For the Cubs, nothing’s been accomplished yet

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On this day off between the end of the regular season–where the Cardinals played all 162 games–and the postseason–where the Cardinals will watch it on TV like the rest of us–a few thoughts are in order.

That dig at the Cardinals sounds a bit petty, but the truth is I’m glad the teams will not meet in the postseason. The Cubs finally ended the Cardinals’ three-year run on top of the NL Central in 2016, and there’s no possibility of a rematch from last season, either. So enjoy the offseason for a change, Cardinals Nation.

Winning 103.5 games in the regular season was a feat I haven’t seen before, and may not ever see again. It was wonderful seeing triple digits in the win column, because they showed up on the other end of  the spectrum back in 2012, when Theo Epstein and his crew began the Cubs’ rebuild.

Bringing them all back for the next five years feels like a move that will cement the Cub’s legitimacy on the field, for as far as the eye can see. And the construction along Clark Street, to go with upgrades inside the ballpark itself, is another sign that everything is on the upswing near Clark and Addison Streets. “Ebullient” is not too strong a word to describe where this Cubs fan is at, two and a half seasons after being disgusted with everything they stood for. After all, everything changes in life.

The new facilities and the dynamic team on the field are designed to make the turnstiles spin and the cash registers ring for years to come, and that’s a great thing. But the ultimate prize hasn’t been achieved yet.

Division titles are great, and it’s the one sure way to punch a team’s ticket into the postseason. But this is also the sixth division title that I’ve seen as a Cubs fan, and all of the previous go-rounds in October haven’t ended well.

Again, 100+ wins in the regular season is a great feat, which I’m grateful to have experienced. Not since 1910 have the Cubs won so many times. And after three and a half seasons of losing-by-design, the wins now have a sweetness that I didn’t know about before. But it’s not the end of the journey, either.

A point could be made that winning the National League pennant and getting to the World Series would represent progress from 2015, and that would technically be true. But it also means that

  • we’ll hear about 1908 incessantly, in case we haven’t already, and
  • David Ross wouldn’t go into retirement with the ring his teammates want him to have, and
  • White Sox fans can harp on 2005 for one more season, and–most importantly of all-
  • an unknowable set of Cubs fans who are with us today will go to their graves without knowing what winning a championship feels like.

With all this in mind, the time is now, and Next Year is going to arrive this year. Because until that happens, Theo and his team haven’t accomplished a thing.

A lifetime of following the Cubs

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I recently had an opportunity to take in a beautiful view of the Chicago skyline, Lake Michigan, and Wrigley Field at the same time. I enjoyed them all, but the one shot that I wanted to have with me in it was the Wrigley Field vista. That speaks volumes as to who I am, really.

I started following the Cubs by watching their games on WGN, Channel 9 in Chicago. The first time I tuned in was late in the 1975 season, when I was seven years old. And now, almost forty years later, I realize that it has been a large part of my identity over the years and decades. There aren’t too many things in life that are more deeply-seated than my attachment to the Cubs.

And they’ve disappointed me in so many ways over the years. Losing is the most obvious way, which forces me to watch while baseball’s other teams taste success instead. And even when they win, it’s just a prelude to more losing in the end.

After so many years and so many disappointments, I am, quite frankly, embittered. I have no faith in the rebuilding process that has been going on since 2012. I don’t think it will pay off with the championship that I and other Cubs fans are craving, at least not in my lifetime. And if it happens after I’m gone, what’s the point?

I don’t have any terminal diseases that I know off, and it’s not like I’m expecting to die anytime soon. That’s not the motivation for writing this. It’s just that every season should be treated as though it will be the last because for many fans, that’s exactly what it is.

A Cubs fan just like me will probably die over the next week. I won’t know who it is, but they’ll be a victim of this process of a still unknown duration. The younger men than I am who run this team can afford to take the long view of the process. The rest of us–who just want to see it once before we pass from this earth–don’t have that luxury.

An unexpected payoff

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Being a Cubs fan is never an easy thing. After spending almost forty years in that fold, I can make such a statement with complete confidence. The good years–as measured by when the team makes it to the playoffs– can be counted on one hand, or two hands at the very most. And every one of them has also supplied a moment of defeat and disappointment, whether it’s Leon Durham letting a ground ball go through his legs in 1984, or Greg Maddux serving up a grand slam to Will Clark in 1989, or Moises Alou throwing a fit when he didn’t catch a foul ball in 2003. Even the best years haven’t ended well for Cubs fans like me.

But every once in a while, there’s a moment of validation. The Rolling Stones got it right: you do, once in awhile, get what you need. And what I needed is a sense that decades of following a baseball team has put me in league with some good people who share my interest. Our team never has won the big prize in any of our lifetimes, but so what? That doesn’t mean we can’t follow them, all the same.

I very publicly threw up my hands on the present version of the Cubs, as constructed under the front office of Theo Epstein and others. I’m convinced that they aren’t worth following at this point, because they aren’t doing anything to make the team on the field any better this year. But even if that’s the case, decades of following the Cubs are still with me, and purging all of that from my memory just isn’t possible. I’d sooner cut off one of my hands than deny all of the memories I have acquired through the years, and have put so much time and effort into trying to describe them in this space.

And so tonight, I had an opportunity to put all of these memories to use. The Chicago Public Library sponsored a Wrigley Field centennial celebration, centered around Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines by Stuart Shea. The format of the evening was a trivia game, where members of the audience were randomly chosen to compete for prizes. I would have had fun watching others compete, but fate was smiling on me as I had a chance to put my Cubs experiences to work.

I answered some of the questions correctly, and missed some other questions, and had a great time in the company of others who cared about the Cubs as passionately as I do. I even walked away with a copy of the book, which is great because books are the best thing that anyone can give me. Abraham Lincoln once said that his best friend was the man who could get him a book he hasn’t read, and I agree wholeheartedly, particularly when that book is about the Cubs and Wrigley Field.

