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Forward To The Future

Since the dust is now settling over the departure of Dusty, and although we'd like to see a replacement named soon, it probably will take a week or two, and so today, I have some other things I'd like to say.

This post is going to be long. Really long. Really, REALLY long. And although I'd like for you to read all of it, I'll answer the question you're all wondering about first, the one I promised to address at the end of the season. Yes, I'm keeping my season tickets. Frankly, I don't think any of you would have thought I'd do anything differently, and I never have given this a second thought.

Read carefully to learn why this is so, and why there is room for differing opinions on how fans follow baseball, and why. I implore you to read this entire post -- and yes, it's pretty darn long, so pull up a comfy chair -- before you make a comment.

Stop what you're doing right now and take a REAL deep breath. No, don't just pretend. Pause for a second and DO IT. 2006 is over. This season has been horrific, not just for the play on the field, but because it has gotten many of us, who should be of one mind, one heart, rooting for our team, at each other's throats. Right now, let's lay down our swords and work together for the common goal we all want -- a Cubs World Championship. More on this later.

The reason I go to as many games as do is, of course, because I love the Cubs and the game -- and, further, because I am lucky in living where I do and have the time to do it. I (and I say I, but I know a great number of people who agree with this, most notably the friends with whom I share most of my time in the bleachers, and who you have come to know through this blog) believe in the history, the saga, the mythology, every bit of it.

To me, this is the basic difference, the thing that sets professional sports apart from all other businesses. I can't change brands, change stores. To give up the Cubs in the manner that those who think giving up season tickets is a statement of sorts, would be giving up a good deal of what I've made myself.

I don't deny the realities of this or what it means, for I have chosen this path for myself.

Anyway, the ownership of pro sports franchises -- not just the Cubs, but ANY professional sports team -- get all this for NOTHING. You can't buy mystique, you can't leverage loyalties handed down as though by genetics. My God, they have got it made.

The other great reality, the one that is seldom spoken in so many words, is that the investment of loyalty and identity in a team is a ONE-WAY INVESTMENT. It would be nice if management tossed a couple of bones in our direction now and then, but it's NOT YOUR CANDY STORE. This is the case not only for a corporate-owned team like the Cubs, but for rich-guy owned teams such as the Orioles, too. Sure, a Steinbrenner would be great as owner of the Cubs; he spends money like the proverbial drunken sailor and has a bushelful of postseason appearances and championships to show for it (and also has the allure of New York to help attract players to his team) -- but the Cubs, if sold, could just as well get as an owner Peter Angelos, a meddling fool who has ruined a once-proud franchise. Be careful, as the saying goes, what you wish for.

What I'm trying to say here is this -- you become a fan, at whatever level of intensity, entirely at your OWN RISK. You can expect, even demand, a winner, but the basic relationship allows for only one source of practical import. Even the sainted Bill Veecks of this world (well, there was only one), never took real fan input when it came to running their teams. Veeck said, in so many words, on many occasions, that his loyalty was to his partners. He was in it to make them (and himself) money, in the end. And, he always did. Lots of it. He died a very wealthy man. As much as he may have raised hackles among the majority of ownership, his investors were always satisfied in their results.

I was recently given an analogy here at BCB that read, for the most part, as follows: that I am like a man who eats at the same restaurant every day, has a terrible meal, but then upon leaving, says to the chef, "See you tomorrow for lunch", the implication being that I am willing to accept constant terrible meals just to be in the restaurant. What I'm supposed to be doing is to stop going to the restaurant and instead, bitch and moan about the meals from the outside.

That's silly on its face -- not every meal is a bad one, of course, and to further the analogy, if this were the case, then ONLY those who REFUSED to go to the restaurant AT ALL should have the right to criticize the food. That's more than silly; it's ridiculous, and my position is that I think I have a better chance of being listened to, if I flatter myself that I will be, by being there every day and being a paying customer. And "paying customer" is the operative phrase -- at one point, someone here made the ludicrous claim that I would be "given" free season tickets by the Tribune Co. Who wouldn't love free season tickets? But I pay for mine, full price, just as I have done every year for the fifteen seasons since bleacher season tickets were first created in 1992.

