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February 9, 2012
Inside The Park
A New Message: The Divergent Directions of the Cubs and White Sox
You don’t really meet a serious baseball fan, native to Chicago, who roots for both the White Sox and the Cubs.
This is the only two-team town in which I’ve resided, so I don’t know if there is a similar divergence in New York, Los Angeles, or the Bay Area. I have a Chicago friend who is a transplanted New Yorker—he loves the Mets but absolutely despises the Yankees and everything Derek Jeter stands for. (Winning?) My own mother lives in central Missouri and roots for both the Cardinals and Royals, which might not be quite the same thing but shows a certain generosity of spirit. Undoubtedly there are many in Chicago who root for both teams, who grew up in some neutral suburb or West side neighborhood and just like their baseball however they can get it. Those people, assuming they exist, are a decidedly silent minority.
Apparently, it’s always been that way. The great Chicago writer Nelson Algren used to hang out at the Old Town Ale House, a Northside dive just around the corner from the famed Second City club. Algren is one of my favorite authors, and sometimes I like to sit at the small table underneath a watercolor of his likeness at the Old Town. Supposedly, he liked to sit in that spot and write longhand in the afternoons. I’m not above hoping for a little metaphysical boost, so sometimes I sit there and read one of his books.
I particularly like the third essay in Algren’s brilliant Chicago: City on the Make, called “The Silver-Colored Yesterday.” In it, he describes the halcyon days of his early childhood, when his family lived on the far Southside. He and a friend snuck into Comiskey Park one day:
To come out blinking at last into the roaring stands, with the striped sun on them. And Eddie Cicotte shutting out Carl Mays.
The program from that day became one of his prized possessions. Later that season, his family relocated to N. Troy Street in Albany Park—the Northside:
And Troy Street led, like all Northside streets—and alleys too—directly to the alien bleachers of Wrigley Field.
The young Algren then encounters a small gang of street kids who demand to know his favorite ballplayer before allowing him to pass.
“Swede Risberg,” Algren says.
After some consultation, the leader of the small gang says, “It got to be a National Leaguer.”
After being frozen out of the local sandlot games, Algren gives in and picks Brooklyn Robins shortstop Ivan Olson as his guy. (He couldn’t take the favorite of another boy without fighting him for the right.) After he became more established, Algren reverted to old ways and once again claimed Risberg, offering up his program as a kind of proof of loyalty. Not long after, news of the Black Sox scandal swept the city, leaving Algren with plenty of explaining to do.
Algren lived most of the rest of his life on the Northside, but he always remained a White Sox fan.
The Cubs-White Sox dichotomy is a seesaw, and once again things may be leaning the Cubs’ way. It’s halftime in Chicago baseball, as Clint Eastwood might say. When I arrived here in September, 2009, the city was fresh off its best collective stretch on the diamonds since the early part of the 20th century, when the Sox and Cubs were powers in their respective leagues. When I landed, the White Sox still had the wind of the 2005 World Series title in their sails, but you could sense the sinking feeling around the Cubs, who had once again built up hopes in 2008 only to disappoint in the postseason. It’s been downhill ever since. By the end of the 2011 season, both teams were dead in the water.
Last season was brutal. The Cubs started off with a series of foul-weather games during an interminable April, and despite playing in the wide-open NL Central, they managed to play themselves out of the race by June. Expectations were higher for the White Sox, and the AL Central seemed plenty winnable as well. The Sox hovered just below .500 and on the fringe of the race for most of the season. Everyone seemed to be waiting for Adam Dunn and Alex Rios to start hitting, but it never happened. Then the Tigers got hot and stomped the division with a finishing kick that included six straight wins over Chicago.
With the twin failures came change. Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts exerted his authority on the baseball side of his family’s new team, for the first time really, and fired longtime general manager Jim Hendry. After a season of whispers, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen stepped down in late September, one foot already aboard his longed-for new boat in Miami. When the dust cleared, the White Sox had won 79 games and finished 16 back; the Cubs won 71 times, 25 off Milwaukee’s pace.