Knowing that there are others like me who enjoy the Cubs, despite all of the disappointment that they will inevitably bring in October (if not earlier), is something like finding old treasures in an attic, or finding money in the pocket of your jeans. It makes this year’s team (which was shut out for the second game in a row today, and will have the worst record in the majors until further notice) tolerable, not for the feelings of victory which EVERY OTHER TEAM in this city has experienced in my lifetime. No, it makes it tolerable because even though the team on the field has been defeated time and time again, the part of this city who loves the team has not allowed themselves to be defeated.

On the day that Maya Angelou passed away, many of her inspirational writings have been making the rounds on the internet. One of my favorites is “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” And tonight, I put those words into action at the public library in Chicago. Ms. Angelou’s words were undoubtedly meant in a larger context than following a particular baseball team, but the spirit of her remarks can be applied to any circumstance at all.

We all fail in life, and it’s not fun when it happens. We suffer defeats, and our expectations do not always meet the realities that we encounter. Certainly that’s been the case for the Cubs this year, and last year, and every year before that, as well. But those setbacks must never serve to crush our spirit. And following a team like the Cubs reinforces this lesson on a regular basis.

Eddie Vedder sang that someday we’ll go all the way, and there are untold numbers of people waiting for that day to arrive. In the meantime, at least there’s a new book about it to read. I think I’ll get started right now.

Link to a ThroughTheFenceBaseball piece

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Earlier in the week, I wrote the first piece I’ve done in a while for ThroughTheFenceBaseball.com. I started writing for them earlier this year, and I enjoyed having an outlet for my baseball-related thoughts. I plan to continue with this in the spring, once the season kicks into gear again, but for now I need some time away from the game and the disappointments that seem to always be a part of it. Such is the life of a Cubs fan.

Here’s a link to the piece, if you’re interested in reading it. A bit of online cross-promotion (using one’s blog to promote a piece written on a different website) is pretty much the way of the world now, isn’t it?

Best of luck to Tito and the Tribe

When the Red Sox came apart last year, I called for the Theo Epstein/Terry Francona pairing to be transplanted into Chicago. What I got instead was the proverbial half a loaf: Epstein, with all of his cohorts, but not Francona. And the results haven’t been great, so far.

But the Cleveland Indians have hired Francona as their new manager, and I wish them the best. Cleveland loves their baseball team, and they desrve something to cheer about.

Having been to a game in Cleveland this past season, I can say that attendance woes are something that will have to be addressed. And the way to do that is to win. But Francona has done that once before, and hopefully he can again. Here’s wishing him the best.

The Virtual Sammy Sosa

I was recently at a place called WonderWorks in Orlando, Florida. It’s the type of a hands-on science workshop that I wish existed when I was a kid. Maybe then I wouldn’t have such an aversion to science, or at least I wouldn’t keep my distance from it quite so much.

One of the exhibits they had was a pitching machine that offered people a chance to throw at a screen that featured either Derek Jeter (the most popular choice, from what I saw while waiting in line), Bobby Abreu (and a few anti-Yankees types chose to face him), or Sammy Sosa. As a long-time Cubs fan, Sosa was the obvious choice.

When my turn finally came, I cranked up my best fastball and threw it toward where the Virtual Sammy stood, waiting. The speed gun registered the pitch at 53 miles per hour, which seemed about 15-20 miles slower than what I thought I could throw. Most people probably wildly overestimate their abilities in this regard.

The screen I was throwing at not only measured the speed of the pitch, but it also determined if the pitch was a ball or a strike. The first pitch was declared a ball. The next two pitches were also called balls, although I did nudge the speed up to 55 MPH for one of them. It felt like I had to contort my shoulder to do it, though. Professional pitchers must put an extraordinary amount of stress on their arms to throw a ball in the 80s and 90s.

The count on the Virtual Sammy was now 3-0. Another ball and I would have walked him, ending the at-bat and my turn at the machine. I had to put this one in there. I did, and virtual Sammy swung, made contact, and promptly began making his way around the bases.

When I was a Cubs fan back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Real Sammy did that a lot. And a number of the home runs were late in a game, when the Cubs were typically so far behind that a ninth inning home run meant about as much to the outcome of a game as his imaginary home run off of me did in the WonderWorks in Orlando.

So as I watched the Virtual Sammy rounding the bases, as the Real Sammy did so many times during his career in the majors, I took the extra ball that I had in my hand and chucked it at the screen. None of the Real Sammy’s home runs, during all of those years where he was on top of the heap for big league sluggers, came during the World Series. The Real Sammy got his individual numbers, and even won the National League’s MVP award once, but he never took his team–which, for much of his career, was also my team–into the World Series. That’s indicative of someone who never led his team to glory in what is, after all, a team game.

With my turn over, I debated whether or not to get back into the line. But I decided against it, knowing that the other two players meant nothing to me, and surrendering a second home run to the Virtual Sammy was the last thing I wanted to do. The Virtual Sammy’s homer, like the hundreds of others that the Real Sammy hit on a baseball field, amounted to nothing, when all was said and done.

That brief moment of catharsis, which I found by throwing a ball at the Virtual Sammy’s image while it was rounded the bases, felt better to me than anything that the real Cubs have done on the field in 2012. And that’s a sad commentary on the start of the Theo Epstein era in Chicago, isn’t it? But I suppose that’s a piece for another day.

“Next year” never came for him

Today I went to an estate sale with a friend. I’ve written about them before, and being at one is different from going to a yard sale or a garage sale. As I get older, and realize that everyone’s time on this earth is limited, I also appreciate the opportunity to take a peek into the remains of a stranger’s private life.

I picked up a book, as I sometimes do at these things, along with a couple of Cubs-related artifacts. One was a couple of ticket stubs from Wrigley Field–one of which is shown above– and the other was a number of special pull-out editions from the Chicago Sun-Times detailing the 2003 Cubs’ playoff run. The absence of anything related to the others sports teams in Chicago led me to conclude that the recently deceased was a Cubs fan, and only a Cubs fan.

The fact that he saved only 2003 newspapers was especially telling for me. Like him, I thought that was finally going to be the year, the “next year” that every Cubs fans dreams that he or she will live long enough to see. There were no papers saved from the 2004 season, when the Cubs tried to get back into the playoffs before fizzling out late. And nothing from 2008, when the World Series looked to be a lock before the playoffs actually started, and the Dodgers swept the Cubs instead. Nothing from 1984, 1989, or 1998 either, suggesting that the urgency that set in after 2003 hadn’t arrived for him yet.

