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16

Kyle Schwarber

Bullets and beers with the Cubs’ comeback kid.

All around him is gunfire. Hand cannons, Uzis, Glocks, AR-15s. Kaboom! Burrrrrupp! Pop-pop-pop. Casings ping and spin onto the concrete floor.

Kyle Schwarber, gripping a nine-millimeter Luger, doesn’t flinch. In fact, he looks at home at this Arizona gun range. He’s got on jeans, work boots, a gray Sportique ball cap, and a pair of tarmac-worthy earmuffs the size of halved coconuts. With his beer-and-brat build, he could nearly pass for a steelworker on break. The giveaway, of course, is the chin curtain of beard, a sort of soul patch cum Chia Pet that has become (along with his moon-shot home runs) as recognizable to Cubs fans as Harry Caray’s supersize Bud goggles.

Kyle Schwarber
Photo: Jesse Riser

With the ease of someone who has grown up around guns—he’s an avid hunter and the son of a former Ohio cop—Schwarber feeds bullets one by one into a clip, snaps it in with a clap, and flicks off the safety with his left thumb. He looks down his lane, sights the target, and …

POW! … POW! … POW! … POW! … POW!

A push of a button, and the paper target zings forward, jolting to a stop a foot from Schwarber. He peels off the tape and proudly displays the target to Paige Hartman, his girlfriend since high school.

One, two, three, four holes pock the bull’s-eye. A fifth lies just outside.

Hartman, a pretty brunette, cuts Schwarber a needling glance.

“I meant to do that,” he mouths over the din.

She rolls her eyes.

He grins and reloads.

 

Can’t blame a guy for trying. Or for wanting to blow off some steam after another day of grueling workouts at the Cubs’ training facility in Mesa. “I find it relaxing,” Schwarber says of shooting. “It’s a good stress reliever.”

He’s earned it. And not just for the World Series heroics that will endear him to Cubs fans forever. He has spent all but a couple of weeks of this off-season in Arizona, continuing to rehab his knee. Good news: Schwarber and his trainers say he’s physically back to where he was before the injury that cost him virtually all of the 2016 regular season, right down to being able to roam the outfield or even get behind the plate for spot catching duty.

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I can bear witness, having watched Schwarber grunt through one punishing set of exercises after another earlier in the day—squats, sled shoves, crab walks with a giant rubber band wrapped around his legs and arms, and, in a drill that made my back hurt just to watch, heavily weighted pelvic thrusts. His workout gear was exactly what you might expect from a guy nicknamed Schwarbs: a pair of baggy black shorts over blue sweats, a flat-brimmed Cubbies cap swung backward, and a T-shirt depicting Bill Murray in a pinstriped Cubs jersey and eyeblack, cap also flipped around.

“He’s working his ass off every day,” says Cubs strength and conditioning coach Tim Buss. “You don’t see many dudes doing Monday through Saturday in the middle of December. That’s just his mentality, though. He’s a grinder.” (Another reason for Cubs fans to take heart: When I visited the Mesa facility five days before Christmas, Jason Heyward—he of the lofty salary and lowly batting average—was also there, in hopes of getting his groove back.)

After the gym and the gun range, I tag along with Schwarber and Hartman to an upscale Scottsdale bar and grill. We settle around a table on a small outdoor patio warmed by heaters.

“Cheers, first of all,” Schwarber says, hoisting a brew.

He tells me a little about his family. He’s the baby (he turns 24 in March), with three older sisters: The youngest serves in the National Guard, the middle played college basketball and now works in law enforcement like their father, a decorated former police chief, and the oldest is the “funny one, like me,” Schwarber says.

“A little crazier,” Hartman corrects.

“Yeah,” he concedes. “She’s the first one who checks up on me. We talk to each other about everything.”

“She’s very protective of you,” Hartman offers.

It is then, after a waitress slides a plate of artichoke dip in front of us, that Schwarber asks me a question that takes me by surprise.

“So why this story?” he says, without a trace of irony. “Why are you writing about me?”

Come again?

“I mean, why not Rizzo or Kris or one of the other guys?”

Well, I tell him, other than his rocket ride to stardom last year, the frightening injury that almost everyone, including him, believed had doomed his season if not his career, the months of agonizing rehab, the miracle recovery, his surprise insertion into the World Series lineup, his subsequent clutch hits, especially the one that launched the championship-winning rally and his entry into Cubby lore without so much as a full season under his belt … no reason in particular.

At this, Schwarber laughs.

