The 2018 Cubs Convention is in the books! For many Cubs fans it was an opportunity to collect autographs, meet players, ask a question or two to coaches and Cubs staff, and hype up the fanbase and the players, to ready us all for another winning campaign. For me, it was an opportunity to do all of that, plus reconnect with many of the friends I’ve made over the last five years since moving back to Chicago and writing, singing and talking about the Cubs.
With no World Series to celebrate like last year or a big off season player signing to renew hope, and a $120 price tag for this year’s Cubs Con, nearly double what it was a few short years ago, The Sheraton Grand seemed a little less crowded than usual as I circled around the revolving door entrance into the lobby. Don’t get me wrong, there were still thousands of Cubs fans milling about the four floors of the hotel, it just wasn’t the sweaty shoulder to shoulder sardine feeling I’ve had in years past. In fact, there were a few friends who reconnected with me in the week leading up to the convention who were having trouble selling the extra passes they had purchased for even face value. A winter snow had also swept to the east making roads treacherously icy for some fans traveling from Ohio and Indiana who just couldn’t make the trip. That said, it was still generally packed and more than a few times, I had to wait in a line for the escalator after a panel let out.
But that’s pretty much what you do at Cubs Convention. Wait in lines. Especially for autographs. The Cubs have ramped up the number of autograph opportunities over the past couple of years, utilizing the parking garage as an autograph station in addition to the autograph area near the vendors downstairs from the lobby. Cubs fans roam the halls of the Sheraton with signed or soon to be signed bats and buckets full of balls awaiting a John Hancock. They also swarm the stage after every session or interview waving at players from outstretched hands holding sharpies and memorabilia. Autograph hounds even wait for players outside the location of their hotel just north of the Sheraton which I happened to witness in my Uber pool as we coincidentally dropped off a passenger at a bar directly across the street.
Personally, I do not collect autographs. I’ve done it in years past at Cubs Convention only to report on what I felt was many people’s main reason for attending. But I’m the type of person who would usually rather leave the restaurant than wait for a table and I don’t really have the space either. So the idea of winding through a long line, or standing out in the freezing cold, or swarming the stage after a session, simply doesn’t appeal to me. I do, however, understand what autographs mean to fans. In many respects, autographs stand as holy relics that remind you of a time, a player, an experience. Something to stand on a shelf shrine in your home to say “I was there then, and it made me feel something great.” A memento of a game, a favorite player, a moment. For others of course, autographs are a great way to make money, and I am certain you can buy a large portion of the items signed this weekend on eBay right now. Probably posted before the ink dried.
Allow me a soapbox moment to say, I wish there were more opportunities for “kids only” autographs if only to combat the vendors. It’s not only my distaste for the frenzy of it all, but I’ve heard firsthand that players don’t really appreciate seeing their autographs flipped for profit as opposed to funding a charity. Off soapbox.
What I was there for this year was to connect with people. As a guy on the scene for half a decade, I’ve made many Cubs fan friends and it’s not without it’s privileges. Two hours before the Opening Ceremonies, I texted famed fan Crawly, who is front row center at nearly every Cubs Convention event. For those who have not attended Cubs Con, this is no easy feat. Though season ticket holders receive priority seating, the fan stampede that occurs when the doors to the grand ballroom open is dangerous for both children and the elderly. Crawly said that there is some luck involved depending on how fast the Cubs staff opens the door you’ve been waiting in front of for hours. Knowing the precise layout of the ballroom, Crawly and his posse had been taking turns stationing themselves in front of the door that would give them access to the center aisle with a clear running path to the front row all day long. Still, to accomplish this on a yearly basis is impressive to say the least and I was the lucky beneficiary of his impassioned craftiness. He saved me a seat.
I entered the ballroom and texted Crawly, but everyone else was on their phones too so I resorted to an old fashioned phone call to get through. “Where you at?” I asked. Crawly replied, “You know how I roll.” How stupid of me. When he said I’m in the front and center. He was indeed front row center. We were still an hour and 15 minutes before go time, yet I still had to press through a crowd at least eight deep to even get to where the seats began. So, even though I wrote earlier that it wasn’t packed packed, it wasn’t unpacked either.
