New MLB hazing policy has Cubs searching for alternatives

MESA, Ariz. -- Chicago Cubs pitcher Rob Zastryzny looked forward to the first time he put on a cheerleader’s outfit. His moment came in Pittsburgh, late last season, not long after he was called up from the minors.

During a walk on the bridge over the Allegheny River that featured its share of stares from passersby, there was one thought running through the pitcher’s mind as he approached PNC Park: He was part of the team now.

“It was before my first start,” Zastryzny recalled recently at spring training. “I had to walk to the field in a cheerleader outfit. John Lackey and Travis Wood walked with me over the bridge in Pittsburgh. It really did make us feel like it was our entrance to the team. The Cubs guys did a really good job of it. I was a fan of it. It made me feel really close to the older guys.”

Zastryzny and other rookies around the league who donned similar outfits the past season will be the last MLB players to dress in women’s clothes, due to a rule in the sport’s new collective bargaining agreement: No more forcing rookies to wear cheerleader outfits, princess gowns or anything else that might resemble clothing of another gender.

Cubs players aren’t exactly on board with the policy, though they will follow it.

“I think it’s B.S.,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “It’s about making guys uncomfortable. I always say: Get uncomfortable to get comfortable. That’s what we try to do.”

Montero and his teammates plan to adjust by coming up with new ways to get players out of their comfort zones. Off the top of his head, he suggested making them wear wrestling tights as they walk through the airport on a road trip. Meanwhile, pitchers Jake Arrieta and Justin Grimm pointed to Speedos as an alternative the team could turn to this season.

The word "uncomfortable" is particularly relevant in Cubs camp, as it is central to Joe Maddon’s method to help his players succeed in a game that constantly makes them feel that way.

“The moment you get comfortable with your plight, then the threat is you’re not going to push yourself to the point where you need to again,” Maddon said.

He applies that theory to the dress-up issue. Whether it comes from wearing women’s clothes, funny suits or dressing up as a comic book hero, he feels forcing players into an uncomfortable situation off the field can only benefit them on it.

“I think hazing is different than what we do,” Maddon said. “It’s a team bonding experience. … It’s about stepping outside your comfort zone. Any costume can do that. There’s growth involved. If they can get past that thought, then what happens on the field can become less stressful in a sense.”

While some players understand the concern of those outside the locker room, they firmly believe intent should matter.

“No one is trying to offend any person or people that identify themselves as something else,” Arrieta said. “It’s about making the younger teammates uncomfortable and seeing how they deal with the situation. It’s a team-building thing.

“Maybe it needs to remain out of the public eye, but we aren’t trying to offend anyone. I know how serious it can be with people dealing with an uncomfortable time with the way they identify themselves individually. It’s a serious situation. Kids hide who they are because they feel like they will be ridiculed, and that’s wrong.”

Although Arrieta suggested keeping the practice out of the public eye, that might be impossible, with current technology combined with social media.

“The whole world has gotten too soft,” Lackey said with a half-smirk. “It can bring a team together.

“It’s not about making a kid feel bad or making fun of anyone. … I had a veteran tell me a long time ago that if they stop messing with you, they’ve stopped caring about you.”

That message resonates in the Cubs' clubhouse, where young players find dressing up as a cheerleader or princess a badge of honor more than an act of hazing.

“College hazing is immature, but this is different,” Zastryzny said. “We have a good laugh, but at the end of the day, the goal is to go win a ballgame.”

“To be honest, that was one of the things I was most looking forward to. It means you are part of the fraternity,” Albert Almora Jr. said. “It’s part of the baseball family. We got closer as a team because of that, but we’ll respect the league’s decision.”

Maddon has been consistent regarding his theories on bringing his team together and makes no excuses for his players’ actions in the past. In his mind, this was always a positive experience.

“Our intent has never been to denigrate any particular group,” Maddon said.

The game will move on, and new ways of welcoming the rookies will emerge, but Cubs players will remember their cheerleader dress-up days fondly.

“It’s a silly rule,” Montero said with a half-smile. “I dressed as a cheerleader and enjoyed it. And women saw me and enjoyed it because I have such a sexy body.”