Psychoanalyzing someone based on their possessions isn’t something I do lightly. But it became clear to me what his story was, at least from a Cubs fan’s perspective. 2003 was the year that it was finally going to happen, until, regrettably, it didn’t happen.

Following that final crushing defeat against the Marlins in 2003, nothing again ever made a newspaper feel like a relic that was worthy of keeping. That feeling probably saved me a dollar or two at today’s estate sale, but it was something that I can completely empathize with. I feel the same way about it, myself.

A “win now” mentality for the Cubs took root in 2004, and it persisted until General Manager Jim Hendry was let go during the 2011 season. Then Theo Epstein came in and a building program started, where young prospects are being allowed time to develop into big league ballplayers.

This strategy might pay off in the long run; I’m certainly hoping that it does. But the downside is that the man whose estate sale I went to today went to his grave, without seeing something that he apparently wanted very much. I never met that man, but I can appreciate the way that he felt, just the same.

I’m sure that this story has repeated itself hundreds, if not thousands, of times already this season. And it will continue to be repeated, until the one moment that an MLB12 video game commercial has envisioned for us already. I can only hope that the current “rebuilding” process–which won’t end before 2013, at the earliest–doesn’t extend past too many more Cubs fans’ lifetimes.

Here we go again

Not that I’ve ever been asked to do so, but I would use today’s Cubs game as the perfect example of what being a Cubs fan feels like. They gave up the tying run late in the game, and then gave up the winning run in extra innings. I tapped into my frustrations for a post that was submitted to ThroughTheFenceBaseball, and I will post a link to it once it’s up on their site. But for now, I can safely say that Theo Epstein has his work cut out for him. He’s done it before, and I’m confident that he can do it again, too. But today’s outcome shows exactly what he’s up against.

Even the throwbacks didn’t work

The Cubs have worn “throwback” uniforms–which are designed to recall earlier eras in their history–five times prior to last night’s game against the Giants in San Francisco. They won each of those games, including last summer in Fenway Park (shown above), and for the first interleague game against the White Sox back in 1997. And if there’s anybody who remembers when the other three games were, please leave a comment below and fill me in.

It’s rare for the Cubs to be perfect in anything. But five in a row, without a loss, was pretty impressive. And last night’s loss brought an end to this sort-of streak. They’re now 5-1 in throwbacks, which still isn’t bad, but the air of perfection they once had is gone now.

This is the sort of thing that really doesn’t matter to anyone, myself included. This season is down the tubes, with slightly more than 100 games left to play. It’s hard to spend six months in the offseason waiting for baseball season to return, and then be rewarded with this. But that’s the bargain I once signed onto, whether I fully realized that or not.

In plain terms, the annual progression works like this:

Summer = Baseball

Baseball = Cubs

Cubs = Losing (with a few exceptions) and Disappointment (always)

Then wait until next year, and repeat

So here we are again. Theo Epstein and his team will have a mulligan for this season, and next year we’ll see where we are. But the “wear throwback uniforms every day because we’ll never lose in them” strategy can now be tossed out the window.

Now I understand

Since last September, I’ve been excited at the prospect of Theo Epstein coming to Chicago. I suggested that it happen almost immediately after the Red Sox collapsed in Baltimore on the final night of the regular season, and I’ve written about it here and here and here. And it’s always been with the assumption that whatever worked for him in winning a championship with the Red Sox (two championships, actually) will be brought here to Chicago as well.

But the news today changed my assumptions. I guess I wasn’t really listening, or hearing only what I wanted to hear, when Tom Ricketts spelled out the reasons why Theo was being brought to Chicago. But today it all became clear to me.

I went to Fenway Park for the first time in my life in May of last year. It was on my “bucket list” of things to do in life, and I was glad to cross that one off the list. I was blown away by what a great baseball experience it was. The Cubs were crushed, almost as badly as the baseball that Kevin Youkilis hit over the billboard above the Green Monster. But I loved it just the same.

A sense of baseball history pervades Fenway Park. You just have to soak it all in, and appreciate how unique it is. Baseball can tear down and rebuild any stadium it wants to, but it can never lose Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. The “baseball stadium as American cathedral” idea comes from these two places, and no others.

Toward the end of the game, as my baseball buddy and I were leaving the park, I pointed some sort of a gift shop  in the bowels of the stadium. He indicated that it had been built just a year or two ago. I looked at it again, and at the sections of the park all around it, and realized that I couldn’t tell the difference between something Babe Ruth would have recognized, and something that didn’t exist when the 21st century began. It was a seamless transition from one to the other, and it was very well done.

One of the things that Fenway Park now has, and I was very taken with during the game, is a number of very large scoreboards high above the action. I remember looking at them on several occasions, and telling myself that Wrigley Field needed something comparable. And if the announcement that a big 70-foot LED screen is coming to Wrigley Field next summer, then it looks like that’s going to happen. It’s decades overdue, but it can only make the fan experience better for those at the game.

The idea of seats on top of the Green Monster in left field seemed silly once, but I will tell you that every seat was sold when I was there, and it’s basically a license for the team to print money. I’m certain that Theo Epstein had a hand in that, and will be expected to offer his suggestions about how the Cubs can do something similar at Wrigley.

I was also struck by how the road outside the ballpark–Yawkey Way–is part of the Fenway Park experience. The mother of all gift shops is literally across the street, so you can actually leave the park, go to the gift shop, and return to your seat during the game. I would expect something similar at Wrigley, either with Sheffield Avenue (similar to the Wildcat Way that preceded the Northwestern-Illinois football game a year ago) or along Clark Street north of Addison.

The Ricketts family also just purchased the plot of land where the McDonald’s is, literally across the street from the ballpark. I would look for that to be incorporated into the park in some way, as well. There are lots of possibilities, and lots of money will be spent to make this a reality.