When attempting to get through a throng and securing a front row seat that’s been illegally saved for you I have a pro tip for you all. Wear a camera around your neck that looks relatively professional and take photographs. People will let you roam and press through because they figure you’re there working. And hey. I was.
I walked with purpose down the center aisle until finally reaching Crawly, his friends and a cooler full of beer with a view that can only be described as perfect.
Not only did I have the best seat thanks to Crawly, but I also had beer and a slice of a customized pizza he ordered to the ballroom as we awaited the start of the show.
And when I looked down at the cooler full of beer, I immediately recognized the artwork drawn on the lid, as I had seen my friend and artist Matt Kammerer drawing on a cooler in his wife Rachel’s Facebook post a few hours earlier.
I said, “Hey! That’s Matt Kammerer’s drawing! I had no idea that was your cooler Crawly!” Crawly replied, “Matt’s right over there!” and pointed behind me. And sure enough, only seven or eight seats down sat the Kammerers.
I met Matt after he reached out to me before the first John Baker Day in 2016 to donate artwork to raise money for Cubs Charities.
Rachel Kammerer is the original creator of the “Son Ranto Shanklist”, which is employed during nearly every Cubs game on our irreverent and hot takey Facebook group Son Ranto’s Ranters. It’s basically a list of people, players, and situations we’d like to imaginatively shank during a baseball game and sometimes our daily lives. Harsh I know, but that’s the kind of group it is and Rachel’s shared sense of humor.
So here I am, late to Cubs Convention, and now I’m standing in front of the ballroom and I know a large portion of the first row!
It sounds like I’m bragging I know, and I probably am. But the reason I even write why the gallery of pictures you’re about to see is from rockstar seating, is because of the friends that got me there and the friends I saw when I got there. This is about the Cubs family of which I am a part. And that is worth bragging about. From Matt donating his artwork to help raise money, to Rachel’s hysterically harsh sense of humor, to watching Crawly fall 23,434,844 times on the Rink at The Park at Wrigley last month, I have history with these people. If I was to collect autographs that reminded me of a place, time, and feeling, it would be the autographs of the people who have connected me to the fabric of Cubs fandom. To be a Cubs fan is to not only root for a baseball team but also to plug yourself into a community. These are my people, and the ones I know best are in the front row to celebrate the team we love and follow.
We all watched Kelly Crull and David Kaplan interview current Cubs stars in attendance. Baez, Bryant and Rizzo to name a few, until Tom Ricketts took the stage to welcome us all to a Cubs Con that promised more alumni players, more autograph opportunities, and more family/kids activities than ever before.
We cheered each player one by one as they were announced alphabetically in two groups. The alumni were announced first and the current players second, with iconic players like Billy Williams and Ryne Sandberg saved until the end in a show of the Cubs respect of team history. When John Baker came to the stage, one of the first players announced due to his name beginning with a B, Crawly gave me a nudge “let’s give him a standing O” he said, and we both immediately leapt to our feet to celebrate John and his contribution to our Cubs community.
John Baker has given his time, intelligence, wit and talent to John Baker Day, an event my podcast Son Ranto throws with the Ivy Envy podcast to raise money for charity. For those reading this that don’t know of John Baker’s 2014 heroics in a Cubs uniform, he was the Cubs backup catcher who pitched in the 16th inning of a game on July 29, 2014 and then scored the winning run in the bottom half of the inning. I wrote a song about it, we became friends and have thrown two “John Baker Days” raising over 8000 dollars for charity.
John’s autograph is one of the few I have actually collected over the years, but not for its value on eBay. It sits on a shelf above my desk as a reminder of the great things we can accomplish when we work together. There are too many names to mention if I think about all the faces and efforts I see behind his signature. We’ve thrown some great parties and raised some money for great causes. And it took all of us. Luckily for Cubs fans, John was hired as a Mental Skills Coordinator by the Cubs after he retired from playing. Who would have thought when that game began in late July 3½ years ago, that John with only 68 games in a Cubs uniform, would be solidified in Cubs lore as a pitching catcher during a losing season, only to be on the Cubs Convention stage in 2018 with a new job and a World Series ring? For all those reasons, Crawly and I stood and cheered.
