By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) They’ve had the bleachers and ivy since 1937, the Harry Caray-inspired “Seventh Inning Stretch” since the early ’80s and the beer vendors since, well, probably forever.
But has there ever been a better – or easier – time than now to market the Chicago Cubs?
By making just three (relatively) simple steps this offseason, the organization can practically guarantee that the excitement – and the crowds – will return to Wrigley Field in 2012.
And, who knows, wins might even follow.
That’s because, after spending nearly two years looking like an owner who knew how to market RAV4s (with the Wrigley Field Toyota sign) but not baseball (with a 133-164 record thus far), Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts suddenly is showing signs that he just might have some MLB smarts beneath that neatly combed coif of his.
That is, of course, if he follows up this month’s smart move of dismissing longtime general manager Jim Hendry by making additional savvy ones: Namely, hiring the best available guy to replace Hendry, righting a managerial wrong and then signing a big name bopper to bolster the Cubs’ lackluster lineup – and, just as importantly, the team personality.
Last week, in a piece at Grantland.com with the headline “The Road Map for a Cubs Resurgence” (and the subhead “It doesn’t include Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder”), columnist Jonah Keri pretty much writes off 2012 for the North Siders.
Despite noting that the Cubs will shed at least $21.5 million from their roster after this season and $48 million more after next (assuming the team picks up Aramis Ramirez’s 2012 option, which it should), Keri essentially says that the team shouldn’t spend the newfound cash, at least not on Pujols (I agree) or Fielder (I don’t).
Instead, Keri preaches patience for the organization’s next GM. That’s all well and good. I find patience to be a valuable virtue myself (I am, after all, a Cubs fan). The Cubs certainly do need to continue building up from within.
And I hardly expect the team to win the World Series in 2012, although I suppose stranger things have happened.
OK, maybe they haven’t.
But in his column, Keri ignores the fact that the Cubs are at a relative crisis level when it comes to fan disinterest. With attendance at Wrigley Field having plummeted from a robust 99.1 percent capacity in 2008 to 90.8 percent this season at baseball’s best ballpark – a startling drop of nearly 10 percent – the Ricketts family cannot afford to just sit on its hands this offseason.
The Cubs need to make some big moves and energize the team’s fan base again. Believe me, it wants to be energized. After all, the only thing that Cubs fans enjoy less than losing is feeling apathy.
Ricketts already got Cubs fans’ attention when he fired Hendry this month. Now, if he hires a big-name GM with a proven track record, he’ll get their interest.
Follow that up by replacing manager Mike Quade with Ryne Sandberg, who should have gotten the job in the first place, and Ricketts will get the fans’ excitement. Then, if the team signs hefty slugger Prince Fielder to beef up the lineup and share the face-of-the-franchise label with Sandberg, Ricketts will get the fans’ money.
People will buy tickets, show up and care again.
Now, before anyone simply decries that such moves are nothing more than lipstick on a pig for the 2012 season – and, sure, they could be – bear in mind that in 2002 the Cubs went 67-95. That offseason, they hired a new manager in Dusty Baker, made some savvy roster moves – and came within five outs of the World Series in October 2003.
With the St. Louis Cardinals aging, the surging Brewers likely to lose Fielder (perhaps to the Cubs), the Reds having slipped (typical Dusty), the Pirates still being the Pirates and the Astros seemingly sizing up offers to join the Triple-A, there’s no reason to write off the 2012 season before 2011 has even ended.
Hire a smart GM. Select a smart manager. Make a smart signing (or two). And see what happens.
I’m guessing full houses will show up to see it, too.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.