Six former Pelicans make big-league leap to Cubs

The distance from Myrtle Beach’s TicketReturn.com Stadium to Chicago’s Wrigley Field is about 900 miles, as the Pelican flies.

For six former Myrtle Beach Pelicans, the journey was much longer and featured lots of detours and roadblocks along the way. But the rewards of reaching their ultimate destination was well worth the trip.

In only their fifth season as the Advanced Class A affiliate of the Cubs, the Pelicans already have a half dozen alumni playing in the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field, but not all took the traditional route.

In fact, three of the Cubs’ brightest stars played for the Pelicans under different affiliations. Outfielder Jason Heyward and Craig Kimbrel were Myrtle Beach teammates for the Atlanta Braves in 2008-09, while starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks suited up for the Pelicans when they were a farm team of the Texas Rangers in 2012. They went to the Cubs via trades but still fondly recall their time in Myrtle Beach.

“The No. 1 thing was I had one of the best pitching coaches I’ve ever had, Brad Holman, and it was a real game-changer for my career,” said Hendricks, one of the fixtures in the first-place Cubs’ five-man pitching rotation.

“He revamped my mechanics and gave me a lot of things to think about. Every game I wasn’t pitching I was by his side, talking about situations and how to manage a game. It gave me a whole new perspective on pitching and what it takes to make it in the majors.”

But it wasn’t all baseball that summer for Hendricks, who built lots of lasting friendships with Pelican teammates during his stint in Myrtle Beach, and cemented a lifelong relationship with his wife, Emma. Between baseball, the beach and the social scene, it was a like a fun working vacation.

“I remember it was a great summer,” Hendricks said. “My wife was my girlfriend at the time, and she was in nursing school, so she got to come down for the summer. We spent a lot of time on the beach and at Broadway (at the Beach). We really enjoyed it. The only thing I didn’t do was play golf. There was too much other work to do and fun to be had.”

Three current Cubs climbed the club’s minor-league ladder to reach the big leagues. Catchers Victor Caratina (2015) and Willson Contreras (2016) knelt behind home plate at Pelicans Ballpark before moving up to the parent club, while utility infielder David Bote found his groove with the Pelicans, batting .337 with 41 RBIs and six homers in a half-season and earning a spot on the big league roster one year later.

“Myrtle Beach had one of the more lively crowds in minor league baseball,” recalled Bote, who has worked his way into the Cubs’ starting lineup at second and third. “The atmosphere was great, the stadium was really intimate and the fans came out to support us. We won the championship there in 2016, which was so memorable and fun. … It was just a really good overall experience, and a wonderful place to play.”

The current crop of Cubs have found a happy home on the north side of Chicago, helping the “Lovable Losers” snap a 108-year World Series winless streak in 2016 and putting the team in position for another in the ensuing seasons. Playing in one of the oldest and most popular ballparks in the majors with one of the strongest fan bases make their Myrtle Beach days seem like a distant but happy memory.

“Being with the Cubs, winning a World Series and playing in front of such great fans at Wrigley Field is awesome,” Hendricks said. “It’s 100 percent a dream come true for me to be able to show up at the ballpark every day and play with such great guys and teammates.”

And if the Pelicans continue developing big-league talent, there are more on the way.

Photo courtesy of Chicago Cubs

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