The photos in the gallery of the Opening Ceremonies are self explanatory. Tom Ricketts Powerpoint Presentation, player introductions, hype videos, the end.
After the Opening Ceremony, I told Crawly I was going to walk around a bit and take some pics, and he warned that there was no way he was gonna be able to save my seat for Late Night with Ryan Dempster. I said that was fine with me, as it is a time honored tradition for those of us in the alternative media, your Bleacher Nations, your Cubs Insiders, your Ivy Envys, to drink at Lizzie McNeil’s Irish Pub down the stairs from the Sheraton during Dempster’s show. I’d venture to say Late Night with Dempster is the least covered segment of the convention because we’re all drinking and talking instead of watching and reporting.
I did however hear a couple of reviews of the show, Crawly and the Kammerers said much of it was pretty funny and Demp did a good job. Matt and Rachel also told me Sunday morning about a fight that broke out right in front of the stage when a drunk fan passed out up against a speaker. Rachel screamed at both of them to shut up and break it up. They don’t call her “The Shankmaster” for nothing.
Here are some images from around Cubs Con before I ended up at Lizzie’s for a few beers with the movers and shakers of Cubs fandom.
We had some snacks and beer at Lizzie’s but the night ended much later at my old apartment in Uptown where the Ivy Envy Crew was staying with a Cubs customized game of Guess Who created by the talented Beth Round, the wife of Ivy Envy podcaster Andrew Round.
We partied until the wee hours with friends we’ve all made from hosting our podcasts, and I drank too much pink champagne to feel good by the Ricketts Family Forum the next day at 10 a.m. Slept a few hours then...
I downed two cups of coffee, two cans of seltzer water and grabbed another seltzer for the Uber Pool down to the Sheraton, arriving at the Ricketts session only five minutes late despite my driver becoming lost on the streets underneath the hotel’s entrance.
The Ricketts have been owners for a while now and have definitely solidified their message to fans over the years. There are three basic themes the Cubs owners want to drive home to us about what they are doing. Win the World Series as much as possible, preserve Wrigley Field while being a good neighbor, and becoming the most charitable team in baseball, of which they are second only to the Red Sox according to what they said during their morning session.
Tom primarily fields questions about the ballpark and the fan experience. Laura primarily talks about the team’s charity work. And Todd tells an amusing story or two, including one sort of unsettling one about two brothers with World Series tickets, one of whom had a stroke. The punchline is that the other brother still went to the game with a friend. The joke was received with laughter and the news of the return of McDonald’s across the street on the bottom floor of Hotel Zachary received applause.
It also might have been the first time that many fans had heard that the dugouts were moving 28 feet towards the foul poles and that there would be more protective netting stretching to the far ends of the dugouts. Fans also learned of some new food options in Wrigleyville like Smoke Daddy and Big Star.
Unfortunately, the Ricketts were asked about Steve Bartman getting a ring too. I say unfortunately because the poor guy would probably rather never come up again in conversation than have gotten a ring and here he is brought up again. And here I am writing about it. Tom said it was Crane Kenney’s idea and he thought it a good one. Todd added it was probably the most valuable ring of them all and Bartman could sell it. But Tom corrected his brother that selling the ring would be illegal under the terms of their ring contract. I enjoyed the exchange as a genuine and unscripted moment from a family that has achieved one goal of winning the World Series and is working hard on the other two goals of Wrigley preservation and charity. The family is well rehearsed in talking about it all, but it’s nice to think of them as family too with the same family dynamics we all have.
Even though the hosts, 670 The Score’s Mully and Hanley had already shut down questioning, the session ended with Laura Ricketts eliciting a final question from a man who she addressed as Mr. Woo about bringing back Ladies Day. I didn’t catch Laura’s response on the video I took of the moment, but I did manage to capture what “woo” looks in sign language.
I slinked around a bit, ducking my head into sessions, snapping a few photos and just taking it all in.
Eventually running into these 4 fellas waiting for our private bloggers session with Cubs president Crane Kenney.
Pictured in the foreground are Brett Taylor and Michael Cerami from Bleacher Nation and in the back Corey Fineran of Ivy Envy and Jon Ferlise of Cubs Insider.
