 strikes, Jason Heyward absolutely crushed a no-doubter into the bleachers, for the most improbable of endings to an improbable game. A walk-off grand slam.
In the end, Cishek didn’t actually see it happen. “I was in the training room, actually,” he says. “I looked around and saw one of the trainers watching on the TV and he threw up his hands real quick and looked surprised. I was just praying that it was something good, because he wasn’t jumping up and down.” He may not have been jumping up and down, but Wrigley Field exploded and hit a decibel level usually reserved for October baseball. “I saw him lift the ball, and then I realized. I started jumping up and down, I sprinted all over the room, and finally made it out to where all the guys were.” I ask how he would describe it in a word.
“Awesome. Just awesome.”
[Art credit: acceptably drawn baseball (@drawawalk)]