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The Unconventional Cubs Convention wrap

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BCB’s Danny Rockett does Cubs Convention... kind of...

I find it odd to be recapping a Cubs Convention I barely attended. I didn’t sit through a single entire session. I stood in no autograph lines. I bought nothing. However, I went and saw and heard enough, while I read the Twitter feeds of fans and bloggers. I sat in a private meeting with Crane Kenney, and took loads of pictures of the festivities. But this year, the only thing I was actually excited about was seeing the friends I’ve made over the past few years at Cubs Convention. I couldn’t have cared less about the panels, and might not have even attended if I didn’t get in free as a guest.

It’s partially personal fan fatigue, it’s been a wild rollercoaster ride for the past four-plus years, and we seem to be coming to the last stomach-churning hills on the track as the Cubs prepare to compete in the final years of their competitive window without adding a shiny new free agent toy.

My takeaways from Cubs brass this past weekend can be summed up this way. Years ago, at Cubs Conventions just like this one, they told you they were going to “save” Wrigley Field and “improve” the neighborhood. They did it. You’re welcome. They told you the Cubs were gonna win the World Series. They did it. You’re welcome. They have a good team that won 95 games last year. They’re keeping it. You’re welcome. They gave $3 million to charity. You’re welcome.

The moment Tom Ricketts entered to a blastingly distorted mp3 of Imagine Dragons’ “Believer,” I felt I was in a washing machine getting ready for the spin cycle to hit. To say the Cubs were “on message” would be an understatement. And part of that message is that the Ricketts Family forum was cancelled and the Cubs owners were not taking questions from fans this year. To be honest, I don’t blame them. They let anybody with a cardboard convention pass on the end of a lanyard ask a non-vetted question. Much easier having Ryan Dempster up there tossing softballs during a late-night comedy show. The Ricketts claimed that fans said the session was boring and they are boring people, and I don’t totally disagree.

But I doubt this year’s questions would have been boring. Though, some might have been actually insane, like the scripted ramblings of “Prepared Statement Guy” and the unscripted musings of “Crazy Hat Lady.” But other fans would have asked tougher and thoughtful questions and maybe asked Laura to talk about how she felt when the Cubs asked her about acquiring Daniel Murphy. Or asked questions about the Cubs’ retention and rehabilitation of Addison Russell. And of course, the $300 million question of “Why won’t you buy us Bryce Harper?”

You have to give the Ricketts family credit for not wanting Cubs Convention to be about the negativity surrounding the team right now and what they don’t have or aren’t adding. Cubs Con is supposed to be a celebration of our fandom and all we do have, not a free for all press conference when anyone with $125 can grill the owners of the team with incredibly personal and tough questions. Cubs Convention 2019 was produced to avoid talking about any dark clouds hanging over the team, even Tyler Chatwood stayed away after his disappointing season. No negativity. No booing, like when fans booed Edwin Jackson after his crappy Cubs debut year. And everyone speaking on panels was coached well to stay on the Cubs message of the convention. The Cubs are good. We won 95 games. Wrigley Field has more bathrooms. 95 games. The team is good. Bryant and Darvish are healed. Losing the division has motivated us. 95 games. We don’t need Bryce Harper. More food choices than ever. We won the World Series. 95 games. Keep it positive.

This Cubs convention was not to be confused with a town meeting where John and Joanne Q. Public can air their grievances. What it was, was a promotional commercial for why the Cubs are great right now and why we should be grateful to be a Cubs fan in this era instead of spiteful. They’re not wrong to want us to be happy and not wrong to produce their own convention for those fans that are comfortable with the direction of the team. They made a convention for fans young and old with 120 hours of autograph signings and access to current and former players, and new photo opportunities where you can stick your head through a scoreboard or take a picture with Sasquatch. Baseball is supposed to be fun. Remember?