I have been accused of being an apologist for the Tribune Company, first, because I have taken a very small amount of their money ($180 all told, not even IRS-reportable, since I am an independent contractor, not an employee) to write short pieces for the Cubs' in-house magazine, for which ALL of the material was culled from Bleed Cubbie Blue posts, and second, because I have defended Dusty Baker beyond the point at which he, in hindsight, could reasonably have been defended.

One of the reasons I have done this is because I refuse to stoop to criticizing for the sake of criticism, or being snarky or belittling of others, or being among those who speak derisively about sports talk radio and then use in their own writings the worst elements of it.

There is no doubt that the Cub organization has fallen to a new low. This is absolutely the worst season I have ever seen, and I've seen more of it than many of you, including the 103-loss season of 1966 (at least that team had three future Hall of Famers on it -- and should have four, with Ron Santo), the 96-loss mess of 1974 after they promised us they were "backing up the truck", the 98-loss debacle of 1980 with the feckless Preston Gomez as manager, and what would surely have been a club-record-loss year in 1981 had the strike not wiped out a third of the season.

But I love baseball, and although change is absolutely needed, I also love enjoying baseball at the ballpark. For this, I have been tarred with what my detractors probably believe is an epithet, "Cubs game fan".

I wear that as a badge of honor. For what are we except fans of a game? Baseball is not just statistics to be moved around on spreadsheets, not just millions of dollars to be allocated. They are human endeavors, and meant to be enjoyed. I was pilloried a year ago because, in a game that the Cubs fell behind 7-0 in the second inning, I dared to think that maybe I could have seen baseball history, by having a no-hitter thrown by the opposing pitcher in a game the Cubs were going to lose anyway.

I was pleased to learn in this post on the Pirates blog Bucs Dugout, made a week before the season ended, that I'm not the only one who feels this way. Charlie, the proprietor thereof, is a displaced Pirates fan living in San Diego, and went to see his favorite team play in Petco Park, and nearly saw Chris Young -- even more ironically, a guy the Pirates originally drafted and let go several years ago for Matt Herges, who defines "generic middle reliever" -- throw a no-hitter against his team.

Was he happy that Joe Randa got the only hit and broke up the no-hitter? Hell no:

I was still held out hope that a no-no might happen, especially because Young breezed through the eighth, striking out Jason Bay and Ronny Paulino on the way.

In the ninth, though, Young's control started to slip, and he finally started to pile up pitches. After getting Ryan Doumit to line out, he walked Jose Bautista. Then Joe Randa walked to the plate and - I didn't look this up, but I don't see how I could possibly be wrong about what I'm about to say - hit the longest home run Joe Randa has ever hit, well over 400 feet.

@#$(*ing Joe Randa. Is there anything more annoying than my night being ruined by Joe @#$(*ing Randa? The Pirates couldn't even make it up to me by, you know, winning - after Young struck out Chris Duffy and walked Jack Wilson, the Padres brought in Cla Meredith, who made Freddy Sanchez look silly on a strikeout to end the game.

Girl in front of me: You suck, Pirates!

Me: Don't rub it in.

Precisely. There's more at Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?:

Joe Randa hitting into a double play to end it would've been an amazing cap on everything. Now, this becomes a game that no one will remember, just another faceless late night loss on the West Coast in a season with so many losses. We couldn't even muster enough of a comeback to get Hoffman into the game for his record tying save, a fitting way for Lee Smith to lose his spot as the Save King, at the hand of the team that was the bane of his career. Keep in mind that I was not rooting for the Pirates to lose. Losing became inevitable when Gorzelanny wasn't sharp and Tracy trotted out Littlefield's comical B-squad of relievers. If Gorzo had pitched a great game and Randa's homer had come in a 1-0 game, I'd be ecstatic. But this game had a chance to be a microcosm for the last 14 years, now it's nothing.

