I've been to quite a few Cubs Conventions -- probably 20 or so over the years since it began. Since I began spending the winter in Arizona last year, though, I decided not to come back to Chicago winter weather for Convention weekend. This year's Convention is the 30th such event.
That's why I was very pleased when CBS Chicago, the Cubs' new radio partner, worked with the team to set up live webcasts of Convention sessions Saturday morning and afternoon. Right here is an example of the added value that this CBS contract can provide the Cubs. And also note that even though the CBS contract is primarily for radio, they did video webcasting of the key sessions. The only thing I would have liked would have been a second webcast channel so that none of the sessions had to be interrupted. But they covered the key sessions, the ones I'm going to summarize here, and for that I give kudos to both the Cubs and CBS. In the business session, they mentioned that the Cubs' radio deal is the third-largest in the major leagues -- so that, obviously, is why they switched. That fact seemed lost on some who booed CBS Radio at the opening ceremony, people who don't seem to understand that the games will sound the same (since Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer are returning), they'll just be on a different channel.
As is typical of these conventions, no real news was made.
Well, that's not entirely true. The big news that everyone was waiting for was what would happen with the bleacher reconstruction project. The Cubs announced the bleachers won't open until May 11 and this front-page article has all the details of what they're doing for bleacher season-ticket holders for the 15 games involved.
During the Ricketts family session, Tom Ricketts did make a bit of news by announcing that the three rooftop buildings the family has just purchased from George Loukas will continue to be run as rooftop clubs. I suppose the words "for now" ought to end that sentence, because nothing is so constant as change.
Ricketts also was asked if the Cubs would get an All-Star Game soon. He mentioned that 1990 -- 25 years ago -- was the last time, and so it would be "the Cubs' turn soon," but I can't imagine seeing an ASG granted until after the renovations are complete and after the Cubs have a year or two to make sure everything's the way they want it. So we're probably talking 2021 or 2022 at this point -- especially because MLB has broken the NL/AL alternate-year pattern by awarding the 2016 game to the Padres (this year will be hosted by the Reds, and there's a rumor that the Nationals might get the 2017 game).
The rest of the Ricketts session was about what you'd expect -- a summary of the things the Cubs had done last year, a reminder of his promises when he first bought the team ("be a good neighbor, preserve Wrigley Field and win the World Series") and that they are close to fulfilling all of them. Unfortunately, many of the questioners didn't have very good questions for Tom and the other Ricketts siblings -- one guy stood up and read a prepared statement, for which he was booed.
Next up was a session with Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Randy Bush and Shiraz Rehman, the baseball management team. Theo got a loud ovation when he was introduced and the crowd was much more conciliatory than in previous years. I'm pretty sure you can understand why. Both Theo and Jed thanked Cubs fans for "their incredible patience," and spoke for quite some time about Joe Maddon and Jon Lester and what they can bring to a clubhouse. Theo particularly singled out Lester as someone who "can bring something to a team beyond his stats."
He brought laughter when he was asked what helped Lester get signed and replied, "$155 million didn't hurt." But he also explained that Lester could have gone "just about anywhere," but wanted to come to the Cubs. The familiarity that Theo and his team have with Lester undoubtedly helped. He mentioned the Lester connection in the David Ross signing and also praised Ross for his leadership abilities, though Lester himself said in the "Meet the New Cubs" session that Ross was not his "personal catcher."
When asked about the draft, Theo stated that "outstanding college hitters" give the most value at the top of the draft so that's what they've focused on. You can see that in the selections of Albert Almora, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber in the three years this front office has been making draft choices. Regarding a question about Bryant being on the Opening Day roster, Theo sidestepped it by saying that "he'll be called up when he is ready," just as Javier Baez and Jorge Soler were.
Really, the Theo session seemed like much more of a lovefest than in previous years and at the end, Jed Hoyer told fans to "hold us accountable." Not quite sure how a roomful of fans could do that, but it does seem as if this team is on the cusp of doing something special.
