Chicago Cubs talk will try to elbow its way in for a little recognition in the Windy City the weekend of January 15-16, when the buzz gets loud for the Bears’ first playoff game at the same time.
But it’s the lack of buzz for months about the Cubs’ 2011 prospects — not the Bears’ attempt to march to the Super Bowl — that could make navigating the hallways of the Hilton and Towers in downtown Chicago easier than ever at the 26th annual Cubs Convention, granddaddy of all off-season fan fests. For the first time in memory, the Convention was not a sellout hours after tickets went on sale nearly two months ago. In fact, there were still a decent number of weekend passes at $60 a head and hotel packages at $390 per room (plus $20 per person for weekend passes for hotel guests) on sale at Cubs.com just 10 days before the Convention.
Coming off a thoroughly forgettable 2010 season, the Cubs did not spend wildly to fix their mess. In fact, they cut payroll, which puts them in a twilight zone of seemingly not going all-out to win the World Series, yet also not stripping down to rebuild the way the Braves and Twins have done. Their two major acquisitions came at bargain-basement rates. Slugger Carlos Pena deferred half of his $10 million salary for one season. Kerry Wood passed up much more lucrative offers with the White Sox, Yankees and Red Sox to come home, in his mind hopefully for good, for just $1.5 million for the upcoming season.
Wood’s return is a huge feel-good story. He’ll tell more about that during our taping of the new video Diamond Gems program at O’Donovan’s on Chicago’s North Side on Jan. 12. But Wood alone, serving as a setup man, can’t stoke passion for Cubs baseball in 2011. Neither can selling Pena’s .196 average and 28 homers off last season. There are no moves comparable to the White Sox going out on a limb payroll-wise by landing Adam Dunn and re-signing Paul Konerko. Not while the Brewers, always cash-strapped compared to the big-market Cubs, landed Zach Greinke and Shawn Marcum to rebuild their tattered rotation. Or while the Reds improved simply through experience and the Cardinals, well, are the Cardinals.
But another factor is at work here that I believe is bigger in the convention non-sellout than the disgust over a franchise going the wrong way since the Dodgers sent them reeling 3-and-out in the 2008 NL Division Series. The economy simply has battered many fans’ disposable incomes for the better part of three years. Given a choice between attending a mid-winter fan convention where the biggest announcement could be the appointment of Ron Santo’s radio-booth successor and buying tickets to a couple of regular-season Cubs games, which would the cash-strapped fan choose? The answer is pretty obvious.
Thousands of unsold bleachers seats in 2010 and now the convention passes that are not being snapped up should be a loud and clear message to Cubs ownership to publicly state their intentions. Either reverse the budget cuts to run the operation like the powerhouse it should be or simply announce the team will rebuild with young players around albatross contracts like Alfonso Soriano’s. Something more radical and costly: maybe even simply write off the worst of those contracts as good intentions but bad execution from 2006 onward, and let Soriano walk away, with the Cubs starting anew minus players taking up valuable roster space and playing time.
The brutal truth from here onward is the Cubs must win to fill both Wrigley Field and the Convention. It’s a new, necessary era, better late than never.