Some people will just instinctively oppose new changes in the name of “tradition.” But the biggest tradition of all at Wrigley–losing–is what we all want to see changed. Any other tradition is negotiable.  Paint the grass blue like Boise State’s turf, if you have to. Tear out all the ivy and convert it into padded walls covered with corporate signage, if need be. Remove the bullpens down the first and third base signs and put them behind the outfield wall. Do all of that and more in the name of winning, and I’ll happily go along with it.

I started going to games at Wrigley Field in 1987, and the only season I missed going to at least one game (but usually many more than that) was 2006. The Cubs had brought Dusty Baker back for his final year under contract, and I successfully staged a boycott of one during that season. But the result of all this is that Wrigley–for all of its history and charm–now seems a bit old hat. And if the ballpark and its surroundings are overhauled successfully, this feeling should vanish overnight.

Creating something new–while giving the appearance that it has always been there before–won’t be an easy task. But I have seen it up close, and I can attest to the fact that it can be done. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

A contrarian’s view on Kerry Wood

The annual Cubs Convention started today in Chicago, and the team made a big splash by signing (re-upping, really) Kerry Wood for a one year, $3 million deal for 2012. There’s a club option for another year, not a player option like the kind Ryan Dempster was given, so at least that’s progress. And it wouldn’t surprise me if a large part of the club option depends on whether he goes on the DL at some point during the season. I certainly don’t want this to happen, but his track record (I think he averages more than one trip to the DL a season) suggests it should be anticipated in some way.

From what I gathered on Twitter, the Wood signing set off waves of cheering at the convention. And for the life of me, I don’t understand why. I am as emotionally attached to Kerry Wood as any other Cubs fan, and I want to see him along for the ride when the Cubs finally do go all the way. But there’s no evidence to suggest that will happen.

Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters in a nine-inning game, an amazing feat that will be talked about for decades to come. But it happened in 1998, more than a dozen seasons ago. And in the intervening years, Wood has piled up both strikeouts and wear and tear on his arm. With more than a dozen trips to the DL under his belt, it seems prudent to assume that these ways will continue into 2012. My rosy-colored glasses, such as they are, can’t imagine Kerry Wood going a full season without some time being missed.

And, more importantly than that, the Cubs have been talking at length about their new way–the “Cubs Way”– going forward as a franchise. It’s what allowed Dale Sveum to get the manager’s job over long-time Cub favorite Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg’s going to be managing against the Cubs someday, all because of the prevailing sense of a new way of doing things as a franchise.

The Wood signing departs from this new feeling in a big way. It’s like busting out the old REM albums on vinyl, just to see if they’ll still sound as good as they once did. It feels good to do it–it feels comfortable more than anything else–but it ultimately doesn’t get you to where you need to go. Where you’re dying to go, even.

Theo Epstein has said that the Cubs will be paying for future performance, rather than for past performance as they have done over the past few years. So is $3 million for a middle reliever/set-up man worth it? I guess that will determine whether or not the club option is picked up next year.

Lastly, I know it’s painful to bring this up, but Wood’s postseason performances have been spotty over the years. He was great for the Yankees in 2010, so perhaps we’ll get that again. But the 2003 NLCS saw Kerry Wood lose the decisive Game seven, and nearly lose Game three in that series as well. Many years ago, to be sure, but all there is to go on, as well.

I’ve said before that the veteran leadership on a team–which Wood will certainly be called on to provide–needs to have past World Series champions somewhere in the mix. The Cubs didn’t have any such players before re-signing Wood, and they still don’t have any now. I hope this won’t be an issue, but the answer won’t be known for a few months, at least.

First, last, and always, I want the Cubs to succeed. But I’m honestly having a hard time seeing how this signing fits into it. It feels good on an emotional level, but that needs to be translated into results on the field, as well.

I think I have the Cubs’ answer

Call me insane, but I think Johnny Damon would be a perfect fit for the Cubs, provided they can move Alfonso Soriano or Marlon Byrd in the coming days or weeks. With Soriano’s hefty contract, Byrd would be the easier one to move, and then David DeJesus or Reed Johnson could play center field, and Damon can play in right.

I know that Damon’s 38 years old, a career American Leaguer, and a Scott Boras client (all potential strikes against him), but the Cubs have nobody on their roster that the young kids can look to as a World Series winner (Soriano’s played in it twice, and lost both times).

Damon could probably still play the outfield, since he’s only had two seasons of DH-ing in the AL. Bobby Abreu is the only active player with more games played in the outfield, and I don’t think a pro like Damon would just forget how it’s done.

He’s not the same “What would Johnny Damon do?” player that he was with the Red Sox, but Theo knows what he can do, both on the field and in the clubhouse. He’s also closing in on 3,000 hits for his career, and a successful season this year would put him on the verge of baseball immortality. And if that happens, I can see him becoming  a Wrigleyville hero. Truth be told, I can see that happening before he ever sets foot into Wrigley Field.

What say you?

First things first

Yesterday morning I was awakened by my alarm clock, which makes all sorts of noises but can also play the radio. Since I had the radio function set, Queen got me out of bed with the familiar stomp stomp clap that begins “We Will Rock You.” It was as good an entry song as any day can hope to have.

But as I was listening to the lyrics, and getting into a song that I’ve heard hundreds of times before, I started to think about the progression of the song and its well-known companion piece “We are the Champions.” When Queen released this music back in 1977, “We are the Champions” was intended to be the song that got played on the radio, and it did very well on the British charts this way.

In the United States, however, the songs were coupled together, meaning that there wasn’t a B-side like there typically was with 45 singles in those days. Radio got into it as well, always playing the songs in the familiar two-part sequence that I heard on the radio in the morning.

If I were to hear “We are the Champions” on the radio today, I would assume that I missed “We Will Rock You” being played before it. I wouldn’t think to put either song apart from the other one. They fit together like yin and yang, and any other tandem you care to think about.

There’s a logical reason for this. Nobody just gets to become the champions of anything, without doing the stomp stomp clap part first. You begin by rocking your opponents and then, if things work out, you get to claim the big prize. That’s how it always works.

So the people who are watching the Cubs being torn down and made anew on Theo Epstein’s watch need to keep this thought in mind. We’re now entering the stomp stomp clap part of it, and once the guitar solo hits at the end of the first song–after two or three seasons, hopefully– we’ll be in a position to win the championship. But it won’t happen outside of this sequence. Just enjoy the rocking part first.

