Tired of Being Lovable

With Derrek Lee’s evacuation of Wrigley’s home dugout (and swift move across the field to the visitor’s dugout for Friday’s series opener against his new team, the Braves), the Cubs front office has effectively cut out the heart of the team that has had some near-misses over the past few years. Lee was a professional, on and off of the field. One of the greatest Cubs of the past 20 years, Lee’s defense will be missed, and his ability to carry a team offensively, though lacking much of this year, is one of the things I’ll remember about him the most.

DLee is a stand-up guy, too, as evidenced by his out-of-character encounters with Chris Young a few seasons back, and his own pitcher, Carlos Zambrano, earlier this season. None of the adjectives you ever hear used to describe Derrek is a negative one, and as somebody who lives in a very pro-Atlanta Braves market, there is a great deal of excitement around here regarding this deal. And rightfully so; I know I will miss Lee terribly, and might try to make a Braves game later this year to see him again.

But Derrek Lee embodies all that is wrong with the Cubs, and the fanbase in general.

The Lovable Losers.

Sure, Derrek Lee has a World Series ring. Sure, he has playoff experience, including holding the title of “Only Cubs Player Who Remembers How To Hit” in the 08 playoffs. But Lee fell into the culture of Chicago Cubs Baseball, a fact he himself pointed out in his interview after the trade was announced yesterday. The Cubs, rich with their tradition of losing piled on top of losing, are stuck in a deep, mucky hole of sucktitude; how else can you explain a roster full of All-Stars getting paid megabucks constantly coming up short?

In my estimation, there are four main types of Cubs fans:

1) You have the optimistic lifers: this is the category I fall into. Your love affairs with the Cubs are more than likely tied to memories of games…but the memories involve the circumstances surrounding the games. Stories your parents or told. Sitting at your grandparents house watching WGN with your grandpa. Emulating Mark Grace or Rick Sutcliffe or Andre Dawson with your younger brother in the back yard. In my experience, (and I talked all about this in my previous post) I love the Cubs as much for the memories they invoke as for the product on the field. Am I bummed when they lose? Most definitely. Am I excited when they win? More than I should be. Will I potentially die from a heart attack when they finally win the World Series? I think this is a certainty. Optimistic Lifers are Cubs fans that, win or lose, awesome or suck, love to love the Cubs. Guilty.

2) Pessimistic Lifers: these fans are typically a little bit older than our first group, and through the course of failure after failure have become jaded to the point of expecting to live out their lives without ever seeing a World Series title brought back to the North Side. These are the fans who correctly predicted the 07 playoff collapse after incorrectly predicting earlier in the season that the Cubs would finish 35 games under .500. These are the fans who leave the game in the 4th inning when trailing 2-0. These fans have a point.

3) Post-2003 fans: this group could really be broken down into two separate groups – fans and non-fans. This is largely a young group of people who saw the Cubs success, and then failure, in the 03 NLCS and wanted something to be associated with. What better team to latch on to than one that has a history of horror? There are some legitimate fans here: some that have embraced the team, good or bad, and put themselves voluntarily into a life of servitude to an ungrateful master. These fans have probably assimilated themselves into one of the previous two categories. Everyone knows the rest of them: disinterested people who fill Wrigley because its the “cool” thing to do, buying the expensive hats and jerseys just so they can say they are fans. Talking on their cell phones all game long. Generally looking like douches. Often making up stories about how long they’ve suffered with the Cubs, even though they don’t really support them now. The most obnoxious group of them all.
The problem is that we’re all guilty, in one way or another, of contributing to the Lovable Loser mentality. The first group looks like they don’t care; the second, like they care too much. The third group really doesn’t care at all and just wants to be seen, preferably drunk and on TV.

The reason the Yankees haven’t had this problem is that they have a pedigree of winning: their fans expect it. The reason the Red Sox broke their curse in 04 is that they all supported their team feverishly: their fans expected it. The reason the Cubs can’t take it all the way? The fans expect failure, or just don’t give a crap at all. Then its “Just Wait Till Next Year!”

I’m tired of waiting. I’m tired of being a national laughingstock while my head is in the sand. Its time to EXPECT victory and championships out of this franchise, and time to hold the franchise accountable when it drastically underperforms.

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Why I’ll Always Love The Cubs

I spent the majority of the Cubs 15-3 redemption against the Brewers on Wednesday at the bedside of my grandmother. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2002, she slipped away from us in a cruel fashion. Alzheimer’s is a particularly nasty disease in that instead of your physical abilities and health being taken away from you, your memories are eaten away, as well. Earlier in her progression, I would sit with her often, firing off questions that almost always began with, “Hey, remember when…?” Or, “What about the time…?” in the hopes that it would either jog her memory, or help her hold on to a portion of her life for just a little bit longer.