Danny Rockett and Sasquatch

Attendance seemed lighter this year than in the past. The Cubs were still selling passes as late as the day of the convention. They had been sold out far before the convention in years past. And secondary ticket brokers had passes for well under face value with the original ticket buyer losing at least $50. Anecdotally, there were many passes for sale for “best offer” just outside the Sheraton. Plus, the price has nearly doubled from $65 in a few short years, excluding many people and families of four who can’t afford $500 for the whole clan to attend. Plus hotel. Plus food. Plus Cubs memorabilia. It adds up to big money.

The weather didn’t help attendance either with coincidentally-named Winter Storm Harper rattling us with frigid temperatures and inches of snow. Speaking of Harper, the biggest free agent signing being Daniel Descalso, though he’s a fine ball player and an upgrade to the team in my estimation, doesn’t necessarily get ‘em driving up from Omaha in a storm to plunk down hundreds of dollars. The bloom might still be on the rose when it comes to the baseball talents of the 2019 Cubs, but this weekend that bloomed rose was covered in snow.

Even with attendance down, the ballroom was still packed to the rafters with excited fans for the Opening Ceremony. So packed, that Cubs Con Connoisseur Crawly had no front row seat for me besides his booze filled cooler. Which after sitting on, was immediately told by an usher that it could not be used as a seat and I would have to leave my front row friend when Opening Ceremonies began.

You see, the ushers they hire for Cubs Con are the same ushers they hire at Wrigley Field, and if I had to guess where this usher guarding me from the front of the stage works at Wrigley, I’d say, at the toughest seats to sneak into, behind home plate where the ushers keep bozos from making fools out of themselves on television. And this usher was good at their job and wasn’t about to let me infiltrate the box seats last minute and sit on Crawly’s cooler.

I pleaded my case and held up my lanyard with a card that said “guest” and said “I write for Bleed Cubbie Blue. I’m here to take photographs for the Website. Where’s the press area?” But the usher retorted, “If you were real press, you wouldn’t be sitting on a cooler.” Though after thinking about that jab minutes later, I find that statement to be untrue. Photographers and the press sit on way more uncomfortable things than coolers to get the shot or story. But in the moment, I had no comeback and it’s never worth the fight.

When the event began the Usher said, “OK, you gotta go!” I took a few steps back and crouched out of view on the side of the aisle, stepping forward again when Wayne Messmer sang the National Anthem.

Wayne Messmer

After the anthem, the usher who was now watching me like a hawk, kicked me out again with a look like “The next time I see you up here, security is getting called.” I know that look, so I left. But where? I’m right in the middle of the aisle, I went towards the back of the room until I ran into the SRO crowd. I ended up here. Crouching.

I crouched so long my feet fell asleep, so I kneeled, and sat, but couldn’t get low enough to not obstruct the view of the children in the first standing row. I had to get closer, back to my guest seat at Crawly’s cooler. I inched forward, as Cubs star after Cubs star of yesteryear was announced.

This wasn’t my first Cubs Con, so I knew the order of things, and I also knew that when the current Cubs roster is being announced, the whole crowd will stand and cheer. The ensuing mayhem will be just the diversion I need to reclaim my Crawly cooler seat and get up close pics of the current roster.

I rushed down and snapped pics of players, but after awhile the usher would see me and give me the calling security look again and I’d retreat for a player or two and hide behind a large gentlemen I had been talking to earlier, who was sitting directly behind my vacant cooler and Crawly. Personally, I don’t care if I have any photos of opening ceremonies, but Al asked if I would take some pictures, so I tried to take the best photos under the circumstances. It was fun to get the pics anyway, I love a good challenge and it was great pre-season sneaking practice for #SeatUpgrades throughout the baseball season.

After the last photo in the above montage was taken, I was booted for the final time by the same usher. I got the shots I wanted, so I left the ballroom and immediately bumped into Club 400’s Stewart McVicar in the bathroom. He invited me up to his room at the Sheraton for a beer. So I went.