The two months after the season featured a flurry of activity. Ricketts pulled off his dream hire by luring Theo Epstein from Boston to become the Cubs’ President of Baseball Operations. White Sox general manager Kenny Williams followed that bombshell with a considerably less-glitzy maneuver. He hired Robin Ventura to replace Guillen as field manager despite the fact that Ventura has never managed—anywhere. Every few days, there was a new presser or a conference call announcing a move. Epstein remade the Cubs’ organization in the front office and began the process of gutting one of the game’s most bloated and underachieving big-league rosters. Williams made news as well by trading closer Sergio Santos and right fielder Carlos Quentin. Veterans Mark Buehrle and Juan Pierre left as free agents. The result was as close to a youth movement as Williams is likely to get.
So where does all this upheaval leave each team in the eyes of its respective fan base? I don’t listen to sports radio, so sometimes it’s hard to get a feel for such intangible matters. In hopes of satisfying my curiosity, I attended each team’s fan convention in January, the annual events known affectionately as CubbieCon and SoxFest. To paraphrase Algren, it didn’t take me long to learn which way the wind was blowing.
One thing about fan conventions is that they are generally attended by people who embrace their team with unqualified affection. You don’t shell out hundreds of dollars and schlep your way to downtown Chicago in the dead of winter out of ambivalence. These people love their guys, past and present, and no matter what is happening, most of them believe that a World Series title lies at the end of next year’s rainbow. So I wasn’t expecting to run into a whole lot of dissenters.
Each team begins its big weekend with a Friday night kickoff rally during which the convention participants are introduced. Ricketts did the honors for the Cubs, and when Epstein was introduced, you’d have thought that Harry Carey himself had descended from heaven. The roar was deafening and sustained. Epstein then upstaged himself a short while later by announcing that the Cubs had re-signed ultra-popular pitcher Kerry Wood, who emerged from the side in his familiar No. 34 jersey. More Beatles-type mania ensued. It set the note for an entire weekend of unbridled optimism.
A couple of weeks later, Kenny Williams was introduced to Sox fans. He was booed, right there in an hotel old ballroom. There was some polite applause as well, but the booing was unmistakable. “Goes with the territory,” Williams said afterward, which is true, but it’s something he hadn’t had to deal with for a long time. He was also booed, more uniformly, the previous week at a Bulls game, when he was shown on the scoreboard sitting courtside.
The Cubs are coming off consecutive fifth-place finishes, and for all the front office maneuvering, they haven’t really added any on-field talent that would appeal to a casual fan. (There were plenty of Prince Fielder questions through the weekend.) The White Sox haven’t been adding either, but at least they were close to break-even last year and are less than a decade removed from a world championship. The White Sox will likely project to be better than the Cubs in 2012 when the early forecasts come out, which ought to count for something.
So what was going on?
It’s on Saturday that the most popular events are held at CubbieCon. This year, the day started with a Theo Epstein chat in the enormous Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Chicago. The gilded space was crammed with blue-and-whiteclad fans. Counting the dozens of people standing around the back of the room, I estimated there were 1,400 people on hand. (By contrast, the main seminar space at SoxFest had a listed capacity of 500.) On stage, they laid out a little living room, with two cozy chairs—one for Epstein, and one for Len Kasper, the Cubs broadcaster who emceed.
The first Saturday morning event is really the marquee session of the entire weekend. Last year, the Ricketts family held its forum in that slot, and there was more than a metaphorical meaning in the switch. With the direction of the Cubs uncertain a year ago, Ricketts was very much the man in the spotlight. By hiring Epstein, he shifted that paradigm. Epstein is, for the time being, the most famous baseball personality in Chicago, the new face of the Cubs and caretaker of the hopes of a loyal fan base. Ricketts is no doubt happy to recede into the shadows.
After Kasper offered up a little bit of Theo biography, the fans were allowed to ask questions. This is always interesting, because fans will blurt out pointed questions that most reporters would never dare ask, at least not in front of others. Last year, a fan more or less exploded the good vibes of Ricketts’ forum by asking incredulously why Hendry had not yet been fired. There were no firebombs lobbed Theo’s way, as you’d expect, but someone was curious about why the Cubs had traded reliever Sean Marshall, whom Epstein had praised upon arriving in Chicago as “maybe the best left-handed reliever in baseball.” The Cubs sent him to Cincinnati for young starter Travis Wood and a couple of prospects.