Now, as she is in the final stage of Alzheimer’s, those questions go unspoken. There is no reason to attempt to jog any memories; there is no memory left to speak of. At a generous estimate of 75 pounds, my grandmother is literally skin and bones. Bedridden for the past two years, that darling lady, once a picture of vigor, of health, of love affection…someone who loved life, now clings onto the last dying days of time well spent on this earth. So, I sit mostly in silence now, keeping my lifetime’s worth of memories to myself.

My father had a heart attack about two years ago that nearly killed him. A strong, tough, man’s man, my hero and I at one time would hike 15 miles a day on the Appalachian Trail for a week or a month at a time. Now, a quarter of a mile is a good trek for him, and is taken on with much apprehension. He is a fantastic storyteller, and I’ve always loved hearing him tell stories about his childhood, his career as a policeman, or anything he feels like talking about, even if I’ve heard the story a hundred times.

My younger brother was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident in 2004, 6 days before his 20th birthday. Its a literal miracle that he is still alive, and an even greater miracle that he is able to walk. I can remember many sleepless nights sitting by his hospital bed, reminiscing about our childhood together, and counting myself lucky to have a little brother that was so funny, charming, and downright wonderful that I’d WANT to have him tag along places with me. My friends always loved him; I did, and do, too.

My grandparents bought some land out in the country when they both retired. It was heaven for two young boys with active imaginations! We always played baseball together out in the large pasture beside their house. My dad grew up in Chicago, and would often tell us stories about his childhood, hoping on the trains with a dollar in his pocket to go see Cubs and White Sox games, getting a coke and a hot dog, and coming home with change. His frequent mention of those experiences shaped our love of the game of baseball; I began rooting for the Cubs, and my brother, out of competition with his big brother, rooted for the White Sox. I won’t hold this against him.

When we played baseball together, however, he was always a Cub. I would always pretend to be Mark Grace (I still wear his number 17 to this day) and he would be Ryne Sandberg. When we pitched to each other, it was always Maddux or Sutcliffe. There was a large oak tree to the left of the field we played in that we dubbed The Green Monster, so all of our games were played against the imaginary Red Sox. We each hit many a homer in the bottom of the 9th with 2 outs over that mammoth tree. Looking back now, the infield fly rule would have been in effect, but at 8 years old, that tree was SO far away…

I have very fond memories of my childhood, and many of those memories involve baseball, specifically Cubs baseball. Every time I think about this franchise, my thoughts invariably wind up back to thoughts of my family. Even thought we’re hundreds of miles away from the Windy City, I’ve always felt connected because of these memories.

We’ve got a terrible team this year, but we’re watching grown men play a kid’s game — a game, as a kid, I dreamed of playing when I grew up. As a kid, I didn’t know (or care) as much about won/loss records, WHIP, OPS, or TOOTBLANS. I had a team I loved with players I loved, and whether they won or lost that day, I loved them just the same. I’d just go out into the field, knock a couple over the Green Monster, and make up for them.

Even now, as an adult, I have a simplistic view of the game. I don’t know much about complex statistics…but I’m not sure that I ever want to. All I know is that I love seeing Marlon Byrd smile after one great diving catch after another. I love seeing Starlin Castro grow into his role as Cubs SS. I love watching the deliberate lookoff, then staredown, of Carlos Marmol as he’s getting ready to make somebody look ridiculous with a sick slider. And I think back to Sandberg’s slick fielding, Grace spraying singles, and Dawson smashing homers, and remember emulating them each a million times.

My love of the Cubs is as much about my love for my family as it is the promise of an eventual World Series. This franchise is a permanent reminder of a childhood that is growing smaller in my rear view mirror at a rate that blows my mind. That uniform, the logo, the ivy at Wrigley…all help to maintain that link to people in my life that I never want to forget.

And when the Cubs are on, I never do.

To give up on the Cubs would, honestly, feel like I was giving up on a lot of the great memories I’ve had in my life. And my grandmother has taught me through her illness how important those memories are.

Win or lose, great or terrible…I love the Cubs. I cheer for the Cubs, and I support the Cubs…and I always will.

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A Solution for the Cubs Offense

The Cubs offense is lousy. Awful. Terrible. Deplorable. Poo-poo stinky.

