Sunday, September 29, 2019

Victim of their success?

One of my favorite baseball trivia questions is this:

Which Major League Baseball organization has played the most games as a professional major league team? 

Many people who know the game will automatically name the Chicago Cubs as they were one of only two extant teams to have been members of the very first professional baseball organization, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, the predecessor of the National League. The reason the Cubs do not share that distinction with the other team is only because of a twist of fate, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Because their original ballpark, located at what is now the northwest corner of Millennium Park, was destroyed along with much of their city, the team was forced to sit out the next two seasons. That leaves the other team, then known as the Boston Red Stockings as the team who has played the most games in MLB history.

Ah but what team is that today? Well if you know your baseball, you know that the current Boston Red Sox are one of the charter members of the American League, which is several years the junior of the National League, so it can't be them. The original National League BoSox went through a bunch of nicknames as was common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, settling on the name Braves in 1912. The Boston Braves, for whom Babe Ruth played his final games, re-located to Milwaukee in 1953, then to Atlanta in 1966, and there you have it.

But I digress. This is about the Cubs, the team who far and away holds the record for the MLB team who has played the most games in the same city. Today the Cubs played the last game of their season. To people like me who have followed the team for a long time, not as a fan necessarily, but merely an interested observer, it comes as no surprise that the Cubs ended the year in disappointing fashion. It may not have been a frustrating, tear your hair out disappointment as it was in 2018, 2017, 2015, 2008 and 2007, or a heart-rending disappointment like 1969 and 1984, or worst of all a gut-wrenching disappointment as it was in 2003, but the fact that the team didn't even make the playoffs this year was disappointing nonetheless.

Today marked the last game behind the bench for their colorful manager Joe Maddon, who in 2016 led the Cubs to their first World Series win in any living person's memory. And this year marked the end of a very long relationship with WGN TV, the local and later super-station who broadcast Cub games for 72 years. 

In case you're interested, the club is forming its own network which surprise surprise, fans will have to pay to watch. Of course in this day and age of the internet, people will certainly find ways to watch the games for free on their computers, so perhaps the change will not be as draconian as some might suggest.

Yet it is still a slap in the face for all the dedicated Cubs fans out there who either don't have cable TV, yes there are still those of us without it, or fans who simply can't afford paying yet another surcharge on top of their already expensive monthly cable bill. 

Clearly for the Ricketts family who owns the team, this is a prudent business move aimed at generating more revenue to invest in the team and one would assume, help put more money in their pockets. As we live in a capitalist society, we shouldn't have a problem with this as a baseball team like any other sports franchise, is not a charitable non-for-profit organization, not by a long shot. The owners don't owe the fans the luxury of giving their product away for free and we the fans shouldn't expect them to do so.

The funny thing is this was exactly the attitude of baseball owners in the early days of TV, back when all TV was free. Most of them understood that while there was some value in advertising their product by showing a limited number of games on TV, the owners were loathe to televise too many out of fear that people would stay home to watch for free rather than opening up their pocketbooks and coming out to the ballpark. In many cases, that's exactly what they did.

Only one owner bucked that trend, Phillip Knight Wrigley, former owner of the Cubs. A few years ago I wrote this piece, a bit of a tribute to old PK, whom I feel deserves much of the credit for the enormous success the Cubs franchise enjoys today.

My point in the piece  was that the current success of the Cubs was a result of largely three things. The first is Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs since 1916. While other team owners left their classic old ballparks, especially in the 1960s and 70s in favor of new, sterile multipurpose stadiums (which themselves have all but disappeared), only Wrigley and the Yawkey family in Boston bucked the trend and retained their beautiful old ballparks. And of the two, only Wrigley insisted, for a few reasons, that all the games in his ballpark should be played during the day. The latter, which many thought was foolish and backwards, ultimately worked to the team's favor because when they finally decided to put in lights in 1986, the whole nation tuned in to watch.

And the whole nation was able to tune in to watch because by that time, WGN who had been broadcasting virtually every Cubs game on TV thanks to Wrigley, had gone national, so folks all over the country could follow and fall in love with the lovable losing team, another one of Wrigley's legacies.

