Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Cubs, and how they got that way...

The Chicago Cubs won the World Series last week, cause for much joy and celebration around this town. Keys to the city have been cut and handed out to the owners of the Cubs, the Ricketts Family, the architect of the championship team, Theo Epstein, the general manager, Jed Hoyer, the field manager, Joe Maddon, and naturally the players who performed magnificently winning 103 games in the regular season before making a thrilling run through the playoffs.

First they disposed of the San Francisco Giants and their string of biennial World Series victories. The next victims were the LA Dodgers and their Cy Young award winning pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, Finally the Cubs faced the Cleveland Indians whose own decimated pitching staff sent chills through the hearts and minds of opposing batters in their own magnificent run through the playoffs. That includes the batters for the Cubs who in their three losses to Cleveland in the World Series, scored a total of one run.

Ultimately, choosing the best team in baseball for 2016 came down to the winner take all game seven of the World Series, a magical phrase for anyone who knows anything about the game of baseball. This game seven to many was an instant classic, a rain delayed extra inning affair filled with so much drama, it left most viewers, including this one, completely spent by game's end, some four and one half hours after the first pitch.

It was a truly great run for the Cubs and better still, it is very likely that the core of this team will be around for a while, helping the team continue to be a serious contender for the game's ultimate prize for years to come. Credit for that certainly has to go to Epstein who recognized when he was hired five years ago, that in order for the Cubs to get anywhere, they'd have to start from scratch at the organizational level. The key element in Epstein's plan was to develop talented young players in the team's minor league affiliates, farm system if you prefer.

The story goes that team president, Tom Ricketts asked Theo Epstein what he needed to make the Cubs a contender. Epstein told him flat out that he'd need five years. That meant for the five years it would take for his young players to bear fruit down on the farm, the team the Cubs would be forced to put on the field would be terrible. 

It takes time and resources to develop players. In order to free up resources, Epstein traded away all the high salaried players on his major league roster. Ah but weren't those his best ballplayers you night ask? Why yes they were. But there would be little point in Epstein's mind to pay star players at the peak of their careers, star salaries to play for a team that had no chance of going anywhere. Now it would be convenient if a baseball team could hang out a sign saying "closed for repairs" for the amount of time it took to harvest this new crop of players. But fans as well as the league expect a franchise to field a team every year.

It was a huge gamble for Ricketts and his organization. Most fans don't like to pay major league prices for parking, tickets, and concessions, if the talent on the field is not of major league caliber. Likewise, TV networks and more importantly their sponsors who pay their bills, are loath to broadcast games played by lousy teams. Simply put, most teams are not in the economic position to take the risk of losing five years worth of competitiveness, and the revenue that goes along with it.

But the Cubs are not like most teams. I've been saying for years they could put chimpanzees in Cub uniforms and the team would still sell out Wrigley Field. In the year 2005, the other Chicago baseball team, the White Sox, won 99 games, two playoff series and swept the Houston Artros to win the World Series. That same year the Cubs had a mediocre season, finishing four games under .500 which was good enough for fourth place out of the six teams in their division. Yet they still outdrew the Sox that year by over 750,000 fans.

With than in mind, it turned out not only was Ricketts on board with what Epstein proposed, but so were many of the fans who were hungry for the first Cubs championship in a very long time. After all, what's five years when you, your Cub fan parents, grandparents, and great grandparents had been waiting over a century for a World Series title?

Epstein signed with the Cubs on October 12, 2011. During his first season at the helm of the organization, he kept the first part of the bargain; the 2012 Cubs lost 101 games, ten more than the previous year, the third worst performance in the team's very long history. For the first time in eight years, attendance at Wrigley Field dropped below three million, but just barely. In fact Wrigley Field attendance in 2012 was still 300,000 better than the league average. The following year, 2013, the Cubs won five more games, but dropped to last place. Attendance dropped too, by about 200,000, but still higher than league average. The 2014 Cubs won seven more games and attendance picked up slightly as well.

Then came the magical 2015 season where everything fell into place. By December, 2014, Cubs fans in the know suspected something was up as for the first time since the new sheriff came to town, the team dug deep into their pockets and went after an upper echelon, free agent pitcher, Jon Lester. They also hired Joe Maddon, the brilliant if slightly idiosyncratic manager who became available in the off season.

Lester lost his opening day start against the Cardinals. A loss on April 10th to the Colorado Rockies put the team at 1-2 and you could already hear grumbles from the sports pundits and grumpy fans saying maybe this Epstein experiment was all smoke and mirrors. But that would be the last time all season when the Cubs record had more losses than wins, in fact they haven't been below .500 since. 

