McGRATH: If we’re being fair, it’s Cubs who look like No. 2
BY DAN McGRATH April 13, 2013 11:44PM
A baseball fans takes a cellular phone photo during a baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the Kansas City Royals Wednesday, April 3, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Updated: May 15, 2013 6:38AM
In a previous life, I oversaw baseball coverage for a newspaper that was the Cubs’ corporate partner. As hard as we tried to be balanced and fair toward both Chicago teams, White Sox fans were eternally suspicious and borderline hostile. No force on Earth, no measurement of column inches was going to convince them we played it down the middle.
We could point to higher attendance, TV ratings and national profile to justify a stronger Cubs presence, had there been one. Didn’t matter — the argument was unwinnable.
But the last few years haven’t been good to the Cubs. The ‘‘Lovable Losers’’ persona doesn’t play here anymore. As the Boston Red Sox are learning, it takes more than a charming ballpark to draw sellout crowds. With the Ricketts family enduring one PR jolt after another, their team’s dominance in the market is vulnerable. Maybe the White Sox can take advantage, now that they’re out of Washington.
The Cubs have been selling hope for more than a century, but faith is now a big part of the transaction. The future — Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Albert Almora — is two to three years away, minimum. Progress can be measured statistically, perhaps, but it’s occurring many miles from Wrigley Field, out of sight. You’ve got to trust Theo and Jed that it will get here while Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo are still spry enough to be part of it.
Meanwhile, please continue paying top-tier prices to witness the Luis Valbuena Era.
This scorched-earth approach is a radical departure for the Cubs. Previous regimes, from Dallas Green to Jim Hendry, pledged allegiance to player development and stressed that homegrown talent would define the franchise. A commitment to kids absolutely ensures some lean years (as if Cubs followers were accustomed to anything else), but Green, Larry Himes, Andy MacPhail, Hendry . . . all of them operated as if a fan base distinguished by its unmatched patience would not accept delayed gratification.
Thus did a succession of aging journeymen find their way to Wrigley Field: Henry Rodriguez, Jacque Jones, Neifi Perez, Jeromy Burnitz. The results speak for themselves, although the litany of injuries to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood and the emotional decline of Carlos Zambrano factored into the ultimate failure of a Hendry plan that produced three division titles in 10 years but just one postseason series victory.
Attendance surpassed 3 million in eight of those 10 years, too, so it’s hard to argue that Cub fans were turned off by the frequent patchwork.
Conversely, the angry boos that greeted each failure by Jones, Corey Patterson or LaTroy Hawkins suggests there are limits to a modern Cubs fan’s patience.
Emboldened by its Boston track record, the Epstein regime felt empowered to start over — how much worse can it get? If it’s worse than last year’s 100-loss debacle, they’ve got problems. Political wrangling over ballpark renovations is creating a discordant backdrop to the current season. With the greedy rooftop owners noisily demanding a seat at the table, the dispute becomes a matter of millionaires arguing with billionaires, and as we’ve learned from decades of labor strife in all the pro sports, nothing is more irritating to the typical fan.
Three years after they were hailed as saviors for rescuing the Cubs from three decades of Tribune Co. mismanagement, the Ricketts crew is looking no more competent. Yes, it’s too soon to judge them, but even manager Dale Sveum has observed that Cubs fans deserve more than they have been getting.
Whither the White Sox? The unseemly squabbling between a hot-wired manager and his smoldering general manager that helped derail 2011’s ‘‘all-in’’ effort is history, with Ken Williams following Ozzie Guillen in pursuit of other things. Replacements Rick Hahn and Robin Ventura project an air of quiet professionalism; the on-field product is clearly the organization’s top priority.
Other than a fielding-over-hitting decision to let A.J. Pierzynski walk, little was done to enhance the roster; hubris after a surprising run last season? I’m not sure Jeff Keppinger is an every-day third baseman, Gavin Floyd remains an enigma, and Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn are a year older. Dayan Viciedo and Alexei Ramirez have to compensate for any dropoff. Gordon Beckham? His latest setback aside, it’s time he justifies those Ryne Sandberg comparisons.
The Sox have cut prices on tickets and parking and improved the amenities at a ballpark that’s badly underrated after another round of sprucing up. Most years, they put the superior team on the field. In some ways the Sox are what the Cubs aspire to be. You wonder if Chicago will ever notice.