The ceremonial halfway point of the baseball season is a time to reflect on the good and bad of the Chicago baseball clubs. Unfortunately, it’s mostly bad in Wrigleyville. A bullpen that can’t hold a lead, a regressing shortstop and a lack of timely hitting have made for tough viewing and a growing stack of losses. But there’s hope on the horizon for the Cubs. It may be farther off in the distance than most of us realize but Theo Epstein and the rest of Cubs brass have championed that hope to hold fan interest through another brutal season. It’s easy for a team – even the well-followed Cubs – to fall off the radar during its lean years, rebuilding in the shadows and relegated to the back of the newspaper and closing segment of the local sports report. But the Cubbies, though not top of mind, are still part of the sports discussion in Chicago, on the radio, television and across the internet.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer came to Chicago selling a process-oriented methodology to building a baseball team. ‘The Cubs’ Way’ guide, formed early in their reign, was an attempt to make an intangible idea more concrete. Creating ‘The Cubs’ Way’ manual, though never shared publicly, proves to media and fans alike that a defined plan is in place. On the field, Epstein’s crew is implementing a standard coaching philosophy across all levels of the organization, from Single-A Boise to the big club in Chicago. While other organizations may employ this same strategy, the Cubs president expressed it eloquently, leading most fans to buy in to the rebuilding plan and embrace a holistic viewpoint of organizational development. Fans are anxious for hot prospects to hit Wrigley Field and infuse some excitement into the doldrums of another losing season. But Epstein and Hoyer continually reiterate the thought process behind patiently growing youngsters in the minors instead of silently making personnel decisions. Away from the white lines, Cubs leadership is preaching accountability and responsibility for all players, at all levels. When Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler was suspended five games by the Florida State League for carrying a bat across the field during a brawl, Cubs leadership supported the discipline wholly. Ian Desmond, formerly of the Triple-A Cubbies, was publicly admonished by Jed Hoyer for his Twitter criticism of the organization and its major league manager, Dale Sveum. He was suspended and then, eventually, dismissed for his anti-team comments. Even at the major league level, the Cubs have high expectations for their players, dropping a struggling Starlin Castro in the lineup and awarding playing time for good performance. A new mentality is settling in with Cub players. ‘The Cubs’ Way’ is a guide and a mantra that staff at all levels of the organization parrot and fans hang their hope on.
While the on-field product isn’t up to major league standards yet, the Cubs have put significant time, effort and funds into nourishing its minor league system. The excitement of a highly touted farm system – currently ranked 12th by Baseball Prospectus – creates the aura of a promising future. Whether or not highly touted prospects – Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora to name a few – become major league stars, Epstein is selling the potential stardom to fans. Some GMs shield prospects from expectations, believing they’ll fold under pressure. The Cubs won’t call up these prospects until they’ve proven themselves ready but they also don’t go out of their way to keep their names out of the discussion. When the promotion of Javier Baez from Single-A to Double-A is a topic of sports talk conversation, you know Cubs marketing is doing their job well. And the 2012 move of its Single-A team from Peoria to Kane County brought a few of those future Cubs to Chicagoland, drawing interested fans to the minor league ballpark for a taste of the future. This season’s trade deadline will also bring the exit of more major leaguers, like Garza and probably-maybe-hopefully Soriano, but it will also return prospects that sell Cub fans on future Wrigley Field talent. Be excited that the Cubs are building a respectable farm system but don’t get attached to the names you hear and read about. Team leadership wants assets, pure and simple. Some will be called up to the majors – like Junior Lake – but others will be dealt for established talent, when the time is right. It’s the future potential of these minor league athletes that energize a fan base tired of watching big league mediocrity.
Significant change is coming to Wrigleyville whether local Alderman Tom Tunney likes it or not. Tom Ricketts continues his battle through the tangled web of Chicago politics so he can spend his own money to revitalize Wrigley Field and generate new revenue streams. A new large-and-in-charge left field Jumbotron, nearby hotel complex, restored stadium exterior and improved restaurants, concession spaces and restrooms will make a trip to this historic stadium feel different, mostly in a good way. While rooftop owners and Tunney, whose campaign is heavily funded by said businessmen, attempt to derail the plan, Cubs faithful seem behind the renovation and greater emphasis on advertising as a means to an end. Smart fans realize the upsides – a higher payroll, better stadium atmosphere and improved facilities for players. And while the blow-by-blow details of the negotiations have been kept from the public, Ricketts has finally started using the media wisely to brings fans onto the team’s side of the argument. Instead of threats to depart Wrigleyville for Rosemont or another suburb, the message remains on point. While Ricketts doesn’t owe fans an explanation, his reasoning of using new revenue streams to improve the organization and the fan experience is sound. And releasing artist renderings of changes that emphasis tactfulness and blended design removes the angst held by traditionalists and excites fans that crave a more modern baseball experience. Tom Ricketts and Cubs Public Relations have spun the Wrigley Field redesign well, highlighting the benefits to fans and subtly underlining the ugliness of Chicago politics and greediness of politicians like Alderman Tom Tunney.
Hope is – and always has been – sold to Chicago Cub fans. When “Wait ‘Til Next Year” is a fan born mantra, hope is all you have. When your team is one hundred plus years removed from a championship, expectations are naturally tempered. But current Cubs leadership is lifting up the ‘reality of hope’ narrative more than Jim Hendry or Andy MacPhail ever did. Sadly, the trade deadline, hot stove and down-on-the-farm hype doesn’t make big league baseball watchable. For fans sake, let’s hope the current crop of hot prospects don’t go the way of Felix Pie, Corey Patterson and Hee-Seop Choi. If Theo Epstein, Tom Ricketts and Jed Hoyer are as good at organization building as they are at selling hope, Cub fans can rest easy and prepare for some exciting Octobers.