“OK, OK,” he allows. “I guess it was pretty crazy.”

 

“Crazy” is one way to describe Schwarber’s season. “Absurd,” “preposterous,” “astonishing,” and “wondrous” being others.

It began horrifically, though—a gasp-inducing outfield collision with Dexter Fowler in just the third game. “Initially, when I got hit, I thought my ankle was broken,” he says. “That’s what hurt the most when I was rolling around on the ground.”

“Find that picture,” Hartman interjects.

Schwarber whips out his iPhone and pulls up an image of his ankle bent 90 degrees under Fowler.

“But there was also this burning sensation going through my leg,” Schwarber continues. “I told [the team doctors] that my knee hurt, but I could bend it, so I thought that was a good sign.” After the joint “blew up like a balloon” later that night, he knew something was wrong.

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A series of MRIs the next day revealed complete tears of two ligaments in his left knee—the ACL and LCL. He was done for the season, he was told. The weight of that hit Schwarber as he began sharing the news with teammates. “I broke down and started crying,” he recalls. “I knew we had a special team, and I wanted to be part of it. Now I couldn’t.”

As he recovered from surgery in his Chicago apartment, he struggled with depression and doubt. Will I ever be the same? He also had to contend with severe cramps that kept him awake at night. “I was in constant pain,” he says. “I was calling my doctor, freaking out, like, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s normal.’ ” This? Normal?

Putting weight on the knee was out of the question, which meant he relied on his family and Hartman for everything from getting dressed to going to the bathroom. Hartman watched as her boyfriend fell deeper into a funk. “He didn’t even want to bring sunlight in,” she recalls.

Schwarber nods. “I kept the blinds closed. I just wanted it to stay dark so I could sleep.” His family bought him a recliner so that he could sit up to watch TV or lie back to rest. “I was in that chair 18 to 24 hours a day. It wasn’t fun.”

Meanwhile, his team was off to one of the best starts in club history. Schwarber was thrilled. But also frustrated. All he could do was watch.

He channeled his emotions into his rehab. “It was brutal,” he recalls. “I was sweating. My knee was sweating. I never knew my knee could sweat.”

At least rehab gave him something to do. He was going stir-crazy at home. “You watch your boys play on TV, but what else are you going to watch?” he says. “It’s the same shows every day.” He’d play cards with his father, but even that got old.

After about six weeks, he was finally allowed to walk without crutches. “You don’t know how much you miss walking,” he says. “You have to teach yourself all over again. You got this hitch in your step. But you’re just so happy to walk again.”

Despite his progress, he continued to brood. “I would try to put a face on for my teammates,” he says. In private, though, he was different. “I didn’t want to be, but it just came out that way.”

Didn’t want to be what?

“Mean,” Hartman pipes up, and they both laugh.

“Yeah,” he admits.

In time, Schwarber’s mood improved along with his knee. “It started getting better when we could start implementing [weight]lifting,” he says. He began setting weekly goals for increasing the motion in his knee. Four months in, he was jogging in the pool, riding a bike, doing squats. “I felt like I was getting more fit, like I was actually doing something with my body.”

His teammates rooted him on. “They played a really big part in how I went about my rehab. It would have been easy to go [into the gym] and say you’re not feeling it and take it easy. But I remember guys like Pedro Strop, who would say things like, ‘You’re going to make it to the World Series, Papi.’ ”

Schwarber would laugh off such comments. He had no illusion of a comeback—not in time for that season anyway. “I had accepted it. Our goal was for the second half of winter ball, which started like mid-December.”

But as the Cubs advanced past the San Francisco Giants in the first round of the playoffs, Schwarber was progressing well ahead of schedule. His doctor routinely asked him to email a list of “next steps” in his recovery. Now, as a joke, Schwarber added “World Series?” at the bottom. Recalls Schwarber: “He kept telling me no, no, no, no.”

But then came a visit to the doctor’s office in Dallas just before game 3 of the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. If the Cubs made it to the World Series and Schwarber wanted to play as a designated hitter, the doctor told him, he wouldn’t stop him. “I was sitting on the table and stood up real quick,” Schwarber recalls. “I was like, ‘What?’ ”

He immediately phoned team president Theo Epstein with the update.

“How do you feel about it?” Epstein asked.

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“All I want is a chance,” Schwarber replied.

“All right,” Epstein said. “I’m in.”

Schwarber caught a flight to Los Angeles that day. At 10 p.m., he met up at Dodger Stadium with Epstein, Buss, and other Cubs personnel. “Let’s do this, boys,” Schwarber told them. “Let’s see what we’ve got.” He proceeded to hit balls off a tee in the cool air of the otherwise empty stadium.

