As summer wound down, I headed back to my home town of Chicago for a pleasantly nerdy high school reunion. Among other things, while I was in town (and being a baseball fan in general), I definitely used the excuse/opportunity to catch a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field. I’d been to Wrigley twice in the last three years, but it has changed drastically since I was a little lad watching Ryne Sandberg and Mark Grace on WGN.
In those mid 80s to mid 90s days, the Cubs were full-swing into their lovable losers era. It wasn’t always like that as the 1960s and 1970s, despite some Cubs players to root for, weren’t that great at drawing fans to the park. But with the advent of the superstation, the Cubs attendance began increasing in those 1980s. Of course, to be a little fairer, in those days, there were less opportunities to get to the playoffs anyway. As a kid, you don’t think much about ownership or attendance issues, you think Andre Dawson is the best player in the world and you look forward to the Phillies coming to town because those games tended to get wild. Sabermetrics, of course, changes some of that. Andre Dawson made the most outs of any major leaguer in history and, in terms of WAR, wasn’t even the most valuable player when he hit 49 home runs in 1987 and won the MVP. I still love him anyway, numbers be darned.
Cubs games sold out pretty often, regardless of the Cubs record, and generations of Cubs fans were raised on the broadcasts of Chicago’s superstation. Wrigley Field was known as a great place to kick back with your friends, take in the summer and oh yeah, watch a little baseball when you weren’t chatting with your neighbors. The closest many Cubs fans came to caring about statistics was the Shawon-o-Meter.
Hey, we even liked the Tribune Company since they owned WGN and WGN broadcast the Cubs and, well, they were practically family. That was until they let the aforementioned Andre Dawson as well as other fan favorites like Greg Maddux go due to salary concerns. Eventually, before selling the team, they tried to drive up the value with a free agent spending spree and a celebrity manager here. The Cubs were thusly sold after a playoff chase. However, an organization that top heavy fell flat on its face in the late 2000s and, with yet another new owner, they have been mired in the major league standings muck ever since though still have averaged 4th in attendance in the major leagues since 2010.
It was thought the Cubs, despite being in a large market, would not win. Wrigley Field, as beautiful as it was, was quite dated with players openly complaining that it should be destroyed. It surely wasn’t one of the larger ballparks in the game. Even modernizing it because of its historic landmark status (not to mention all the local rooftop businesses liked tossing in their input. There was also the common belief that no team could win with so many day games, nor in a “hitter’s park”, and as much money as the Cubs make, they weren’t able to cash in on the blossoming TV revenue because of their arrangements with WGN. The Cubs were at a disadvantage.
The second new owner in a decade, Tom Ricketts, decided to make some changes. “We were looking for someone with a background in player development, a proven track record of success, a strong analytical background and an experience in creating a culture of winning,” Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts said at a news conference. “It was important to me that this person would not be someone who was content with their past successes, but would build on those. I simply cannot imagine a better person for this job than Theo Epstein.” He brought in former Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein who proclaimed the Cubs needed a plan for sustained winning. He also said it would take quite some time to rebuild a minor league system that was virtually nonexistent. Epstein, echoing the maneuvers previous clubs like the Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates used, sandblasted the roster, trading any major league talent worth anything for other teams prospects, dice rolls and change of scenery guys. Epstein created what hadn’t existed before with the Chicago Cubs, an analytics department.
However, until the winning happened, even former players like Dawson thought the times would be lean. Anthony Rizzo, in the midst of a stellar season, was considered an early disappointment at first and even notional star Starlin Castro saw his light dim as he failed to build on the promise of his youth. Others wondered if the Cubs could have won sooner and just how much money it might’ve taken to do so. To add to the uncertainty, Wrigley Field, as mentioned before, would be updated which might change the look but would also add in new revenue sources (and potentially attract more players). WGN, nostalgic as it is and was, would soon be sadly discarded.
As it stands right now, the Chicago Cubs have lost one less game than the Colorado Rockies yet their run differential from a cast of castoffs and scrubs, while still on the minus side, is better than the Rockies. However, they also have one of the best farm systems in baseball. A far cry from their lovable loser years when the Cubs would hang all their hopes on a single Corey Patterson or Felix Pie, neither of whom learned how to draw a walk, they now boast multiple prospects that they have drafted and developed at virtually every position. If a Mike Olt flames out, there are many candidates in the minors from Kris Bryant to Christian Villanueva to Javier Baez who can take his place. Furthermore, they’ve even become adept at developing other organizations’ discarded pieces like ex-Rockie Jason Hammel or Jake Arrieta and turning them into quality pitchers. Praying for a Carlos Marmol to throw a pitch that looks like enough of a strike that a batter will swing and miss is in the past.
