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Convention Report, Day Two

Funny thing.

I didn't really like last year's convention. As I wrote at the time, it was too crowded, so much so that

... there were lines to get the program, for heaven's sake. There were lines at the coat check, lines to buy a soda, it seemed like there were lines to get in line.

And in a way, that became a metaphor for the whole season. Confused, bothersome, and finally collapsing in a heap.

The atmosphere around the 2005 convention is so much different. Sure, there were lines, but lines where there should be lines -- for popular autographs (one Ron Santo line snaked all the way around the entire downstairs food court). The sessions with Jim Hendry, Dusty Baker, Andy MacPhail and the broadcast teams (more on this anon) were friendly, informative and fun.

Yes, I'd love for this to be a metaphor for 2005. In seventy-one days we shall find out.

I nearly didn't make it at all today -- due to my work at ABC-7, and the snowstorm, there was talk about remaining at work till 1:00. As it turned out, with the storm winding down (except near the lakefront, where it puked snow all day -- Mike always says that on convention weekend, it's either brutally cold or snowy, and this year was no exception), we did one update at 9 am and then I headed right to the Hilton, where I walked into the Hendry/Baker session at 9:20 (Jeff told me I hadn't missed a thing), right in time for them to say that Ryan Dempster wouldn't just be handed the closer's job in spring training, that he'd have to earn it.

This is as it should be, of course. But Dempster is the sort of pitcher, like John Wetteland, Eric Gagne, and as Hendry pointed out, Dennis Eckersley, who, as a failed starter, might wind up being just the closer the Cubs need.

OK, I speculated later in the day -- I bought a Dempster-signed ball from the Iowa Cubs booth for $30. Considering I found a Cole Liniak ball (and yes, I think I remember all 32 of his mediocre career at-bats) selling for $20, I thought that was a pretty good deal.

Much of the baseball talk, of course, surrounded Sammy Sosa. I suppose the assembled multitudes wanted Dusty to say that he would excoriate Sammy, but Dusty said his way of doing things involves sitting down with the individual, in his office, at a restaurant, but not over the phone, and in fact, such a meeting may happen soon, as suggested in today's Sun-Times.

Look. I heard the boos for Sammy last September when his bat disappeared. And I heard the even louder boos (and talked about this with Tim from LF, who I ran into this afternoon, as he was pointing out to me that Moises Alou had vanished from the highlight film -- I noted that so had Matt Clement, almost as if neither had ever existed) at the opening ceremony last night.

To find a similar situation in baseball, you need look only to a year ago, when the Red Sox had a disagreement with Manny Ramirez, tried really hard to trade him, in fact, put him on waivers with no takers -- and then welcomed him back, to have Ramirez put up perhaps the best all-around year of his career, and the World Championship that followed.

Sammy Sosa has been beloved by many fans, and I suppose we all feel betrayed by his behavior at the end of the season. But you know what would fix it? A simple public apology, and also a private apology, sitting in the middle of the clubhouse with his teammates (as was suggested by Bob Brenly at the broadcasters session I attended this afternoon).

It really is that simple. And I'd think that Sammy, like Ramirez, would want to prove on the field that he hasn't lost it. Say what you want about Sosa, he never loafs on the field, and I imagine his pride would take over.

But Sammy, turn the boombox off and put a sock in it, willya?

I was supposed to have lunch with Byron Clarke of The Cubdom, along with a few other members of the Cubs Blog Army.

But Byron was a casualty of the snowstorm -- driving here from Indiana, he was stuck, and couldn't make it, and as I didn't really know how to contact anyone else... well, Mike & I had lunch at Kitty O'Shea's at the Hilton, and talked at length about another question that was asked of Baker -- why he seems locked into one-inning relievers, when someone could be going good, and maybe you could throw someone in the 8th AND 9th.

Baker said he didn't invent this system, he inherited it. This sounds like a copout until you realize this: pitchers are now conditioned this way, both physically and psychologically. Twenty or thirty years ago, major league relievers were by and large, failed minor league starters. The guys relieving in the minors never even made the major leagues.

Now, you have pitchers groomed from day one to relieve, and in fact, to close, though, as discussed above, sometimes you still get the failed starter who becomes a good closer. So Baker says that pitchers are simply not accustomed to higher workloads. And, Mike notes, for a starter, every starter today throws his best stuff all the time, till he tires and must be replaced.

