John McDonough could help wake up sleepy White Sox
BY DAN MCGRATH For Sun-Times Media July 8, 2013 10:04PM
Updated: August 10, 2013 6:34AM
Slow-pitch softball was pretty much it for John McDonough the ballplayer following his youth-league career in Chicago’s Edison Park neighborhood, so he wouldn’t offer much on-field help to the White Sox amid their dizzying free fall into last place in the American League Central.
He’s also 60 years old.
But the Sox surely could use McDonough’s marketing and promotional wizardry in their front office. The franchise is dead in the water.
Deafening silence was the response to this suggestion when it was put forth a year ago. It is offered again because the need is more acute.
It’s an odd time for the Sox to invite irrelevance. They should be making inroads into the hearts and minds of Chicago baseball followers, in particular the newcomers and the undecideds. Instead, they plod along ineffectually, with no discernible sense of direction.
The Cubs, we know, are starting over with a scorched-earth rebuilding plan. Its architects are unapologetic about their willingness to be bad for a while. They request patience and understanding, but they won’t change course if a long-suffering, put-upon fan base doesn’t offer any. They cite their track record elsewhere as proof of their know-how and their ability to deliver what they promise.
Ownership is another story. A stubbornly stalled debate over ballpark renovations calls the Ricketts family’s savvy into question, along with the future of the baseball shrine they are blessed to have as their home field. Amid the wrangling, threats to abandon Wrigley for a move to the suburbs come across as hollow posturing. There is no correlation between ticket prices and quality of product.
The time is right for the White Sox to shed their inferiority complex and take advantage of this Cubs vulnerability. Absent their ability to do so via conventional means — say, serious pennant contention — the Sox need what the Cubs are promising: a fresh start.
Who better to orchestrate it than McDonough? His status as the city’s No. 1 sports executive is unrivaled now that the Blackhawks have reprised their 2010 Stanley Cup success with a thoroughly revamped roster. They are on a four-year streak of sellouts at the United Center, where every game is a crowd-pleasing spectacle. Ticket demand has never been higher, and only the Bears surpass them as a TV attraction among their sporting brethren.
The Hawks, simply, are the city’s model franchise. They sit atop the hockey world six years after being rescued from its nether regions. They can’t get much bigger than McDonough has helped make them. He might be ready for his next challenge and give longtime right-hand man Jay Blunk an opportunity to maintain what they have built on the West Side.
He also might be perfectly content where he is, working for an owner who is committed to keeping the good times coming. I have no inside knowledge.
I do know that McDonough is both a baseball guy and a lifelong White Sox fan who might view the opportunity to revive a third franchise as an ideal capstone to a remarkable career. And it’s not like the White Sox don’t need help.
Sox attendance is like geometry — one of those subjects some of us will never understand. But it’s fact that they ranked 10th in the American League and 24th in baseball going into Monday’s Cubs makeup date with a per-game average of 22,261. They’re on pace to draw 1,781,000 fans, their lowest total since 2002. And it might be an optimistic projection given Sox fans’ penchant for coming to the park only when they deem the product worthy of their time and money. A last-place club? No thanks.
Eight years removed from a world championship and five from a playoff appearance, Sox fans aren’t so much angry as they are apathetic, which might be worse. Not since the late ’90s, when Terry Bevington’s grumpy dugout presence was an affront to baseball, has their ballpark been less lively.
McDonough maintains that a winning team is the greatest marketing tool ever invented. The Cubs managed nine winning seasons and made five playoff appearances in the 24 years he was charged with filling Wrigley’s seats, but they set records and outdrew higher-achieving Sox teams with monotonous regularity.
The Blackhawks squad he inherited was ready to win, with the Kane-Toews-Sharp-Keith nucleus in place, but McDonough’s fingerprints are all over the marketing, the broadcasts and the splashy game presentation that has turned the United Center into the city’s
No. 1 winter destination.
The sleepy Sox need a jolt of that energy throughout the organization, including the broadcast booths.