One downer that season was a July 25th no hitter pitched against them in Wrigley field by Cole Hamels of the Phillies. Pitching for the Cubs that day was Jake Arrieta. Arrieta, acquired through trade from Baltimore in 2013, wouldn't lose another game until October, tossing a no hitter of his own in Los Angeles on August 31st. Of the twelve games in the regular season he started after July 25th, nine ended up as shutouts. He finished the year with a phenomenal 1.77 ERA, in those twelve games alone, his ERA was an unspeakable 0.41. His performance was good enough to earn him a Cy Young award, all the more impressive given some very stiff competition.

Another pleasant surprise last year was the performance of the new crop of rookie players brought up from Theo Epsstein's farm system, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber. All but Soler, who most likely will end up as trade bait in this off-season, promise to comprise the heart and soul of the Cubs for the forseeable future.

Not much was expected from last year's Cubs but they finished with a 97-65 record. Normally a record like that would earn a team a division championship but in the tremendously competitive NL Central, it was only good enough for a third place finish and a wild card ticket into the playoffs. The Cubs and Arrieta shut out the Pirates in a one game playoff, then the Cubs beat their bitter rivals the Cardinals in a best of five divisonal series, sending them to their first NL championship series since 2003, against the much despised (in this town) New York Mets. The hugely anticipated series was a letdown as the Mets pitching staff, running on all eight cylinders, shut down the young Cubs batters and swept the series.

But something was curiously missing after that series. Hardly anyone talked about curses or goats or bad luck after the Cubs got swept by the Mets. Folks around town finally understood this wasn't a team built to win one championship, but many. For the first time perhaps ever on the north side of Chicago, the words "wait 'till next year" were not spoken in bitter irony.

And for the first time in 108 years, that much anticipated next year finally came.

I'm not sure if anyone fully expected the outpouring of emotion than accompanied the last out of the last game of this year's World Series. Grown men openly wept in front of TV cameras. Tears of joy flowed in my house as well. My Cub fan son fell in love with baseball nine years ago at Wrigley Field, where as fate would have it, during another rain delayed game, the Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians in extra innings. This past Wednesday night as Michael Martinez of the Indians grounded out to Kris Bryant of the Cubs for the last out of the magical 2016 season, my son, crying like a baby hugged me like he hadn't since he pitched his little league team to a championship three years ago.

Perhaps the most moving image of this week was that of the names of Cub fans who lived their whole lives without seeing their team win a championship, written onto the exterior walls of Wrigley Field by their loved ones. Throughout this entire run of the playoffs and World Series, the names of deceased members of the Cubs family have been invoked. At the top of the list were Ernie Banks and Ron Santo, two Hall of Fame players who never got a chance to play in a World Series. In addition to being great players, both men were instrumental in preaching the gospel of the Cubs wherever they went, long after their playing days were over. Also on the list was the broadcaster Harry Caray who presided over the mike during the era when the Cubs transformed themselves from a sleepy team with a loyal local following, to a nationally beloved institution, thanks to the media juggernaut of the WGN cable television network.

I would argue that all three legendary figures played a tremendous role in the phenomenal popularity of the Cubs, which made it possible for the Ricketts family and Theo Epstein to tear down the team and rebuild it from ground up, and ultimately pave the way for a very bright future.

But there is one name of the past which is hardly ever brought up in connection with the Cubs' success, in fact in more cases than not, it is the opposite. I've told you about him before, Phillip Knight Wrigley. Some would say that Wrigley, who owned the team from 1932 until his death in 1977, ran the team into the ground. PK Wrigley inherited the team from his father, the chewing gum magnate, William Wrigley. Despite the century plus drought of championships, the Cubs were one of the best teams in the major leagues in the twenties and thirties. World War II obviously changed the landscape of baseball and while the Cubs did manage to send one more team of mostly 4F players to the World Series in 1945, since that time they languished save for a few seasons as, in the words of the late Steve Goodman, "the doormat of the National League."

Was PK Wrigley responsible for those many years of wandering through the baseball desert?

In one word, yes.