(emphasis added by me)

Bingo again. No one who's a Cubs fan, least of all me, WANTS the Cubs to lose -- ANY day. But sure, if it is inevitable, why not see some baseball history?

This is what the naysayers, those who refuse to go to the ballpark, thinking that holding their money out of Tribco pockets will make one iota of difference, don't understand. There is beauty in the game we love, 130 years of history, potential records to be set each day. As WHYG,AVS said, there are hundreds of faceless losses (and wins, too) each year. Especially in a season such as this one, I'd love to see some history created, to feel a part of it.

Those of you who have actually come to the bleachers and met me know that I really am no apologist for Tribune Co. While they are not as successful as many franchises/ownerships have been over the last twenty-six seasons, as I have pointed out elsewhere, winning postseason series is almost a crapshoot. The Cubs have four berths in the twenty-six seasons of Tribune ownership. That's not great, but not putrid; not incompetent, not neccesarily half-assed. Consider, for example, the Brewers, who have ZERO appearances in that stretch, or the Tigers, who have just made the playoffs for the first time in nineteen years, and who now have three postseason appearances in the last thirty-eight years.

You might say that the Cubs have enough revenue from all sources to do better than that, and you'd be right. Further, in this day and age, any team in the market size the Cubs enjoy will always be able, with competent marketing, to make through the turnstiles what they need. Given that reality, the idea that being an intense fan reinforces mediocrity, is just plain self-serving.

But after you make the postseason, the team on the field wins you championships. Those are athletic contests played on a short leash, and at that point there is nothing the front office can do about postseason failures, as we learned in 2003.

In fact, as I have written before, it is simply not possible to "build a team to win the World Series", because the way the playoffs are set up, once you get there, it's a crapshoot.

In the eleven seasons since the wild-card format has been in use (1995-2005), how many times has the team with the best record in the regular season won the World Series? Twice -- last year's White Sox, and the 1998 Yankees. In the four times the Yankees won between 1996 and 2000, their "dynasty" phase, they had the best record ONCE -- that 1998 club.

The 2000 Yankees, in fact, won the World Series with the NINTH-best record in baseball. The 2001 champions, the Diamondbacks, won TWENTY-FOUR fewer games than the Mariners, who had the best record but were eliminated in the first round. Three straight champions -- the 2002 Angels, 2003 Marlins and 2004 Red Sox -- entered the postseason as wild cards, not even winning their divisions.

Build a team that consistently gets to the postseason -- absolutely. But you cannot say "build a team that wins the World Series every year", because that simply cannot be done under the current system. If you don't believe me, how about Baseball Prospectus? In their book "Baseball Between The Numbers", they looked at every playoff team from 1972-2005 and wrote: "There is literally no relationship between regular-season offense and postseason success."

There are a few final things I want to say about why I won't ever give up my season tickets. I keep them because I enjoy watching the game live, hearing the sounds and smelling the smells, talking with other fans around me, feeling the feeling of being part of the game, seeing history made from 0-0 to (one hopes) 95-67, or (more usually, lately, 67-95). I have made many lifelong friendships in the bleachers, and for me, that is just as much a part of the game as the play on the field. This year, of course, the Cubs have performed badly, and tested all of our patience, and unfortunately, has at times gotten us at each other's throats, and with the season now being over, I thought I'd offer an general olive branch to everyone; that record is reset to 0-0 now, isn't it?

I hold hope that the next time I go, and the times after that, and the season after that, they will play better, and thus I hope all of you will accept this olive branch, and let us all focus on the goal, which is that one day, our team will reward the loyalty I have described within this post, with a World Championship, just as Red Sox and White Sox fans were rewarded in the last couple of years.