This didn't happen years ago. Pitchers worked hitters carefully, holding back their best pitch for an out pitch, or for the later innings. This simply doesn't happen any more.

Neither Mike nor I are arguing that this is good or bad -- it's simply the way it is. Baseball is in some ways the same game it was 100 years ago -- and in others, quite different.

After lunch we sat in on the Andy MacPhail session, I asked a couple of questions including how baseball may view upcoming labor talks, given what is happening in hockey today. MacPhail said that the hockey situation is different, because many players can go to Europe and not miss a paycheck, but that they are indeed watching it closely. There were many other questions, from how to give fans more access to players, to Wrigley Field itself, to the steroid issue (MacPhail admits that there is a way to go, but he also says, and I agree, that the current agreement is better than the one they had before, and because it extends beyond the existing Basic Agreement, it cannot be used as a bargaining chip), to why the White Sox have 20 spring training games on Comcast SportsNet while the Cubs have none (MacPhail says it's a time-filler for missing hockey games, still raising the question why the Cubs can't have any, though he also pointed out that CSN probably isn't making a lot of money on these), and also, talking about the fact that over $1 billion (!) has been spent on free-agent contracts this offseason, more than 10% of which went to Carlos Beltran, and maybe half of all the money going to various players going to the New York teams... and you know, good as Beltran is, maybe it was for the best that he went elsewhere.

MacPhail was friendly and forthcoming and it was too bad that the session wasn't nearly as well-attended as the Baker/Hendry session.

Finally, we headed over to hear the broadcast teams. Len Kasper and Bob Brenly, introduced to warm applause (but nowhere near the ovations for Pat Hughes and Ron Santo), said all the right things -- Kasper saying how lucky he was to have this job, and how his idol Ernie Harwell had called him after he got the job, telling him he had the best job in broadcasting, and I'd agree, and also told a story of how, when he was a Marlins broadcaster during game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, saying on the air in the 8th inning, that if the Marlins were done (and he, like all of us, thought they were), that he'd be honored to see the Cubs get into the World Series, and now being a part of the Cubs team, wanted that even more. He'll do fine, I believe. Brenly said he had the utmost respect for Steve Stone, and also said that nothing a player would say or do would change the way he broadcast, and that he could forgive a lot of players' sins because he was a lifetime .248 hitter and knows how hard this game is -- but the one thing he said he wouldn't abide was players not hustling.

That got a good round of applause.

The rest of the session was pretty much the four of them trying to one-up each other, with pithy anecdotes like Pat Hughes' tale of the day in 1998, in Milwaukee, when Brant Brown made his famous game-losing drop, and him going to the clubhouse after the post-game show to the sight of then-Cub manager Jim Riggleman trying to console Ron Santo... he said he's never heard of a manager trying to comfort a broadcaster before.

I've said many times that I don't care for Ron Santo as a color analyst. But you know what, I love the man as a Cub fan -- he bleeds the Cubbie blue as much as any of us, and that's why he's there -- to represent all of us, how we feel about each and every game, and knowing, having seen "This Old Cub" (and if you haven't, you should), how much Santo has gone through in his life, and done so with unfailingly good cheer, I have a tremendous respect for him as a human being. What a fine, fine man, and all he wants for the rest of his life, is to see the Cubs win... and maybe make the Hall of Fame this year. The feeling I get from this convention is that the organization is absolutely determined to rectify the errors of 2004, and do that for Ron, and for all of us. The HoF, of course, is out of the club's control... but we'll know that on March 2.

Man, I see I've gone on way too long. The rest of the day, I ran into Jeff & Krista again, and we went shopping -- I bought, in addition to the Dempster ball, a Carlos Zambrano-signed ball for what Mike told me was the very good price of $44; a blue Cubs dugout jacket (I was going to buy the reversible, but they didn't have my size), and a couple more little things for the kids. Also saw Bill, our favorite security guard from our section, and glad to know he'll be back again.

It all gets you in the mood for baseball, that's for sure. The snow's finally ended tonight, and pitchers and catchers report in twenty-four days.

Can't wait. Can you?