Of course most folks believed that Wrigley was really just a hack, he inherited the team from his father and really didn't make much of an effort to put a championship team on the field. Perhaps that's true. He clearly was more interested in providing a pleasant environment for an afternoon's entertainment for his customers, than he was in putting a decent team on the field. On that rare occasion when a PK Wrigley team, especially in the latter part of the owner's tenure actually was good, it was out of accident rather than design.

But as I pointed out in my piece, had Wrigley followed his peers back in the day, the Cubs may have had one or two more championships under their belts and thus today be just as lucrative as the Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies or Pittsburgh Pirates, in other words, successful franchises for sure, but nothing compared to the Cubs.

Had Wrigley been more like his peers, he could very well have decided that Chicago was not big enough for two teams, pulled up stakes and moved south or west as the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Philadelphia Athletics, Washington Senators, St. Louis Browns (actually they moved east to Baltimore)  and the aforementioned Boston Braves all did. How does the Salt Lake City Cubs sound to you?

I think every Cub fan owes a debt of gratitude to old PK for being stubborn and not following the pack. So should the Ricketts family who bought the team while it was already a tremendously successful enterprise. All they had to do was sink a fortune into the team and manage to break a 108 year old curse of mediocrity. For that they should be congratulated.

As for the changes to the ballpark and even more staggering, to the surrounding neighborhood, all I'll say is that the jury is still out.

And as for leaving WGN well, as I said, I'm sure it's a prudent business decision, one that every reasonable owner in their position would probably make. Times change and there simply aren't any PK Wrigley types around anymore who can just do whatever they please since it's their team and they don't have to answer to scores of investors, not to mention 24/7 sports-talk blabber mouths.

Besides there's no arguing with success, or is there?

I do miss the days when you could on game day sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, turn on Channel 9 and know the Cubs would be on or better yet, just head out to the ballpark at Clark and Addison, buy a ticket for a few bucks, and sit practically anywhere you pleased.

It was sure fun while it lasted.

Thank God I'm a White Sox fan.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Lucky Luciano

My dad God rest his soul, was a remarkably predictable man. You could set your clock every June 21st, the official first day of summer, by him saying: "the days will now be getting shorter." Likewise at the other end of the year, on December 21st you could rest assured that he would pronounce the opposite. Three days later on the 24th, after the last present under the tree was unwrapped, (it was our family custom to follow the European tradition of celebrating on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas Day), he would say: "oh well, another Christmas is over." Never mind that at least according to the church in which we supposedly belonged, the feast of Christmas doesn't even begin until midnight on the 25th.

My father was a contrarian through and through. It was part of his charm as well as one of his most annoying traits. In the seventies, when everyone, and I mean everyone wore polyester flare legged pants with matching shirts and accessories, my father steadfastly stuck to wearing his old, threadbare cotton shirts and straight legged pants. It's funny because when you look at photographs from the time, my father looks remarkably stylish by today's standards while the rest of us in our flashy petroleum product  based shirts, platform shoes and ridiculous bell-bottoms look well, silly to put it kindly. You're probably ahead of me by now and can predict that the minute seventies' fashions went away, and thankfully for the most part never really came back, my dad gave up his straight legged pants for you guessed it. He dug out of the closet all those seventies threads he got as presents during that dreadful fashion era, but never wore when they were acceptable. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that my father was probably the last man on earth to wear a leisure suit.

One bit of contrarianism he practically took to his grave was his disdain for the famous opera star Luciano Pavarotti. whom as fate would have it, as I write these words, has just appeared on my Pandora radio station. Give me a minute to recover from that sudden shock of serendipity.

OK I'm better.

My love affair with opera, which I shared with my mother and to a lesser extent my father, began during my first year of college. The first opera I willfully attended was Puccini's Tosca with Pavarotti singing for the first time ever on stage, the role of Mario Cavaradossi. While he was in town, the tenor visited the record section of the old Marshall Field store on State Street to sign albums. If you didn't know that Marshall Fields at one time sold records, I can assure you this was a very long time ago, and if you don't know what a record album or for that matter what Marshall Fields is, ask your grandmother.