Stewart’s brother Eric and my friends Paul and Kaye, who I met at Cubs Convention a few years ago in line for a John Baker autograph, were were hanging out too, and we all watched the Ricketts on Late Night with Ryan Dempster on what I assumed was a closed circuit channel for those in the hotel. We mostly talked about the Cubs non-roster changes, the next event at Club 400 with Ben Zobrist on May 2 and how I liked the new guitar Club 400 and the Son Ranto Ranters recently gifted me during an event with Miguel Montero at the end of last year. Our conversation would pause briefly to watch snippets of Dempster’s show. I felt lucky to have met everyone one in that room. They’ve all brought so much support and joy to my life over the past few years, and I wouldn’t have known any of them if it wasn’t for the Cubs and Cubs Convention. I thanked Stewart for the beer and headed to Lizzie McNeil’s Irish Pub to pay a brief visit to my fellow Cubs bloggers and friends.

It’s a tradition of sorts to skip Late Night with Ryan Dempster and put down a few with the Cubs journalists you read every day. It’s the Bleacher Nation crowd, Cubs Insider, Athletic, Expanded Roster, Cubs beat writers and I suppose I represent BCB. It’s informal, we drink and eat pizza and talk. This fellowship of writers, podcasters and new media personalities owes a lot to Cubs Convention. It’s the reason have hung out with each other for years now. We’ve met at the convention, then at games at Wrigley and on the road, and at Club 400. I count many of them among my friends and I thank the Cubs for bringing us together for social media nights and including us in the Cubs conversation. The sense of Cubs blog community is strong and they’re all pretty darn nice people too.

I Irish Goodbye’d Lizzies and took a cab uptown for an Irish hello to Irishman Corey Fineran from the Cubs podcast Ivy Envy. His weekend Airbnb was located next to Wrigleyville Dogs on Clark. Recently, somebody pointed that out to me that the sign says Wrigleysville instead of Wrigleyville’s or just plain Wrigleyville. I hadn’t noticed, but it was probably written by the same Chicagoans that call our local grocery store “Jewels.” I digress, I ordered a gyro and fries and hung out with Corey and Andy and their wives Tawny and Beth for a beer. Corey and Andy and I have ying and yang, evil/good twin Cubs podcasts, but together we’ve now thrown three John Baker Days and three Unconventionals, raising thousands of dollars with our listeners. Plus, hung out at ballparks watching the Cubs across the midwest. Do you know where the idea of John Baker Day was hatched? That’s right. Cubs Convention.

So technically, I am at Cubs Convention, but in just a few hours of time I had been invited to a hotel party, bar party, and a house party. Well, I guess they aren’t really parties as much as just hangs, but I hadn’t had a beer in so many different destinations on a single night since my late 20s. I’m not a party hopper by nature, but when there are such good Cubs fan friends to see I want to see them all.

But I had a big day planned on Saturday and had to leave the Ivy Envy compound before I really wanted to go. We had a private session with Crane Kenney at 9:30 a.m. and The Unconventional Party planned at Gman Tavern on Friday night with Cubs fan friends and listeners of our podcasts. So I went home for some sleep. Cubs Con weekend is a marathon, not a race. Those that blow it out on Friday night are doomed for a Saturday morning of blackout curtains drawn and missed morning sessions.

I got to the Sheraton around 8:45 via Uber pool despite the continuing Harper snow. I didn’t sleep enough and was nervous about how the party was going to go that night. Would the snow keep people away? Would I remember all the words to the Cubs parody songs I wrote during the premier of The Bleacher Bum Band at The Unconventional? I slipped into the front seat of the pool and the driver was playing a live Grateful Dead show through the car stereo. We drove through the driving snow on Lake Shore Drive rocking through Mexicali Blues and into a long psychedelic jam. It was the perfect music for the moment, reminding me that it’s all just rock and roll that we’re all just making life up as we go along. Jamming.

