Friday, April 23, 2010
No matter what the year or what the time, there is always one topic I cant avoid while at work, and no its not, What is a guy from Philly doing behind the bar at Harry Carays? Its ALWAYS, Whats up with the Cubs? From minute one, thats what the masses want to talk about more than any other thing. It forces a guy from Philly to try to understand this team that they call the Cubs. Never in my wildest imagination, while I was a youngster racing home to watch Michael Jack bash another ball out of Wrigley, could I have realized how much the occupants of that field would take over my life. In my 15 years here Ive been totally immersed in everything Cub, from the players, to the dugout, to the clubhouse. (A Don Zimmer, former Cubs manager, reference that never fails to make me laugh when I hear it. There is NO crying in baseball!)
The thing Ive learned from that Whats up question, is that it could almost always be phrased, Whats WRONG with the Cubs? 102 years of losing can make a fan base constantly look up to see whats going to fall on them next. The time that Ive been here, relative to decades past, really hasnt been that bad. Easy to say from someone whose team won it all 2 years ago and is a favorite to do so again this year, but I digress. Since 1998 and their appearance in the playoffs as a wild-card, the Cubs have fielded rosters that have been expected to contend. In the last 12 years they have had a winning record 7 times and made the playoffs 4 times. There hasnt been a run like this since the 1930s. (There were 6 consecutive winning seasons under Leo Durocher in the late sixties and early seventies, but no playoffs, the source of much of todays angst.) Bringing in high-profile managers, like Durocher, in Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella have only heightened the sense of expectation. But alas, with this expectation comes the reality of bitter disappointment. No longer are the results of the team greeted by the warm and fuzzy, Well get em next year! Cubs fan.
Lovable loser is no longer a description theyre happy with. The price of having Wrigley Field filled to the rafters game after game is that, after paying the highest average price per seat in baseball, when a Cubs fans takes a moment from their beer and cell phones to watch the game, they want to see a winning, notice I didnt type competitive, baseball team. Being from Philly has enabled me to deal with and understand these fans. I feel their pain, for my scars run long and deep too.
So as we begin year 102, one hyped with the arrival of new ownership, one thing is clear: failure is not an option. And by failure, I mean anything short of a playoff series win. Thats a ton of expectation, and pressure to put on a team. Is this one up to that? That is something that will be discussed here, and at the bar, in great detail all summer long. But one opinion I do have on this, that Ive repeated over and over, will, I believe, hold true. That the team here that does end the suffering, will be a special one off the field as much as on it. I will cite the 2004 Red Sox, 2005 White Sox and 2008 Phillies as examples. Those teams had the weight of years of failure in their past and a brief run of near misses before ultimate success. Sound familiar? But my images of the rosters of the teams that finally ended long periods of futility were ones that were built to handle the immense pressure on and off the field.
As examples, I have talked many times at the bar about the merits of Kevin Millar, Paul Konerko and Chase Utley. Great players on the field, but as leaders and motivators, they were the types that were able to stand up off the field at the most important times in their franchises history and lead the way. So as we enter this 2010 season and watch the team that has bedeviled a city for a century, Im asking: Who is that guy? Or guys? Who is ready to lead this team on and off the field? As time goes on the pressure is only going to get greater, and in Cubs tradition, the path is certainly not going to be easy.