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RICK MORRISSEY: Time for Cubs to get with deprogram

Theo EpsteWrigley Field after  announcement thhe is new president baseball operations.   |  Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

Theo Epstein at Wrigley Field after the announcement that he is the new president of baseball operations. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:40AM

Before Tom Ricketts introduced Theo Epstein as the Cubs’ King of Baseball last week, he reaffirmed the franchise’s priorities: winning a championship, preserving Wrigley Field and being a good neighbor in Wrigleyville.

He went on to say that the Cubs had the best fans and the best ballpark in baseball. All of it, of course, was a buildup to the chairman’s declaration that the club now had the best evaluator of talent in the big leagues and that the pursuit of the elusive species known as the ‘‘World Series’’ was full-on.

But before Ricketts got there, I wanted to stand up and tell him to knock it off with the schmaltzy peripheral stuff, the stuff about the ballpark and the fans, the stuff that has nothing to do with the business of winning.

No one cares about that anymore. Check that. Only those hopelessly lost in a sea of sentimentality care. I always want to ask those people: What are you sentimental about? The magic of the ’69 Cubs? Or the century-plus of losing?

It’s time to stop pandering to them. It’s time to begin deprogramming them now, if it’s possible to pry the souvenir Harry Caray glasses off their faces. It’s time for ownership to have the courage to let the ballpark and the game-day experience speak for itself and to stop shoving it down people’s throats at every turn. To be fair, the Rickettses aren’t the first to do it. The Zell people did it. The Tribune people did it.

Nobody in a position of power wants to put the golden goose in the corner, marketing-wise, for fear it will stop producing.

But if the last two seasons have taught us anything, it’s that fans are getting fed up with the futility. After 103 years, better late than never. Attendance in 2011 was down about 3,500 people a game from 2008. Lots of people have stopped going to Wrigley because of the bad baseball, not because of the narrow concourses inside the old park or the struggling economy outside of it.

Scene change

This is the perfect opportunity to break from the past. It’s the perfect time for a cultural revolution, for the Cubs and their fans to go through a re-education program. Enough with the fascination with the statues outside the ballpark and the retired numbers fluttering from the foul poles. Enough with the advertising campaigns that celebrate sitting in the sun at Wrigley with your son or your beer or both.

This is about winning now. Nothing else. That’s what the Epstein hire says. The past is history.

Fans still will come to the games. They still will enjoy the ballpark. The franchise won’t lose those people for developing a single-mindedness about winning that borders on obsession. That single-mindedness will have just the opposite effect.

Wrigley is like the last living actress from the silent-film era, full of rouge and faded memories. The world has moved on to talkies, if not 3-D films. Everybody else seems to have won a World Series, while the Cubs sell tradition. It’s time to catch up.

Let Cubs team president Crane Kenney slap as many advertisements as he wants inside Wrigley. If it makes more money that the family can throw into player development and player salaries, great. If it keeps Kenney away from the baseball side, perfect.

Ramirez, Ryno, Big Z: Forget it

The team has bigger issues than its stadium or its attendance.

Does free agent Aramis Ramirez fit into Epstein’s model for sustained success? No, he does not. If Ryne Sandberg becomes the Cubs’ manager, will that be a step backward into the Dark Ages of sentimentality? Yes, it will be. Should the Cubs consider bringing back Carlos Zambrano? Only as a bouncer.

Epstein, as if taking his cue from Ricketts at last week’s news conference, talked about the power of tradition and history.

‘‘Baseball is better with fans who care,’’ he said. ‘‘Baseball is better in ballparks like this.’’

Nobody with an ounce of passion can disagree with that. But baseball is best with a pile of players celebrating a World Series victory near the mound.

I called Wrigley ‘‘a dump’’ several years ago, and some fans were angrier about that than anything the Cubs had put on the field over the last few decades. It’s time to get priorities straight, folks.

The ballpark matters, but not as much as the baseball being played inside. It’s about the winning experience now, not the Wrigley experience. This is where
Epstein comes in. He’s supposed to be brighter than a day game. Imagine that.

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