An Open Letter To Cubs Fans

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You might have a different perspective on what Cubs front-office management should be doing, depending on your age. That doesn't make it better or worse, just different. Here, let me explain.

There's going to be an apology coming up, but first I want to tell you a couple of stories. Please note! This post is going to be quite long. Pull up a chair, if you aren't in one, and settle in for a while. (And please. Please, please. Be respectful and kind in your comments.)

Some of you might know who Carmella Hartigan was. If you don't... here's her story.

Carmella was an everyday regular in the left-center field bleachers for decades -- this was before the bleacher reconstruction; you could find her sitting in the last row wearing her pink Cubs cap for nearly every game. She was born Carmella Tamburino in a small village in Italy, February 14, 1902, and arrived in the United States in 1916. Eventually, she became a Cubs fan and started coming to the bleachers regularly in 1965, after her husband died. She lived on the North Side near Horner Park; until she was well into her 90s she rode two buses to Wrigley Field and back every day. In her later years, disappointed with the Cubs' failures as all the rest of us have been, her mantra on hoping they'd eventually win it all was: "How long do they think I can wait?"

Mike Bojanowski told me that, upon saying his usual season-end farewell to her in September 2002, Carmella told him she didn't expect to return, saying, "If it's your fortune to live as long as I have, you'll understand."

She was right. Carmella died December 21, 2002, aged 100 years, 10 months. I attended her wake at a North Side funeral home, where her family was astounded at the number of her bleacher friends who showed up. We did so because, in that sense, she was family. She's buried with that pink Cubs cap.

Even though Carmella was alive when the Cubs won their last World Series, as a small girl in Italy, she likely knew nothing of them at the time, so she never saw her favorite team win it all, despite living more than a century.

Here's another story, told by Sun-Times sportswriter Rick Telander. Now, I'm pretty sure Telander isn't one of your favorites; neither is he one of mine, as I wrote this post only a few weeks ago blasting him on a topic unrelated to this. But two years ago, Telander wrote this, with which I identify very, very strongly:

I was asked by a radio host the other day whether I stood by my long-repeated statement that the Cubs won’t win a World Series in my lifetime. I immediately said yes.  

I said it was all actuarial. I’m 62, and I first thought the Cubs were going to win it all 42 years ago, in 1969, when I was a college sophomore and before Santo, Banks, Williams and pals expired in the August heat. But say I’ve got two good decades ahead of me, maybe even three. In fact, let’s say I’m an outlier and make it to 102. Forty more years.  

That’s nothing! That’s less than 40 percent of the time the Cubs already have gone without winning a championship.

(Note that you can now add two more years to what Telander said, since that column was posted July 30, 2011.)

And that's where I stand, and now let me explain why I feel the way I do. This week, I become the parent of two college students. That's a milestone in anyone's life, and at nearly 57, I have begun to contemplate my own mortality. I've done pretty well in the genetic lottery; my maternal grandmother lived to be 100, and my dad is still around and will be 92 later this year (and he reads this site, so be nice). Another personal milestone: there is now someone who is in the major leagues who is younger than one of my kids (Jurickson Profar, born in 1993).

If I live as long as my dad has, that'd be 35 more years, which is a good long time. That makes me think back to 35 years ago -- 1978. That's the year I graduated from college. The time since then has gone by in the blink of an eye. In considering that, think about this: the Cubs' drought for not even getting to the World Series was 33 years in 1978. That drought -- not even the World Series-winning drought, just the drought of even getting there -- is now more than twice that length.

Time goes by so fast. Years pile upon years with a blur. You'll please forgive me, then, if I at times seem a little impatient with everything that's going on with the current state of our favorite team. Patience thins, and here's where I apologize. Simply living longer and having experienced more Cubs failures doesn't make me better or make my opinion more important than anyone else's. We've all suffered disappointments and soul-crushing defeats. It does give me a longer perspective than many of you; that's all I was trying to say. Some who are my age or older are willing to be more patient; that's cool. Some aren't. I'm having a hard time with it right now, partly because of changes in my own life. I apologize for being over-the-top with this following Friday's loss, and I hope you will forgive me for letting it get to me. But there are times I do begin to wonder if I will die without ever seeing the Cubs win the World Series. Seriously, and that's a sobering thought. Carmella Hartigan lived a century and never saw it. Quite a number of friends, met in the bleachers, some younger than me, died without ever seeing it.