“It was like, OK, it feels good,” Buss recalls thinking. “Now let’s see how we feel when we wake up.”

“I was a little sore,” Schwarber admits, laughing. “But I didn’t tell anyone.”

The Cubs sent him to Mesa to test him out further. To retrain his eye to major-league pitching, Schwarber would stand in the batter’s box, watching pitch after pitch from a machine—roughly 2,000 in all, he estimates.

While the Cubs played game 6 of their series against the Dodgers, Schwarber took part in the first of what would be two games in the developmental Arizona Fall League. He kept tabs on the Cubs’ progress on an iPad in the dugout. “I watched the whole thing. I was going crazy.” After the Cubs won that night to clinch a berth in the World Series, Schwarber was greeted at the Mesa facility with a Champagne shower.

Moments later, Epstein called. “All right,” he said. “Let’s just get you to Cleveland and we’ll go from there.”

 

If you own a TV, a computer, a smartphone, or a set of tin cans with a string, you know what happened next. Manager Joe Maddon inserted Schwarber into the game 1 lineup to face Cleveland’s ace, Corey Kluber.

“Talk about a whirlwind of emotions,” Schwarber says. “All the hard work that had gone into my recovery. I had my doubts. But once I stepped in between the lines, it was like a different face turned on. It’s like, All right, let’s go, I’m ready to eat some baseballs right now.”

There were skeptics. Fox Sports analyst Pete Rose scoffed at the notion that Schwarber, who hadn’t hit against major-league pitching for 201 days and had all of one week to get back into game shape, would do anything but flop. “I wish he wouldn’t, but he’s going to strike out three times tonight,” Rose declared on TV during the game.

His first time up, Schwarber did indeed go down on strikes. But the at-bat actually boosted his confidence. “I knew I was just under the ball, so I’m like, OK, let’s make that adjustment.”

Sure enough, in his second time at the plate, he smoked a double off the right field wall. The next night, he added two RBI singles as the Cubs evened up the series.

“I can’t even describe what he’s doing right now,” Ben Zobrist said after game 2. “No one’s ever seen anything like it.”

David Ross summed up the moment: “It’s the legend of Kyle Schwarber.”

He would go on to hit .412 for the series. Of the four games he played, the Cubs won three. His presence—and big lefty bat—seemed to give the entire lineup new life. And it was Schwarber’s leadoff single in the 10th inning of game 7, of course, that proved pivotal.

Illustration: Hawk Krall

Schwarber will never forget the flight back to Chicago after the World Series win. “You could write a story about that alone. We were having a good time. Just everyone loving each other, you know what I mean?”

“So much fun,” adds Hartman. “All the wives and girlfriends and kids got to fly with the team that night.”

Days later, he was headed to New York to appear on Live with Kelly. “We got to see The Lion King,” Schwarber exults. Then it was on to his hometown of Middletown, Ohio, for more celebrating.

If there were any doubt Schwarber was now an official fan favorite, it was dispelled in January at a kids’ press conference at the annual Cubs Convention in Chicago. The other panelists—Albert Almora Jr., Javier Baez, and Willson Contreras—got their share of questions. But it was Schwarbs the kids wanted to hear from most.

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“Are you going to play in the regular season this year or wait for the World Series again?” one young fan asked.

“That’s a good idea!” Baez chimed in.

Schwarber, rendered speechless, simply mouthed, “Mic drop!”

 

Had we been at a bar in Chicago, there almost certainly would have been some stares, a few back slaps, perhaps a plea for a selfie. You don’t star on the Cubs team that broke the curse without a little hero worship. But here in Arizona, Schwarber was enjoying his beer with barely a glance.

“You don’t get many people who recognize you,” he says.

“It’s kind of great,” Hartman offers.

Having finished recounting the story of his season, Schwarber calls it a night. “We’ve got to pack,” he apologizes.

You’ve got to pack,” Hartman corrects. “I’ve got to buy Christmas presents.”

“We’re going back to Ohio tomorrow,” Schwarber says.

When does their flight leave?

“Oh, no,” Hartman says. “We’re driving.”

They’re taking their new Dalmatian puppy, Blue, with them, Schwarber explains.

How long does that take, Mesa to Ohio?

“Oh, 24, 25 hours,” he says. “We’re going to try to drive straight through.”

Of course.

And after the holidays?

Back to Mesa, he says. Back to work.

 

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