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Column: Chicago Cubs pitcher Héctor Neris invokes the classic sports tradition of the motivational speech

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Every now and then, we all need a little extra push — encouragement to help us unlock something deep within ourselves to accomplish a goal.

These days it seems like everyone is a motivational speaker. There are Instagram accounts with millions of followers whose sole purpose is to post inspirational quotes on filtered backgrounds from writers, historical figures, wealthy businessmen and celebrities. Each quote tells us to rise above, reminds us to believe in ourselves and our mindset controls everything. The intent is to offer some nugget of wisdom, some alliterative inspiration, to propel us to action and success.

If you’re anything like me, you probably scrunch your nose up a little at some of them. They’re often generic and could apply to just about anything if you thought long enough about it.

But in sports, motivational speeches have contributed to lore. A player giving a speech at a critical moment in the season can become part of the team’s stories for years to come. Athletes are famously known for their ability to go to another level to compete at the highest.

Typically these speeches come before a critical game, during a Game 7 rain delay or in the midst of a losing streak. But after a wild walk-off 1-0 win at Wrigley Field on Saturday, Cubs pitcher Héctor Neris delivered a postgame speech that gave outfielder Cody Bellinger “goosebumps.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s unusual, but it was just something really fun and got the boys going a little bit,” Bellinger said.

Pitcher Shota Imanaga, who doesn’t seem to need the extra motivation considering the way he’s been pitching to start the season, thought Neris’ speech was “reassuring” as it came after a win.

“I think everything has an impact. Everything we do has an impact; some good and there’s some times we have a bad impact on stuff. But everything has an impact, for sure. I think it’s all part of the journey a team takes together. So it all matters. And what we share with each other, the interactions we have with each other. A team’s culture is their interactions. That’s part of us talking to each other. That’s part of talking to the team. That’s part of the players talking to the team. That’s what the team’s culture is,” Craig Counsell said of motivational speeches before Sunday’s 3-2 loss to the Pirates.

Neris opted not to disclose the details of his speech but said he felt it necessary to motivate his team. And while it’s too early to press the panic button, Neris’ speech gives an idea as to the thought process in the clubhouse.

Two months into the season, the Cubs have seen the highs of winning two of a three-game early season series against the world-beater Dodgers and the lows of being on the wrong side of history against Pittsburgh’s rookie pitcher Paul Skenes, the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft, who had 11 strikeouts (including the first seven batters he faced) over six hitless innings in just his second career start on Friday. The Cubs are also trying to overcome their bullpen woes, injuries to critical players and streaky hitting.

There have been many great motivational speeches throughout sports history. Coaches and athletes across locker rooms real and fictional have put their passion into words to rally their teams and lead them to victory. Maybe Neris’ speech will become one of them.

In “Any Given Sunday,” a 1999 sports drama film about a fictional football team struggling to make the playoffs, aging head coach Tony D’Amato, played by Al Pacino, gives a rousing speech before the team’s final game.

“You know when you get old in life things get taken from you. That’s part of life. But you only learn that when you start losing stuff. You find out that life is just a game of inches. So is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half-step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They are in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else apart for that inch.”

With a tough stretch ahead against Atlanta, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cincinnati, the Cubs will be fighting for every inch.

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Shakeia Taylor , 2024-05-19 23:55:09

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