Amid empty seats, Cubs build for next year

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Amid empty seats, Cubs build for next year

Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010
Updated 7:18 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Wrigley Fields smallest crowd in almost four years came out on Monday night to honor Andre Dawson. The Hall of Famer admired throughout the bleachers for playing the game the right way walked through the right-field gate on knees that had gone through 12 surgeries.

That box-office draw was sapped by the Pittsburgh Pirates, the worst team in baseball, and the frustration building through a Cubs season that hasnt lived up to expectations. School will be back in session and people are focused on the Bears and their fantasy football drafts.

While the White Sox have added Manny Ramirez for the stretch run, the Cubs have been importing players from Triple-A Iowa. A fraction of the 29,538 fans accounted for Monday night got there early enough to see Dawson. It has not gone unnoticed.

Obviously, you want every seat full every game, chairman Tom Ricketts said. The attendance has been very, very strong in the grandstands, but certain day games and the last couple night games the bleachers were softer.

We got to put a winning product on the field to make sure all the seats are full every year.

Amid the empty seats, the Cubs hung on to beat the Pirates 5-3 on Wednesday afternoon to win a series, their second under new manager Mike Quade and first this season against Pittsburgh (44-89). They used six pitchers and 11 position players in front of 33,555 fans.

Tom Gorzelanny dropped to his knees after a line drive hit his left hand in the third inning. X-rays taken at Northwestern Memorial Hospital were inconclusive, though a displaced fracture has been ruled out. He will undergo a CT scan on Thursday on the top of his left pinky.

In relief Thomas Diamond gave up two runs in 1 23 innings, but still earned the first big-league win of his career. He got a beer shower in the clubhouse afterward and planned to give the ball to his 19-month-old son.

Before the game, Darwin Barney was running in from third base to practice catching pop-ups. Until this series, his previous experience at the position included one inning last year in the minors, two more in spring training and a state final Little League game when he was 12.

My dad put me at third because this team loved to bunt, Barney said, so (we) shut that game down.

Thats what it has come to for the 57-77 Cubs auditions on the major-league level. Barney is trying to stick as a utility infielder, Quade wants to manage this team next season and rookie pitchers are hoping to show they belong.

Were here because we want to help this team win, Barney said. Im trying to learn as fast as I can, so I can be that guy that can help the club out. Im not trying to go out there and still be learning on the job.

Sink or swim, its kind of a team thing. Were trying to really pick this team up.

The Cubs have approximately 103 million already committed for 2011. That does not include arbitration-eligible players and the nice raises due closer Carlos Marmol and catcher Geovany Soto.

Nor does it factor in what contracts general manager Jim Hendry might be able to shed in the offseason, or the money it will take to fill out a 25-man roster. Ricketts hasnt set the budget for next season yet, but it will be influenced in some way by ticket sales.

Yeah, theyre related, Ricketts said. Obviously, more attendance generates more revenue. More revenue gives you more flexibility to be able to increase your payroll. (But) we have a real strong fan base. Hopefully well put a very attractive product on the field next year. Attendance we did pretty well this year even with kind of a tough season.

Ricketts is right in that the Cubs have so far drawn 2,632,366 fans and are on pace to hit the three-million mark. That total would outperform all but three or four teams in baseball, but not necessarily their own recent history.

In April a Team Marketing Report study one the organization disputed found that the Cubs will have the highest average ticket price in the majors this season at 52.56. Even in rebuilding mode, theres no guarantee the cost wont rise again.

We dont have a pricing strategy for next year locked down, but well see, Ricketts said.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

The Cubs take on the Miami Marlins on Sunday, and you can catch all the action on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com and the NBC Sports App.

Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 11:30 a.m., followed by first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies on the call. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Starting pitching matchup: Mike Montgomery (1-3, 2.26 ERA) vs. Edinson Volquez (3-8, 4.19 ERA)

Click here for more stats to make sure you’re ready for the action.

— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the Cubs: All of the most recent news and notes.

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

MIAMI – Jon Lester dropped his head and wiped the sweat from his face. The Cubs ace didn’t jerk his neck and twist his body, hoping the swing and the sound somehow fooled him. The slow turnaround revealed the obvious – the 75-mph curveball out of his left hand flew over the left-field wall and nearly into the Clevelander bar billed as an adult playground. 

Lester gripped the next ball, stared out into the visual noise at Marlins Park and went to work late Saturday afternoon after J.T. Realmuto’s two-out, three-run homer in the first inning. This is the bulldog determination and tunnel vision that’s been the antidote to the big-market pressures at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and made Lester such a big-game pitcher.

“You really just have to lock it down,” Lester said after doing just that in a 5-3 win. “You have to try to figure out a way to pitch innings. That was one thing I learned at an early age in Boston with ‘Schill’ (Curt Schilling) and Josh (Beckett). It doesn’t matter. Now we start over. You have to take that mindset of ‘It’s back to zero’ and not keep looking at the scoreboard.”

From that Realmuto moment, Lester retired the next 13 hitters he faced, 15 of the next 16 and 18 of his last 20 at a time when the Cubs needed that performance to buy time for their young hitters, weather a series of injuries and survive a brutal schedule.

Lester believed enough in the coming waves of talent to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season, and got rewarded with his third World Series ring, continually impressed with this group’s poise and maturity.

The day after getting shut out for the sixth time this season, Addison Russell, Ian Happ, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. – four 24-and-under players – combined to go 7-for-15 with five RBI and four runs scored.

“It’s a test for everybody,” Lester said. “These guys are kind of getting broken in early. They’re going to figure it out and we’re going to go. Now it seems like our guys are really feeling comfortable at the plate. We’re having good at-bats, normal at-bats.

“The results will come. This is, obviously, a results-driven industry. But the plans – as far as on the mound and in the batter’s box – just look a lot smoother right now, a lot cleaner and hopefully we can just keep playing good baseball.”

[VIVID SEATS: Buy your Cubs tickets right here]

The Cubs are 38-36, a half-game behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and in position to win three consecutive series for the first time since April. Whether or not Lester (5-4, 3.83 ERA) returns to Little Havana for the All-Star Game, he is the bellwether for this rotation.  

“Jonny’s just got this thing going on right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He knows where the ball is going and he gets the high-number velocity when he wants to. He’s not just pitching at 92, 93, 94 (mph). It’s in his back pocket when he needs it. And he gets it with command when he wants it.

“As well as I’ve seen him pitch – I know he had a great run last year also – from a stuff perspective, command perspective, it’s as good as he can pitch.”

This $155 million investment will at some point become a sunk cost. The Cubs understand the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers and how desperately they need reinforcements. But almost 100 innings into this title defense, Lester feels like he’s just getting started. 

“I feel better now than I did in April and May, for sure,” Lester said. “I think bigger bodies just take a while sometimes. Some years are different than others. Some years you come out like gangbusters and you’re ready to go and the body feels fine. And other years it takes a while to get into that rhythm of pitching every five days again. This was one of those years.”