As empty seats pile up, Dawson sees changes coming to Wrigley

As empty seats pile up, Dawson sees changes coming to Wrigley
September 4, 2013, 7:45 pm
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The Cubs sold 20,696 tickets for Wednesday’s matinee featuring the National League’s two worst teams. The Miami Marlins aren’t a draw for the Chicago media without Ozzie Guillen and Carlos Zambrano. There were no Showtime cameras filming reality TV.

That’s believed to be the smallest attendance at Wrigley Field since the 2002 season, when the Cubs lost 95 games but had Zambrano, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior in their early 20s. What could possibly go wrong?

“Go Cubs Go” played after a 9-7 comeback victory and the exit ramps weren’t exactly jammed with people. This following a Labor Day weekend in which Philadelphia Phillies interim manager Ryne Sandberg zinged his old organization by saying the Cubs used to be a tough ticket: “A little odd to see the bleachers that empty.”

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Andre Dawson – now a special assistant in the Marlins front office – stopped by the team’s Clark Street headquarters this week to see the designs for a renovated Wrigley Field.

Dawson’s Hall of Fame plaque features a Montreal Expos hat – not his first choice – but he believes he never would have made it to Cooperstown if he hadn’t signed with the Cubs. The natural grass saved wear and tear on his knees and he loved the energy of day baseball in a big city.

Still, Dawson is pro-Jumbotron, all-in with the updates: “It needs that, for sure. That stuff is modern, state-of-the-art, keeping current with the trend for all the ballparks.”

Those new revenues – whenever the money actually flows back into the baseball operations department – are supposed to jumpstart a 59-80 team and what has become a mid-market payroll.

“It’s not demoralizing,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Whether there’s 40,000 or 20,000, it doesn’t matter. You have to take care of business.”

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Sandberg got in a great dig after beating his old team last Friday, but the Cubs never actually drew three million fans during any season in the 1980s or 1990s.

“Initially, I was (surprised he got into coaching) because as a player he was so soft-spoken and laid-back,” Dawson said. “He’s kind of a different character when you think of a manager, (but) I guess somewhere along the line it became something he wanted to do post-playing career.

“I kind of followed him to see how he was doing. I just wanted to know how many games he got thrown out of (because) Ryno never crossed the line.

“He was one of my favorite teammates, a guy that you can easily admire as a ballplayer and as a human being. That’s why I’m happy for him and I hope it goes real well.”

Given the talent level, it’s hard to judge Dale Sveum as Cubs manager, other than to say the players respect him, he’s been a good soldier in Theo Epstein’s rebuilding project and the marketing department can’t really use him to sell tickets.

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Dawson, who’s from Miami but still visits Chicago four or five times every year, said it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are: Cubs fans are going to stay faithful.

“It was the way they embraced me from Day 1,” said Dawson, who won the National League’s MVP award in 1987, his first season on the North Side. “I struggled at the outset. I was pressing, trying to do (too much). For a few weeks, I didn’t really do a whole lot and they were patient with me.

“There was that special connection and everywhere I went in the city people were so cordial and made me feel so welcome. It was a no-brainer. I just felt like: ‘Hey, this is where I probably belonged all along.’

“I’ve always had a special bond with the fans and I think (with) a Chicago superstation you’ve always had a huge Cub following around the country. It’s a different type of fan here.”

The Cubs can opt out of their WGN deal and trigger a new television deal after the 2014 season, which could be another jarring change for the fan base.

If it takes five offseasons to complete the $500 million neighborhood project – whenever the Ricketts family gets out of Chicago Way gridlock – Dawson figures that’s roughly about how long it would take to build a new stadium anyway.

“I just want to see the end result,” Dawson said. “When you’re spending that kind of money, you want to do it right. I just hope it’s still around. … This is a landmark that people enjoy coming to see.”