Dale Sveum tipped his cap and waved it above his bald head late Wednesday afternoon, saying goodbye to the fans at Wrigley Field, maybe for the last time.
The Cubs manager and his players acknowledged anyone still left in the crowd of 26,171 – or those who actually showed up to watch a last-place team – before disappearing down the dugout steps after a 4-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
That brought the 2013 attendance total to 2,642,682 at Clark and Addison, the lowest point in 15 years. The Cubs sold about 240,000 fewer tickets than last season, when they ended a run of eight consecutive seasons drawing 3-million-plus.
The Cubs finished off an 81-game home schedule with only 31 wins, a Triple-A Iowa lineup and a manager on the hot seat. Those questions wouldn’t go away as they packed their bags for the final road trip to St. Louis and three more games against the first-place Cardinals this weekend.
“The staff’s great,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Everyone – Dale to our bullpen catcher, up and down – they’ve been very good this year. We’ve had some fun. We’ve hit our bumps along on the road. But at the same time, it’s a business. It’s out of any player’s hands.”
Sveum’s fate will be decided by team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and an inner circle that doesn’t seem to know exactly when they will be able to tap into the potential revenue from a renovated Wrigley Field.
All the delays to this $500 million neighborhood project mean the baseball operations department won’t get the new clubhouse, weight room and training/medical facilities once promised to be ready by Opening Day 2014.
“Last I heard the work done this winter will be structural,” Epstein said last week, “infrastructure to put us in position to make a few changes the following year, assuming all the dreaded t’s get crossed and the i’s get dotted.”
Sveum has been squeezed by a mid-market payroll and forced to improvise after two fire sales around the trade deadline – in a brutal division that will produce three playoff teams. But it’s not the 66-93 record so much as the inconsistency from Rizzo, All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro, Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija and Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney.
“Last year was kind of labeled as a rebuilding year,” Barney said. “We really thought we should have competed at a higher level this year. Unfortunately, we didn’t. I think we got a lot of people’s feet wet and obviously everything here is about moving forward.
“That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to try and get better individually and hopefully we all learned a lot from this season.”
Castro got booed in the fourth inning when a line drive went by him for an error and bounced into left field, where Junior Lake overran the ball and was slow to pick it up, allowing Pedro Alvarez to hustle to third base. The crowd cheered sarcastically when Castro caught a soft pop-up moments later, and he committed his 22nd error in the ninth inning.
But if you pinpoint those moments, you also have to credit the staff for the emergence of All-Star lefty Travis Wood, catcher Welington Castillo and potential closer Pedro Strop (and wonder if the core players identified by the front office are really that good anyway).
Pitching coach Chris Bosio – a Sveum guy who’s highly valued by Epstein and Hoyer – has helped drive the scouting/game-planning system and build up trade chips.
Jake Arrieta – who’s 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA in nine starts since coming over from the Baltimore Orioles in the Scott Feldman deal – outpitched Francisco Liriano and limited the Pirates (91-68) to one run in six innings.
“The change of scenery was the biggest thing,” Arrieta said. “I was surrounded by quality human beings from Day 1, when I was in Iowa with (Triple-A pitching coach Mike) Mason, and then the transition here with ‘Boz’ and the staff. It’s just been great. I’ve been able to continue to take steps forward.”
But Chicago is a market that sees things in black and white.
“If anybody pays attention, they know we’re much, much healthier than we were a couple years ago,” Sveum said. “It’s come a long, long way, so I think the fans know. But then again, patience sometimes can only go so far.”