Epstein said, “Sean was entering the last year of his contract, and there wouldn’t have been compensation if he left after next year. This way we get five years of Wood plus six years of two prospects instead of one year for Marshall.”
It was Epstein working the big crowd with the aplomb of Barack Obama at his best, using simple math to create an unassailable argument. He then punctuated his statement by saying, “And we would still be able to re-sign Sean after the season.”
The well-crafted (and well-rehearsed) answers continued for a full hour. When asked about the stats versus scouts debate, Epstein said, “I don’t believe in old school versus new school. I prefer thorough and inclusive.”
He then added his famous lens analogy, which I’ve now heard three times since he arrived in Chicago: “You look at scouting information as one lens and stats as another. It’s only when you look through both lenses that the picture becomes clear.”
There was fair bit of pandering, which is hard to avoid when speaking to such a partisan crowd. When asked about Wrigley Field renovations, he spoke of “honoring the tradition of the ballpark.” When asked about new manager Dale Sveum, he said, “I guarantee you that every player is going to run as hard as they can, 90 feet, to first base.” Eruptions of cheers ensued.
The most poignant part of the session came near the end, when a fan asked about the September collapse in Boston and the subsequent reports of players drinking beer in the clubhouse during games. A lot of night life surrounds Wrigley Field, and it’s an old theory that all the day games at the venerable park work against the Cubs because their players are out carousing in the Wrigleyville bars the night before. It would have been easy for Epstein to give a bland, politically-correct response. Instead, he made it clear that there was no issue that the new regime was going to leave unconsidered.
“That been a factor in ruining some careers,” Epstein said. “Young players especially are more susceptible, especially with all the day games. We plan to be proactive about setting a high standard.”
He then went on to tick off some of the aspects of that plan—life trainers, seminars for the top prospects—all meant to teach young players how to say no. When he was done, Cubs fans were definitely saying yes.
Epstein left the stage without speaking to reporters, went to the airport, and spent the rest of the weekend in Boston.
There wasn’t anything comparable to the Theo Hour at SoxFest. Most of Williams’ comments came during a media social on Friday, when he was informally quizzed by a small rotating group of sound-byte seekers. In between questions about his son Kyle’s problems in the NFC Championship game, some actual baseball issues managed to come out. Williams praised his club but, frankly, what he was selling was kind of hard to buy.
“Some of the people that everyone was really excited about last year are still here,” Williams said. “We’ve got a good starting staff, a good bullpen. We’ve got a couple of question marks offensively, but if those are answered, we can be a really good team.”
One of those questions marks is obviously Dunn.
“I have expectations that Adam Dunn is going to be who he was for an eight-to-10 year period,” Williams said. “I do not expect the same Adam Dunn to show up.”
That would help, and Williams added that he hadn’t talked to Dunn all winter. His last advice to him was to get away from baseball completely. As for his offseason plan, that’s when Williams’ message grew murky.
“We’ve added some youth to the equation,” Williams said. “As far as our veterans, they believe in the people next to them. They’ve seen what they can do. So it’s just a matter of getting out on the field and proving it. When you have unknown players on your side, you can’t expect people to be excited.
“It won’t be a domino-type of rebuilding. It’ll be replacing a veteran player here and there with a young player, someone we can afford. I explored all the avenues as far as veteran players. I explored turning it all over and getting young and exciting. It didn’t manifest, so it’s what you see now. We did a little bit of that to protect our future, but we did some things to protect our present. Hopefully it’s enough to remain competitive.”
How’s that sound as the basis for a marketing campaign?
Even though Theo had left the building, his message continued to resonate in the other sessions at CubbieCon. There were several instances when others offered almost exactly the same quotes that I’ve heard Epstein use.
General manger Jed Hoyer, an impressive guy in his own right, talked about how Cubs fans have embraced the team’s plan. When asked about potential free agent signings, Hoyer said, “The great thing about a market like this is that we’re going to be in on everybody.” Epstein said that almost word-for-word during his introductory press conference. Hoyer was asked about the effects of the new collective bargaining agreement on the team’s plan to build from the draft. He said that it’s now a “scouting contest.” Epstein said the same thing that morning; new VP of scouting and player development Jason McLeod repeated the mantra that afternoon.