9 a.m. was Joe Maddon and his Coaching Staff, 10 a.m. was Theo Epstein and baseball operations. Our bloggers forum with Crane Kenney was at 9:30 with a 9:20 meet up time. I could only catch the beginning of Joe and the coaches and the end of Theo. Which was kind of a shame because those were the only two sessions I would have been actually interested in.

I enjoyed the very first moment when the coaches had trouble figuring out their seating arrangement at the long panel table, Len Kasper quipped “act like you know each other,” to encourage the coaches to squeeze in a bit. Joe Maddon retorted, “We don’t know each other!” Which was funny, because they don’t.

I watched for a bit. 95 wins. Great season. Losing made us hungry, and snapped a few photos.

I realized it was time for our private Crane session and had to leave just as Tommy Hottovy said his hiring as the new Cubs pitching coach “is a vote of confidence for the current pitching infrastructure.” I walked out of the ballroom thinking “You mean the pitching infrastructure that hasn’t produced any meaningful major league pitchers?”.

I had seen most of the bloggers coming to the Crane Kenney meeting at Lizzies the night before, and they filled me in on what I had missed with my premature exit. These off the record stories included a piggy back ride that resulted in a well known writer showing me their bloody leg injury, the story of a heated exchange at a bar between a writer friend of mine and someone who didn’t like what the writer said about them in a famous magazine, and the last story that I didn’t catch much of, was of a Cubs pitcher with possibly liquor loosened lips spouting off in a hotel bar. The song Mexicali Blues from the Uber continued playing in my minds ear. “Is there anything a man don’t stand to lose. When the devil comes to take it all away.”

Everything you need to know about what Crane Kenney and Carl Rice said was already written about in this article by Sara Sanchez. So I’ll just give you my impressions of the meeting.

My first impression, we sat at this impressively large table which impressed me.

Unfortunately, my wine glass was not filled with a mimosa as it is on many Saturday mornings, but they did have coffee and cakes for us. It is not lost on most corporations that you can get better press simply by giving writers cake. In fact, it may be the only time some of us got paid this year for writing about the Cubs. And I’ll take cake over exposure any day.

There were only 10 of us in the meeting, so the giant table was also excessive and we sat spread out unlike the Joe Maddon and his new coaches upstairs on the 9 o’clock panel. In the meeting itself, there was little new news. I asked about the TV deal and in market streaming and their relationship to MLB’s hated blackout map. Crane definitively said blackouts are here to stay, but this time he also impressed upon us that we could already stream games on our phones. That is if you subscribe to one of the higher tier streaming products like Youtube.TV. I’ve subscribed to MLB.tv since it launched and of course it wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear. I don’t want to subscribe to a higher tier streaming package or cable, plus the subscription cost of the new Marquee Network to only watch Cubs games. It’s the only thing I watch! I want MLB.tv in market. All cord cutters do. A la carte is king! As local Cubs fans, we’ve been quite lucky to have nearly half the games broadcast over the antennae. That’s off now. So now we will all be paying Peter instead of Paul, and in Chicago, we’ll be paying for what we used to get free. It stinks.

I also asked since they are going all electronic ticketing, and changing the system, have you improved the way fans buy tickets? See, you can preview your game view and choose individual sections and seats on other MLB teams websites and ticket resellers like Stubhub and Seatgeek. You cannot do this on the Cubs site. They give you whatever seat they want to give you, and the only way to change your seat is to choose a different section and remove the seats they automatedly gave you from your cart. It is an opaque process and from my experience, doesn’t give you the best seats in that section, even when you’re buying early in a 14-game pack. Crane said he didn’t know the answer and to come up and ask later at the Business Operations panel in the afternoon. I said I would, even though I knew I wouldn’t. It’s a nitpicky concern anyway, and I’m fine buying on Stubhub instead of from the Cubs. Just thought I’d ask and bring up a concern that was brought up to me.