Bill Veeck, who has appeared in this space many times, worked for PK Wrigley in the thirties. According to Veeck in his autobiography Veeck as in Wreck, the younger Wrigley was not, as many suggest, disinterested in the Cubs. According to Veeck, Wrigley was a brilliant tinkerer/inventor. a fiercely private man who prided himself on doing things his own way. As the guy at the helm of two big businesses, the gum company and the Cubs, the bottom line was very important to him. Even in the best of times in the thirties, the Cubs only made it to the World Series once every three years (like clockwork). Wrigley knew that he couldn't produce a winning team every year, as that was out of his control. But he could ensure that the fans who came to his ballpark would be comfortable and have a good time. So he put the lion's share of his efforts into making Wrigley Field as beautiful and as comfortable for the fans as possible. It was Wrigley who entrusted Veeck to build the iconic outfield bleachers complete with ivy and hand-operated scoreboard that we know and love today. Wrigley also banned advertisements inside his ballpark. In that vein, Wrigley was fastidious at keeping the park that bore his name welcoming to the fans in the stands, despite the quality of the team on the field.

As for the team, Wrigley was not as some people assume, unwilling to spend money on good players, rather he was seriously out of step with the rest of baseball in terms of the way teams were built. According to Veeck, Phil Wrigley was dead set in his opposition to the "farm system" where minor league teams are owned and at the mercy of their big league masters. Veeck, who shared that opinion by the way, said Wrigley believed minor league teams should be independent, free to run their teams as they saw fit, able to sell their players to the highest bidder, and should not have to serve as serfs beholden to parent teams who could bring players up and send them back down at will. One could argue that this egalitarian approach is admirable, but in the end it proved untenable as far as competing with the rest of the league, whose teams all to some extent, developed players on their own through their minor league affiliates.

One aspect where Wrigley was way ahead of the curve was his belief in broadcasting his team's games. Where most of his fellow owners saw broadcasting on radio and later TV as giving away their product, Wrigley understood the tremendous potential of the two media. When I was a kid, of the two Chicago teams, only the Cubs broadcast all of their games, home and away. As we saw a moment ago, that commitment to broadcasting their games, and their affiliation with the local station that went national, WGN, contributed greatly to the nationwide popularity of the team.

Then there were the lights. Early on in the thirties, Wrigley tinkered with retractable light standards that would disappear out of sight when the lights weren't needed. That experiment failed and Wrigley became disinterested in the idea when he realized he wouldn't be the first owner to install lights in his ballpark. Another attempt to install lights came in 1941. At the end of that season, Wrigley approved the design and ordered all the equipment. But in December of that year, the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor and Wrigley decided to contribute the hardware to the war effort.

The truth is that Wrigley thought lights were ugly and detracted from the beauty of his ballpark. As everyone knows, the Cubs were the last team in the major leagues to play all their games exclusively during the day. It is not unreasonable to assume that put the team at a disadvantage because they had to adjust to playing night games on the road and day games at home.

Another common practice among MLB clubs that Wrigley refused to partake in was buying up the property surrounding his ballpark and covert it to parking lots. To this day, Wrigley Field remains in the middle of a residential neighborhood and consequently a nightmare for anyone trying to get there by car.

So five factors, the attention to Wrigley Field over the needs of the team, the lack of advertising and parking to bring in extra revenue, the refusal to accept the "farm system", and the lack of lights in the ballpark, contributed in no small way to the Cubs' inability to produce a championship team since World War II. There are probably many more.

OK now consider this, what if the Cubs had been owned by a more conventional owner, say someone like Walter O'Malley who owned the Dodgers? From 1945 until 1957, Dodgers attendance at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn never dipped below one million, although it did decline through the fifties, as it did in all major league ballparks. In that same period, the Cubs' attendance which peaked at 1.3 million in 1946, declined rapidly during the fifties, dropping to 670,000 in 1957. Wrigley Field would not see one million fans pass through its turnstiles again until 1968.

O'Malley, who saw his aging ballpark with hardly any parking in a declining neighborhood as a detriment to business, made overtures to the City of New York to help him build a state of the art facility that included a retractable dome, near Downtown Brooklyn.

That deal never went through (a story for another day), so after three years of negotiations and 73 years in Brooklyn, the Dodgers packed their bags and moved to the west coast. O'Malley convinced Horace Stoneham, the owner of the New York Giants, to join him. With the departure of two of the three New York City teams, only one city would remain (for a while anyway) with two MLB teams, Chicago.

