Thursday, April 5th
Wrigley Field, Chicago
Washington Nationals vs. Chicago Cubs
SP: Strasburg SP: Dempster
Chilly winds swirled and whipped through the old ballpark as we snuck down close to the field to see Bill Murray throw out the first pitch and run the bases, sliding into home under the bright sun and the satirical jeers of the crowd. The legendary lake wind was blowing in, and everybody expected a low-scoring game.
Cubs and Nats fans alike huddled together in the standing-room-only ring around the lower tier, overpriced beers in hand. It was indeed a tight game with great starting pitching, as veteran hometown hurler Ryan Dempster out-dueled super-hyped phenom Stephen Strasburg through 7 innings.
But the Cubs’ bullpen blew the lead by walking three in the 8th, and despite Ian Stewart’s 9th inning triple, a fatal baserunning decision by a pinch-runner in the bottom of the 9th cost them the win. Some fans groaned in all-too-familiar agony, while others barely took notice as they staggered out of the stadium. After the game, I spoke with a few die-hard fans at a brewpub which was a good walk away from Wrigleyville.
Russ lives in Chicago, but only goes to about three games per year. With no cable at home, he listens to every game on the radio — which is what he feels a lot of fellow die-hards are doing these days. He’d enjoyed seeing opening day, even if he was bitterly disappointed in the result.
When asked about his beloved Cubbies, Russ made an interesting distinction between Cubs fans and Wrigley Field fans. The former are actually interested in watching baseball, while the latter are simply fans of the ballpark as the city’s largest bar. He mentioned how Cubs fans, like himself, feel uncomfortable being around Wrigley fans — especially around the bars John Barleycorn or Sluggers, which promote a culture most accurately embodied in a t-shirt seen around the stadium, “win or lose, we still booze.”
Wrigleyville has ironically become one of the most undesirable places for many baseball fans to be on game day. As a result, Wrigley Field is seen as being responsible for turning the neighborhood into a parody of itself.
For us Rockies fans, this is quite Interesting, actually, because Coors Field is generally believed by many in Colorado to have saved the city of Denver, or at the very least was a primary reason for the city’s rebirth. However, it’s the opposite in Chicago where it seems Wrigley has Disney-fied the neighborhood into a nostalgic, expensive, and drunken tourist attraction.
Russ prefers to leave the park to out-of-towners who are willing to pay $200 per seat (although we only paid $25 for our standing-room tickets), but he also volunteered a more radical and provocative suggestion.
RUSS: Throughout the 80′s, the park had a lot more of a blue-collar vibe. The strike in ’94 also severely affected how many of these fans viewed the team and the sport itself. Since then, wages for working people hasn’t kept pace with the cost of gas, ticket prices, or living anywhere near Wrigleyville. These are some of the reasons things are the way they are today.
KEVIN: Is there a way out of this mess?
RUSS: Tear down Wrigley Field.
RUSS: It would piss off the right people. Then we could move the scoreboard down to the ballpark in Joliet. Or better yet, move the team back to the West Side Grounds.
KEVIN: I’ve never heard a proposal like that before.
RUSS: That’s where they won the World Series for the last time. Unfortunately, that’s also where the USC medical facility is, so, guess we gotta tear down a hospital, too.
* * *
The other noteworthy hardball conversation of the day was one between a pair of Cubs fans, two strangers with differing perspectives on individual players, but who tended to agree on the bigger picture. Their conversation made me think about how Rockies fans might address the same issues a few years from now.
Luke took the overnight bus from Omaha, 8hrs, alone. An avid Fangraphs reader and devout Cubs fan, he started off by expressing how happy he was that the Cubs didn’t sign Pujols or Fielder in the off-season. Somewhat surprisingly, he was equally content to see that the Cubs didn’t re-sign Sean Marshall or Aramis Ramirez. He feels optimistic about Ian Stewart and sees the club shipping Soriano, Soto, Marmol, and Byrd by the end of the season.
Jamie, on the other hand, has lived in Chicago for over a decade and thinks the team should’ve signed the young Prince to a long-term deal. He was even more bummed to see Marshall and Ramirez go. And he considers Alfonso Soriano to be the worst and most over-paid left-fielder of all-time.
