Category Archives: Analysis

Looking at Cubs play on and off the field

Expectations bad for Cubs players, fans

“Life is a preparation for the future; and the best preparation for the future is to live as if there were none.”
–Albert Einstein

We’ve heard it so many times: live in the moment, carpe diem, yada, yada, yada. But how the hell am I supposed to do that when the Cubs have won their first three games of the year in such convincing fashion?

After hearing “Wait till next year,” year after year, how am I supposed to watch this team win and not think that this is the year?

The Cubs are coming off an NLCS appearance after all. They have been deemed the favorite to win the World Series by major publications, and more importantly, Vegas.

How am I supposed to heed Albert’s advice and live without one eye on the future, on the champagne toast and victory parade in Chicago? We’re all thinking it, right? Even if we are too scared to say it out loud.

Manage expectations. Why as a fan should I? For the same reason that the Cubs players and coaches have to — because expectations corrupt.

If I don’t manage my expectations as a fan, if I ride the roller coaster of joy and despair after every game, nobody will suffer except me — oh, and my friends, and wife, probably my kids. But the Cubs will win or lose regardless.

If the Cubs don’t manage expectations, however, the whole thing can fall apart.

“The process is fearless, because I don’t want to spend time on the outcome,” Joe Maddon said recently. “For me, it’s really about staying in the moment and not worrying about the outcome of the game or managing toward the outcome. It doesn’t do anybody any good.”

It’s just a game. That’s what he’s saying. Just play the game. It’s like having a catch in the backyard. Watch the ball sail through the air, feel it snap into the glove. The laces, the grip, the movement, whoosh.

“At this time of the year, with me and the players, we’re going to be process-oriented, pitch by pitch,” Maddon said. “That’s the one that really gets you to the promised land. ‘The process is fearless,’ to me, is about that the process lacks emotion. And if you can keep emotion out of there, just go out there and play, avoid the ups and the downs, that’s your best chance to come back late, it’s your best chance to hold on to something late. That’s the part we try to get across to them.”

One of Maddon’s primary jobs this season will be to make sure that expectations do not corrupt this season, that they don’t sneak into the mindset of players and change how they play the game. Because it looks like if this team just lets itself play, lets its talent flow pitch by pitch, success will follow.

I’d like to try something similar as a fan — enjoy how these players hit and throw and catch, how they compete, how they make the most of each moment on the field. Forget the future, damn the past.

Let’s just play ball. When is game time?

We can thank Banks for Cubs hope

I can picture the man upstairs whispering to Ernie Banks in the night.

“Your work is done, Ernie,” He says. “Time to come home.”

“What? Now? But the Cubs haven’t won the World Series,” Ernie says. “I’ve lived for the Cubbies almost my whole life. How can my work be done?”

“The World Series wasn’t your job, Ernie,” He says. “Your job was giving everyone hope, carrying the flame in the dark times, smiling in the face of hopelessness. The Cubs will be OK now. I promise.”


“I am tired,” Ernie says. “But I don’t want to miss the good times.”

“Ha,” God chortles. “You won’t miss anything. There’s PLENTY of Cubs fan up here remember. I’ve heard about 1969 more times than I can count. We’ve reserved the Heavendome to watch the World Series when the Cubs make it — seats a couple million — and we’ve got a front row seat reserved for you. Right next to a guy you might know, Ron Santo.”

Ernie smiles as only Ernie could smile, even in the face of death. “That does sound very nice,” he says.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that there might not be a Chicago Cubs these days without Ernie Banks. They easily could be in Fort Lauderdale, or at least Schaumburg. The sports world is littered with teams whose fan bases’ lost interest during prolonged losing, stopped buying tickets, refused to upgrade facilities and eventually let their teams float out of town on a sea of apathy.

Not the Cubs. They not only survived through last place finish after last place finish, they flourished, becoming more entrenched at Clark and Addison even as Wrigley Field started to crumble around them. Why? Because like every good fairy tale, they had a hero. They had someone who charged forward in the face of overwhelming adversity, who smiled in the face of doom, who offered the rarest of gifts to the downtrodden: hope. That someone was Ernie Banks.

The Cubs were one of the last teams to employ an African American player. Banks didn’t just break the color barrier in Chicago, he obliterated it. When he arrived from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1953, he appeared to be really glad to be in Chicago, and he never lost that wide-eyed joy of being paid to play baseball. Fans got that on a basic level that ran deeper than skin color, and they embraced Banks for it.

Nobody likes the person who makes it big and suddenly thinks he’s much better than the people he left behind. Even after the MVPs, Banks played with the enthusiasm of a rookie and spoke to fans like they were his next door neighbor.