The Cubs aren’t winning yet and it may be a few years down the road to see if the plan fully works, but at that game on Monday that I went to, a rare 2014 win, I got to see some elements of the changes. I saw the Cubs scoring runs with two outs (and without bunting(!)). Kyle Hendricks, hardly the hottest Cubs prospect, threw an efficient 83 pitches of 7-inning shutout baseball. The Padres aren’t exactly the 1927 Yankees (or the 2014 Colorado Rockies) but it still counts. Starlin Castro even made some nice defensive plays, well past the days when he was more known for his mental gaffes. Things have changed to the point where even Cubs fans who were pessimistic during the lean years, begging for Theo to be fired, are definitely looking forward to next year. Meanwhile, they like what they see so far this year.
Which leads us back to the Rockies. And yes, this is a Rockies blog. As we’ve heard, the Colorado Rockies culture is not about to change. Coors Field, like Wrigley Field, is a fun place to watch a game or hang out with friends in the bleachers, er, Rooftop but isn’t as fun if you are there to watch quality baseball between offensive ineptitude, defensive indifference and pitching shenanigans. Coming into 2014, the most optimistic people proclaimed the Rockies could contend if Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez remained healthy, the bullpen got an upgrade, and Eddie Butler and Jon Gray were promoted. The only one of those benchmarks reached, Eddie Butler getting promoted, didn’t turn out so well. The only free agent acquisition who has remained healthy is 41 year old closer LaTroy Hawkins. Things were so lackluster that we’ve seen Charlie Culberson‘s major league debuts at third base _and_ at first base(!) because of a lack of internal solutions. Meanwhile, between freak injuries and injury-prone pitchers in general, the pitching staff has been a shambles. Rockies fans who actually watch the game have seen pretty much every AA and AAA prospect because of the slew of injuries and so far, haven’t liked what they’ve seen.
The Rockies continue to draw fans, ranking ahead of the Cubs in attendance this year. And, threats of a boycott aside, the Rockies will still draw well. As a Chicago transplant, it has been interesting to me to go to Rockies vs Cubs games at Coors Field and see the mix of Cubs and Rockies jerseys. During 2007 and 2009, you heard “Root, root, root for the Rockies!” more than “the Cubbies!” during the seventh inning stretch. This year, even the San Diego Padres jerseys have looked threatening at home games. So, sure, a boycott might work in a symbolic fashion, but chances are, people will just switch jerseys. In some aspects its hard for me to blame them. At the last Rockies game I went to, only two Rockies players came out to sign autographs before the game matching the number of visiting players who came out to sign autographs. Compare that to Wrigley where there were multiple players before _and_ after the game signing autographs and tossing balls into the stands.
But, it really shouldn’t come down to switching jerseys. The Rockies ownership can, of course, aspire towards the old Cubs model and sell their brand as long as attending a game is relatively inexpensive and there are a few players to root for. With the emergence of Nolan Arenado who shows up early for practice and plays hard with a smile on his face, it makes it more palatable to trade Troy Tulowitzki (if he wasn’t on the Disabled List). Corey Dickerson‘s success makes it more easy to discard a Carlos Gonzalez, as ill-advised as it might be to sell low on someone who just came off the aforementioned Disabled List. Yet indications are that even a Michael Cuddyer wouldn’t be traded because that would change the clubhouse chemistry of a losing team too much, or that Jorge De La Rosa shouldn’t be traded because he knows how to pitch at Coors Field even if he barks at his catcher or his problematic back barks at him. Nor do they want to change the front office too much because that might affect the culture… and in some aspects, the Rockies are right because as the Cubs have shown, you can’t buy sustained winning. It takes a lot of work and a lot of change
All together, the signals sent from the Rockies front office suggest that the status quo will remain… no one from outside the organization will be brought in, and at best, there might be a symbolic firing here or a reassignment to a special assistant there (which changes a hill of beans into a hill of beans). And, it is hard to fault them since there are worse business models to follow than the Chicago Cubs of old. However, if even the Chicago Cubs are trying something new, considering all the experience they’ve had with losing, maybe it would be wise if the Rockies should try to do so too.