CINCINNATI – Except for the atmosphere – the beer and the sunshine – Cubs fans haven’t been given many reasons to come to Wrigley Field this season and watch this team. It looks like 2014 should be a good time for a road trip.
The Cubs will visit Yankee Stadium (April 15-16) and Fenway Park (June 30-July 2) next year as part of the schedule Major League Baseball unveiled Tuesday.
The Yankees should also be a huge box-office attraction (May 20-21). The Cubs drew 126,283 fans for a three-game series the last time the Bronx Bombers visited Wrigley Field in June 2011.
This time, the marketing department probably won’t put Starlin Castro on billboards opposite Derek Jeter. It will also mark the return of $136 million man Alfonso Soriano in the final months of his Tribune Co. megadeal.
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There will be a homecoming for Theo Epstein, who grew up in Brookline, Mass., and helped build two World Series winners on Yawkey Way before getting total control of baseball operations at Clark and Addison.
That ended the power struggle with Boston Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, who has overseen the kind of ballpark transformation Cubs executives dream about now.
A large group of team officials traveled to Boston in May 2011 for a wild weekend. It was the first time the Cubs played at Fenway Park in almost 93 years, not since Game 6 of the 1918 World Series. The Red Sox had the huge video board, advertisements plastered all over the stadium and their 655th, 656th and 657th consecutive sellouts.
Crane Kenney – who would be reassigned as president of business operations after helping recruit Epstein – caught a home-run ball while sitting atop the Green Monster.
Alfredo Aceves’ 92 mph fastball smashed into Marlon Byrd’s face, sending the Cubs outfielder to Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary wondering if he’d be able to see out of his left eye again. Matt Garza got scratched from a start with “right elbow stiffness,” the beginning of the health questions that would hang over his Cubs career.
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If the Cubs are going to show progress at the big-league level in Year 3 of Epstein’s rebuilding project, they’re going to have to deal with the American League East crossover and a potentially stronger schedule.
“That’s obviously the toughest division in baseball,” manager Dale Sveum said. “You can never predict any of that, but we do know one thing: Usually, the American League East is a pretty strong division.”
The Tampa Bay Rays (August 8-10) and Baltimore Orioles (August 22-24) will come to the North Side. Also make sure the passport is up-to-date: The Cubs will go into Canada and play the Toronto Blue Jays (Sept. 8-10).
The crosstown series with the White Sox will be condensed into four days, with two at Wrigley Field (May 5-6) and two on the South Side (May 7-8).
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Opening Day will be March 31 in Pittsburgh, the same PNC Park where Sveum pulled Carlos Marmol in the ninth inning on Opening Day this season. That seemed to signal the sense of urgency for a team that knew it had to get off to a fast start or else get blown up at the trade deadline.
Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary season will begin April 4 and the headliner will be Ryne Sandberg if the interim manager keeps his job with the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Cubs didn’t draw three million fans during Sandberg’s Hall of Fame run, but that didn’t stop Ryno from zinging his old team after a comeback victory on Aug. 30: “The empty seats is something new to me. Most of my career, from ’84 on, it was a tough ticket and a sellout, so a little odd to see the bleachers that empty.”
The Cubs announced a crowd of only 20,696 for a Sept. 4 game against the Miami Marlins. That became the smallest attendance at Wrigley Field since the 2002 season, part of a trend line that’s been forming for years.
The Cubs have drawn 2,455,418 this season, with six home games still remaining this month. That total should still put them in or around the top 10, a testament to the pull of Wrigley Field.