Some have argued that Banks’ “Let’s play two” or “The Cubs will heavenly in sixty-seven-ly” phrases, the ever-present smile, the unwillingness to express frustration — even with civil rights issues — was a well-calculated act, even to the point of being Uncle Tom-ish.

I like to think that Banks looked around at the suffering in the world, acknowledged that the Cubs’ plight was a metaphor for people’s everyday frustration and DECIDED to be a beacon of hope. Like any good beacon he knew that there are no days off. The one day that the beacon goes dark is the one day that the ship crashes on the rocks.

So he didn’t use his platform to debate social injustice. So what? Do you really want to fault a man for showing us how to smile in the face of life’s challenges EVERY DAY, for DECADES. Try being Ernie Banks at your job this week. Stay upbeat, look for the good in things, keep smiling even when life is getting you down. I bet you — I bet I — can’t make it until lunch.

Banks kept it up every day in the face of repeated seventh-place finishes. Even 1969’s debacle didn’t wipe the smile from his face. Or retiring after 19 years in the big leagues and NEVER making the playoffs. And it rubbed off.

Fans stayed interested in the team. Cubs fans developed a stubborn resilience, a reputation for having a good time even when the ship was sinking … again. “Wait till next year” was said with real belief that things will get better.

We didn’t become apathetic, didn’t tune out. We did the opposite. We became more committed to seeing this thing through, 1969 or 2003 be damned. In large part we have Ernie Banks to thank for that hope. He kept the fire burning through the darkest time and shared that spark with all of us.

“Now’s the time Ernie,” God says.

“Let’s do it,” Ernie says. “If this is the way, I’m on board.”

“Just one more thing, Ernie,” God says. “I’ve been working on something. How about this? ‘In 1-5 the Cubs are alive, thanks to Banks.'”

“Hey that’s great,” Ernie beams. “That’s great.”

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Can Cubs Be Next Blackhawks?

An iconic franchise with a passionate fan base falls on very hard times, has a change in ownership and front office leadership and tries to lure back fans, gets some luck in the draft and then build around a couple of stars. The result? A string of championships.

It’s the blueprint that every Cubs fan hopes the team is following. But it’s one that the Blackhawks have already accomplished.

Wasn’t that long ago that “Dollar Bill” Wirtz wouldn’t show Hawks home games on TV, wouldn’t pay for talent and traded away budding stars. An Original Six NHL team became a laughingstock, making the playoffs once in 10 years between 1997-98 and 2007-08 and getting further and further away from winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1961. In fact, ESPN named the Blackhawks the worst franchise in sports in 2004.

Then things started to change. General manager Dale Tallon drafted Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and was even allowed to dangle some big money to free agents. But it seemed that no real stars wanted to play for the Hawks, who had developed a well-founded reputation for not doing what it took to win.

But Bill Wirtz died. You hate to say that the team started to live again after the owner died, but there’s a lot of truth to it this time. Wirtz’s son Rocky took over and started to right the wrongs of his father. He put home games on TV, he brought back exiled stars Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito and Stan Mikita as ambassadors, and he oversaw some bold moves in the front office and behind the bench. In the span of a few years, the stigma of the Bill Wirtz era was long gone. Casualties of the housecleaning were Tallon and coach Denis Savard. There was an uproar at the time but also a burgeoning trust in the new administration. Instead of saying “Damn Hawks, screwing things up again,” fans said “I feel bad for those guys, but let’s give it some time. Rocky and Co. have been doing some good things.”

The rest of the NHL must have noticed. All-Stars Cristobal Huet and Brian Campbell accepted fat contracts from the Hawks, who were now featured on national TV playing in the NHL’s marquee Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. Playoff appearances followed, along with another big star in Marian Hossa. The Hawks rewarded their own homegrown stars with long-term contracts. Ask Tony Amonte if that happened back in the day.

And the rest, as they say is history – two Stanley Cups and a perennial NHL threat in the playoffs. Man oh man, it feels good to write that.

Oh yeah, but how does this Hawks history apply to the Cubs? The parallels up to a point are pretty clear.

The Ricketts family bought the team from the Tribune Company and promised a less corporate, more fan friendly approach and smart approach to finally doing something that hadn’t happened in over 100 years, winning the World Series. Man, it feels crappy to write that.

The Ricketts’ started boldly, luring young genius Theo Epstein from the Red Sox in 2011 after he ended the Red Sox’s World Series drought. The new Cubs prez of baseball laid out a five-year plan that featured building the base of the team through the draft, international signings and shrew trades for young talent, making improvements to Wrigley Field to make the team more appealing to free agents, maximize earnings and improve the fan experience, and then spending on proven stars once a strong nucleus of talent had been developed.

So how’s Theo doing? Right on target.