Now, on to the analysis part of this epic. Many of you have said, in connection with what current Cubs front-office management is doing, "This kind of thing hasn't been done in the entire century of failure." I respectfully submit that statement is incorrect. A build like this has been tried before, and more than once.

Dallas Green began doing it when he took over -- and the Cubs organization was in much worse shape in late 1981 than it was in late 2011. The cupboard was empty; there was almost no talent on the major-league team (save Bill Buckner) and almost nothing in the system, except for the recently-promoted Lee Smith, two guys who were selected in the last years of the Wrigley regime (Mel Hall and Joe Carter) and Jody Davis, probably the best Rule 5 pick the Cubs have ever made.

Green's drafts produced quite a number of quality major-league players: Mark Grace, Greg Maddux, Shawon Dunston, Rafael Palmeiro, Joe Girardi and Jamie Moyer, and some others of lesser talent. Green, unfortunately, wasn't allowed to complete his mission. It was one of Tribune Company's biggest mistakes to let Green go. But you can't say this exact thing -- building a strong organization -- wasn't tried. Green supplemented it with key free agents (Ron Cey, for example) and trades, bringing over several major-league players from his old team, the Phillies, and of course, making the deal that got Ryne Sandberg to the North Side. Green got upset when the Cubs lost 13 in a row in spring training in 1984 and pulled the trigger on the deal that got Gary Matthews and Bob Dernier to the Cubs just before Opening Day. The Cubs don't win the National League East in 1984 without that trade.

I'd like to see Theo Epstein get that upset with losing.

It was tried again when Andy MacPhail was hired away from the Twins. You can bash MacPhail all you want, and yes, many of his methods failed, as did those of his successor, Jim Hendry. But the Cubs under MacPhail produced Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano. Had those three pitchers remained healthy (both mentally and physically), they could have been the core of a playoff-caliber starting rotation for more than a decade. The draft under MacPhail also produced Jon Garland, Ricky Nolasco and Dontrelle Willis, sent away in ill-advised trades (though the Willis trade did bring back three decent years of Matt Clement), as well as Scott Downs, a serviceable big-league reliever for more than a decade. The MacPhail years didn't produce any significant position players other than Ryan Theriot and Geovany Soto; neither had the long-term impact you'd like to see from the draft. Its later years and the Jim Hendry years produced poor first-round picks: Bobby Brownlie, Ryan Harvey, Grant Johnson and Mark Pawelek. (Ugh. That's four straight years of failed No. 1 picks from 2002-2005.)

So you can't say an organizational build hasn't been tried. It has. Both of those general managers presided over eras that did produce quite a number of good major-league players. The organization, for reasons we now know all too well, never had the depth it needed, and it's not my point to recount those failures here.

The current regime has invested a tremendous amount of money in young players, both through the draft and international signings, and has opened an academy in the Dominican Republic that we all hope will bring success in the future. These are, without question, good things, though you'll forgive me if I don't share all the excitement that was posted here and elsewhere about the millions spent this July on 16-year-old kids, who, if everything goes right, might be at Wrigley Field in 2019 or 2020. It's the same reason I don't really care if someone's "arb clock" is started one year early so the Cubs could, presumably, save a few million dollars eight years from now. That could be eight more years without winning a damn thing.

Here's how I see the current crop of young players: Javier Baez looks like a potential superstar. Maybe Kris Bryant will be, too, but it's pretty early to tell. The rest? Maybe a solid regular or two (Albert Almora, a good example), but most of them will be washouts. In the Kane County game I saw two weeks ago, I saw two players I think will become major-league players: Jeimer Candelario and Willson Contreras. Both project as major-league backups. Most of the rest, including Dan Vogelbach, will likely never play a game for the big-league Cubs.

The team has to supplement this, as both Green and MacPhail did, with key signings or trades. And here's where I'll get a little controversial: you can't just wait until 2015 or 2016 to do this, because maybe the guy you need won't be available then. Some Cubs fans thought the Cubs should sign Carlos Beltran in 2005, when he became a free agent. But management didn't do that, because, well, the Cubs were a contender in 2004. Some thought Rafael Furcal should have been signed -- and he nearly was -- in 2006 (instead, we got stuck with Juan Pierre as a booby prize, Jim Hendry's worst trade). That's when those players came on the market; you can't time the player you want to acquire with some artificial timetable.

You know what I think the Cubs should do?