Call it what you want, but these guys aren’t hitting. No matter the combo Lou puts into the game, runs aren’t crossing the plate. When Xavier Nady is your best offensive player at any stretch, and people are clamoring to get Chad Tracy back up with the big boy club…well, things are not exactly going as planned.

But I have a solution — a tried and true method that has worked for baseball players in the past. Disgraced, down on their hitting former stars have rediscovered their power stroke, and those formerly unemployed have found work once more.

Beer league softball.

Come on, Cubs! My softball team, the Banzai Legends, could use a practice game…and you guys need to learn how to hit again. It worked for Eric Byrnes! It can work for you, too!

Lou? Hendry? Give me a call. I’ll set up a time for a practice field. It can be on your off day! Or, if you’re going to bench all of your stars on a regular basis, I guess it could be any day. I even promise to pitch meatballs. Let’s make this happen! I’m tired of watching 1-and 2-run outbursts against pitchers with ERAs higher than Starlin Castro’s age. It’ll fix you guys! And if it doesn’t, well…I’d be willing to strike out 50 times in 50 games, strand runners, and fundamentally hit poorly for WELL less than you’re paying the guys up there on the team now. And my facial hair is better than Fontenot’s.

I’m just here to help, guys. We’ve all learned so far this year that you need somebody with some kind of fresh idea to fix things.

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Darlin’, Indeed

Starlin Castro’s first night in the big leagues set his already lofty expectations at a new high for me.

After the embarrassment in Pittsburgh, I was ready to write the season off. I’m an optimist, and I will root for my Cubs to the very end, but a 10-run loss to complete a sweep at the hands of a perennial doormat didn’t do much to give me confidence that this club was going to give me much reason to cheer late in the season. The team simply didn’t appear to care in that game…and if they didn’t care, I figured, why should I? So, I’d begun the process of emotionally extracting myself from 2010. Then the Shortstop Jesus got the call.

I’ll say this about Starlin Castro’s expectations for the early part of his career: they were unfair. Spring training’s talks about him coming in, taking over the starting SS job at 19-20, being a huge piece to the puzzle for this season…all seemed like too big a job for someone who was born when I was in the third grade. I’ve seen the Pie and Pattersons of the world touted in the same way, and seen them never reach a sliver of the potential they supposedly had; never come close to matching expectations placed on them in a Cubs uniform. Everyone assumed Castro was different…his skills, his maturity, his dang smile…they all just pointed to big league success right from the start.

I was relieved to see him begin the year in the minors, though, because those other guys were needlessly rushed in. Some time to develop his game in AA seemed like a great idea. But the kid kept hitting. And kept hitting. And the Cubs kept losing. And kept losing. And, in the process, losing my emotional investment.

Dictionary.com defines ‘darling’ as “very dear; dearly loved; favorite; cherished”, and that’s exactly where Darlin’ Starlin put the Cubs, and himself, back into my heart once again. His performance last night more than exceeded expectations for himself, and renewed my expectations for this team. His play seemed to elevate everyone around him, and made my following-along-on-text-score-updates-alone self absolutely giddy.

I know it was one game, and that you can’t make too much of just one game’s performance. I remember Tuffy’s first game, too. But there’s just something about this kid that screams ‘he’s different’, that says he’s not only going to be around for a long time, but going to be a difference-maker for as long as he’s here.

I know he’s made a believer out of me…in himself, and once again, this team.

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Why the Cubs Will Make the Playoffs

I’m nothing if not an eternal optimist. I always try to see the bright side of things, even if it doesn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense. For whatever reason, I’d rather be disappointed in the end while enjoying the ride than set low expectations and be pleasantly surprised. After years of Cubs fandom, you’d think I would know better.

But here I am, sucked in once again, as I sit and look at the Chicago Cubs after April of 2010. The record is bleh. The bullpen has been an expletive. The offense has been inconsistent. Lou has slept a lot. But, I still believe. And I’ll just go ahead and give in to the optimism and make a bold prediction: this team, the 2010 Chicago Cubs, will make the playoffs. And here’s why.

1. The WHOLE offense has not been inconsistent

Theriot has been hitting. Marlon Byrd has been so far ahead of last year’s MB, he should be named MB2.0 because of his significant upgrade. Fontenot has hit again this year. Soriano has hit again this year. Soto has hit again this year. Fukudome has had a typical strong April, but there’s always hope he’ll carry through all year. Colvin has been strong. Basically, the entire offense has hit well this year so far…with the exception of the heart of the lineup (and of the team), DLee and Aramis Ramirez.