What’s different now

After a slow start, when hiring a new manger was the main focus, the Theo Epstein braintrust has kicked into high gear recently. The Zambrano trade received the most notice, but the turnover has affected the starting rotation, the bullpen, the outfield and the corner positions of the infield. No player seems to be off limits other than Starlin Castro and perhaps Geovany Soto, but Castro now has a different type of distraction to deal with.

The dizzying rate of moves being made is something that Cubs fans aren’t used to, and I think I understand why. To make this point, I’m going to use an analogy of an old house. When the Cubs were Jim Hendry’s house, he was forever remodeling different rooms, with the expectation that bringing in a Milton Bradley or a Nomar Garciaparra or a Matt Garza was all it took to put the Cubs into championship contention.

But Epstein’s approach has been something closer to a gut rehab of the organization. By stripping the team down to its bare walls, so to speak, the team can be remade with younger, less expensive players. Players like Anthony Rizzo and Ian Stewart and Travis Wood are becoming the new normal, and higher-priced veterans like Zambrano are becoming a thing of the past.

Aramis Ramirez may have seen the writing on the wall when he left for Milwaukee, and Ryan Dempster should start thinking about life after the Cubs, if not at the trading deadline, then certainly after this final year of his contract is up.

Jim Hendry’s incessant remodeling of the team didn’t bear fruit, and Theo Epstein has realized–correctly–that the only way to move to the next level is to start all over. It will be messy, and the winning won’t happen as quickly as we want it to, but I’ll take these new Chicago Guts over what we’ve had for the past few seasons.

No more Zambrano

I was listening to a press conference on the radio this afternoon, where Theo Epstein was taking questions from local media types and fans. He was asked about “changing the culture” of the Cubs organization, and how Carlos Zambrano could fit into such a new culture. The audience laughed at the Zambrano reference, and Theo said he’d better answer that part of the question first.

Instead, he went off on a mini-tangent about players coming together and overcoming adversity and valuing the uniform and so forth. At the end of his answer, the host asked him about part B of the question, and I knew right then what was going to happen with Zambrano. Theo didn’t forget about that question, but he did sidestep the issue until the host brought him back to it. I didn’t think the trade would come as quickly as it did, but I knew it was coming.

I called for Carlos to leave on a couple of occasions in this space. As talented as he was, and still may be, he always seemed to let his emotions get the better of him. As a result, the last player remaining from the 2003 team is gone. And it doesn’t bother me in the least.

This makes Alfonso Soriano the most significant piece of the Jim Hendry Cubs still standing. Marlon Byrd is still here, and that’s fine since it’s only for one season, and the exit of Ryan Dempster by mid-season now seems very likely. Geovany Soto is still here, and Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney, but the focus–like the sun’s rays being concentrated through a magnifying glass–now turns to the outfielder wearing number 12.

Soriano has a lot more money coming his way than Zambrano did, and the Cubs just ate $15 million dollars to put Hendry’s miscalculations behind them. I’d like to see them eat even more money to move Soriano, too, but perhaps that’s not realistic just yet. But I’m still hopeful this can get done before Spring training starts at the end of next month.

I heard some things I didn’t like today, such as Theo’s contention that Bryan LaHair is a good option at first base. I’ll get into that later on, but for now the jettison of Zambrano is reason enough to feel good about the Cubs going forward.

2011 in review

The year is coming to a close, and everyplace you can think of seems to take this opportunity to do a retrospective on the year gone by. I’ll join the crowd for this one time, and look at what happened in 2011 for the subject that I write about the most: Cubs baseball.

The biggest developments of 2011–as far as I’m concerned– were the birth of this blog (back on June 11) and the dismissal of Jim Hendry in July (although we weren’t informed of it until August). Trailing behind that was the hire of Theo Epstein, which indicated to me (and others, I’m sure) that the Ricketts family was serious about winning the World Series. That has become the white whale of Cub fandom, especially over the last decade. The teams that we either empathized with for losing (Boston, San Francisco) or just plain don’t like (St. Louis, that other team across town) has won their championship, and here we are, forced to watch Catching Buckner on ESPN, and blowing a late September game in St. Louis so the Cardinals can make the playoffs and go all the way to the title. Theo and his team have just one goal (sorry, Chicago Blackhawks, but it fits for us, too). And we all know what that is.

As far as the team itself, I did a year end report card piece for Baseball Digest, and I wasn’t very kind at all. Other than Starlin Castro, what did we really have last year? Sean Marshall pitched well, but he’s gone now. There was Carlos Zambrano’s meltdown, Matt Garza unable to break .500, Carlos Pena’s underperformance, a starting rotation in shambles, and Marlon Byrd writhing in pain at home plate in Fenway Park. The Fenway experience was neat, but the only victory in that series was the throwback game on Saturday, and it only happened because the Red Sox gave the game away. If I missed anything positive, please let me know. And yes, Ron Santo did finally make it into the Hall of Fame. But it’s sad when the most notable player on your team hasn’t set foot on the field in over 30 years.

The bottom line for 2011, like every year in my lifetime, and my father’s lifetime as well, was that the season ended without the Cubs being victorious. My maternal grandfather was born in 1909, and he lived his whole life without seeing it, too. I don’t think that he was actually a Cubs fan, though. My paternal grandfather was born in Chicago in 1894, so he would have been a teenager when the Cubs were in their heyday. There were no tales from the west side to tell me about (the team didn’t move to the Northside until 1916), because he died several years before I was born. So I, like most other Cubs fans, have nothing to go on. And that really sucks.

I have dreamed of the day when the white W flag is raised at Wrigley Field after a World Series game. No one has ever seen that, as far as I know, and it will be great once it happens. But until then, everything else is just noise.

Happy Next Year, Cubs fans!

Disrespecting Albert no more

When it comes to Albert Pujols and his willingness to leave St. Louis, it turns out I was right. I’m not always right, but on this one I was dead on. There really wasn’t any chance that Albert was going to sign with the Cardinals again, World Series or no World Series. After all those years in St. Louis, now he’s off to the American League.

