Chicago Cubs

Cubs fans getting picky about when they attend games at Wrigley Field?

By on May 3, 2018

Cubs fans getting picky when they attend games at Wrigley Field warrants the attention of Tom Ricketts and Crane Kenney. And even Theo Epstein should take a peek.

Perception of the availability and cost of your Cubs tickets is affecting the total gate so far this year, compared to the wire-to-wire sellout present-day President of Cubs business operations Kenney experienced as Tribune Co.’s viceroy for the team in 2008.

Crane Kenney should have a good memory of why tickets to all games went quickly in 2008 compared to unsold seats in 2018.

The sight of the bleachers, the traditional “cheap seats,” only partially filled on an 80-plus degree spring afternoon the other day against the Colorado Rockies should raise the eyebrows of the Cubs’ top brass. StubHub listed bleacher seats for as little as $10. No internal Cubs promotion would ever dare go that low.

For the season, the Cubs have had reams of unsold seats. The tickets sold for the Rockies game were listed at just under 33,000, but the actual crowd count was lower. Three other games have had listed attendances in the 29,000 range. One was the Thursday, April 12, game against the Pirates with the game-time temperature around 70. I attended that game with senior season-ticket holder Carol Haddon. I took a quick trip to the upper deck. That seating area was empty. These listed attendances — seats sold have been the official crowd counts for decades now — meant many thousands of tickets were not purchased at all.

Meanwhile, at both April 12 and subsequent games, scores of prime box seats in the “Club 1914” area were unoccupied. Go back 10 years, and would you see a close-up seat between the dugouts empty?

Now, 29,000 or 33,000 with thousands of no shows is still light years distant from the cozy 3,000 or 4,000 early- and late-season gatherings of the 1970s, when Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers’ chants of “Fanzone, Woo!” would reverberate across the sections of empty seats. However, when applied to what has developed as the game’s flagship franchise only one year after the eternally-deferred World Series title, then some questions must be asked.

Are Cubs fans getting very picky about when they bust their entertainment budgets to attend a game at Wrigley Field? Does it have to be 60s through 80s perfect — excellent weather, an attractive opponent, a weekend or summer weekday? Is there a perception Cubs tickets are too expensive — even though the Rockies game was a 2010s bargain — and hard to get? Are fans tastes changing with so many other less expensive things to do — and the hypnotic rapture of smart phones always available?

When rationalizing pundits say we just endured the coldest April in memory, the adults are not on vacation yet and the kids are still in school, there is simple history to enlighten them. April always has been inclement in Chicago — it is just by what degree and whether gloves are still necessary. The workforce was never in big vacation mode in the first full spring month. And while the final day of school has been creeping backwards over the decades — I remember the third week of June in Chicago public schools — that joyous dismissal time has not yet moved into April yet.

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Wood’s 20-K masterpiece tense to cover as baseball scribe

By on May 2, 2018

They talk about a buzz in the ballpark the day Kerry Wood threw a 20-K masterpiece to earn baseball immorality 20 years ago.

Yet even though Jerome Holtzman proscribed “no cheering in the pressbox,” a complementary buzz also enveloped the Wrigley Field pressbox on May 6, 1998 as Kerry Wood effortlessly mowed down a powerful Houston Astros lineup.

Kerry Wood always kept a level head about himself after his 20-K game, turning down invitations to appear on “The Tonight Show.”

With Wood and mound opponent Shane Reynolds breezing through the batting orders with a blizzard of strikeouts, this was going to be an on-time dinnertime for writers working a day game.

My vantage point was the third row of the pressbox, in my fifth season covering the Cubs for the Times of Northwest Indiana daily newspaper. Through much of that time, I had monitored strikeout wunderkind Wood’s progress with a countdown to his big-league debut.

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The return of ’69 Bleacher Bum leader Ron Grousl — close but no cigar yet

By on April 23, 2018

Sometimes you chase a baseball figure from history, but he’s like Richard Kimble, The Fugitive. You don’t quite catch him.

I wrote a Cubs alumni column for 17 years, 1992-2009, in the team’s VineLine magazine. I usually got my guy, with the exceptions of Adolfo Phillips, Ellis Burton and Brock Davis.

Close, but no Ron Grousl in this photo in his old haunts in the left-field bleachers. Grousl 1969 running mate/bugler Mike Murphy is in front, while Bleacher Bums and ’69 Cubs mixed in the back row: (from left) Rich Nye, Don Flynn, Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins, Randy Anderson and John Brickward.

What was it about center fielders who don’t compare with Albert Almora, Jr., that proved so elusive? Phillips, Burton and Davis all were not back in baseball for an accessible interview, and settled into the woodwork of everyday life in the pre-internet age, when trackdowns were a bit harder. I even corralled the nomadic, enigmatic Don Young at a 1969 Cubs reunion at McCormick Place in 1992. Famed for being elusive in his own right, Young said he had recently worked construction on the new Denver airport.