I’ve become friends with my fellow Cubs writers and podcasters over the years throughout numerous games and events. We’ve all worked together in some capacity too.
See, what partly separates the new media people from the old media is that the new media people weren’t necessarily on the trajectory to become sports bloggers. Following, writing, podcasting, reporting and in my case composing and singing about the Cubs began as a labor of love, and only through the response of our audience of Cubs fans have we come to be respected and invited by the Cubs to be part of the conversation between the team and the fans. We’re all thankful to be here and thankful for each other. As we waited for our session to begin, I thought about what each of these men had built collectively in advancing the narrative of talking about Cubs baseball and felt proud to be a part off it.
Our session with Crane Kenney was pretty informative. He rattled off a series of luxury club openings for this year and the next two years, Makers Mark Barrel Room, W Club, American Airlines Club, Catalina Club, but don’t ask me where each one is, or when each one is slated to open, because I stopped listening after I got lost in the thought of wondering how I was going to ever get into one of these clubs to see it without buying an expensive ticket with access.
I found it interesting that they basically have to dig the hole one year, and then build the club the next year, building with a shorter off season due to the Cubs success on the field. They’ve also completely upgraded the electrical distribution in the ballpark with gigantic electrical vaults. The old system was so antiquated and piecemeal that there was danger of losing power during the World Series with all the extra usage. That would have sucked.
Crane spoke of better cell service and better WiFi that will also roll out over the course of the year. I’m not sure how that works though. You either have service or you don’t.
The audio will be upgraded in the next phase, so it will unfortunately still be too loud in some areas and inaudible in other areas of the stands. And though some things will be improved in the visitors clubhouse, they are also included in the final phase, which I’d imagine could disgruntle a few opposing teams as their facilities will remain subpar.
Wrigley will have eight new concession stands and the food can now be made on the premises. Plus they are working hard to make concession lines faster. I have no details to report about how that is going to work, but the Cubs goal is to make sure you are in your seat watching the game instead of in a line waiting for a slice of pizza.
Ultimately, it was quite informative and probably a good dress rehearsal for Crane before sharing much of the same information an hour later with thousands of Cubs fans.
I asked a question about more night games during the hot Summer and day games during the cold Spring, and also about MLB.tv blackouts, both to which Kenney responded by saying basically “it’s not us, it’s them,” meaning MLB as a whole.
Crane was honest, frank and on message. We’re working on it. Pardon our dust. Things are getting better. It’s a refrain I’ve heard often since the reconstruction began. And in my estimation. They are. The Cubs are going to make a ton of money tightening revenue leaks, finding new ad revenues, and also from the owners of the team investing into Wrigley, and across the street with two massive complexes owned through the Ricketts’ Hickory Street Capital. I think most fans feel that as long as the product on the field matches the product around the field, we’re mostly happy to let them do whatever they want to do at this point. It’s their money and they’ve done a pretty darn good job spending it.
We’ve come a long way from fights with rooftop owners and blocked video board views, to The Park at Wrigley hosting a Christkindlmarket and a new hotel slated to open where a McDonald’s and a parking lot once stood.
After meeting with Crane, I searched unsuccessfully for former Cubs pitcher Glendon Rusch who was supposed to have some auctionable items for Ivy Envy and Son Ranto’s The Unconventional event to raise money for Club 400. Our session with Crane had run a few minutes long, and I had texted Glendon that I’d try to hit his autograph session before 1 p.m., but when I finally found where he was signing, the line was too long for me to snake through in time. I tried to catch him on the other side to no avail. It was too packed. So I decided to go see John Baker after that, but the same thing happened and the line was too long. So I decided a nap at home before The Unconventional might better serve me on this marathon day.
But WGN’s Dane Neal texted me while on my Uber Pool home asking me for a live report from Cubs Convention. I texted him back that I’d be happy to come on the show and tell him what I saw. Goodbye nap.
I chatted with Dane about Crawly ordering a pizza to Opening Ceremonies and how I was conducting an experiment and not wearing a lanyard to see if I’d be asked for one ,and let his listeners know in less detail what I’ve written in this article so far. Then hung up the phone to run my set of Cubs music as a warmup for The Unconventional.