They should go after Robinson Cano. Yes, you heard me. With all the money being stripped off the payroll now (and more after the final payment to Alfonso Soriano is made next year), there should be plenty of room to sign a Cano, even to a megadeal. At 30, he's worth it; he's exactly the age that Soriano was when he signed with the Cubs in 2006. The problem wasn't signing Soriano; the problem was the two extra contract years and the fact that he got hurt, which could not have been predicted. Five or six years for Cano? I think the Cubs could handle that.

Cano would fill the black hole in the middle of the Cubs' offense, and give the Cubs the possibility of trading Starlin Castro or Darwin Barney, or both, for help elsewhere, presuming Baez might be ready by next year sometime. Buster Olney, though, dismisses the Cubs as a possibility:

The Cubs may not have as much money as casual fans expect, because they have renovation projects to pay for, including their own farm system. Cano would help Chicago improve in 2014 and 2015, but the team really isn't in a position to compete in the next couple of years because of other roster issues.

I'm not sure I buy that, because Cubs starting pitching has been very good this year; with some better bullpen work, maybe they could have been at least a .500 team this year, with the hope of building on that for 2014.

And here's another factor. Signing Robinson Cano would do another thing: just as with the Soriano signing in 2006, it would show the fanbase that the Cubs are ready and willing to compete, perhaps a little earlier than some artificial "timetable" that's been set by the front office. If you are going to simply wait for all the "waves and waves" of talent to be placed in the lineup and asked to produce, they're not going to magically lift the team to the postseason in 2015. They could struggle at first. It could be 2017 or 2018 before they're All-Stars.

In my view, putting teams full of DFA guys and waiver-wire pickups and never-were minor-leaguers who have a couple of hot weeks in the major leagues on the field at Wrigley is disrespectful to the paying customer. To that, you'll likely say, "Just stop buying season tickets, then." Beyond the fact that this is not an option for me, for many reasons that I have explained here on multiple occasions, you aren't saying that just to me. You're essentially telling everyone who wants to see a major-league product on the field to stay away until the young players magically become superstars. You've seen, in the cases of Wood and Prior in particular, how difficult this is to actually accomplish. Even Jeff Samardzija opined, after the Matt Garza deal, that maybe the Cubs were dumping too much:

"I definitely don't want to see all my boys traded, that's for sure," he said that day. "That wouldn't be the coolest thing in the world, especially when we feel we're not too far away from being a pretty darn good team."

But before Monday's game against the Diamondbacks, Samardzija said he understood the decision.

"Garza was going to be a free agent," he said. "Obviously if a deal didn't get done (he'd be gone). I think any team in that situation would do the same thing. You have to understand reality. We're (16 games) back, and to trade a guy you don't have protection over anymore kind of makes sense.

I understand both sides of Shark's position here. I hope you do too.

I want the Cubs to build a strong organization. I certainly don't have a problem with drafting well and getting as much talent in the minor leagues as possible, even knowing that some (or even many) of those guys will never make it. If anyone here claims my position denies this, you are simply wrong.

All I am saying is that the "parallel tracks" Theo Epstein once spoke of, can and should be done; it shouldn't be just lip service. I believe you can do both -- put together a good organization, and try to win at the big-league level every year. This doesn't mean wasting money on someone like Josh Hamilton -- the Angels will be paying for that and the Albert Pujols deal for many, many years. Of course I don't want to do that, and if you think that's what I believe, you're still wrong.

Maybe Robinson Cano isn't the right answer, right now, either, although I submit that he's at least worth thinking about. If you think I'm saying "Go back to the Jim Hendry junk-food highs," you're wrong, yet again.

There's one further reason the Cubs should make an effort to put a better team on the field in 2014. The WGN-TV deal, as you know, is up at the end of the year and the team has already stated publicly that it will likely be up for open bids. I've written before on how it would benefit both the team and WGN-TV to re-up. Obviously, the Cubs will want more than the (approximately) $400,000 per game they are getting from this deal.

If you have a mediocre team on the field, who's going to pay a bigger rights fee? The Dodgers got their huge local TV deal because they let it be known they were going to be a major force going forward. So did the Rangers when they got theirs.

With another 90-plus loss season in the books this year, ratings are bottoming. Ad rates are going to be down next year as a result. Unless there's a clear sign of movement upward in the future, who's going to pay what the Cubs want for this portion of the TV contract?

We can have both. We should have both. Dallas Green would have done both. Don't consign this team to several more 90-plus loss years, because no one knows when these young players are going to produce winning seasons. Give us some hope at Wrigley Field. Yes, in 2014. Because ... how much longer do they think I can wait?

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