Even though the Sheraton provided us with pads of paper and pens at our impressively excessive table, I didn’t take down many notes. Mostly because I felt like everything Crane and Carl said, they said right to me, as in, actually looking right into my eyes. The eye contact was regular and palpable and I couldn’t look away to take notes. It wasn’t creepy or weird. Just direct and engaged. They were both impressive and on message. 95 games. Improvements. More bathrooms. Food choices. Cubs are good. 95 wins.

As a musician when I hear sounds that stick out to me, it means they either are really interesting or wrong. Two moments clanged during the Crane Kenney meeting. The first being Crane bringing up Alderman Tom Tunney and how he actively works against the Cubs after all they’ve done to make the neighborhood safer and better. There is no doubt that Wrigley Field and the surrounding area has been and is continuing to be transformed. There are many changes to the ballpark I enjoy, some I don’t mind, some I don’t like. And I get it, they’ve already done a ton to improve everything and spent a ton and they’re tired of having Tunney in opposition. In their minds, they’ve saved Wrigley Field and Wrigleyville from some wayward descent into a Mad Maxian lawless wasteland filled with street crime and falling upper deck concrete.

The other sound that dinged was when Crane said, in reference to the Cubs improving their on the field product with all this new TV and property money, “C’mon, when have you known us not to make a big acquisition in the middle of the year? Theo has financial flexibility to do things like bring in Aroldis Chapman”.

At which point I heard an audible disgusted sigh from a friend sitting behind me at our oversized table. Aroldis certainly is a good example of the financial flexibility that Crane is talking about, but probably not the best example given the Cubs current Addison elephant in the room. But at least Crane Kenney said the words “financial flexibility,” that gives the season a glimmer of future player savior hope even if it goes against their “players of character” spin from years past.

The meeting adjourned and I grabbed a little more cake to sugar up and catch the middle of Theo Epstein’s session. I entered just as Theo was remarking about adding free agents by saying “we are not as nimble and as flexible as we need to make that happen.” Which was pretty much the opposite of what Crane had just said. But Theo speaks in double speak so no one knows it’s a different message. “We are not as nimble and as flexible as we need to make that happen.” Joe Maddon simply says “Not Gonna Happen”. Crane says flexible. Theo says not flexible. We shall see.

Theo also spoke inspirationally to a girl who asked him about women in baseball, saying that there are no more ceilings for women in baseball, and mentioned all the women he has worked with in the present and past. He particularly remarked about a woman he worked with during his tenure with the Red Sox who Theo described as his mentor, even though he was technically her boss. I love the idea of no more ceilings, but to be the boss of your mentor, well... that seems ceilingy...

I left the session after a fan asked Theo about launch angle and Epstein said “In the future, all players could have their own personal swing coaches.” And I was like... yeah... that’s cool... I guess... but I’m out...

I Ubered home for a catnap and to run the lyrics for my Cubs songs and warm up my voice in a hot shower.

Anyone who has ever thrown a party or been in a band before knows that the party/gig starts long before the guests actually arrive. For this party/gig, I had to arrive at Gman Tavern at 4:30 to load in The Bleacher Bum Band gear, soundcheck, and set up the raffle prizes. We loaded in through the slushy snow and wolfed down a burrito after soundcheck and guests began arriving after six.

This is The Unconventional party, thrown by The Son Ranto Show, Ivy Envy, with Club 400, Cubs Insider and BCB. We throw it as a Cubs Fan alternative to Cubs Bingo, and to the convention itself. It’s a hangout for friends we’ve made over the years and also a fundraiser. In the past 3 years we’ve benefitted Cubs Charities, Club 400 and this year, we raised money for a non profit theatre company, Trap Door Theatre. We raised over $500 for the Trap with raffled bobbleheads, and a can of green beans signed by Carl Edwards Jr. We had a few laughs opening Cubs-related white elephant gifts too! My friend Jason chose my secret gift which included this year’s Wild Card Game giveaway bandana and some “borrowed” plates.

Jason and the pilfered plates
David Sameshima

And here’s an Unconventional First! There was an engagement! She said yes!

