Weathering the low expectations
Forget about championships -- in Chicago, baseball it's own reward
CHICAGO -- Spring is coming.
Not to get all Eddard Stark on you, but it's time to batten down the hatches, say a prayer to the Baseball Gods and prepare for another season of anger and apathy, raised hopes and dashed spirits.
Prepare to endure Chicago baseball. Hey, at least we have the weather.
How many days of your precious life have you spent cursing at the Cubs? How many nights wasted smoldering at the Sox?
Furthermore, would you have it any other way?
Well-intentioned baseball people try to change that with witty slogans and bottom-to-top rebuilding plans, and even, in one occasion, an actual World Series championship, but if existence is about dealing with disappointment, then Chicago baseball is perfect.
And this is an anniversary season of the Cubs' greatest disappointment since 1969.
It's been 10 years since the Cubs blinked with five outs to go. The next year, some predicted the Cubs would shake off that disappointment, but like in 2008, those hopes were unfounded and downright cruel.
Those final two games of the 2003 National League Championship Series defined a decade, or maybe a century.
Ten years. Think about where you were when the Cubs collapsed. I've gained a family and 20 pounds.
We're two years from celebrating the 10th anniversary of the White Sox's World Series run, and this year, we can cherish one more season of Paul Konerko, the last link to that team. The grey-flecked elder statesman might be in his last year in a Sox uniform, and in baseball. But we say that every year. I'm hoping my grandkids can see him play DH.
But those Cubs teams in 2003 and 2008 mattered. Giants lived here once, as Algren wrote. Now, it's just us mortals.
What should your expectations be for each team? Seventy-five wins for the Cubs? Whatever it takes to make the playoffs for the White Sox?
The true aftereffect of the Sox's World Series win is that nothing has really changed except a statue and a generation of baseball fans can say they remember what it was like to be truly alive in October. The Sox still can't sell tickets or steal attention from the Cubs.
The Cubs couldn't turn those 2007-08 playoff appearances into anything sustainable. But don't rewrite history, it was a good idea at the time. Always try to win.
But that rarely works in Chicago.
So it goes.
Cubs president Theo Epstein, who doesn't know what he doesn't know about Chicago baseball, tells us "every opportunity to win is sacred" but Chicago's baseball teams have been so damned blasphemous over the years.
Is there any pressure on either team to approach this season with a sense of sacred? Not really.
Epstein's crew is getting the requisite leeway as they build from the ground up. Edwin Jackson's somewhat surprising contract is a concession toward competing at the major league level after a joke of a season in 2012.
The White Sox aren't in transition, they just exist as a counterweight to the Cubs -- they're a thoroughly American League Central team that could flirt with 90 wins or finish below .500. The Sox aren't doing it right or wrong.
For Cubs fans, this season can't be worse than the 101-loss season that was historically bad even by the low standards of the Cubs. It can't, right? But just think: Every game played is one game closer to the Albert Amora-Javier Baez-Jorge Soler era, where World Series flags will propagate like summer ivy.
How many innings until 2015? What do you expect from this team? Nothing. How long does that last?
For White Sox fans, baseball season is a chance to watch games every night from your couch, because you can't hear Harrelson's rusty polemics from the cheap seats. Lord knows how tough it is to get to "Sox Park," even with cheaper ticket prices, reduced parking and enough greasy meat menu options to buy your cardiologist a winter home in Turks & Caicos.
Will Sox fans have a chance to go to games in October? I don't think it's as far off a possibility as the national media surmises, but on paper, the Sox look like a .500 team. Last season, they surprised people with 85 wins, getting several breaks along the way. Low expectations can only last so long.
Low is better than no. Once again, the Cubs don't matter in the baseball firmament, unless you enjoy discussing budding prospects and planning trips to the new Class A affiliate in Kane County or discussing the minutiae of local ward politics and building permits and figuring out which lies to believe.
For another year at least, the Cubs are a major league franchise in name only, really just a tourist attraction with uniforms. If you replaced the Cubs with actors, how many tourists would know? How many would care if they found out?
Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija has ace stuff, Starlin Castro is a great young player and Anthony Rizzo could be a force at first base, but who buys tickets to see them play with so little around them? The Cubs bolstered their pitching staff with Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa and Jackson. But Matt Garza, once deemed to be trade bait extraordinaire, isn't healthy, and neither is free-agent pickup Scott Baker. This could be like 2011, when early pitching injuries buried the team and presaged the end of the Jim Hendry regime.
As popular thinking goes, it won't be long until the Cubs are the Red Sox again, a sustained foundation of success stamped by Epstein's Midas touch. Until then, eat your bison dog, drink your $7.25 Old Style and be quiet.
Nothing is for certain when it comes to rebuilding, but even a cynic like me has faith in the Theo Trio (Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and minor leagues boss Jason McLeod). As painful as a rebuild is, I think in a few years we'll be happy with the results.
That goes for the massively over-debated Wrigley rebuild, as well. Don't talk to me about moving to Rosemont. Rosemont is for arena football and minor league hockey and gambling and waving goodbye to grandma at the airport. Wrigley Field is a moneymaking machine. Hudson News Park at O'Hare Airport is an idiot's negotiating ploy.
Forbes Magazine recently estimated the Cubs were the most profitable team in baseball last year. Yes, even without outfield signage.
We can rip the Cubs for not rewarding our provincial love, but damn you if you say Wrigley Field isn't charming. Just sit down in your seat and look at the field and the El train passing by and try not to be pacified, even when some rube spills a beer on your old DeRosa shirsey.
The Cell might not be a tourist attraction, but it should see slightly better crowds than last year, especially if the team outperforms expectations.
A.J. Pierzynski is gone, and John Danks is on the disabled list. The Sox are relying on healthy seasons from Chris Sale, an exciting, if nerve-wracking angular young pitcher who has ace potential, and the re-signed Jake Peavy. No sure thing there, and the rest of the starting staff is still suspect. There are some fun power arms in the bullpen (Nate Jones will be a household name this year). If Dayan Viciedo and Gordon Beckham can live up to their hype, the Sox could again challenge powerhouse Detroit in the AL Central.
But most predict a third-place finish or thereabouts. And then what? It'll be interesting to see how the Rick Hahn regime is different than that of Kenny Williams.
For sure, both teams are looking to utilize the pipeline of homegrown talent to fill the rosters.
The days of big-time free agents (Cubs) and blockbuster trades that sacrifice young talent for high-priced veterans (White Sox) are essentially over. Baseball economics have shifted and both teams are recognizing and seizing on the new realities.
When he took over as the Cubs' general manager, Hoyer surmised that baseball fans love watching prospects develop and make the roster, which is a nice way of saying "Don't expect any blank-check signings." That's true for the die-hards, but this should be a city that expects consistent results. Our baseball teams have big budgets and outsized expectations, even if history proves each season is just that, a passage of time.
Every year, we hear about Cubs fans who want a World Series before they die, and White Sox fans who want a rerun of 2005.
It won't happen this year, but that's OK, too. There's something to be said for being content that it's spring and baseball is back.