A lot of that "special" is due to manager Joe Maddon, who had another virtuoso performance in front of a packed room, very similar to how he worked the media crowd at his introductory press conference. He saw a fan with a "shot and a beer" T-shirt and asked where he could get one. Then he repeated his mantra: "Never permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure." One thing about Maddon is that he's a thoughtful guy who clearly thinks about every situation he's in and how it can relate to baseball and the team he's managing. He retold the story, first mentioned at the news conference, about how when he was making a pitching change while with the Rays at Wrigley last summer, he told himself to "slow the moment down" and just took in the scene around him. (Incidentally, that had to have been in this game since that's the only one of that three-game series when Maddon made any mid-inning pitching changes.
He says he hasn't thought about lineups yet. I think that's a good thing. Too much is often made of lineup construction and Maddon said he wanted to get to know his players better and see them perform in person before he constructs any lineups. No one asked him, oddly enough, about the talk that he's considering batting his pitcher eighth, something he did in all three games at Wrigley last year and in two other interleague games -- interestingly, at St. Louis, a place where Tony La Russa did that with some frequency.
Maddon was asked if he'd ride his bike to the ballpark and he said yes, although perhaps not for day games ("I'm not an early-morning person") and said he'd ride by the "water," calling Lake Michigan an "ocean." I suppose he'll learn soon enough. He also mentioned the "generational component" of being a Cubs fan, handed down from your parents and grandparents, and urged everyone to give "positive support and energy."
That's a far cry from previous experiences managers like Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella, both of whom came to Chicago with credentials and World Series appearances, but within a couple of years wound up with the deer-in-the-headlights look. I doubt that'll happen to Maddon.
He and Chris Bosio talked about the bullpen; Bosio said they might go more with "matchups" in the late innings, and Maddon added that having starting pitchers go deep into games helps you make a good bullpen. Those things seem obvious, but maybe the Cubs need a manager like Maddon to put that into practice.
Of the new players in that session, I was most impressed with Jason Motte. Articulate and funny, he understands very well the Cubs/Cardinals dynamic and though he didn't use Ryan Theriot's "right side of the rivalry" line, you could clearly tell he was excited to be on our side. He also said he's 100 percent healthy and ready to go. Jon Lester's only really funny line was when he said he "didn't get the memo" about wearing a jersey -- all the other players had their Cubs jersey on, Lester was wearing a sport coat. Lester seems very businesslike, understanding his role on the team and is primed to get going.
Much of what was important to me as a bleacher season-ticket holder was covered in the other article. Much of the rest of the business session was a summary of what the Cubs have done to get where they are. It was also noted that the Cubs now have the largest number of season-ticket holders in team history and they think possibly in major-league history.
The two other things of major import that were discussed at the business session were the video board and the TV contracts. First things first: there won't be any Kiss Cams, as promised. Obviously, there will be advertising, and it will appear primarily as sponsored vignettes of Cubs history (or other baseball-related topics) between innings. The sample video shown was of Kerry Wood's 20-K game. The board appears to have been very tastefully designed with a green background mimicking the hand-operated scoreboard in center field, done deliberately to keep the same look. I like what they've done with this and, as with the lights added in 1988, after a year or two everyone will wonder why there's all the fuss.
One questioner, from downstate Illinois, asked Crane Kenney the specific question I raised in this article last Thursday. That is, how will people in the midwest blackout areas be able to watch the 70 over-the-air games that will be on WGN-Ch. 9 (45 games) and WLS-Ch. 7 (25 games). Kenney said the team is trying to negotiate deals with the ABC and CW network affiliates in the blackout-area markets, but then also noted that the team is trying to work with MLB to get the blackouts lifted for those 70 games in those areas.
Which is exactly what I wrote two days ago:
So what if MLB lifted the blackouts for over-the-air games only? That would still protect most cable games, but still allow people in the blackout areas to view games via MLB.TV or Extra Innings. MLB would likely sign up quite a few new customers in these areas.
It seems to me that Rob Manfred, who has elevated MLB Advanced Media's Bob Bowman to a much more important position (president of business and media for MLB), is much more forward-looking in media matters than Bud Selig. Obviously, there are no guarantees, but I think the possibility of lifting blackouts for those of you in those blackout areas might actually become reality before Opening Day.
So it was a busy Convention with some significant news. Having not been at the Sheraton myself, I didn't have to fight the crowds like BCB's Danny Rockett did. He'll have his own summary of his experience at the Convention later today or tomorrow.