My Cubs podcast partner Michael Cotton and his wife Emily helped me load bags of Cubs gear and Wrigley give-a-way items, I had collected over the years into an Uber down to G-Man Tavern in Wrigleyville who hosted The Unconventional for the second straight year. These events are perfect opportunities to purge my ever cluttering office shelves of Cubs memorabilia. I give most everything away. And since throwing John Baker Day and The Unconventional for two years, I’ve used these items as raffle prizes to raise money for charity.
This year, we decided to add another “Cubs Fans” to Club 400’s motto of “Cubs Fans Helping Cubs Fans.” Saturday night, we had “Cubs Fans Helping Cubs Fans Who Help Cubs Fans”. And help we did! Through auctions and donations, we raised $766 for Club 400, while throwing a party with friends that included a white elephant gift exchange, a set of live music performed by yours truly, plus a great party playlist put together by my friend Chase McClure and Ivy Envy’s Corey Fineran. You can see some of the fun you missed in this gallery. Unless of course you were there. We’ll do it again next year. You’re all invited.
Thanks to Dawn, Bill, Kari, Corey, Tawny, Nicole, Tori and Beth who supplied all these photos.
And thanks to Evan Altman of Cubs Insider too who donated the most unique item! Evan managed to score Cubs pitcher Dillon Maples autograph on a jar of dill pickles and a container of maple syrup during an interview he had conducted earlier in the day, only to raffle it off a few hours later at The Unconventional.
The party wound down at around midnight, and with a remembering Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse session to attend the next morning at 9 a.m., I said my goodbyes and took an Uber home with a lot less stuff than I came with. Even better, Stewart McVicar of Club 400 left with a lot more money than he came with. It’s exactly how I wanted it to go and I had a blast.
Woke up happy and Uber pooled down to the Sheraton, stopping on the way long enough to snap that pic I shared earlier in the article of the autograph seekers. I arrived to a ballroom five minutes early this time and found it a lot less crowded than the day before, with many Cubs Con attendees in the process of checking out or still in bed nursing a hangover. Judging by this photo I took when I arrived and the half full ballroom, I would guess that many were in the latter category.
The Cubs alumni players on the panel of this session hosted by Wayne Messmer surmised that no-show Cubs alumni Rick Sutcliffe was in the latter group of these categories too. Wayne Messmer joked that “Rick will be joining us later from under the table.”
I always get a little emotionally wistful at these early Sunday sessions. Sure, my emotions are raw partly because of sleep deprivation, but seeing some of my personal childhood heroes like Bob Dernier, Ryne Sandberg, Jody Davis and Andre Dawson joined by the previous generation’s heroes like Jose Cardenal, Larry Biittner and Pete LaCock, reminiscing about their experiences with two iconic broadcasters, Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray, is enough to tug at any Cubs fan of a certain age’s heart strings.
There were stories told of Harry’s name-twisting wordplay and beer breathed broadcasts. Jose Cardenal remembered a story about a gag he played on Jack Brickhouse by telling him Ivan DeJesus was pronounced De Jeezus with a hard J and long E. There were a lot of laughs. Just like there were a lot of laughs when Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse were still with us. As Wayne Messmer said during the panel, he believes them to still be here with us in spirit. I feel that too.
Harry and Jack and Ron and Ernie. They are all still with us and in us. They are us. They are us every time Matt Kammerer draws a Cubs logo on a cooler and every time his wife breaks up a fight. They are in John Baker giving his time to work with us to raise money for charity. They are in Crawly’s W pizza. Their spirit lives in Stewart McVicar and Club 400 and in Ivy Envy and Cubs Insider and Bleacher Nation and all of our supporters and the readers and writers of Bleed Cubbie Blue. Their spirit lives in all Cubs fans young and old.
I didn’t attend every panel. I didn’t buy anything except two beers. I didn’t get a single autograph. But I got everything I needed to get excited and ready to rock another season of Cubs baseball. I got to see all of you and I got to feel part of something great.
Ryne Sandberg summed up my feelings pretty perfectly at the Brickhouse/Caray panel when talking about Cubs Convention.
“It’s the start of baseball season. After Cubs Convention, I always felt like we’d win it all.”
Personally, I summed it up less poetically in this tweet.
A few more pics on my way out the door.