How can you not think of Toews and Kane when looking at Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo? They look like cornerstones, guys that might actually be able to lead the Cubs to pinnacle. But the Hawks aren’t a two-man show. They’re in the Cup finals because of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and others. Well, the Cubs are also trying to build a deep young nucleus. Couldn’t those secondary stars come from the likes of Addison Russell, Starlin Castro, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez?

And was Epstein true to his word on acquiring established veterans to complement the youngsters? I’d say Jon Lester more than answers that question. Theo didn’t just dip his toes into the free-agent waters, he dove in headfirst.

As the Blackhawks try to win their third Stanley Cup in six years, the Cubs’ plan is finally coming together. The team is extremely young, so this won’t be a meteoric rise. But a playoff appearance this season is not out of the question. And then what?

Could we be watching the first steps of a Cubs march to dynasty status, just like we saw with the Hawks in 2007-08? It sure feels that way.

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Worth the wait: Cubs’ Bryant call smart

Cubs fans know waiting. That’s what we’ve been doing for over 100 years, some of us longer than others.

That is why any Cubs fan with half a brain doesn’t give a rat’s butt that Kris Bryant will spend 12 days in the minors before making his MLB debut. There’s just too much upside to the decision, despite all the bitching from Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, and the players union.

See, when Bryant is in his prime in 2020 and presumably the Cubs have built a consistent winner, one of Chicago’s best players will forgo free agency for a year.

This could save the team some number of dollars we can’t even imagine now. What would a Pujols in his prime type of guy earn as a free agent in 2020, $40 million per year? Who knows? It will be ridiculous, though. For those who argue that the Cubs are putting money over winning, that savings in 2020 will mean a hell of a lot more then than 12 days now.

Couldn’t $40 million buy some combination of a great No. 2 starter, a solid veteran bat or a whole bunch of bullpen help? That money could very well mean the difference between a marginal playoff team and a legit World Series contender. Having cheap super talents under team control is a cornerstone of building a winner.

Those 12 days are not going to mean the difference between the Cubs making the playoffs or not this year either. This team has so many question marks, one of which is whether Mike Olt can play. So give him a few weeks to show what he has. When Bryant is called up, Olt either becomes a valuable bench piece or shares time at third base with Bryant, who can also play a little left field.

Hey, Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton were pretty important to the 2003 Cubs, right? They weren’t on the team at the beginning of the season. Neither was Rick Sutcliffe in 1984, and he was the face of that team.

If Bryant comes up and lights it up, nobody is going to remember 12 days.

So step back Boras. The Cubs didn’t make up these service rules, but they are idiots if they don’t take advantage of them. Sure, your job is to make as much money for your clients and yourself as possible. We get that. But accusing a team of not wanting to win is ridiculous. Long-term winning requires cost control of young players. You know that. You’re just frustrated. Go buy yourself a Porsche. You’ll feel better.

What Cubs fans are concerned about is Javier Baez being sent to the minors. The alarming lack of contact that plagued him in his callup last season continued this spring. At what point does this stop being a case of adjusting slowly and become a permanent flaw? We’re not there yet by a long shot. But still …

We know Bryant’s star will rise. We just have to wait a couple of weeks. It’s not as clear if all of Baez’s talents will come together, though.

We just have to wait. As usual.

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Goodbye paper All-Star ballots

So MLB is eliminating paper All-Star ballots at stadiums in favor of online voting. Now what? Is someone going to tell me I have to get rid of my cassette tapes and parachute pants? C’mon.

All right, I’m not really an old curmudgeon, so I understand that this makes sense. Bloomberg reported that 80 percent of ballots cast last season were online and that 16 million paper ballots went unused. Trees everywhere are breathing a sigh of relief.

But generations of fans are feeling pangs of nostalgia. Filling out your All-Star ballot(s) was a rite of summer. And we all had our different techniques.

I took a two-prong approach. I filled out homer ballots until my hand couldn’t hold a pencil. That meant Bill Buckner, Ivan DeJesus, Manny Trillo, Dave Kingman, even Steve Ontiveros. Yes, in 1978 I voted for Ontiveros over Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose and Ron Cey. On A LOT of ballots.

I can still picture clearly scanning the ballot for Cubs and wondering how a city the size of Chicago couldn’t get all our players into the game.

After a million homer ballots, though, I’d start to feel a little guilty. I knew some, many, most of the Cubs I was voting for didn’t really deserve to play in the Midsummer classic. So I’d sigh and I’d fill out one or maybe two ballots based on who I really felt deserved to be an All-Star that year. Hey, I didn’t want to make a mockery of the process. I must admit, however, that I skipped over some very deserving Cardinals over the years.