But these guys WILL hit. Lee has historically started slow, and Ramirez is just too good a hitter to continue his slump for too long. All of these scoring opportunities and men LOB they’re squandering so far will become RBIs. These close losses will become W’s. And the offense will provide up the momentum needed to get this team to the postseason.

But what about the bullpen? The offense not scoring runs hasn’t been the ONLY culprit so far! The bullpen has been bad. Baaaaaaaad. Well…

2. The bullpen WILL improve.

They can’t get much worse. And, as young and inexperienced as they are, they will learn from their mistakes. Zambrano is a stabilizing force for the bullpen (and who would have ever considered ‘Zambrano’ and ‘stable’ in the same sentence?), but he won’t be in the pen forever. My gut thinks the team hopes Gorz will pitch well enough to garner a decent, experienced right-handed reliever through a trade, allowing Z to slide back into the rotation. Until then, he offers experience in an area that there really is none.

For most of these guys, this was their first April pitching to big league hitters. They’ll take this experience, these lumps and knocks and failures, and improve as the season progresses. Their June through September will look much better than their April, and will keep them in enough games to play into October.

3. Lou WILL wake up.

I’ve covered this in a previous post, but I will briefly mention it here: Lou has to spark this team. Get thrown out of a game…bump an umpire…challenge Ozzie to a cage match…something. And I think he will. His response to the Fontenot bunting question seemed to show a little fire that he really hasn’t shown this season. Rest assured, Lou will snap, he’ll do something that’s vintage Lou, and the Cubs WILL respond. If this is to be Lou’s last year in Chicago, at least he’ll go out with a playoff appearance.

Once we get to the playoffs? Probably a first round sweep. Again. But everybody’s optimism has to have a limit SOMEWHERE…until then, I’m planning on enjoying the ride of optimistic expectations for this team. I invite you all to join me.

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Dont Lose Heart: How to Fix the Cubs

<div class="wp-caption alignnone" style="width: 560px"Whatcha gonna do when the Cubs run wild on you?

Whatcha gonna do when the Cubs run wild on you?

This is one of my least favorite Cubs teams in quite some time.

There have been some stinkers in recent memory, sure. But from a bloated payroll, expected superstar, psychological makeup of the team standpoint, this one has let me down in a huge way.

Who knew that to this point that Silva would be a) the most dominant Carlos and b) the most sane? Who knew Aramis would fall into a hole at the plate he has no signs of climbing out of? Who knew the bullpen would be so impressively atrocious? (OK, everybody knew that. But I digress.) The fact is, this team has been a major disappointment so far, and it looks like this will be a long summer on the North Side.

The last time I felt this way was in early 2007. Soriano was a big offseason splash, Lou had just come aboard to manage, the pitching staff was solid, the offense looked pretty good…and…

Blah. Bad start.

It wasn’t so much a direct result of the play on the field. I’ve seen many a year where the Cubs play on the field was horrible. My dislike for that team in early 2007 had the same cause as my dislike for this team here in 2010.

They have no heart. They play with no fire, with no pride.

Now, I’m not exactly a good player by any stretch of the imagination, but I play hard. I run out every fly ball. I leg out singles into doubles. I give everything I can when I’m playing (beer league softball now that I’m a codger) because I love the game, I cherish the game, and I take pride in playing the game to the best of my abilities. Its not about pressing; its about giving it my best.

This team does not do that. The team in early 2007 didn’t, either.

But then something happened, and the team woke up.

Lou woke up.

Lou’s famous tirade on June 2 was, in my opinion, the turning point of that season and carried over to 08. The team started PLAYING, and back to back division titles was the reward. Lou breathed life into the team by going out and showing them he believed in them by exploding.

This team needs Piniellamania back.

Lou has got to show some fire. He’s got to show some heart. He needs to angrily trudge out of the dugout at a snail’s pace and kick some dirt on somebody, being careful not to dislocate a hip. He needs to yell, spraying CB Bucknor in the face with profanity-laced saliva. He needs to pull up the bases, and bring them back to the dugout to explain to Theriot what they’re on the field for. He needs to get himself suspended for at least as long as it would take the bullpen to blow 5 games. He needs to rip off his shirt, point to all of his little Piniellamaniacs, and flex while “Real American” blares over the Wrigley PA. SOMETHING.

He needs to show he CARES. His team will follow suit. They proved that in 2007. They can prove it again in 2010.

And if they can start putting their heart back into baseball, I can start putting my heart back into rooting unabashedly for them.

(Special thanks to @plamorte for the Piniellamania pic.)

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