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McGRATH: Just give me a baseball team to root for

The Chicago Cubs run their assignments during team's first spring training baseball practice Friday Feb. 14 2014 MesAriz. (AP Photo/Matt

The Chicago Cubs run to their assignments during the team's first spring training baseball practice, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

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Updated: March 24, 2014 6:27AM



A story assessing the Cubs Convention last month described it as ‘‘42 hours devoid of hope, buzz or straight talk,’’ and that was before Masahiro Tanaka spurned the Cubs for the New York Yankees and the rooftop owners dug in their heels on the issue of signage, fomenting further delay in the execution of renovation plans at Wrigley Field.

The White Sox held their midwinter conclave one week later. At least one headline sensed optimism and good feeling in the air and ascribed it to general manager Rick Hahn’s aggressive offseason moves.

Spring training offers welcome separation from one of the most dispiriting seasons in Chicago baseball history. But before we get caught up in its euphoria, a recap is in order.

The Sox lost 99 games with a ponderous, clumsy team that finished last in its division on merit and was all but unwatchable unless Chris Sale was pitching. Hahn deemed the situation unacceptable and set about trying to rectify it with a roster he has made younger and more athletic.

The Cubs put a Triple-A lineup on the field many days en route to 96 losses, completing the worst two-year stretch in their futile history. In the face of another precipitous attendance decline, the Theo Epstein brain trust was unapologetic, insisting a scorched-earth rebuild was right on schedule in Year 3 as a half-dozen top prospects slugged their way through the farm system.

If I’m reading this right, Hahn is being hailed for stealing a page from Epstein’s playbook, just as skepticism sets in over the efficacy of that playbook.

Maybe it’s pique about paying premium prices for an inferior product. Maybe it’s frustration/fatigue about the intractable ballpark impasse. Maybe it’s a growing sense that all those blissful afternoons in the Wrigley Field bleachers didn’t really prepare Tom Ricketts for what he’s facing now, that — despite their good intentions — he and his siblings are in over their heads as team owners.

Maybe it’s Clark the Tone-Deaf Mascot.

Maybe it’s varying degrees of all of that, but there’s a feeling going around that Cubs fans want more this year. An engaging, competitive team would override some of the other problems, but that’s asking a lot, given that not one member of the prospect corps has spent a day above Class AA.

And the amateur draft, despite its preferred status as an instrument of team-building, remains an inexact science. Accounts of Derek Jeter’s retirement announcement offered another example: Of the five players chosen ahead of him in 1992, only two — Phil Nevin and Jeffrey Hammonds — enjoyed what could be described as journeyman major-league careers.

Ever hear of Chad Mottola? Who’s to say he wasn’t the Albert Almora of his day?

As the Cubs struggle, it’s tempting to say the Sox should seize the day and assert themselves as the No. 1 team in the marketplace (as though it were that easy, given where they are). But I don’t think it matters. In a metro area of 9.5 million people, there’s enough support for both teams, provided they’re worthy.

But it seems there’s a strain of belligerence in a Chicagoan’s DNA that makes one team’s losing a stronger imperative than the other team’s winning. Like, can the Sox succeed only if the Cubs fail?

You tell people you’re from Chicago, and one of the first things you’re asked is, ‘‘Cubs or Sox?’’ It’s not like that in other two-team regions. And don’t you dare say, ‘‘Both.’’

Having grown up in a mixed household, I never got that. My father had a lifelong South Sider’s affinity for the Sox, and he was mortified when my brother wandered off the reservation and became a Cubs fan. I applauded the move because it got me to games with both of them.

I gravitated toward the National League because the speed-and-power dynamic the Mays-Aaron-Robinson generation brought to the field was more appealing to me than the imperious Yankees’ American League dominance. The preference became permanent after the AL adopted the designated hitter and turned ballplayers into specialists.

But I’ve followed the Sox and never rooted against them a day in my life. In fact, the 2005 World Series was my favorite sports story among all those I’ve covered. It was great for the city, and it
meant so much to so many people I care about.

I’d like to see another Series before I’m done. I know, you Cubs fans have been waiting a whole lot longer, but I don’t really care who provides it.



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