That, of course, will need sea changes in the players and management of the Cubs. Unfortunately, management is something we all have to live with, and I defy anyone to show me a baseball team without problems. Even if we could custom select one from ownership down (and all of you have shared many, many thoughts about who you think should run this team, from ownership on down!), we would make mistakes and people would criticize our choices. No matter what you think you know about what Jim Hendry "will" do this offseason, we cannot know what goes on behind closed doors with management, and although we would like instant gratification each time a player blunders, or a wrong choice is made, all we can do is wait and see what happens, and hope that changes are afoot behind those closed doors.

Whether you believe it or not, management DOES want success even more than I do -- for it is their job to do so, and Jim Hendry, after a season like the one just ended, will absolutely feel the pressure to succeed, or his livelihood could end. However, as you well know, it takes time to make changes. The 2003 near-success and ultimate failure, I think, made us less patient, and rightfully so. There has already been change at the top, with Andy MacPhail's resignation, and the non-renewal of Dusty Baker's contract. Should Hendry also be replaced? Maybe. But again, it's their candy store and since Hendry was just contract-extended (and you know as well as I do the Cubs won't eat his contract), HE is going to have to be the one to fix this mess.

We can "hate" management if that makes us feel better, we can "hate" their choices, and of course all of us are armchair managers thinking we could do better, but the last time I checked, I do not have a magic wand any more than they do. We have to live with what we buy. I buy tickets to see baseball and regardless of whether it is good or bad, I want to see it, experience it. I don't buy tickets for wins only, I buy for an entire season, and I go out there continuing to hope for change, or cheer for the changes already made, and nine innings later, I always assess what's gone on during that one game's time. But baseball isn't just "nine innings". It is a season -- remember, I've often said, baseball is a marathon, not a sprint, and so, yes, complain, but don't throw the season away because of nine innings. Victory can be just around the corner. Some here have said they have lost hope -- but think about some of the Red Sox fans and White Sox fans, some of whom literally waited patiently six or seven decades for the ultimate victory, and never lost hope. Take some more deep breaths and let out the stink of 2006, and replace it with the hope that maybe, JUST maybe, management will sit down and decide to do this right, and that 2007 can bring us the miracle we so richly deserve.

If that could be more easily accomplished by the Tribune Company selling the Cubs, by all means, go ahead and do it. But breathlessly following each blip of TRB's stock movement, or each Tribco board meeting's results, isn't going to make this happen. They'll sell if and only if they're damn good and ready to, and not before. As I've said, it's their candy store. Yes, we pay for it, and sometimes I do think that "they" (and by "they" here, I mean both the billionaire owners AND the millionaire players) forget that's what puts them in their gated communities.

One day this team will reach the promised land of a World Championship. And when it does, I won't care, and I bet you won't either, who wears the suits in the executive suite. And when it does, I intend to be there, in the left field bleachers, cheering my lungs out and perhaps shedding a tear of joy or three.

Sometimes I wish I could write more lyrically than I do, and to close I'd like to share this post I found on a blog called "The Latest Obsession"; the post linked to my post last February about Sammy Sosa's silent goodbye to baseball, but then morphed into this sentiment, which reflects well why any of us loves baseball, and also why I love attending games in person:

This is what I love about sports, and what I never seem to be able to explain to non-fans. They ARE the human condition, simplified, with jerseys and logos and referees to blame and a finite end to each game. But all the emotions and struggle with self and others is there, just waiting for observers to use it in an onion of metaphor for anything they need. When I take a person new to baseball to their first game, I get tongue-tied about where to start: the history of the club, what this season means to them, how it's going? their relationship with the particular opponent, what kind of month they are having and why? Where the game fits in the pennant race, where the teams fit in the league? Each player, where he is in his career, how he's doing this year or this month and what it means for his future? The (often surprisingly many) ways in which the game/team/moment intersects with the wider world? There are more stories than I can wrap my head around, much less explain, and that's before the purely techne-cal joy I get out of the game itself: understanding how it's played and judged, participating by scoring it and predicting it as it happens.

Onward. To the ultimate victory we have been waiting for, from before most of our lifetimes, and that we so richly deserve.