Today's 3-1 Cubs loss to the Astros, the first time the Cubs have been swept this year (and outscored 22-11 by an offensively-challenged team), reminded me of the 1976 Cubs, a similarly bland team that played in front of disinterested crowds. The '76 Cubs drew 1,026,217 (an average of 13,328 per date, as there were 77 dates due to four doubleheaders) and this year they'll surely draw more, although the number of no-shows is likely to go way up if this sort of play continues.
Like this year's team, the '76 Cubs dabbled around .500 for a while early, but never saw it again after they were 4-3 on April 17. They somehow managed to post a 32-28 record after August 1; the team's mark of 43-59 on July 31 presaged a 94-loss season, but they managed to make it respectable at 75-87.
Mike Quade is starting to remind me of Jim Marshall, one of the least memorable managers in Cubs history. Marshall managed two 87-loss teams and then managed only once more, in Oakland. Quade coached in Oakland, coached for the Cubs (as did Marshall) and is now playing the role of Marshall quite well.
With that in mind, here are several of the principal players from the 1976 team and their 2011 counterparts.
Pete LaCock = Tyler Colvin
Mick Kelleher = Darwin Barney
Joe Wallis = Tony Campana
Champ Summers = Blake DeWitt
Rick Reuschel = Ryan Dempster
Mike Krukow = Matt Garza
Steve Swisher = Koyie Hill
Darold Knowles = Jeff Samardzija
Steve Stone = John Grabow
Bill Bonham = James Russell
Steve Renko = Doug Davis
Bill Madlock = Carlos Pena
Andre Thornton = Aramis Ramirez
Ray Burris = Carlos Zambrano
Oscar Zamora = Scott Maine
Ramon Hernandez = Rodrigo Lopez
Joe Coleman = Casey Coleman
And, of course
Bruce Sutter = Carlos Marmol
What more can I really say? Kosuke Fukudome led off the bottom of the first inning with a home run. I was surprised to learn that this was the third leadoff HR of his career -- I couldn't remember any, quite frankly. After that the Cubs offense took the rest of the afternoon off, having just three more hits and seven more baserunners, and it took an error and a hit batter to even get to that many.
Doug Davis deserved better. He left the game in the seventh inning having allowed only one run. After Kerry Wood loaded the bases with a walk, Wood struck out pinch hitter Angel Sanchez for the second out of the inning, after which Sean Marshall gave up a two-run single to Michael Bourn.
You pretty much knew that was it. The Astros offense is impotent, but the Cubs looked absolutely pathetic against Houston pitching most of this series. Despite getting a runner to second base in the ninth inning, there was really no chance against Houston closer Mark Melancon.
Fortunately, the injury to Aramis Ramirez -- man, injuries every single day? -- doesn't appear to be serious. He got hit in the face by a ball hit by Houston's Chris Johnson and suffered a split lip. He'll have stitches, but should be OK to play on Friday in St. Louis.
At this point, I think Cubs management should go to the MLB offices and decline having a player on the All-Star team. There really isn't anyone who's put up anything close to an All-Star performance. Darwin Barney was hitting early on, but his average is down to .303 and other than his good defense, there's not much to recommend him. Carlos Marmol -- maybe, but that meltdown Wednesday night probably takes him off the list. Sean Marshall -- I guess, if you're willing to put a setup man on the team. Marshall is about the only Cub who has had consistently good performance all season. If Carlos Zambrano has another 3-4 good outings in June, he might qualify; he deserved better last night.
Back to 1976 for a moment. That year, the largest home crowd was 44,818 on Opening Day against the Mets -- if that seems large to you, before the fire department came into the park in 1979 and told the Cubs they couldn't just keep selling standing room tickets and seating people in the aisles, they would occasionally announce crowds that large. Not a single other date that year drew more than 28,287 -- and that was also in April, against the Phillies. 31 dates drew fewer than 10,000 and 10 fewer than 5,000, bottoming out with a "crowd" of 2,005 on the season's final Friday, Oct. 1, against the awful Expos (who lost 107 games that year).
Times are different and this year's team will draw better than that. But of the 31,340 who paid today, there were about 10,000 no-shows and, from what I understand, little or no walk-up sale, despite the outstanding late-spring weather. Season attendance to date -- 31 dates -- is 1,079,368, more than the entire season in 1976. But back then only turnstile count was announced and the Cubs likely had only a couple thousand season tickets. The average this year of 34,818 is down 9.5% from the same number of dates a year ago. A year ago after 31 home dates, the smallest crowd was 33,868 on May 27. Already this season there have been 11 crowds smaller than that.
That's a cautionary tale, and no $3 beers, T-shirts or $1 hot dogs are going to bring crowds back. Only winning baseball will. And right now, that seems about as far away as 1976.