Phil Wrigley was in the same situation in Chicago that O'Malley was in Brooklyn, in fact, it was probably much worse. His ballpark was nearing the end of its life expectancy in a decaying neighborhood (hard to believe that today but it's true), with extremely limited parking. Unlike the Dodgers who were experiencing their greatest success on the field, including a World Series victory in 1955, the 1950s was far and away the worst decade ever for the Cubs. But Wrigley, who had other ties to this city stuck with it. Here's an excerpt from Veeck as in Wreck on Wrigley Field:
We sold "Beautiful Wrigley Field." ... The announcers were instructed to use the phrase "Beautiful Wrigley Field" as often as possible. We sold it so well that when I came back to Chicago in 1959 as president of the White Sox, across town, I found "Beautiful Wrigley Field" my single greatest obstacle. Because "Beautiful Wrigley Field" tacitly implied "that run-down crummy joint on the South Side."
The truth is that Wrigley Field was no more beautiful than Ebbets Field, Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, or for that matter, Comiskey Park on the south side of Chicago, it was just sold as that. According to Veeck:
By 1959, (Phil) Wrigley was no longer keeping the park freshly painted. The neighborhood had deteriorated badly. None of that mattered. People came into Wrigley Field knowing they were comfortable. Just as people who had not been to Comiskey Park in years knew it was a crumbling ruin. 
But that crumbling ruin on the south side was still drawing nearly twice the number of people as Beautiful Wrigley Field in the fifties. Had the Cubs been owned by a more conventional owner, it's very likely that owner would have looked at the numbers and decided, as they did in St. Louis, Boston, Philadelphia and New York, that Chicago could no longer support more than one baseball team, and it was time to find greener pastures. If that had happened, Chicago could very well have become a one baseball team town as well, and the team that remained here most likely would have been the White Sox.

On the other hand, had the Cubs survived the tumultuous fifties and stayed in Chicago, a different owner would very likely have done way with their classic ballpark,  just as every other National League team did in the sixties. That almost happened here in Chicago, as a plan was introduced to build a multi-purpose stadium that would serve both the Cubs and the White Sox as well as the NFL Chicago Bears. The stadium was to have been built on the lakefront to replace Soldier Field and had the full support of Mayor Richard J. Daley and PK Wrigley. It was Art Allyn, the owner of the White Sox who put the kibosh on the plan, objecting to the fact that his team would lose a significant amount of revenue in concessions, parking and rent if it were to move into a publicly owned venue. Phil Wrigley could have stamped his feet and demanded the deal go through or he'd pack his bags, but he didn't.

As it worked out, the era of the multi-purpose, cookie cutter, astro-turf clad stadium passed Chicago by. Call it divine providence or just dumb luck, but we're the better for it as those stadiums proved to be not suitable for baseball or football, and they have all disappeared from the scene.

Wrigley Field remains.

Perhaps it was another bit of dumb luck that PK Wrigley refused to put lights in his ballpark. When he died, baseball was still played only in the sunshine at Wrigley Field. It would remain that way for another 11 years, until it became clear that Major League Baseball and the television networks that pay their bills, simply would not allow that situation to continue. After many years of legal wrangling, in 1988 they finally put up lights in Wrigley Field. The event gained worldwide attention. From that point on, the Cubs, their beautiful, old neighborhood ballpark, their reputation as "lovable losers", and their nationwide audience via WGN, have given them an audience and following unthinkable just a decade earlier.

And none of that would have been possible without the intransigence, the occasional brilliance, and some downright counterintuitive decisions of PK Wrigley.

Cubs fans like to claim their team is special. They are right. When they won game seven of the World Series last Wednesday, the whole world was watching, most of them cheering them on. Their future is bright, thanks to the Rickets Family and Theo Epstein.

#34 Jon Lester and some of his teammates aboard a bus during the parade and rally celebrating the Cubs World Series victory, Friday, November 4, 2016. 
Had someone else owned the Cubs between 1945 (when they won their last pennant) and 1977 when PK Wrigley died, the Cubs may have won a few championships. Heck they could even be as popular and successful today as the Philadelphia Phillies, the Pittsburgh Pirates, or the Cincinnati Reds, all of whom won multiple championships since World War II, but none lately. Of course somewhere along the line they might have become the Minnesota, the Kansas City or the San Diego Cubs.

So if you're a Cubs fan, the next time you're thanking your lucky stars for the likes of messers Maddon, Rizzo, Fowler, Arrieta, Lester, Bryant, Baez, Zobrist, Epstein, Santo, Banks, Caray, and the rest, please raise a glass to PK Wrigley.

Because without him, the Chicago Cubs might today be no different from ahem... the Chicago White Sox.

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