As a Cubs fan, I loved the idea of seeing Albert playing half of his games at Wrigley Field next year. He would be in the 55-65 home runs and 15o-175 RBI range every year, with even a serviceable back-up hitter behind him (which, admittedly, the Cubs don’t have right now). The Pujols jersey would have been an immediate success in Wrigleyville, as I’m sure the sports stores in LA are selling them at a brisk pace as I type this.

The big market teams were the only ones that really had a shot to land him in the first place, and I took the view that the Cubs’ status as the one big market team in the Cardinals’ division meant something. But perhaps the idea of playing so many games in St. Louis over the years didn’t appeal to him too much. Or, more likely, the Cubs didn’t put enough money on the table.

But the American League angle is important. Take a look at somebody like Jim Thome, who stopped playing first base regularly at age 33, but has been able to extend his career many more seasons by DH’ing. Pujols is now 31, so he may have a season or two as a first baseman still in him, but he’s going to take the Thome route before too long.

And I’m also thrilled that he’s out of the National League. There will be an interleague game with the Angels here and there, and those could become a big deal as far as getting a ticket, but Albert has hurt the Cubs regularly over the years (two certain games in St. Louis last summer spring immediately to mind), and so I’m happy to be rid of him. Perhaps we’ll see him in the World Series at some point, but his role in my baseball universe has just dropped tremendously.

At Thanksgiving, I went to my parents’ house in Cardinals country. There seemed to be a feeling that the Cardinals’ latest championship had somehow pushed Albert toward staying with the team. This was delusional, in my mind, for the simple fact that the Cardinals were paying Matt Holliday more money than Albert Pujols. That’s a clear sign of disrespect, in my eyes.

The prevailing view that I encountered was a feeling that Albert’s made enough money already, and St. Louis is a great organization with great fans and great history, and it wouldn’t make sense for him to leave. I tried to bring the others around to my way of thinking, which is that if you’re the best–in anything–your pay should reflect this. Was Matt Holliday the best player on the Cardinals? Most people would say no to this, and yet he somehow made more money than Albert Pujols did last year. It doesn’t matter if he makes $100 or $100 million, I promise you he knows what the score was on that front.

If I’m the Angels’ owner, I give Albert my word that no player on my team will ever make more money than him while he’s on my roster. If Albert makes $25 million and I have another player coming in with huge credentials, I tell him that I can go no higher than $23 or $24 million, lest I offend my franchise player and future Hall of Famer. I hate that the numbers are that big, but the impact would be the same, regardless of the amount.

So the Cardinals, fresh off a remarkable October triumph, now have to fill a hole that they haven’t had in a long time.The money that they saved by not getting Pujols will help to restock their club with other players, but Opening Day 2012 is going to seem very strange to Cardinals’ fans, with LaRussa and Pujols now out of the picture. It surely presents an opening for the Cubs, so long as Theo and his wise men are smart about which players to add (or subtract, as the case may be). Spring training can’t get here soon enough for me.

Trading for PIDLs

If you’ve read any of these posts before, you know that I’m a long-time (though not life-long) Cubs fan. And one of the ways I manifest this is by collecting baseball cards from years gone by. It started when I was six or seven, and went away until I was in my thirties, and then it came back again. And unlike some other habits that I could have instead, this one’s never going to get anybody hurt or land me in jail. There are worse things I could do, right?

In the process of gathering up Cubs cards, on the internet or flea markets or wherever else they can be found, it’s inevitable that cards from other teams will be acquired, too. Some I have scanned and told stories about in this space, but most of them take up space until I can find someone who might want to trade for them, as I recently did with Julie at Thingsarefunnerhere.com. Thanks so much, Julie, and I hope you got some things from me that interest you.

As I was sorting through the stack of Cubs cards she sent me, feeling like a ten year-old kid again, it struck me how many of the Cubs players I don’t really like as players. The hazards of team trading are such that not every player will be of the Bobby Murcer/Bruce Sutter/Jose Cardenal variety. That is to say, players who wore the Cubs uniform, however briefly, back in the days of my youth.

The truth is that these players played so long ago that their cards are considered “vintage” by now. That’s another way of saying too old to be commonly seen in whatever trades I might be able to make. They can be had on eBay, typically, but paying money for these things isn’t the same as trading for them. There must be some psychological reason for this, but I don’t think I can explain it fully here. You’re just going to have to trust me on this.

The cards I received recently, four of which are shown above, mostly fell into a different category of player. There’s nothing wrong with this, and I fully expected this to happen. But I am labeleling the players above as Players I Don’t Like, or PIDLs for short (rhymes with “middles”).

And I think I know why these players are PIDLs. More than anything else, they are all affiliated with the tenure of General Manager Jim Hendry, who was let go last July. In a sense, the sooner these players are off of the Cubs’ roster, the sooner this becomes Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer’s team, which has to be better than any of Jim Hendry’s teams were.

The process has already begun, at least with two of the four PIDLs above. Aramis Ramirez, who never appeared interested until it was contract time, or the postseason was safely out of reach, made his intention to seek a multi-year contract on the open market known. Farewell and thanks for not very much. And Kosuke Fukudome, who never lived up to the hype that followed the Cubs “winning” a bidding war for his services out of Japan, was traded away last season and looked better in the Indians’ uniform than he ever did in Cubs’ blue.

Ryan Dempster, who rubbed me the wrong way when he politicked for Mike Quade to be named the next manager after the 2010 season, still has one year left under contract. Dempster earned $1.35 million per win last season, while Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers won twice as many games as Dempster did, and earned $13 million less. But convince me I’m wrong about Dempster, if you want to.

And then there’s Alfonso Soriano. Where to begin? When Theo Epstein announced, in his introductory press conference with the Cubs, that the Cubs would be paying for future performance, rather than for past performance, he could have been speaking directly to Soriano. The Soriano who signed that eight year monstrosity of a contract hit 46 home runs and stole 41 bases the year before. And since then, the Cubs have gotten 54 steals from him–in five seasons. And he’ll still be around for three more years, unless the Cubs decide to swallow a healthy chunk of the $54 million he’s scheduled to be paid. The word earn doesn’t seem to fit in that previous sentence.

