- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Despite their cuddly reputation, it's not every season baseball's preeminent losers actually lose 100 games. So I ventured to Wrigley Field on Monday night for the moment -- me and a few thousand masochistic Chicago Cubs fans.
Jason Berken was on the mound. Dave Sappelt was in the lineup. About 10,000 fans were in their seats. The Chicago Bears were on the press box TV. It was a traditional late fall baseball game in Chicago with an extra dollop of "Dear God, when is this season over?"
We were rewarded with history. Cubs history, but history nonetheless.
The Cubs, statistically only the second-worst team in baseball this season, dropped Magic No. 100 to the worst team in baseball this season, the Houston Astros, 3-0. The Cubs really fought to avoid their tragic number, collecting two hits off Lucas Harrell.
Cubs manager Dale Sveum referred to these last three games as a mini-playoffs. His team must have listened. This felt exactly like a playoff game in 2007 or 2008.
It was the first time the Cubs have lost 100 games since 1966, when they lost a club-record 103, and just the third time overall. The scarcity of 100-loss seasons might surprise people who savor the Cubs' losing tradition.
There was nothing to celebrate this season and little to look forward to in 2013. Though if you're a history buff, Cubs fans can take solace in this factoid: After 1966, the Cubs went on to six straight winning seasons -- an epoch of success in Cub years.
"This happened for a reason," shortstop Starlin Castro said. "Let's see if next season, you're going to be better. That's what I'm looking for. This happened. No one wanted it to, and it's tough."
This Cubs team was expected to be bad as the Theo Epstein regime blew up the team in order to build it up with a "foundation for sustained success." That the Cubs wound up being totally unwatchable and god-awful was just a byproduct of the master plan.
"I don't think you ever expect 99 losses, but I didn't expect competing for the World Series either," Sveum said before the game.
When a team has a waiting list of season-ticket holders and a tourist magnet of a ballpark, you can afford to tank a season. Fans tuned out and no-shows made announced attendance a joke, but with the allure of Wrigley, fans will always come back, win or lose.
Sveum knew the situation when he took this job. The baseball lifer was highly respected by his players, even if they ran the bases like T-ball players. Hopefully he will be rewarded with a major league team in the coming years.
After a trade deadline sell-off that seemingly yielded only modest returns, and with Matt Garza (elbow) and Jeff Samardzija (innings limit) sidelined, the remaining motley crew of Cubs made it their September goal to avoid the 100-loss stigma. Even with a rotation out of the Atlantic League, it looked like they would accomplish that modest target when they won six of seven midway through the month. But they followed by dropping 10 of 12 before salvaging a win Sunday in Arizona.
Some might say 100 losses is no different from a pedestrian 96 in the grand scheme of things. But numbers have power. The 100 losses will remain with this club in the coming years. Cynical columnists will refer -- often, I promise -- to "last year's 100-loss team." If and when the Cubs right this ship, the company line will be "only X years removed from a 100-loss season."
"Nobody wants to be a part of it," Sveum said. "But the bottom line is we're going home like a lot of other teams, with a lot better records. If you're not going to playoffs, a lot of times the wins and losses don't matter."
Alfonso Soriano, the much-maligned multi-millionaire who earned his salary this season by carrying a listless club, hopes his young teammates, Castro and Anthony Rizzo, learn from this season. Those two are among the few in the clubhouse expected to be around when Cubs management attempts to field a legitimate team again.
"I hope they can learn it's not fun when we're losing a lot of games," Soriano said. "Baseball is fun when we're winning. It doesn't matter how much money they make or how much they enjoy the game. If we're losing it's not fun."
While the players had to wear the results every day and night, the onus of responsibility for this season falls on the organization.
While a housecleaning was sorely needed, and years overdue, this type of white flag season should only be accepted one time and one time only. The fans' lovefest with Epstein is all fine and good, but eventually Cubs fans should expect linear progress. He knows that. The two-time World Series-winning executive didn't come here to cash checks and play Golden Tee. This is the ultimate fix-it job and a World Series with this bunch ensures baseball immortality, as his legacy in Boston is scuffled by its last two seasons.
All season, Epstein, the president of baseball operations, toed the company line by being honest without undercutting the marketing of his team.
"If we stay healthy, and one or two or three or four of the players we have actually take a big developmental step forward, I think you might look up and be surprised in the middle of the summer," he said back in January at Cubs Convention.
Meanwhile, mindful of the bottom line, team chairman Tom Ricketts threw out ridiculous statements calling the Cubs "a compelling team" and saying they would put "a great team on the field this year" before limiting his media interactions.
Soriano credited Ricketts and Epstein for "doing a very good job putting a nice group of people" together. They weren't that good at baseball, but they got along great.
Epstein, his general manager Jed Hoyer and their crew have rightfully spent their energy on the minor league system, from the draft to signing big-money Cuban free agent Jorge Soler.
The Cubs don't have to go on a spending spree of 2007 proportions, but if they don't add some major league pitching, a third baseman and another outfielder, real Cubs fans should boycott the convention and next year's games. Many already have.
The Cubs need to remember that "parallel front" approach Epstein has talked about and pay attention to the big league club while building up the system. It is possible to do both.
The 2012 season will go down in infamy as one of the worst in Cubs history. Next season should be better.
Low expectations, people, low expectations.
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