So why should it be so hard to nail Ron Grousl, Wrigley Field’s court jester as chief Left Field Bleacher Bum of 1969? Well, because Grousl, so much in the headlines in that era decided to take the J.D. Salinger route a few years later. He wanted to be left alone and almost nobody who participated in his guerilla theater above the ivy (and before the bleacher basket) knew where Grousl was.

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Daily WGN Cubs-Sox baseball telecasts in 1948 spurred TV’s growth

By on April 17, 2018

Too bad a WGN engineer did not set up a kinescope — a film made directly off an internal feed of a TV broadcast — in 1948 to preserve even a snippet of  “Good Ol’ Channel 9’s” first season of WGN-TV baseball telecasts that have continued uninterrupted into the present day.

Such a highlight would have been the topper on WGN’s impromptu April 16 special marking the 70th anniversary of the station’s first ballgame, a Cubs-Sox pre-season affair at Wrigley Field. Executive producer Bob Vorwald and crew did a yeoman’s job putting the two-hour show together in a few hours after the vintage highlights were originally scheduled to be scattered through The Leadoff Man and the Cubs-Cardinals game, both postponed by frigid weather.

Vince Lloyd (left) and Jack Brickhouse were staples of WGN’s Cubs telecasts when the station still competed for baseball viewers against WBKB-TV in 1951.

The elongated version of video highlights and a film (not an actual kinescope) off a TV monitor of Stan Musial’s 3,000th hit in 1958 caused my own postponement of other programming, such a DVR of James Comey’s ABC interview. That’s how precious Jack Brickhouse’s 1969 play-by-play of the entire Henry Aaron at-bat concluding Ken Holtzman’s strikeout-free no-hitter and Ron Santo’s heel clicking: “C’mon, Nijinsky, let’s have it…that’s it. Hah. There you go Ronnie…weeee!”

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Where’s Players Association to mitigate dangerous cold-weather playing conditions?

By on April 16, 2018

Even top baseball management realizes major leaguers needed a playing conditions advocate.

Some 15 years ago I approached then-Cubs president Andy MacPhail in the Wrigley Field pressbox cafeteria after researching the four consecutive doubleheaders his team played Friday through Monday over the Labor Day weekend at home in 1967.

Manager Leo Durocher, quickly morphing into a slave driver, started Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, 36-year-old Ernie Banks and Adolfo Phillips in all eight games. Catcher Randy Hundley started seven of the eight contests, and came into the eighth late for backup Johnny Stephenson via a double-switch.

Barbaric, right?

“That’s why you needed the Players Association,” MacPhail said of the country’s now-most powerful union, in 1967 getting acquainted with new executive director Marvin Miller, whom I rated in a book the fourth-most impactful “game changer” in baseball history.

From left, Players Association chief Tony Clark, Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend and Commissioner Rob Manfred before the Fort Bragg Game in 2016. Clark needs to reach across the table to Manfred to establish a baseline of safe playing conditions.

So, that’s why I wonder where Miller successor many-times-removed Tony Clark was when teams played in, again, barbaric conditions over the past two weeks in the extended winter of April 2018?

Worst of all was the now-infamous Saturday, April 14, literally slipshod Cubs’ 14-10 victory over the Braves at Wrigley Field, coming back from an early 10-2 deficit. The conditions were quasi-Arctic, so cold, wet and miserable baseballs were literally squiring out of players’ hands. The risk of serious injury was greatly heightened. Football fans in December at most northern stadiums sat through better conditions.

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In 48th year as Cubs season ticket holder, Haddon soldiers on through Wrigley Field future shock

By on April 14, 2018

No matter what unusual sights she witnessed or good people she encountered, Carol Haddon made her seat right next to the Cubs dugout appointment viewing, as she has done from three different locations at Wrigley Field since 1971.

A honor on the field would not be as impactful as an invitation to sit with Wrigley Field’s 75-year-old Grand Lady on Thursday, April 12, to take in the unique atmosphere of the 104-year old ballpark from her front row and (off-) center vantage points.

Carol Haddon in her new seat next to the enlarged Cubs dugout on April 12, 2018.

But as we met during a 70-degree noontime, we both could see we’re not in 1971 anymore. Or 1969, when now-Glencoe, Ill. resident Haddon zipped down from Skokie via the Yellow and Red Lines and got choice game-by-game seats from a friendly box office. So friendly, in fact, that on cold days she’d be welcomed into the office for a “hot toddy.”

