Monday, April 8, 2013
How long 'til Cubs write new script?
By Jon Greenberg ESPNChicago.com
CHICAGO -- There are seven basic plot types for a story, but only two kinds for the Chicago Cubs: Ones about failure and ones about hope.
When it comes to the Cubs, it's all about the past we'll never forget, the present we can't stomach and the future we'll never see.
Under the Ricketts regime, the present has been execrable. But a blissful future is always an outfield sign and a minor leaguer away.
All the talk about patience and commitment and foundation for sustained success have filtered into the brains of the most devoted Cubs fans. It's not a bad thing to be patient, and it's not a good thing to be angry about a perennially lousy baseball team.
But don't tell Cubs president Theo Epstein he doesn't care about winning this season.
As part of the public demands of his job, he has to sell hope and patience. He does it well, with charm and an earned baseball sophistication.
He'll tell you that winning and building are intertwined, and it's true. But it doesn't feel good for him to answer questions about dealing with a wasted season before it's even began. Because for Epstein, the owner of two World Series rings, baseball is better when you win.
"There's no veil, no notion that winning isn't important," Epstein said Monday. "At least in our offices and most importantly, within the clubhouse. Winning is important."
"Winning is important" would be a great slogan -- anything is better than the current one, "Committed" -- but to comply with truth-in-advertising laws, the Cubs would have to add an asterisk and in fine print, "In 2015." After all, the Cubs might draw less with a losing team, but still enough to make a healthy profit.
In their home opener Monday, the Cubs proved Epstein prophetic, making a boiler-plate loss interesting with a charged, but unsuccessful ninth-inning rally. With the bases loaded and two outs, a deep fly ball by Starlin Castro got caught in the reversed direction of a powerful wind and died at the warning track in right field to end a 7-4 loss, their fourth straight.
Will all this losing affect young Cub Starlin Castro?
Free-agent pitcher Edwin Jackson, he of the $52 million contract, got rocked early when the wind was blowing out, and until the ninth, the Cubs offense couldn't muster much more than a two-run homer by Welington Castillo in the second inning.
With the stink of the past four years lingering like spilled Old Style, Epstein said he understands how a small sample size affects the way some cynics look at this team through one week. Of course, he supported manager Dale Sveum's quick hook of Carlos Marmol as closer. Of course, he wants to see his hitters show better discipline at the plate.
We're just into the second turn of a pitching rotation, but reporters are already writing their amateur draft stories and there were plenty of empty seats for the home opener.
The big story is about the politically fraught rehabilitation of Wrigley Field, whether or not the Cubs, the city and the rooftop owners can iron out small disagreements to finally formalize the $300 million renovation of the old, but still charming park. Could this have been the last opener without a video scoreboard?
For the Cubs, the general consensus is ROI is more important than RISP right now.
I'm no idiot. I agree that the way to rebuild the team is through Epstein's "parallel track" approach, with heavy emphasis on the minor league system. Chicago White Sox manager Robin Ventura said his only goal is make the playoffs. The Cubs' situation is different.
But like last season, I wonder if winning is important for anything other than the immediate bottom line. So I asked Epstein about it.
In a group interview before the home opener Monday, I posited, in the awkward way I ask questions in massive group interviews, if all the losing could impede the progress of the important young players, like Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Jeff Samardzija.
He gave a half-hearted answer, but then returned to me later to flesh out his thoughts. And you know Epstein has fleshed-out thoughts. His parenthetical asides are approved by the Chicago Manual of Style.
"Do I wish we had a more talented base, a higher starting point, so we could be expected to win 95 games this year?" he asked me rhetorically. "Yes! I want that. We all want that. But is that realistic? No.
"We're starting from the relatively unenviable position and we're trying to build that up. And our players are going to be the ones that get us there. So when you ask how important is it for them to be on winning clubs, they are what's going to make us winning clubs. Our ability to add more players who are talented and have winning makeup, that's what's going to turn into a winning club.
"Every one of us and everyone in our clubhouse should hate losing. and I guarantee no one enjoys the rest of their day when we lose. That's the best thing about (the Cubs' win on) Opening Day, you get to enjoy the rest of the day and you get to enjoy the off day. Trust me, if would've lost that game we would've had and we should've had 25 pissed-off guys."
Sure, guys don't stop caring about losses until May, at least. The Cubs clubhouse was quiet Monday, especially after a near-rally.
"No one enjoys losing," Epstein added, "but closing your eyes and wishing it so isn't going to make any difference. We've got to work our way there."
The Cubs are 2-5. They look like a 90-loss team. It's not like this Cubs team just accepts its sorry fate, but there just isn't enough talent on this roster.
Epstein and I definitely agree on one thing. As they grouse about this season, Cubs fans, and reporters, should stop touting the team's top prospects as saviors. Of course, that won't stop the team's marketing department and media cheerleaders. And the fans need something to be excited about.
But I'd rather hear about the rooftops morass than someone talking to me about prospects. I've heard the stories about their prodigious talent, but I hate the idea that people are already putting so much stock in their success.
"That's an unrealistic panacea because not all prospects work out," Epstein said. "You can't over-leverage your organization on the hopes of two or three prospects. That doesn't work out. You have to look at every day, every player, every draft, every waiver wire, every game-on-the-line situation in the ninth inning as a way to get better as an organization and win some games."
So that's why this season is important. And that's why Cubs fans should care and should hold this team's performance accountable, even if it's not built to win even 80 games. It's all part of the process.
Also, you gotta love a guy who uses "unrealistic panacea" in a sentence about baseball.
Sveum is not that kind of guy. But he understands the fans' patience will run thin at some point if the Cubs don't turn around their dwindling performance. That could be bad for him, too. Managers typically are the scapegoats when a team underperforms, even if they have the backing of the baseball operations staff.
"You can only have so much patience," Sveum said before the game. "They were great through some hard times last year and understanding the process going on in the organization. It's only so much you can take, especially when you have some of the best fans in the country."
Marmol, once a major part of the team's successful present, was booed during introductions and again when he pitched in mop-up duty in the eighth.
"It was important, I think, for the team to make a change (at closer)," Epstein said. "We need to believe we can win these close games late. That's really important."
Marmol was shaky again Monday, but didn't give up a run. Baby steps, people.
The Cubs lost because they can't hit. Before failing in the ninth in a good at-bat, Castro doubled and tripled and didn't score either time. The Cubs went 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position and are 6-for-44 for the season. Rizzo has had a tough start and Alfonso Soriano, the cleanup hitter, hasn't driven in a run yet.
There is no panacea, unrealistic or not, that can make up for that kind of performance. In plain English, that's just bad baseball.
It's the same old Cubs story, ad infinitum. Failure and hope.