Cubs, Astros have lots in common, but revenue isn’t one of them
BY GORDON WITTENMYER firstname.lastname@example.org September 12, 2012 11:40PM
Alfonso Soriano hits his 29th home run of the season in the fifth inning Wednesday. | Bob Levy~Getty Images
Updated: October 15, 2012 9:43AM
HOUSTON — The rosters of both teams in this series are filled with so many unknown commodities and unfamiliar names that one press box wag suggested a new scoreboard game for the fans:
Put the name of a player on the board and see which fan correctly identifies his team first. Winner gets a free ticket to another Astros-Cubs game. Loser gets two.
It’s no wonder that Cubs pitcher Travis Wood didn’t give up a hit to the Houston Astros Wednesday until the fifth inning, that veteran Alfonso Soriano’s 29th home run was the only extra-base hit of the game through five or that the night before these teams played what might have been the ugliest 1-0 decision in recent major league history.
The real wonder is that these two teams have found themselves in the same position, the same ground-up rebuilding mode, the same mirror-image, low-budget process as the other despite occupying opposite ends of baseball’s revenue spectrum.
And the biggest wonder might be how the Cubs plan to get away with it, given the resources, the third-highest ticket prices in baseball ($46.30 average) and a record for time left on hold that hit 104 years when the Cubs were mathematically eliminated over the weekend.
‘‘Their job’s a little harder than ours, but it’s still the same job,’’ said Jim Crane, the Astros’ first-year owner, who acknowledged the Cubs are no worse than a top-10 revenue-producing team in a sport that typically sees only small- and medium-revenue clubs intentionally sacrifice whole seasons for rebuilding purposes.
If Cubs ownership and first-year team president Theo Epstein didn’t already know how hard the marketing part of that proposition was, they’ll get a glimpse when the numbers at the end of the season show a final attendance mark under 3 million for the first time in nine years.
‘‘They’ve got some smart guys they’ve brought in over there,’’ Crane said of Epstein and his top front office imports. ‘‘They made the changes they needed to make in my opinion, with the baseball operations.’’
Crane’s not just talking as someone with interest as a rival owner. His group made a bid for the Cubs before the Ricketts family prevailed in 2009. He saw the books, had his experts analyze the baseball operation, including the quality of the farm system, and saw the problems.
He liked the Cubs, based a lot on the size of the market and built-in revenue advantages. He liked the Texas Rangers next, based a lot on the fact that the farm system was rated very strong even before it started showing with those World Series appearances the last two years.
‘‘We could see that coming,’’ said Crane, who wound up instead with the rare team that had a low-ranked farm system and last-place big-league roster.
‘‘So we really had to move to fix that,’’ he said of the contract-dumping his new front office has done this year. ‘‘And I think [the Cubs] are doing the same thing, from what I’ve seen. They’re really trying to bring in young talent through the minor-league system. Once they’ve got that nucleus of players like we will, then you can go out and spend some money filling holes and picking up a position here and there.
‘‘But if you’re just going to go out and sign free agents, you could go broke doing that.’’
Not, of course, if you’re a big-market team drawing 3 million a year and anticipating one of those new huge TV deals when your current local rights deals start expiring in 2014 — especially when amateur-acquisition spending was severely capped by MLB this year.
That’s the debate as the Cubs close out what might only be the first of two, three or more years of a painful rebuilding process.
It’s tempting to wonder how things might have been different under different management, or different ownership.
‘‘We’d have probably done a similar thing,’’ Crane said.