Nearly three years have passed since the first of Lou Piniella’s half-pennants was won on a beautiful Friday evening in Cincinnati. I’m sure many of you were there for that important occasion, and perhaps some of you also took a pregame stroll through the Reds Hall of Fame, with its special Pete Rose exhibit and its lifesize action figures of Rose, Morgan, Bench, et al, tastefully sculpted in gold polyurethane to immortalize the winning run of the 1972 playoffs and the rally that typified the magic of the Big Red Machine.
The museum was an enjoyable way to spend a half-hour, and when I spotted an official on my way out, I told him so, also mentioning how much I was looking forward to the day when the Cubs might give us a team worth commemorating. “I think you may have to wait a long time for that,” he responded. “The Cubs are too valuable just the way they are. Do you really think your fans would still be interested if they ever won?”
Looking him straight in the eye to make sure I wasn’t speaking with Thom or Marty Brennaman, I was about to say some unkind things about Pete, Joe, and Gold Star Chili. However, given this gentleman’s midwestern reserve, I decided to be a model citizen and just mutter “Yeah, I think we’ll handle it OK.” But the following evening, on the long drive home after watching Rich Hill’s bid for a no-hitter, the words of that Reds official kept coming back to me, like the taste of the Cheese Coneys I had the night before. The Cubs too valuable the way they are? What in Over the Rhine did he mean by that?
And then it hit me like a bowlful of 5-Alarm: He was right! As baseball’s most famous losers, the Cubs have developed a national and international following of millions who identify with the team’s compelling history of failure, fans who also draw strength and comfort from the consistency of an organization that defies the odds in a world of constant change. In a feat as remarkable as that of the great 19th century engineers who sent the Chicago River and its contents flowing toward St. Louis, the decades-long efforts of Wrigley, Brickhouse, and the marketing team at the Trib have been able to reverse the iron laws of business and produce a model we might fairly call “Winning by Losing.” The will of Phil, the skill of Jack, and the bottom-line focus of the Tribune stewards have locked big league baseball’s founding franchise into a never-ending – but extremely profitable – cycle of defeat.
Sure, a Cubs World Series win would temporarily intensify interest and move a mountain of team junk, but what happens after that? Unfortunately, in terms of building national interest among casual fans, the Cubs’ saga of defeat has become as important to MLB as the Yankees’ story of sustained excellence. Tell me, do any of us really follow the Bulls the same way we did before the Double Triple? Do the Red Sox have the same national cachet they enjoyed before their twin championships? Of course, chances are slim we’ll ever find out whether winning it all would diminish national interest in the Cubs – especially if the scheduled changes to Wrigley Field prove to be nothing more than cosmetic surgery to the clubhouse, restrooms, and luxury suites.
As we seek to understand the root causes of this team’s unparalleled failure, look no further than a ballpark that carries in perpetuity the name of the family whose selfish interests and living legacy affect even the most basic team operations to this very day. Short power alleys, brick walls, no foul territory, and a limited night schedule all conspire to keep the Cubs trapped both in and on an uneven playing field, especially for pitchers and outfielders who must adjust their game to suit Wrigley’s antiquated layout at the start of each homestand. These handicaps give top free agents and draft picks the leverage to demand a “Wrigley premium” at contract time and, even with this added inducement, the best available talent usually goes elsewhere, leaving us locked into long-term mediocrity or worse. Also, no parking, limited signage, and opposition to the sale of naming rights at Wrigley deny ownership needed revenue, leading to perhaps the highest ticket prices in baseball.
As a new owner with a billion dollar commitment, what do you do when most of your revenue streams are fed by the very thing that keeps your team from winning? Certainly, Clan Ricketts should be commended for those ballpark improvements they already have initiated, but before laying-in foundations for the Triangle Building, they also should consider some even more important long-term improvements, such as enlarging and upgrading the playing field at Wrigley to meet modern big league standards. Ballpark dimensions elsewhere are modified routinely to meet new circumstances, and even Wrigley’s dimensions were changed repeatedly until 1937, before Phil Wrigley’s hidebound approach put the Cubs squarely on the road to calcification.
If this means getting the city to vacate rights-of-way or condemn nearby properties for added space, that will be the least that officials can do for an enterprise that brings enormous goodwill and revenue to the city. Operating the only venue in professional sports where the ballpark has become more important than the team requires a novel approach we might call Thinking Outside the Grid. Build a modern grandstand, expand the playing surface, plant ivy over fake brick crash barriers if necessary and, above all, be willing to combat the entrenched interests that benefit from Winning by Losing.