CHICAGO -- You probably had to be there to really feel it but the word to describe the 2016 Chicago Cubs fan convention this past weekend at the Sheraton Grand Chicago is emotional.
Normally Cubs fans express their love for their favorite team win, lose -- or rainout -- but for three days that love found a new level. Many fans had tears in their eyes as they approached microphones to ask questions of players in packed ballrooms. Some were visibly shaken meeting their heroes barely able to get their questions out. And everyone wanted a signature or selfie or a shout out to a girlfriend.
“It’s nuts,” shortstop Addison Russell said with a smile after one session with some diehards. “These fans are really passionate.”
And to think the Cubs still haven’t won a championship in 107 years. But in most of the last century optimism in January has mostly been wishful thinking. Not this time. The Cubs are loaded with talent and approachable players. That’s a good combination at a winter fan convention, the only place where bonding between players and the team can happen without a game. It’s become an important part of Cubs culture.
“You have to have this trust built up among everybody,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You want to know them and you want them to know you.”
The convention allowed for just that. Team and fan bonding over a successful past season with an eye toward an even better one in 2016. Just think about all the crying if they do win it all.
Here are some other observations from the annual Cubs convention:
Ryne Sandberg’s return after a managing stint with the Philadelphia Phillies garnered plenty of attention as the former MVP will be at Wrigley Field often while representing the team in the community as well.
“It feels great,” Sandberg said. “Chicago is my home and I’m a Cub.”
The former rookies looked at ease in their surroundings. Last season was supposed to be the year they got their feet wet with no expectation of winning but they made it to the postseason. In answering fan questions on Saturday they sounded as if they’ve only touched the surface of their abilities as Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Russell, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber know their roles with the team. Baez may not be a full time starter right now but he sounds energized to play in the outfield when called upon.
“I’m seeing the ball really good out there,” Baez said. “I love playing center field. I played there growing up and I thought it might be different now but it was the same.”
Best friends Jon Lester and John Lackey detailed reuniting with the Cubs with a desire to win as they did in Boston together. Lackey is edgy as Lester is quiet and reserved. The two are avid fishermen and hunters.
“He adds another dimension to our staff,” Lester said. “A different personality. We’ll have some more camouflage in the clubhouse that’s for sure.”
New security measures at Wrigley Field were a hot topic over the weekend. The iconic ballpark won’t ever be the same with the addition of metal detectors and other new safety measures including an extension of the netting behind home plate. In some ways it’s a surprise the park has lasted this long into the century without more intrusive measures but it’s a sign of the times which fans and players will have to deal with.
Ownership was in a good mood during its panel session with fans. Can you blame them? They’ve executed their rebuilding plan to near perfection in a fairly short amount of time while adding a personal touch to their ownership style. Remember, when the Tribune Co. owned the team there was no face to the franchise, no hand to shake up and down the aisles as Tom Ricketts does every game. Brother Todd even ripped into Mets fans after praising both Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
"Mets fans are really, really obnoxious,” he said to an agreeable crowd.
We’ll see if that becomes bulletin board material for what could be an emerging rivalry with the Mets. His wife isn’t a fan either.
“She really, really hates the Mets,” Ricketts stated.
The newcomers all fell right in line with the team’s stated goal: It’s time to end the championship drought. Ben Zorbrist -- Zorilla as Joe Maddon dubbed him -- talks solely about winning in just about every interview he does. Jason Heyward reiterated his desire to “grow up” with the young Cubs while putting some of the Cardinals controversy about him leaving behind him.
“I have no regrets,” Heyward said.
The front office was happy to let the players have the spotlight. No longer do they need to sell their plan to the public; the plan is selling itself. The Cubs say they’re probably done making any major moves heading into spring training.
“We talk to teams every day,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We like what we have now.”
The only real lingering question from the weekend is when and for how much will Jake Arrieta sign. He’s the lone arbitration eligible player not to have agreed to terms. The Cubs presented a salary of $7.5 million for next season while Arrieta countered with $13 million. Maybe Arrieta takes this all the way to a hearing believing there’s no way he’ll only get a small raise from his $3.63 million salary of 2015.
These observations were just a few things from a packed weekend of optimism. It will only grow as January turns to February and then the start of spring training. One theme in talking to players is the idea of enjoying the process and not thinking about October before the rest of the season is played. That’s the trap Maddon has to avoid. It will be hard to convince his Cubs they’re the underdogs. They will embrace being favorites instead. You won’t get an argument from anyone at the convention. They’re buying in.