The process of expunging the team of Hendry’s PIDLs will take three years, at the most. I’m leaving minor leaguers and borderline major leaguers off this list, and Starlin Castro as well. But everyone else can’t go away soon enough for me. The Epstein braintrust will start bringing in new players any day now, and I’m looking forward to watching the team be remade before our eyes.

Quade out, and Sandberg too

It was an interesting day on the Cubs front. Who didn’t see Quade being fired, as soon as the news about Jim Hendry’s ouster was announced? The Quade hiring shows how much Hendry was in over his head.  But at least it’s been corrected now. Farewell, QBall.

The list of qualifications for the new manager, taken from Theo Epstein’s statement today, apparently knocks Ryne Sandberg out as the next manager, since “Major league coaching or managing experience” is a requirement. That’s fair enough, I suppose, but Sandberg must feel like a recent college graduate at this point. You need experience to get hired, but how do you get that if nobody will give you a shot? It seems like St. Louis might do just that, though. That would be a hard sight to see. It makes me shudder to think about it, actually.

Theo’s got his old band back together in Chicago, sort of, and now they need to make a better choice for manager than Hendry did. Tony LaRussa is apparently out, but maybe Bob Brenly has a chance. That’s an intriguing thought. There’s more to come, I’m sure.

Change, nothing stays the same

As I indicated in a post from yesterday, I was able to get to Wrigley Field today and confirm that the ivy has indeed turned red. We have achieved the state of RIO (Red Ivy in October), just in time for the end of the World Series. I wish I had a picture, but as long as my phone is what it is I don’t have picture taking capacities. But I have seen it with my own eyes. And there’s new sod being put down in Wrigley, as well.

If you ever want to know just how much life changes, go back to a place you haven’t lived in for awhile and look around. I did that over the summer when I went to a high school reunion for the first time, and I did it just now as I was driving back from Wrigley Field. Both were eye-openers, but I’ll focus on this evening’s experience in this post.

I once lived about a mile north of Wrigley Field, next to Graceland cemetary in an area that went by many names. Some called it Uptown, and some called it Buena Park, but nobody ever considered it a part of Wrigleyville. Which was fine, because the streets in that area are some of the best, unrestricted, free street parking available on game day. You can pay $30 to put your car in somebody’s driveway during the game, or you can park on the street, and then put the money in your pocket or give it to a beer vendor instead. You just need to know where you’re going, is all.

The changes at Wrigley Field itself are palpable, and would be going on whether or not Theo Epstein was running the team. But the fact that he is running it now makes the changes seem more palpable. The Ron Santo statue is relatively new, and I hadn’t seen it up close like that before. The sod will be new, the Captain Morgan club isn’t brand new but I’m still not used to it yet, the Harry Caray statue is still in a relatively new location by the bleachers entrance, and the police surveillance camera at Sheffield and Addison is new (watch out for that one).

But as I was heading north, away from the park, other changes also caught my eye. A gas station on Irving and Sheridan, that seemed like it had been there forever, is gone now. A new Target has risen up where the long-empty Wilson Yards used to be. A Popeye’s chicken and some other businesses on a seedy stretch of Broadway are shut down. And that sadly includes a large Border’s bookstore near Lawrence and Broadway. I say this not to bore anyone who may or may not be familiar with the area, but to point out that nothing lasts forever, and most things don’t last as long as we would like them to.

Theo Epstein is being brought in to win championships on the field (I’m using the plural deliberately, by the way), but also will be asked about how to remake an old ballpark without making it seem too new, as was done with Fenway Park. It can be done, and now it will be done. And there will hopefully many good things to come from it.

From the Red Sox to the Red Ivy

The Theo Epstein signing is official, and the press conference to announce it will be held at Wrigley Field tomorrow. The Red Sox have indeed let the only winners they’ve ever had go, just as I dared them to do. So now we have our guy, and he’s getting his guys into place, and the quest for RIO (Red Ivy in October) can begin. We need a name for this, so I’m calling it #Theo4RIO. Look for the hashtag on Twitter shortly.

The ivy on the Wrigley Field outfield wall turned red back in 2003, which I (and most Cubs fans) had never seen before. I’m sure it turns red every year, but the Cubs usually don’t play deep enough into the fall to let the fans see it. I don’t know if it’s red now (I will try to confirm in the next few days, if the news reports don’t beat me to it), but if we see the red ivy again, it will mean Theo’s doing his job.

His name is Theo and he dances on the sand…..

The curse of Terry Kennedy

It’s an off day in the World Series, and no matter what happens on the field, this will be the last weekend of baseball for 2011. And the NBA isn’t going to be taking up any of the slack after baseball goes away, either. Not that it ever really could.

I usually give deference to the big league players who passed through the Cardinals’ organization in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For reasons I still can’t comprehend, my hometown of Springfield, Illinois was the home of the Cardinals’ AAA affiliate in those years. It wasn’t major league ball, but it was literally the next best thing. By the time a player gets to that level, they’re either on the verge of making it in the big leagues, or if they don’t, they’re still pretty damn good.

Terry Kennedy was a catcher who spent only a couple years in AAA. His dad was a big leaguer before him, and was also the General Manager of the Chicago Cubs at the time.  I remember seeing a picture of the two Kennedys talking together before a game in the local paper, but I had no idea what a General Manager did back in those days. Now I know that his job is to assemble World Series-winning teams. Isn’t that right, Theo?

Terry Kennedy played for the Springfield Redbirds in 1978 and 1979. At the end of those two seasons, he went to the major league club  and backed up Ted Simmons, who was entrenched back then as the Cardinals everyday catcher. Kennedy was in the majors for good next season, even if he was there to give Simmons a day off more than anything else.

So what exactly is the “curse” of Terry Kennedy? I suppose that, until I looked at the back of one of his cards, I had blocked out what Terry Kennedy did over the course of his career. The Cardinals traded him to the Padres, where he was their everyday catcher for the 1984 team that snatched the pennant way from the Cubs. The Cubs had replaced Bob Kennedy as GM after the Tribune company bought the team, and so sticking it to the team that fired your dad must have felt pretty good, I would imagine.

