Cubs: Tarp struggles 'freak thing'

Updated: August 23, 2014, 1:48 AM ET
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs classify their struggles with the infield tarp that resulted in Tuesday's game against the San Francisco Giants being suspended as a "freak thing" rather than a result of the organization cutting costs.

"The budget for grounds crew and maintenance has not been slashed," Cubs spokesman Julian Green told ESPNChicago.com on Friday. "It is true there have been organizational changes to ensure the business operation is running efficiently. That's something every organization does whether you are in sports or corporate America.

[+] EnlargeWrigley Infield
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesThe grounds crew works on the rain-soaked infield at Wrigley Field on Tuesday night.
"We are not going to make any personnel decisions at the expense of making sure that field is ready for play because that impacts the game itself and it impacts the fan experience."

A sudden downpour of rain hit Wrigley Field with the Cubs leading 2-0 going into the bottom of the fifth inning on Tuesday night. The grounds crew struggled to get the tarp over the infield in time, and despite just 15 minutes of heavy rain, the game was delayed four and a half hours. The game was called and the Cubs awarded the victory only to have the Giants -- just 3½ games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West -- protest the decision.

The Giants won the protest -- the first time that has happened since 1986 -- and the game resumed on Thursday with the Cubs holding on for a 2-1 victory.

A Chicago Sun-Times report on Thursday cited sources with knowledge of the situation claiming the personnel decisions were part of a reorganization over the winter designed to keep certain workers' hours under the threshold in the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," that requires large employers to offer health insurance for employees working more than 30 hours per week.

The grounds crew, which also includes workers who clean and perform other tasks around the stadium, are union members. Vince Pesha, the director of the Sports and Entertainment division of SEIU Local 1, told ESPNChicago.com that there haven't been any union grievances over lost hours. But he added that "there's definitely been hours cut. I wouldn't say it has anything to do with [health care]. More with economics."

Green denied that health care costs played a role in Tuesday's incident.

"We've made some organizational changes to make sure our scheduling is in line," Green said. "If we want to be a successful, functioning, profitable operation, you have to make sure your personnel and workforce is in line.

"Anyone in this organization who would even suggest that it was Obamacare and tried to make this a situation about work hours at the expense of guys who are widely viewed as the best in the business, it's unfortunate."

Green also disputed the notion that the Cubs did not have enough workers to properly unspool the tarp -- "we had 17 hands for 17 handles" -- on Tuesday and notes that Major League Baseball said the issue with the tarp was a result of it being improperly wrapped from its previous use.

We are not going to make any personnel decisions at the expense of making sure that field is ready for play because that impacts the game itself and it impacts the fan experience.

-- Cubs spokesman Julian Green
"If it comes down to the spool, what are processes that we are doing to make sure it doesn't happen again?" he said. "Of course you do that, but this wasn't about the numbers of people that were pulling it or the level of experience of the people pulling it. This was a freak thing."

Pesha couldn't say whether the tarp crew was understaffed on Tuesday, but he did say they often pull employees from all over the park to help on particularly rainy nights. He also remembers watching experienced grounds crew employees falling under the weight of a tarp during bad nights.

"When the tarp is wet, you have to reroll it, and when you reroll it, it's three times the weight," he said.

Pesha said there are fewer temporary workers at Wrigley and U.S. Cellular Field because crowds have been sparse during an awful summer of Chicago baseball, bad weather included.

"If the Cubs or Sox were in first place, everyone and their brother would want to be there," Pesha said. "Winning affects everything that goes on.

"It probably sounds crazy, because I've been doing this a long time, but this is the toughest summer we've had in 25 years."

The Cubs are averaging 32,657 in announced attendance, on par with last year, the team's worst attendance since 1998. The Sox are at a meager 21,227 and on pace for their worst attendance since 2002.

If they counted no-shows rather than tickets sold, those numbers would look far worse. Fan apathy trickles down to the people who sell beer and food and the people who clean up the remains.

"Crowds are way down. When they say attendance is 30,000 and there are 19,000 in the ballpark, we use less workforce, right?" Pesha said. "So they're rotating more people. They're trying to keep everyone there and working. You've got seniors working for you, and if you want them to work all season, you've got to give them work through the summer. I'm not saying this isn't being recognized, but we're not getting complaints directly."

ESPNChicago.com's Jesse Rogers and Jon Greenberg contributed to this report.

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