Apparently, memes are part of what Hoyer called the new “Cubs way.”
There will be plenty of bumps in the road. Epstein and Hoyer still are faced with blending the personalities of their recent hires with those holdovers from Hendry’s tenure, such as assistant general manager Randy Bush. Hoyer called Bush “our secret weapon,” and Bush said that he’s amazed at how much the new guys have accomplished so quickly, so he’s clearly on board. On the scouting and development side, it’ll be more of a process.
Ricketts signed amateur scouting director Tim Wilken and AP of player personnel Oneri Fleita to contract extensions before Epstein was hired, which was a bit of an odd move in that you’d expect Epstein, or whoever got the job, to bring in his own people. Wilken and Fleita are both highly respected members of the baseball scouting community; Wilken borders on the legendary in some circles. Nevertheless, they both are firmly rooted in what most of us would call the “old school.”
Now both work under McLeod, whose ties with Epstein and Hoyer go back to Boston. New professional scouting director Joe Bohringer went to MIT. McLeod and Bohringer would both qualify as “new school,” though they’d surely say they are merely thorough and inclusive.
I sensed some discomfort during the afternoon forum on scouting and development at which all four men were present. Fleita said at one point, “Scouts are the lifeblood of the game.” Which may be true, but when stated like that it sounds like something the cartoonish scouts from the “Moneyball” movie might say. McLeod said of the stats versus scouts issue, “Everything we do is based on information.” Bohringer noted that the Travis Wood acquisition was based on information from 21 different people. For his part, the wry Wilken prefaced his comments by saying, “The most important thing right now is that we all get on the same page.”
When you consider the consistency of Epstein’s message from top to bottom, you have little doubt that Wilken’s wish is going to come to fruition very soon. There is going to be a Cubs Way.
The White Sox held a development forum of their own, which included assistant general manager Rick Hahn, along with development personnel Buddy Bell, Nick Capra, and Doug Laumann. Their chore was to get fans excited about a system that is widely considered to be the worst in baseball. ESPN’s Keith Law had the White Sox 30th in his rankings, adding that they weren’t particularly close to 29th. Kevin Goldstein hasn’t released his organizational rankings just yet, but he said he also would certainly slot the Sox last.
The questions from fans were similar to the ones I’d heard at CubbieCon. Hahn was asked about the influence of Moneyball and said that he likes the misperception that the White Sox don’t use statistics. “Ninety percent of teams are using the same info. We’ve done well in things like pitcher health and the bullpen.”
But last is last, and after a string of questions about specific White Sox minor leaguers, a fan finally asked about the prospect rankings.
“We don’t put too much stock in those rankings,” Hahn said. “The proof (of our methods) is on the major-league roster and in the trades we make.”
What it comes down to is that Cubs fans feel like they know where their club is headed, and they are pretty excited about it. White Sox fans aren’t so sure, and with Guillen gone, Dunn and Rios still around, and the minor-league system in shambles, there is a growing sense of dread on the Southside.
One of the last sessions at SoxFest was the hitting seminar. It was led by Hawk Harrelson and two players. As for the latter, someone thought it would be a good idea to include Dunn. In a hitting seminar. This is where the rosy-eyed conventioneers came out of the woodwork. You have to give Dunn plenty of points for bravery, but in reality, he wasn’t exposing himself to any ire. A half-dozen fans stepped up the microphone to express their support for the slugger, who said of his season, “I don’t even know who that guy was.”
Dunn was asked about the possibilities for this year’s team, and he said, “The way I look at it, we get me and Alex (Rios) back, as if we were free agents.” Dunn certainly could regress to career norms, but it’s no guarantee—no healthy player with such a long track record has really dropped off to that extent, at that age. He may simply be finished. But he’s right—he and Rios bouncing back are about the best hopes White Sox fans have for a good season. Worse, with the system depleted, it’s hard to look beyond that and be excited about the future.
The feeling is the polar opposite on the Northside, where it’s almost like the present team doesn’t matter. Theo is in town! Flags will fly! Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts said that Epstein’s regime is “a breath of fresh air. (Now) it’s more a question of when, not if.”
That’s the way the winds are blowing. Were he around today, little Nelson Algren would be facing an awfully hard time from the neighborhood kids in the years ahead.