Good Thing Chicago Has the Blackhawks
No city wears its sports colors more proudly — or annoyingly, some might say — than Chicago. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the south of France to the north of Tasmania, you inevitably see a Bears hoodie, a Cubs cap, a White Sox jersey. A Chicagoan wants everyone to know he is from Chicago, even if others don’t care when they’re paddle-boarding in the ocean or waiting in line with seven kids at Disney World. I think it’s cute, sort of, and i sometimes indulge at a Bears bar wherever I am on a Sunday, more often than not watching the bitter folks suffering a loss.
To satisfy this parochial jones, a Chicagoan sorely needs to flaunt sports success. That usually is an empty exercise — 105 years of faith-annihilating futility for the Cubs, one World Series title in the last 96 tries for the Sox, one Super Bowl win in XLVII years for the Bears, barely a title-contending peep from the Bulls in the 15 years since Michael Jordan was prematurely run off.
Which is why it’s fortunate Chicago has the Blackhawks. Here is an organization worthy of the city’s deep sports emotions, run by people with vision and smarts. They’ve created two cornerstones resembling the Hull and Mikita of their era (Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews), hired Scotty Bowman’s kid to run the operation, commissioned a coach (Joel Quenneville) worthy of a long-term commitment and melded a glorious tradition with the giddy present. The minute his father died, Rocky Wirtz pulled a stale, inept franchise into the millennium. He stole John McDonough from the Cubs and injected marketing savvy. They awakened a classic hockey town that simply wanted something to scream about after the national anthem.
Everything the Hawks touch now turns to gold. I’m seeing way more of the Indian head these days than other Chicago emblems.
It’s absurd that both baseball teams in America’s third-largest market are abysmal. This while nearby towns that Chicagoans traditionally ridicule — Detroit, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh — feature serious contenders in both Central divisions. Defenders of the Cubs and Sox can say new economics have evened the Midwestern playing field, with revenue sharing, luxury taxes and regional TV riches allowing franchises in smaller markets to act and spend like big boys. That’s crap.
Tom Ricketts looks like another inept Chicago sports owner who never should have bought the Cubs with his family. Four years in, he’s making the clumsy Tribsters of previous decades look like baseball savants. Dare I say the McCaskeys look more able than the Ricketts clan?
And Jerry Reinsdorf is an old, washed-up fart who should sell the Sox, having won one playoff game since 2005 and done nothing to capitalize on a World Series championship that now looks fluky. He has owned the team since 1981 and has reached the postseason, in a major market, all of five times. That’s a .151 batting average, chief, not much higher than Hawk Harrelson’s career average. If the WAR metric applied to owners, Reinsdorf would be near rock-bottom. Sell, Jerry. You’re losing a generation of fans who don’t care about Robin Ventura, Frank Thomas, Carlton Fisk or a mediocre, dated ballpark experience.
It’s mind-boggling that the Ricketts Cubs, serving generations of fans who’ve wasted their lives waiting for October glory, are forced to endure a reconstruction process that so far reveals no end game. I know they had to overhaul the farm system, but with those revenues in that market, they also should be trying to win on the fly. Could you imagine the Dodgers and Yankees with waiting periods? Just because Theo Epstein won two World Series in Boston, supported by the high ambitions and big bank of vigorous owners, doesn’t mean he knows how to build via a lengthy youth project. All Ricketts seems to care about is his $500-million remake of Wrigley Field, with his 5,700-square-foot Jumbotron, finally pushing it through City Council and insisting it will bring World Series titles to the North Side. Tell me how a 175-room hotel across Clark Street will end a famine that has dragged on so long, even the Billy Goat has lost interest.
Realize this: The Ricketts family was in over its head when it bought the franchise, and when public funds to renovate Wrigley never materialized, money that could have gone into the payroll instead went to the Wrigley neon-and-glitz fund. A Jumbotron that is three times’ larger than the relic manual scoreboard will be a hideous addition to a timeless landmark, but that aesthetic intrusion might be tolerable if Epstein’s plan involved respectability on the field. It’s clear the Cubs won’t have a major-market payroll unless they reap significant revenues from their new Wrigley, which could be years away.
Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Travis Wood? That’s the basis of a hopechest for an elite franchise operating like the San Diego Padres. The Cubs owe it to their fans to invest in established immediate help and show at least some interest in competing. When the Red Sox hit a crisis in recent seasons, they rebuilt wisely last winter, dividing one ample lump sum into several savvy acquisitions. They are contending. There is no reason the Cubs have to stop trying until the Wrigley renovation kicks in. That is a sports crime, not that they haven’t been committing them forever. When I was in Chicago last month and sat on a cool rooftop endangered by future right-field signage (they say it will be see-through), I saw 10,000 empty seats across Sheffield. The charm of Cubdom is gone. Understandably, at long last, the fans are exhausted, convinced the dream officially died 10 years ago this October.
The Sox? The Ozzie Guillen freak show ran its course. Other than Chris Sale, there isn’t a player I would pay to see at the ballmall, not even the dignified Paul Konerko in his twilight. They could be years away from contending, and Ventura looks bored as manager and ready for an escape hatch. No wonder Ken Williams fled to his office and raised the shades, letting Rick Hahn take the public heat.
The Bears are starting anew, with a new coach from Canada who likely won’t penetrate the thick, stubborn mindset of the maddening, soon-to-be-departing Jay Cutler. I’m thinking 7-9, with Cutler struggling to stay healthy and a new QB — Josh Freeman? — en route next season. Derrick Rose? Let him think he’s the NBA’s best player, but he still needs another big scorer or the Bulls won’t have enough offense to beat Indiana or Brooklyn, much less Miami and the league’s actual best player.
It’s all about the Hawks now. They could win one, two, several more Stanley Cups. I hope they do, because when a traveling Chicagoan wears all those logos, it helps to have a championship to prevent laughter and back up the swag.Good Thing Chicago Has the Blackhawks by Jay Mariotti
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