Dan Winkler’s unique journey to the Cubs

4 years agoTony Andracki

Dan Winkler has had a long, hard road to Wrigley Field…and now that he’s here, his grandma couldn’t be happier.

The right-handed pitcher currently vying for a spot in the Opening Day bullpen grew up in Central Illinois in a family that was split between Cardinals fans and Cubs fans. He spent more time cheering for the Cardinals since St. Louis was only an hour away from his home town of Effingham, but he never hated the Cubs and his grandma was a diehard Cubs fan.

“Growing up, my grandma would pick me up from school and she’d have the Cubs game on AM radio,” Winkler said in a recent interview. “I remember her always cussing because she lived outside of our little town and in town, you couldn’t get AM radio that well.

“She’d be like, ‘alright, we gotta get going, we gotta listen to the Cubs game,’ because it’d be all staticky. We’d have to get out of town so we could hear the Cubs game better. I grew up listening to Harry Caray because when we’d get to my grandma’s house, she’d turn on WGN and we watched it all the time.”

So when the 30-year-old Winkler had a free-agent meeting with the Cubs over the winter and found out he would be receiving an offer, you can imagine how his grandma reacted.

“Right away, she’s like, ‘so, can I tell everybody you’re gonna be a Cub? I gotta get my Cubs stuff, does your family need Cubs stuff? I got a bunch of Cubs stuff. Anybody can have some,'” Winkler said, laughing. “She was pretty excited, but on the flip side, my wife’s grandma is a huge Cardinals fan, so she asked my wife if I had to sign with the Cubs. So the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is real.”

Dan Winkler In Article Only Cubs Size

Winkler’s wife, Camille, is also from Central Illinois and her grandma told Dan she would still cheer for him, but she doesn’t know if she has it in her to cheer for the Cubs as a whole.

Growing up, Winkler always admired Cubs fans and the aura around Wrigley Field. He even had a goal of being on the first Cubs team that won the World Series after 1908 and even though he couldn’t accomplish that feat, said he was grateful Cubs fans had that moment in 2016.

While the Cubs were beginning down their path to a dream season, Winkler suffered one of the biggest setbacks of his life.

In April of 2016, Winkler broke his elbow throwing a pitch in a game while with the Atlanta Braves. He didn’t know if he was ever going to make it back to the mound and didn’t watch baseball all year because it was too painful.

But when Game 7 of the World Series came around, Camille knew her husband had to watch.

“I didn’t want to, but I’m glad I did [watch],” Winkler said. “I remember my grandfather passed the year before the Cubs won the World Series and watching them jump up and down and finally win a World Series for the first time, I got kind of emotional. I was really close to my grandpa and he was my biggest fan and I talked to so many Cubs fans. It was a special moment and an emotional moment for them. It was for me, as well, watching them win it all.”

But for Winkler, that game went beyond the joy it brought Cubs fans (including those in his family). It also reignited a passion within him for the game.

“[My wife] didn’t want me to miss history. I think she knew I needed to watch that and get the love for baseball back,” Winkler said. “It just felt like it was stripped from me that year and watching that kind of motivated me to get back, watching the Cubs from a distance and just respecting the organization and wanting to be a part of it.”

Dan Winkler Braves On The Back 1920x1080

Winkler had already been through Tommy John surgery in 2014, but this elbow injury was different. He had finally made his MLB debut in 2015 with pair of appearances in the Braves bullpen.

It appeared 2016 was going to be his big breakout season. Winkler earned a spot on the Opening Day roster and tossed a perfect inning in the first game with 3 strikeouts against — of all teams — the Cardinals. He got 4 more outs that year with only a walk surrendered before he suffered the devastating injury while throwing a pitch to Randal Grichuk.

Now, all Winkler could do was wait for the bone to heal. Everything was out of his control as the mental battle began.

Through it all, Winkler tried his best to keep his faith, even when that was difficult. He’s a religious person and believes God has a plan, but admitted at times, he was questioning why this had to be his path.

“I realized there are so many worse things that could happen,” he said. “I just try to be positive through it all and just stay faithful.”

Once, while rehabbing in Orlando, he was driving back from getting an X-ray on his arm and he turned to his wife and said, “’This is never gonna heal.’ I was like, ‘I’m never going to play baseball again.’ It was terrifying.

“I told her it would’ve been alright if I wasn’t good enough, but I was pitching well and I felt like I had so much to offer and my arm wasn’t allowing me to play baseball. It was really tough. I’m thankful that I had some good people to rehab with and some good doctors. We did some different things at that point and I was able to get back and the bone was finally able to heal.”

Dan Winkler Braves Hr 1920x1080

He first started playing catch about a month after the Cubs won Game 7 of the World Series, and didn’t get into a game until June of 2017, with the Class-A club in the Braves system. He worked his way all the way back up to Atlanta, where he joined the big-league bullpen a few months later in August and pitched well down the stretch (2.51 ERA in 16 appearances).

Winkler spent the entire 2018 campaign as a staple in the Braves bullpen, going 4-0 with a 3.43 ERA, 2 saves and 69 strikeouts in 60.1 innings. He shuttled between Triple-A and the majors in 2019 before being shipped to the Giants at the trade deadline.

Over the winter, he was granted free agency and signed with the Cubs on Dec. 6.

In spring training in Arizona, he was a part of a wide-open bullpen competition as the Cubs worked to remake their relief corps.

Of course, then the pandemic hit and Winkler was forced to head home to Nashville and he was back in a position where he could do nothing but wait.

He was grateful for the time spent with Camille and his two children (a 9-month old girl and a 2-and-a-half-year old boy) during the shutdown — time he would normally miss during the course of a regular season. But he was also chomping at the bit and ready to get back on the mound, especially when the game was nearly taken from him a few years earlier.

“I learned a lot about myself,” Winkler said. “You learn to deal with a lot of things, things that are thrown at you in your life that I didn’t think I would learn at 30 years old. So I wouldn’t change a thing, but yeah, I’ve learned a lot and I think it’s made me a better pitcher and a better person.”

Dan Winkler Unique Journey To Cubs Slide

Now he’s back on the mound, finally getting his shot with his grandma’s favorite team as the Cubs continue summer camp in Chicago.

And he’s finally at Wrigley Field — a place he’s pitched in before as a visitor, but was anxious to experience as a member of the home team.

“I remember going up there around [Cubs Convention in January] and we got to throw on the field and everyone’s like, ‘oh, it’s kinda cold, you want to go throw out there?’ I said, ‘Absolutely, I want to throw in Wrigley,'” Winkler recounted. “Just stepping onto the playing surface is special. Just looking around and seeing the history there and the ivy. The surrounding atmosphere — whether there’s fans or not — is special.

“Watching from afar, it just seems like everything’s taken care of and the only thing they have to worry about is playing baseball. I was really excited about that aspect, of just not having to worry about anything but playing baseball and playing it in Wrigley is a special thing.”

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