Paula and Kevin

The Bleacher Bum Band went on and performed an hour’s worth of new Cubs parodies and original Cubs songs and I only screwed up the lyrics a couple of times! We didn’t suck. It was loud, raucous and fun and I’m pretty sure we all had a great time for a good cause. I also learned that I’m too out of shape to rock like I did a decade ago. Current status is backache and sore throat. But hey, I figure that’s half of Chicago in the winter.

Here are some pics from The Unconventional, taken by David Sameshima and myself. You are all invited to come next year!

It was wonderful seeing so many familiar faces who braved the cold crappy weather for a rousingly musical party. And The Bleacher Bum Band will come out again and rock by Wrigley this season. Follow us, and we’ll let you know when we’re playing after Cubs games.

After loading out gear in the returning snowfall and wired from all the human activity, my night didn’t end up ending until around 4 a.m. When I woke up only a few hours later, I had just enough energy to shower, put on clothes and decide I would just follow the morning sessions at Cubs Convention through Evan Altman’s Twitter Feed.

Usually, I’ll show up on Sunday morning at Cubs Con and chat with Wayne Messmer and haggle down prices at the vendor stands downstairs, as fans can get deep discounts when the sellers don’t want to load the unsold merch back in their truck. But this year, there’s nothing I want. The deeply discounted 2016 WS Champion hoodies still on the racks, have been hauled from event to event for over two years now and look as picked through as the chicken at the Montrose Jewel on ‘Cheap Chicken Monday’ at 9 p.m.

So I skipped Sunday Cubs Con for the first time in many years, along with the rest of the hungover sleep deprived fans in blackout curtained rooms. I saw everyone I wanted to see and celebrated my Cubs fandom through song and fellowship.

Besides, Kris Bryant calling St. Louis boring, inciting a feud with John Brebbia and Yadier Molina, and basically the entire city of St. Louis, there were really no bombshells at this Cubs Con. No shiny new exciting players to cheer for. No Rizzo. No difficult questions answered, or even asked all that much. The message was controlled and not altogether unviable. The Cubs are good. We have good players. We won 95 games. We improved the ballpark. More food options. 95 games. Don’t need Harper. 95 games. Tunney bad. The Cubs have a great team. 95 games. We are hungry to win after how last year ended. We won the World Series and made the playoffs four years in a row. Kris Bryant and Yu Darvish are healthy now. Last year we won 95 games because we have a great team.

We’ve been spoiled so quickly as Cubs fans to always expect the big splash signing. It’s been half a decade since the team didn’t make an exciting move in the off season to couple with new young players to look forward to like Javier Baez and Kris Bryant. So the mood was somewhat tempered from it’s recent past. We’ve evolved from chanting “Thank You Tom” at opening ceremonies and asking Theo Epstein if he would run for president. We’ve also experienced a ton of change, as Wrigley and it’s neighborhood has been remade further with many new stores and restaurants coming online this year. Cubs fans have a Harley Davidson Store, a hipster Donut shop and a Shake Shack to look forward to in 2019.

The message to fans is clear. We told you what we were going to do. We did it. Be happy. Have a hipster donut.

And many fans are happy! So many kids were running around, autograph hounds were comparing their hauls. I know one guy that got Jon Lieber to sign 29 baseball cards! The old timers reminisce, the collectors haggle, the kids play and we learn a thing or two about the human beings that make up the team we root for at least 162 games a year. 95 of which they apparently won last year.

The Cubs have evolved and so has my Cubs fandom. The community of Cubs fans I run with is a stellar group of people. That’s what Cubs Con is to me these days. They are why I go. The people I get to reconnect with outside of baseball season, renewing our hope for another year of partying, rocking out and sharing our love of the Cubs online, at events, and at the ballpark. No matter what goes on with the Cubs this year, I have wonderful friends to experience it all with. I had a great time this Cubs Convention weekend. Just not necessarily at the Cubs Convention.

Here are some pics from around Cubs Con this weekend. 95 games.