I just can’t get over the stark fact Randy Anderson relayed in a conversation the other day, when a hint of spring in the air suggested the second season since a Cubs World Series triumph was weeks away.
Randy Anderson, adorned in his yellow Left Field Bleacher Bums helmet, displays a copy of the famed 1969 Cub Power album — still unopened.
Anderson, still possessing his 1969 Left Field Bleacher Bums helmet, did not attend a game at Wrigley Field in the title season. Admittedly a people person who loved going to the bleachers for the relationships and simple ambience of the time, he instead enjoyed the long delayed-and-deferred championship in the company of friends at The Nil Tap sports bar on the Northwest Side.
I still can’t believe an authentic Bleacher Bum, as much a part of the ’69 Cubs as their four Hall of Fame-bound stars, couldn’t count as one of the 3 million-plus in the stands in ’16. Yet Anderson knows things have changed, mostly for the better, in how the Cubs are run and how they spend their money. In contrast, they have moved backward in the quality of fan now attending games.
Hot off the press will be signed copies of “Champions” at the book launch party.
Part of my job, say, in 2004-06 was to chronicle the ongoing comebacks of Cubs pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. World Series hopes, continually dashed, had rested on their formerly lightning-distributing right arms.
Both Wood and Prior came back, all right, though not in the form the Cubs envisioned. Through more surgeries and innumerable towel drills, Wood got lean and mean through workouts and organic foods, transforming himself into a good late-inning reliever starting out his 30s. Prior kept attempting comebacks for a half-decade after he threw his final pitch as a Cub in 2006. None of his comebacks got him back to the big leagues, so at a young age, Prior became a minor-league pitching coach. He’s now bullpen coach for the Dodgers.
Almost any major sports figure has some kind of comeback story, on or off the field/court/ice. I’ve gathered up some good ones in, what else?, a new book, “Champions.” And for the first time since my inaugural book, “I Remember Harry Caray” in 1998, they’re throwing a party to launch the project.
If you can’t get out to spring training on Feb. 22, you have an alternative. At 7 p.m. on that day, you can meet living examples of comeback stories from near and far in sports at Osteria Via Stato, 625. N. State St., just off Ontario Steet, in Chicago’s River North restaurant belt. Signed copies from yours truly and all the profilees will be available along with drinks and some good food. Tickets are $79 with VIP admission at $179, available at www.signaturestrength.org/events.
Rick Hahn could have experienced a far worse reaction during SoxFest, and it would be understandable. Human nature prompts impatience.
But the pride of Winnetka and cerebral Sox GM had properly communicated from Day One that annual patchwork simply would not suffice anymore, and a total teardown-and-rebuild would be the only way for his listing franchise to proceed. That’s why Hahn was cheered and backslapped wherever he went.
Just be upfront and open about your intentions. Don’t hype it up with “all-in” proclamations. And some of sports most discerning, if not outright critical fans, will cut you plenty of slack.
Fans would not take to middling free agents brought in for hole-plugging and money-wasting. But the best prospects in baseball? Now, that will go a long way.
Dick Allen, who completed the Roland Hemond-led rebuild, shows off his 1972 Most Valuable Player Award 40 years later at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Two historical precedents show how the Sox handled rebuilding in different ways, and got different fan reactions. Nobody but the most avid senior fans are left from the first example, but fortunately Hahn figured it out on his own with support from chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.
Finishing the team record 106-loss season in 1970, the Sox were irrelevant in Chicago. They drew fewer than 500,000 fans in ’70. Only the semi-senile Leo Durocher-fueled Cubs collapses that year, and the doozy in 1969, prevented the Sox from moving through sheer lack of interest. Fortunately, in his first year as owner, John Allyn realized the pitch-and-putt style favored by his brother Arthur of the past decade just could not continue.
John Allyn thoroughly cleaned house. Gone were GM Ed Short, manager Don Gutteridge, longtime radio play-by-play voice Bob Elson and other symbols of boring, losing baseball. Swept in were de facto GM Roland Hemond, positive-mental-attitude manager Chuck Tanner and broadcaster Harry Caray. Allyn let all know he was not in it for incremental change.
The flip of the calendar to 2018, the pending Hall of Fame announcement and a couple of long-form YouTube videos got me thinking about the Great Home Run Race of 1998, now tainted by PED accusations.
Twenty years have zipped by at warp speed since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivated a generally contented public, existing in a boom economy and terrorism-light environment that hasn’t been replicated since. Covering Sosa from my then-assigned pressbox seat at Wrigley Field and in a handful of games in Milwaukee seems it took place last month.
The recriminations have been heavy ever since about how this race was fueled with McGwire and Sosa both achieving home-run totals that previously were straight out of science fiction. There is never more head-shaking and hand-wringing than when the new Cooperstown inductees are announced. At this writing, a true Clean Gene, Peoria’s Jim Thome, is an odds-on favorite to win the writers’ vote. Thome missed by one season playing on the White Sox with Frank Thomas, yet another natural strongman who decried players who apparently inflated their numbers by chemical means.
Fans just wanted to pack their cares away and watch Sammy Sosa slug during the Great Home Run Race of 1998.