And we seem a century removed from Haddon and mother Ruth Stern journeying all the way from the Chatham neighborhood on the far South Side via bus and Jackson Park L in the mid-1950s to see the Cubs and their matinee idols on Ladies Day. An afternoon at Clark and Addison, even in those losing years, seemed so stress-free compared to dad Rudolf Stern’s childhood in Dusseldorf, Germany. He had gotten out just in time prior to the onset of the Holocaust.

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45,777 jammed Wrigley Field for Cubs’ 1978 home opener like few other first games

By on April 4, 2018

I wish time travel worked in real life to go back to a favorite Cubs home opener.

I’d beam back to 1978 Omaha and invite the teen-age Tom Ricketts to cut high school and fly to Chicago for one day to attend a Cubs home opener.

Tom Ricketts (right) would have had a different perspective on the mob scene at Wrigley Field had he been old enough to attend SRO games played by (from left) Fergie Jenkins, Randy Hundley and Rich Nye — and the record-busting 1978 home opener.

Ricketts would understand the Cubs’ fan mentality even better, get at its roots, than on his 21st century daily excursions all around Wrigley Field to chat with paying (a lot) customers dressed in team garb, enjoying their once- or twice-annual outing as if it were a rock concert.

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White Sox hit hardest in media-coverage cuts

By on March 28, 2018

Where is Bill Veeck when you need him to complain about media-coverage cuts?

If the longtime Baseball Barnum was alive and still ran the White Sox, he’d be pounding his peg leg on his desk, dialing up Chicago Tribune editors with his cigarette dangling from his mouth and would rant and rave—sans any cuss words– far unlike his more genteel Hinsdale upbringing.

Bill Veeck was the type who’d be screaming bloody murder if the largest newspaper in town did not cover the Sox.

Although Veeck grew up in the Cubs organization, for which his father William, Sr. served as all-powerful President, he created a lot of noise in his two tours heading up the Sox ownership group. One loud tactic was measuring newspaper column inches of Cubs and Sox coverage to show the former team had a huge advantage.

What would Veeck think now that the Chicago Tribune, overstaffed back in his time, laid off Chris Kuc, its Sox beat writer, leaving the team temporarily uncovered near the end of spring training?

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Cubs in fine shape, but October a crapshoot; Sox place holders await phenoms

By on March 27, 2018

The 2018 MLB season is about to start and all the pundits come out with their predictions. Here are my thoughts for the new season. It’s hard to pick against the Cubs to win the National League Central.

And how many years have any of us had that experience of knowing the Cubs were odds-on favorites? It’s still unchartered territory and takes getting used to.

The days of having to contort mentally, if not physically, into finding a way to justify a prognostication of a Cubs division title are still too close for comfort. And maybe in the baseball, by far the most unpredictable sport of all, it’s best to never be comfortable in forecasting.

But at this juncture, the Cubs would have to fritter away an NL Central title, while the White Sox are still in a place-holding juncture for expected waves of prime prospects to build a contender in future seasons.

Even an average power and RBI output from Jason Heyward would be welcome after two mediocre seasons at the plate.

Both outcomes are satisfactory to their respective fan bases. And when has that ever been the mindset going into a new season?

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Innings-eaters consumed by time, overworked bullpens, sabermetrics

By on March 13, 2018

Bully for Jon Lester.

Embarrassed by a sub-par 2017, the Cubs well-compensated lefty wants to pitch 200 or more innings and spare his bullpen overwork this season.

Why it’s even an issue of Lester reaching a traditionally modest innings-pitched mark for starter shows the problems of 21st century baseball.

Sabermetrics and new-age front offices believe perils are courted if a starter goes through a lineup a third time. “Five and fly” or “five and dive” are no longer epithets against no-endurance starters, but new standards of performance. Bullpens are bloated to eight arms with a 13-man pitching staff overall. An extra starter is added for a doubleheader.

OK, where is the corresponding expansion of rosters to, say, 27?

Say a team inflates to 14 pitchers. That means eight position players are augmented by just three backups, one by necessity a catcher. If you’re in the National League, that gives a manager limited pinch-hitting and double-switching options. We’ve seen managers run out of players with a six-man bench, so a three or four backups — figuring the reserve catcher must be held back as long as possible — won’t serve the game situation’s needs well.

Theo Epstein's off-season work can be classified as "re-tooling."

If Theo Epstein backs Joe Maddon’s mid-game hooks of starters, then he must advocate expanded rosters, to 27.

Theo Epstein was branded the greatest leader in the world and a future Hall of Famer. But I’d like to see Theo use his stature in the game to balance out the sabermetrics of his front-office posse and Joe Maddon’s itchy fingers for his bullpen with an advocacy of enough players to accommodate the quick hooks for starters. Epstein would have to defy cost-cutting owners. If no starters go seven innings consistently with some pulled before five innings, and also relievers cannot go more than one inning apiece, then teams need 15-man pitching staffs.

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