Worried about stuffing the ballot, I’d walk around the concourse spreading out my ballots in different collection boxes. But I was convinced that my votes would make the difference in DeJesus finally getting the recognition he deserved. He never did. But I tried. I was a real Cubs fan who exercised my right to vote. And when you’re a kid, you don’t get that many chances in life to have your voice heard.

And now it’s over. No more paper ballot, no more feel of that heavy card stock. No more stuffing an actual ballot box.

But it’s not a bad thing. Truth be told, I’ve already been voting online for years. I’ve even wondered out loud why they still printed all those ballots in an age when someone can sit in their seat with an iPhone and vote to their hearts content.

Yet I still mourn, and we all know why. It’s the same reason my dad talked wistfully of his 1956 Chevy that only started half the time. He ended up with more reliable cars, but the loss of that car meant another sliver of his youth had been carved away.

Yesterday, I overheard my wife trying to describe vinyl records, cassettes and even CDs to my 5-year-old son. You could tell the talk meant more to her, and to me eavesdropping, than it did to him. Yes, it’s way easier to download music, to get in the car and have your tunes magically crank up through Bluetooth. Sure, it’s a better process to vote for All-Stars digitally.

But vinyl albums, Pac-Man, Thriller, muscle cars and even paper All-Star ballots were the things that made us us back then. I want to make clear that I did not have parachute pants.

But hey, we had to grow up, and before we knew it, we defined our lives in different ways. Jobs, kids, houses …

But some things remain the same. We still get to vote for All-Stars. We can still stuff the digital ballot box with Cubs. It’s time to get clicking.

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Taking stock of my fan portfolio

Every once in a while I like to take a look at my fan portfolio. What’s that, you say? It’s the teams that I’m invested in, and their stock goes up and down just like the market.

The big difference between my fan portfolio and my meager investments in the stock market is that I won’t sell my allegiance to my teams. Once I bought in I was stuck with them — for mostly good, but sometimes bad.

So let’s take stock of my teams and how I’m handling my investment:

Cubs: Bull market. Everyone is buying on the Cubs after they signed Jon Lester. The Cubs are obviously my single greatest emotional investment as a fan, and I’d love to agree with some publications that pick the Cubbies to go to the World Series, but I’m afraid that too many people are overvaluing their stock at this point.

I’m taking a cautiously optimistic approach. To be honest, my portfolio lives and dies with my gigantic investment in the Cubs, but I’m not going to max out my contribution at this point. I want to see how the kids play, how the rotation comes together before I start recommending the Cubbies to everyone and anyone.

Bulls: Bear market. What is going on with the Bulls? A team that has lived in the top 3 in defense during the Tom Thibodeau years is now around 19th. What? I was so fired up early in the season when the offense appeared to be worthy of their defensive prowess. I bought in big time that the Bulls could cruise to the Finals out of the East.

Now I’m not so sure. The sample size of defensive struggle is now significant. Derrick Rose looks like the D-Rose in stretches and then settles for 3 after missed 3.

This season has really become disappointing. So I’ve been quietly redistributing my emotional assets, hedging a little on the Bulls’ success this season.

Blackhawks: Bull market. Where has a chunk of my Bulls investment gone? To Kane-Toews and Co. Now, they aren’t exactly the Apple of fan investments right now. A 6-8 stretch doesn’t scream “all in,” but I feel like confident in upping my investment while they’re stock is down because I think they have a better chance of paying dividends later than the Bulls do.

The Blackhawks this season look like a veteran team doing just enough in the regular season to secure a good playoff position. Then they’ll turn it up a gear in the playoffs — a San Antonio Spurs model.

Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but if my fan portfolio is going to flourish I’ve got to look for deals. I think the stumbling Blackhawks are a good buy right now.

Bears: Not just a Bear market, but a 10-foot ferocious grizzly Bear market. The Bears’ stock has fallen so far that a change of management was necessary.

Heading into last season the parts appeared to be there — especially on offense — that most Bears fans upped their investment significantly. The Bears might have some issues on defense, but they could outscore anyone. They would be entertaining and successful. It felt like investing in the new Star Wars movie.

And we all took a bath. Last season’s Bears were the 1929 stock market crash for fan portfolios. The collapse came out of nowhere and hit very, very hard.

Like all my teams, I’ll always hold a significant stake in the Bears, but I’m not buying right now — not until I see if John Fox is the man to turn around the once blue-chip investment.

In summary, my portfolio is looking pretty good. The Cubs could blow up into something really big, and the Blackhawks can pay off big every year. The Bulls are down, but that doesn’t mean they’re out. And the Bears are at least taking significant steps to right the ship.

It’s a good time to be emotionally invested in the Chicago sports scene.

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