What you don’t know about Chicago if you’ve never lived in Chicago is that Chicago is not a big city. Its skyline may be massive, its metropolitan population ample and its murder rate for adults and kids frightening, but at its core, Chicago thinks small and skews insular, still lagging in the slow lane like the rest of the Midwest and lacking intellectual and media clout. It’s all about family, workplace and neighborhoods, with no real depth or concern about the world beyond the city limits, and if people generally grow up there and never leave, that also explains why local sports teams are coddled like children.
There is extraordinary patience in Chicago for dismal sports teams — in particular, historically bad baseball teams. The White Sox have won one championship since 1917, throwing a World Series to gamblers before finally winning one nine years ago, and the Cubs, as you know, haven’t won a World Series since 1908. Thus, a collective 214 baseball seasons have occurred in Chicago with only one championship, meaning the Miami/Florida Marlins won one more World Series in their first 10 years of existence than Chicago has managed through the equivalent of more than two centuries. I don’t need to go on. It’s miserable. I lived it and felt sorry for fans who continued to clutch hope through brutal winters, showing up at awkward January fan conventions in downtown hotels and spewing, automaton-like, such hollow sentiments as, “This is the year. I can feel it.’’
The mentality has allowed some awful baseball owners in recent times — Tribune Co. on the North Side, Jerry Reinsdorf on the South Side — to slide without too much backlash. Imagine the hellish lives of owners in New York, or anywhere else, with such full-blown, long-term futility. But at least Sox fans of this generation can die with one trophy. No team of shrinks can explain why Cubs fans, when the crosstown team has broken its losing streak and a former partner in woe, the Red Sox, have won three World Series in 10 years, have continued to show up and care like mindless sheep.
This exercise in foolhardy worship, I’m pleased to report, finally might be ending.
When the Cubs were sold in 2009 to the Ricketts family, of TD Ameritrade fame, it was thought the new group would free suffering loyalists from three decades of wretched Tribune ownership. Hadn’t Tom Ricketts, new face of the front office, met his future wife in the Wrigley Field bleachers? Didn’t this family have MONEY? Well, they didn’t have as much as Mark Cuban, who was willing to buy the Cubs for $1.3 billion at the time, but Reinsdorf and longtime blood buddy Bud Selig wanted no part of Cuban in Chicago and allowed the Ricketts family to buy the franchise for $845 million — with a heavy debt structure. And all the acquisition did was saddle the family financially, something Selig — here we go again, ripping Mr. Magoo in his final season as commissioner — should have realized instead of obeying Reinsdorf’s Sox-selfish interests. Of course, a White Sox owner would want a nice family from Omaha running the rival Cubs. Turns out Tom Ricketts has no clue and is worse than the Tribsters on their worst day.
Somehow, he saw nothing wrong with wandering in and asking Cubs fans to endure a few more years of losing. The Ricketts plan was a complete teardown and rebuild, the way the Astros are doing it in Houston, except Chicago is not Houston or Oakland or Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh or Kansas City or any other place where youth initiatives are necessitated by market considerations and financial limitations. Chicago is the third-largest TV market in America. The Cubs are an important franchise in professional sports, with fans spanning the globe, from Hollywood to Hungary. It’s one thing to reconstruct a farm system while also spending money on legitimate major-league stars; it’s quite another requiring fans to wait for supposedly prized prospects while spending little money on players remotely resembling gate attractions.
So here are the Cubs, having lost 197 games the last two seasons and off to another horrendous start, expecting fans to believe in Theo Epstein. Remember Theo? The boy wonder who took over the Red Sox when Billy Beane rejected them — see: “Moneyball’’ — and used a large payroll and advanced metrics to break the Curse of the Bambino or whatever ailed that franchise for 86 years? Well, after some whopper player contracts didn’t work in Boston, he fled the able, deep-pocketed ownership in New England for Cubdom. And at 40, he is trying to convince fans that the foundation left by the previous general manager, free-spending Jim Hendry, was in such ruins that a complete overhaul was the only option.
Epstein didn’t mention that the kid movement, and its accompanying paltry payroll, is a direct result of the Ricketts family taking on so much debt. On top of that, the Cubs are on the hook for sorely needed renovations to Wrigley — 100 years old this week — that will cost more than $500 million. Why not more help from the city? Oh, it didn’t help that the family patriarch, Joe Ricketts, took some famous public shots at President Obama when the hardass Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, previously served as Obama’s chief of staff and Washington political thug. The Cubs might have to sell non-controlling shares of the team to pay for the upgrade. Once upon a time, owning a piece of the Cubs would have been a dream.
Now, does anyone want any part of this team in any way? Empty seats, a rare sight at Wrigley since the late 1990s, are commonplace. Fans have seen Epstein’s first two young “prizes,’’ shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, ebb and flow and raise doubts about their difference-making ability. And did you notice how pitcher Andrew Cashner, relinquished to San Diego for Rizzo, has become a premier starter? Baseball insiders tout the talents of four superprospects, known as the Core Four. But when you’re the Cubs and you’ve been snakebitten by time and history and Bartman and Kerry Wood and Mark Prior and highly touted lies ranging from Corey Patterson to Ty Griffin to Brooks Kieschnick, why would anyone lay faith in Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler? If one makes it big, Cubdom should be thrilled.
Still, Epstein talks down to people, demanding patience. “If you focus exclusively to what’s going on in the big leagues, you are missing the bigger picture,” he said in a rare interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes Sports.’’
Said Ricketts: “If you listen to the people who want you to make short-term decisions, I think what you can easily do is build a team that wins 83 games a year for the next 10 years. Our fans want a World Series.’’
Um, why not make short-term investments AND try to build toward a World Series? Have Ricketts and Epstein not noticed that small-market teams in their division — Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee — are among the National League’s best teams and that the middle-market machine down Interstate 55, the St. Louis Cardinals, have embarrassed the Cubs forever? If Ricketts didn’t have debt issues, maybe the Cubs could have made a stronger run at Masahiro Tanaka instead of finishing as also-rans — by design and for effect, I contend — to the New York Yankees.
There is no assurance the Cubs will win anytime this decade or next decade or the decade after. Why go to Wrigley, then? It’s good to see Cubs fans no longer diving into a faith pool that dried up generations ago. In all of sports, there’s still no better walk back in time, including Fenway Park and Augusta National, than entering through the peristyle off Clark and Addison, heading straight up a short stairwell and seeing a green, golden panorama of grass, ivy, rooftops and a manual scoreboard that assaults the senses. Ricketts wants to ruin it all with an enormous Jumbotron in left field, but before he begins construction of the video screen and the rest of the renovations — including a new hotel, an outdoor concourse and mass ballpark upgrades — he wants to make sure those pesky rooftop owners angry about obstructed views don’t bog down the process with lawsuits. And if they proceed legally, as expected?
He still hasn’t ruled out leaving Wrigleyville and building a suburban ballpark. “The truth is, we still have to get this done, and we’re not quite there yet,’’ Ricketts said recently. “If we can’t grind it out — these last few steps — I don’t know what’s going to happen.’’
The Itasca Cubs. Perfect.
I do see a silver lining in all of this. Maybe Tom Ricketts will kill the Cubs and put millions of people out of their misery.
Doesn’t oblivion sound better than counting to 106 … 107 … 108 … 109 … 120 … 150 … 200 …