Kennedy only hit .222 for the series, with no extra-base hits, so it’s hard to hold the Cubs’ collapse against him personally. Besides, hating on Steve Garvey is where the real action’s at for Cubs fans, anyway.

After a couple more seasons with the Padres, Kennedy went to Baltimore for a couple of seasons, before being traded to the Giants in early 1989. The Cubs made the playoffs that year, after winning their second division title. But once again, they ran into a team with Terry Kennedy behind the dish. Kennedy was a non-factor offensively, hitting a lowly .188 for the series. But again, he and his teammates successfully kept the Cubs out of the World Series.

Kennedy retired after the 1991 season, and began managing in the minors. He managed the AAA affiliate of the San Diego Padres this season, and he’ll probably get a shot to manage at the big league level in the next few years. As when he was a player, he probably won’t be at the AAA level for long. And I’d like to see the Cubs beat his team, when he does get that chance. It appears that he’s due a couple of beatings.

The pendulum swings toward Texas

When the FOX announcers began talking about how the Cardinals had never been involved in a 1-0 game in their previous 100+ games of World Series play, I knew the final score wouldn’t be 1-0. I’m going to suggest that jinxes do exist, and talking about a 1-0 game is the quickest way to make sure you wind up with something else.

So it’s now a best-of-five series, and Texas now has a decided advantage over the Cardinals. Only the Milwaukee Brewers had a better home record than the Rangers in the regular season, and the Rangers are 4-1 at home in the post season.

Cardinals fans who may have been saddened by the prospect of the Cardinals winning the clincher in Texas–and thus denying them the chance to celebrate with their team on the field for the third time this postseason–now have to hope that the Cardinals can win a game in Texas, to get the series back to St. Louis. There are no guarantees that will happen, either.

Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler did it all for the Rangers tonight. Their play to start a double play in the fourth was a thing of beauty, and the play they made to end the fifth–where Andrus dove to stop the ball and then shoveled it from his glove toward the bag at second, where Kinsler caught it and forced Jaime Garcia–is the kind of a play that will become legendary if the Rangers go on to win the Series. I wrote about how much I appreciated Curtis Granderson’s defense in an earlier series, but Kinsler and Andrus have this symbiotic relationship that makes what they do all the more amazing.

And then, with the game–and maybe even the season–on the line in the ninth inning, they came through on offense. Kinsler’s seeing-eye single and steal of second base set the table, and Andrus’ hit and the did-that really-just-happen misplay by Albert Pujols set the two of them up at second and third base with no outs. Then a sacrifice brings Kinsler in to tie the game, and another sacrifice fly brings Andrus home with the game winner. The Cardinals had their chance in the bottom of the ninth, but the two-man wrecking crew of Andrus and Kinsler carried the day for Texas.

So now we have the off-day tomorrow to make the Theo Epstein announcement, and then the Series resumes on Saturday in Texas. It promises to be quite a last weekend of baseball for the season. It should be much more intriguing than the Bears playing a football game (American style) in London.

And the Theo watch continues

As the World Series gets going, the big story in the rest of baseball is what’s going to happen with Theo Epstein and the Cubs. The Red Sox apparently want some things, and the Cubs are going to have to cough some prospects up. Maybe they’re close to getting it done, any maybe they’re not. But it has to get done at this point.

So when it gets finalized, and the press conference is conducted, the real work of building a championship team can commence. We’ve already waited so damn long, and some longtime fans won’t live to see the championship finally happen. But Theo Epstein, and whoever else he brings to Chicago with him, isn’t being brought here for any other reason. He knows it, we know it, and anyone with even a passing familiarity with baseball knows it too.

On the World Series pregame show tonight, they did a piece about Albert Pujols and what he means to St. Louis and what happens if he leaves after the season is over. And AJ Pierzynski decided that Paul Konerko was in a similar situation in 2005, after the White Sox did that thing they did. I’m not going to put it into words, but you know what it was. I found myself inventing a new phrase, which can be shortened to STFUAJ. But at least he has an experience like that to talk about. And ex-Cub Eric Karros steered him away to another topic, thankfully.

We Cubs fans have nothing to say, to anyone, when it comes to the World Series. It’s been that way for as long as anyone who isn’t in their 70s can remember. And it will be up to Theo Epstein to find some way to end this.

An open letter to Theo Epstein

Hello Theo,

I hope it’s OK if I call you by your first name. I actually don’t even know if it’s short for Theodore or something else. For all I know, you may not even like to be called that. I read somewhere that Abraham Lincoln hated to be called “Abe.” If there’s something else you’d rather go by, please accept my apologies.

I must tell you that I’m very excited that you’re coming to Chicago. If this makes its way to you somehow, thanks for taking the time to read this over. I’m sure you’re very busy.

I have family in Boston, and the World Series titles you brought to them meant a great deal. They also meant a great deal to you, I’m sure. Ending the long championship drought for your hometown team must have been an unbelievable feeling. And then to follow it up with another title must have been even better. Kudos to you for such a great accomplishment.

I know that leaving Boston will be hard for you. But if there was ever a bigger challenge than winning in Boston, winning with the Cubs is it. It’s been said many times that whoever wins here in Chicago will be remembered forever, and I’m glad to see that you’re willing to accept that mantle. You’ve already proven something to me (and hopefully to others) just by taking that step.

I’m writing this to you, and allowing the whole world to read it, because I want to help you to achieve this goal.  I have followed this team for as long as I can remember, stretching all the way back to the mid 1970s. The Cubs were my team then, and they’ll always be my team in the future, and anything I can do to help them succeed, I’ll gladly do it.

Unfortunately, we Cubs fans are twisted in some sense. It’s like we’ve been locked away in a dungeon for a very long time, and given just enough to survive, but never enough to really flourish.  We’ve heard about success, and have even watched while others have tasted it, but it’s never been within our grasp. I get that. I understand. As I’m sure you once understood it, too.

If there’s anything I can do to help you succeed, please feel free to send me an email at BlueBattingHelmet@gmail.com. Thanks so much for reading this, and please accept my best wishes for your success in Chicago.

Most sincerely yours,

Rob Harris

Founder and Executive Editor

BlueBattingHelmet.wordpress.com