And Major League Baseball itself is no longer policing the internet with secret-police zeal. Entire vintage ballgame telecasts are now routinely posted on YouTube. I couldn’t help but tune in again to the warm September weekend when Sosa slugged his 60th homer in a wild Cubs’ 15-12 comeback victory over the Brewers. Slammin’ Sammy, as he was fondly called in this different era, went beyond the outer limits with his 61st and 62nd in another rally-cap special, an 11-10 triumph in 10 innings, the next day. Sosa’s second, Maris-busting clout started a two-run ninth inning rally. Factoring in the Brewers’ 13-11 win on Friday, that may have been one of a handful of three-game series in which all teams scored in football-sized double-digit numbers in every contest.
All the in- and off-season hang-wringing about three-hour-plus game times that drive away Millennials and bore tons of TV viewers is misplaced. Solutions like limiting the number of manager’s and catcher’s visits, and even pitch clocks, don’t get to the heart of the problem.
Unfortunately, baseball would have to revert to its 20th century style to drive the game times back toward the two-hour, 40 minute mark or even less.
Starting pitchers working quickly and efficiently for seven or eight innings. And why not all nine? One or at the very most two relief pitchers, preferably starting the inning fresh instead of the usual stall-ball of a mid-inning change.
Which will be the manager who will revert to the good ol’ days rather than panic at the first baserunner in the fifth inning, or believe every arm in the bullpen is there to be used at any time, and we don’t care if we run out of pitchers in extra innings?
The relentless march of the internet and its hypnotic I-devices – gobbling up old-school jobs and not replacing them with a commensurate number of new-age positions – finally cut into the muscle of Chicago baseball coverage.
Most fans don’t really care how the media operates. They just want their ballgames broadcast and (now) streamed. And if they are more than casual fans wearing team apparel for their once- or twice-annual ballpark trips, a pre-game preview and post-game analysis are also appreciated. They don’t tend to be too discriminating in who originates that content.
But they should. Follow the logic and history here.
White Sox fans have one less experienced “insider” to explain Rick Hahn’s rebuilding program. Dan Hayes, who arrived five years ago from San Diego to cover the Sox for NBC Sports Chicago, has been swept up in a second round of layoffs for the suddenly troubled regional sports channel.
John Wroblewski (left) chatw with old South Chicago neighbor Rick Stelmaszek (right) during a visit to Minneapolis’ Target Field.
Rick Stelmaszek garnered deserved respect at the longest tenured Minnesota Twins employee and the third-longest serving coach, at 32 years, in big-league history.
But it was then-catcher Stelmaszek’s cup-of-coffee as a Chicago Cub that I brought up whenever I’d say hello to “Stelly,” his nickname known to all in his innumerable visits back home to Guaranteed Rate Field, nee U.S. Cellular Field, and built in 1989-90 as new Comiskey Park. And he had 10 seasons coming through the original Comiskey Park across the street.
I witnessed Stelly’s sole big-league homer off Hall of Famer Don Sutton in a lost-cause game on Aug. 20, 1974 at Wrigley Field. The last of four catchers the Cubs employed in that 96-loss, last-place season, Stelly’s blast reached the catwalk with a man on in the sixth inning. Over the decades, other accounts no doubt have the blast lengthening ‘til it banged off a building on the other side of Sheffield Avenue.
Davey Martinez was a three-time Cub before he was named Nationals manager. Photo used with permission of Jeff Briscoe.
If any of us had the number of job rejections Davey Martinez experienced, we’d likely have gone nuts.
The brand-new Washington Nationals manager and three-time Cub (twice a player and for the last three years Joe Maddon’s bench coach) has been qualified for years to move up to run his own team. Maybe, as Jim Riggleman once experienced in a long dry spell, he was not politically in with the GM to get the managing job. Maybe it just wasn’t his time.
Dave Roberts showed the long and short of odd pitching moves in Game 2 of the World Series.
Not Mad Men. This is not a throwback.
Did you like the 11:30 p.m. Central wrapup of Game 2 of the World Series? Maybe the memorable 7-6 Astros victory is shortened by a half hour if Dodgers manager Dave Roberts does not pull an effective Rich Hill after four innings of one-run ball. In turn, Roberts does not automatically call on Kenley Jansen to attempt a six-out save to start the eighth. And, finally, Roberts doesn’t run out of relief pitchers by the time ex-White Sox Brandon McCarthy allowed the final Astros comeback in the 11th inning.
Craziness is running rampant in the managers’ handling of pitchers the past two postseasons. Shutdown starters are being pulled short of qualifying for a win. Closers are being inserted in mid-game, or are being called on to double their accustomed workload in the eighth.
First was tear-down and rebuilding, revenue and attendance and broadcast ratings and 56-year moorings on WGN-Radio be damned.
Then came a kind of playoff buildup and climax, completed via a fortuitous rain delay and rah-rah Jason Heyward speech.
Now comes a necessary re-tooling and internal organizational examination.
The Cubs know how to step on the gas without exhaustion and collapses in the second half of seasons. Although now a questionable post-season in-game manager, Joe Maddon has proved to be the unlocker of secrets of how to finish strong in Wrigley Field – simply by lightening the traditional pre-game workload.
But some aspects of the Cubs roster have an expiration date after a somewhat shaky postseason, when often-stumblebum play by the otherwise gilded Washington Nationals handed the Cubs an NLCS berth against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They were not up to the task.