Anyway, I stood in line for about an hour while the Great Pavarotti was greeting his adoring fans and signing their purchases. For my part I selected a recording featuring a selection of famous arias, the first of many albums featuring opera that I would collect over the years. I'm not exaggerating to say that by the time I got to the table where the man of the hour was holding court, I must have been at least the two hundredth person he met, and there were probably the same number of folks behind me. As Pavarotti signed my album, he greeted me as if I were his best friend. I thanked him and with a huge smile on his face, looking me straight in the eye he said with gusto in his strong Modena accent,: "Eeeeseh my PLAYzhure."

Needless to say, from that moment on I was a huge fan of the huge man.

Now as anyone who knows me can tell you, I'm rather obsessive by nature and that album and those that followed got serious playtime at full volume around the house, (I still lived with my parents at the time). My mom was happy to indulge me as she took full credit for my new and to her, acceptable passion because as she liked to tell people, she used to play opera all the time when I was a small child.

On the other hand, while he didn't explicitly say anything, I can imagine all our fawning over Luciano Pavarotti must have gotten on my father's nerves. Very soon he took every chance he got to say that he liked this or that opera singer better than Pavarotti. In fact, his passion for dissing Pavarotti in this fashion, long outlived my passion for "Il Primo Tenore." More than twenty years after I bought my last Pavarotti album, any singer with classical aspirations whose voice would show up whenever my parents and I were together would like clockwork illicit these words from my old man:  "I like him (or her) better than Pavarotti."

I was reminded of this the other day when I read the following question posted to the Quora website:
Don't liberals realize that whenever they criticize the president it only make us in his base support him more?
At first I thought, with all the significant issues out there to cause one to support or not support a politician, how lame is it to base one's support as so many people do, for no other reason than to contradict the opinion of someone else?

Then it dawned on me, the constant drone of complaints against this president, no matter how valid, must sound to the base what playing Luciano Pavarotti four or five hours a day at close to full volume on our home stereo system must have sounded like to my father.

For exactly this reason, many folks who strongly oppose this president,  wisely refuse to publicly comment on him, out of angst over inciting the base.

And yet, this past week having exhibited particularly outrageous and unstable behavior...

DAMN there I go again, I just incited at least three more people who were on the brink of coming around, I simply have to be more careful. OK let me get my bearings...  OM...... deep breath..... 1, 2, 3, another deep breath,,, let it out...whew....good.

OK I have a great idea, it came to me in a dream the other night, here goes:

Each and every American you see, we're all in this really big house together and one group of people, for the sake of argument, let's call them the damn dirty snowflakes, REALLY loves opera, especially Luciano Pavarotti. The love him so much that they play his music at full volume in the house for hours on end. Then there is the other group, let's call them the Base. To them opera is OK in doses but let's get real, at least throw in some Merle every once in a while.

Well the two groups get to fighting over the record player and who should show up from the great beyond, but none other than the Okie from Muskogee himself, Merle Haggard. He tells them that up there in heaven he met this Pavarotti guy, and he's really full of himself, nothing but a big fat commie libtard. "You guys are right to fight those damn snowflakes down here every chance you get, putting them in their place by telling them that Johnny, Conway, Waylon, Hank and me are all better than that stupid Pavarotti."

"Yeah that'll really piss 'em off" cries the base. So whipped into a frenzy were they by their idols Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Janine Pirro, who mercilessly bash the singer left and right, they all got their panties into a bunch over Pavarotti. In fact that's all they could ever talk or think about anymore.

Once they all got to the point of carrying lit tiki torches in the night to protest all things Pavarotti, Merle Haggard shows up again. He tells them they're doing a great job and by the way, he's got a message from the Man upstairs. "He told me to tell you guys down here that Trump's an asshole, forget about him."

Which they do.

Problem solved. 

Thanks Merle.

Thanks Pop.