Anyone living in Chicago, baseball fan or not, is forced to hear a great deal about the Chicago Cubs, like it or not. Love them or hate them, they dominate the sports scene here for six months every year. They are the darlings of many, many fans and most of the media. Their appeal in this great city far exceeds that of their cross-town rivals, the Chicago White Sox, who always come in second in polls and total fan base. The White Sox won a World Series Championship in 2005 but the Cubs will celebrate 100 years without a World Series Championship next year yet their place is sold-out for every game. Go figure.
As most of my readers know I am a big lifetime baseball fan. I love this game with a passion. But I am not a Cubs fan! I find many Cubs fans insufferably mercurial, even passive-aggressive. (I number some very good friends, and a few donors to ACT 3, among my friends who are Cubs fans. None of them fit this category so I am being broad in my statements and do not wish to offend my good friends.) Many Cubs fans seem to thrive on skewed and irrational judgments. One day they boast about how they will win it all and the next day they want to fire their manager and dump the whole team. The talk shows in Chicago are full of this day and night. It gets old if you don’t love the Cubbies. I moved to Chicago in 1969, the infamous year that the Cubs blew a large lead and lost the Eastern Division race to the New York Mets. To this day Cubs fans of that era moan about this marvelous season and speak of the “what ifs” and why this team was so truly great with Santo, Banks, Williams, Hundley, Kessinger, Beckert and Jenkins. But this lovable bunch blew a huge comfortable lead in September and went down in infamy for real failure.
The Cubs of 2007 have struggled lately and lose twice to the Atlanta Braves this last weekend. I saw the Friday game in person. It was quite a spectacle. A fight broke out in the Cubs dugout between their starting pitcher and catcher, who both were later fined. (The catcher had to go to the hospital for stitches.) I found myself laughing out loud at the moaning and second-guessing of the fans who called WGN, the radio station, for hours after this game. The same happened after the game on Saturday when the Cubs lost again. The venting was amazing to hear but something I have come to expect after my 38 years in Chicago. Then the Cubs finally won on Sunday (they were on a six game losing streak) in a 10-1 blowout. The fans were once again excited and emotionally charged up by this one win. (Keep in mind baseball has 162 games and part of the fabric of this great game is long-term consistency, not short term lop-sided wins.) But on Sunday Cubs fans were enthused about how their manager had turned the team around by getting kicked out of the Saturday game. He had done it in grand fashion, kicking dirt on the umpire’s legs and kicking his own cap all over the field. Evan rational talk-show hosts tried to convince these passionate fans that one game did not make a winning streak or a whole new season. But no team I know has fans who find more excuses for why it experiences futility like the Chicago Cubs fan base. And no fans keep living for the next game, the next month, and often the next year quite like Cubs fans. Give them credit, they do persevere in their loyalty. Once a Cubs fan, always a Cubs fan. I have never, and I am serious, met a Cubs fan who was an apostate from their loyalty. Cubs loyalty is almost like a virus you get in childhood and never get over. (This quality I actually admire, since I have followed the same baseball team for fifty years now, through dark years and good years.)
I am persuaded of several things about this year’s Cubs team. First, increasing their payroll dramatically will not build them a winning team. The Cubs of 2007 are already proving this fact in the first sixty-plus games. (Oddly, they could still win their division because it is seemingly so weak.) Two, a manager who motivates players by putting down his team to the press day-after-day will not win in the modern era. (Lou Piniella does this routinely.) Third, the Cubs front-office approach to winning is all messed up. They should rebuild their entire franchise from the lowest minors to the highest. (They should have hired Joe Girardi, last year’s manager of the year, and begun a serious four-year rebuilding effort. Sprinkle home-grown talent in with a few trades and one or two free-agents and you will do much better.) I think the problem here is simple. The Cubs were set-back big time by getting so close to the National League pennant in 2003, a time when they should have won it but blew a 3 games to 2 lead with home field in their favor. Now the fans are impatient and they boo their lovable Cubs far more then ever. The pressure on the Cubs leadership is to “win it now!” This pressure will not work. The whole franchise is in trouble. New buyers for the team, which is currently owned by the Chicago Tribune, are not sure they want the ballpark when they buy the team. The way the Cubs have routinely gone about trying to fix these problems will never work. Finally, Wrigley Field is not a place that will likely produce a consistent winner. I do not understand the nostalgia associated with this place yet I truly love baseball. (I liked Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park much better but then I would not want to go to them day-in-and-day-out either.The Yankees are getting a new park and Fenway Park retains its charm also, at least for now.) Wrigley Field is dark, cramped, and impossible to get in and out of without a long travel ordeal. (The neighborhood is lovely and the restaurants around the park are wonderful.) But the park itself, well frankly it smells like a brewery at times. If you sit on the upper deck level you are required to walk down long ramps, or halfway around the upper level to long lines, to get to the real concessions. I only go to Wrigley Field when I want to see another team, like the Atlanta Braves or the White Sox. I just do not like the experience any more. And the outfield wall is covered with lovely ivy, not padding, which no player alive really likes. The dimensions are extremely odd and they have a basket on the outfield walls to keep fans from invading the playing field in left and right. (This basket was put up in the infamous year of 1969 when the fans kept interfering with balls in play."Bleacher bums" are the fans who sit there and drink lots of beer and curse more than most fans. And most think this childlike ritual is cool.) And the ushers are the most "fan unfriendly" of any in all of baseball. I have even written the front office and never got an answer to my reasonable letter of complaint. They don’t need to respond to people like me anyway since they sell out every game, which gives them no motivation to change anything. And the clubhouse is small, old and unfriendly. (Yes, I have been in the clubhouse, doing chapel there back in the 1970s.) Furthermore, I do not think the Cubs leadership understands the modern era of baseball. They have lived on this old park and their futile history for decades now. They last won a pennant in 1945 and a World Series in 1908. They live, like so many churches I know, on nostalgia and a fairly wealthy older fan-base. Ticket prices are way too high, much higher than at the White Sox games and at other places outside of New York and Boston. I’ve been to 24 of the 30 major league parks personally. I love most of the retro parks in places like Baltimore, Houston, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. The Cubs even sell shirts at Wrigley Field that tell you the franchise began in 1876. So what? Being old does not make you good. One serious look at the Cubs constant futility will prove my point.
Other than these thoughts I have no real opinions about the Chicago Cubs. I might have irritated a few friends by saying so but if the Cubs fo
llow some of my suggestions
they might still find a way to turn things around in spite of "the curse of the billy goat," another lame excuse for not winning at Wrigley Field. I would not hold my breath, if I were a real Cubs fan, given the lovable loser imagine that they seem to be satisfied with at Wrigley Field. Intelligent Cubs fans, and there are a good number of them, actually agree with much of what I have said. The rest of them wear shirts that proudly say: "Shut up and drink your beer!" What an image. I would be bummed out by now if I followed this team with any passion. Cubs fans have my utmost sympathy, at least until they play the Sox, Braves, Brewers and a host of other teams that I like a whole lot more.