LUKE: No, he’s not. In a world where Adam Dunn once played left-field, he is never gonna be the worst left-fielder of all time. Soriano, I get it, he makes a lot of dumb mistakes, but he still has a good arm and gets a fair amount of assists every year, mostly because people don’t respect his arm. And he made a couple nice plays today…
JAMIE: Today, he looked…decent. Last season, he was…c’mon, man. Dude is making $18 mill a year and his level of defense for a left-fielder is just unacceptable. Retroactive payment for Soriano being good in the past made no sense; we’re not paying him for what he is expected to do. At $18 mill a year!? I think that’s absurd.
LUKE: It’s really hard for me to defend Jim Henry, but I’m going to. I think Henry’s hands were tied on that one. The Tribune wanted to boost the value of the team before selling it, so that’s what signing Soriano to that huge contract was all about. The core they had at the time, how could you not do it? He figured we can add a potential 5 win player (who’s never even come close to that as a Cub), and we’ve got a playoff team. He’s thinking, “if we win the World Series, they’re gonna build a statue of me 100feet high, and although the contract might look stupid five years down the road, no one will care. Well, they didn’t win the World Series and the contract looked stupid after the first year, unfortunately. But…these are the risks you take.
JAMIE: I guess I’m glad Epstein is on board.
LUKE: Yeah. Epstein hasn’t made any big, crazy deals, because he hasn’t had to. But if somebody like Detroit comes asking for Garza later in the year and offers half their farm system, then we’ll trade Garza. But I expect it’s gonna be a couple of long years for Epstein. I don’t envy him.
JAMIE: Yeah, in a lot of ways, it seems to me like Barack Obama taking office after 8 years of George W. Bush. You walk in and you got two wars and an economic depression, what are you gonna do?
LUKE: That’s a pretty apt comparison. Not only does the major league level kinda suck for the Cubs, but the farm system isn’t very good either. And the only reason for any optimism, is all the money the Cubs have. They have the resources to build a system at a sustained, competitive level — they can spend more money on the draft, on player development, on scouting the globe — so they have no excuse to be outside the top 5 teams in baseball. With the money they make and spend, they should easily be competitive every year.
JAMIE: But they’re not…
LUKE: I know. This ownership group wants to win, though, which is thirty-fold better than the Tribune.
JAMIE: Well, it was an off-set of their media. It was a product the media could talk about while simultaneously being the media, and making money off of the whole thing.
LUKE: Yeah, which is all they cared about. And it’s a disservice to the people who showed up regardless of whether the team was good or not.
JAMIE: Well, but that also reflects on the people who do show up regardless — people like you and me, maybe –
LUkE: Yeah, I’m guilty. I’ll go to a Cubs game no matter how crappy they are. It’s a blast!
JAMIE: Yes, it is a blast … But we’re like sheep being led to the slaughter.
LUKE: I know. But I feel like between the ownership and people in charge of the team, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic. Maybe not this year, maybe not next year. But real soon. Especially as weak as the NL Central is gonna get.
JAMIE: I dunno. The Brewers look tough. And why not keep Aramis Ramirez? Third base is the thinnest position outside catcher and middle relief. He wanted to stay here in Chicago, exercising his no-trade clause last season, but he got shoved aside in the new system.
LUKE: Nah, dude. I’ll bet you Ian Stewart is worth as many wins as Aramis Ramirez this year. I wouldn’t be shocked, at all. Paying $18mill for Ramirez to hit cleanup on a crappy team, or dealing a crappy prospect in Colvin — no offense, Kevin — to the Rockies, for Stewart, is a risk worth taking.
KEVIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just remember where you got Jeff Baker and Ian Stewart, your starting corner infielders for opening day! And don’t count out those Brewers…
Speaking of the Brewers, stay tuned for the next write-up from Milwaukee, where the second episode of our cross-country conversations takes us to Miller Park where talk of cheese curds, Brewers-Rockies connections, car troubles, union traditions, and the lost artist of the player/manager all get us thinking about the wonderfully interconnected web of baseball.
For the first five weeks of the season, Kevin Kroh will be traveling across the country — from big city stadiums, to small town sandlots — chattering with baseball fans all over the nation on everything from the cold, hard facts of the stat sheet, to the utopian fantasies of community ownership models. With his trusty audio recorder and baseball-loving girlfriend at his side, he’ll be posting unique perspectives from around the horn, and bringing it all back home to the Rockies in this year’s “Pro Baseball Partnership Tour: cross-country conversations in the Year of the Fan.”