- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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With the Chicago White Sox two wins from guaranteeing them ownership of the Bob Rosenberg Cup (I prefer naming it after the infamous official scorer), it's time to deconstruct the conversations we're having right now about Chicago baseball, the home of distrust, two-base errors and general ennui.
First up to the plate: Ennui!
"There's a lack of buzz about the Cubs-Sox series. Why?"
The reason there's a lack of buzz is two-fold: 1) Both teams stink. 2) We're too familiar with No. 1.
The teams' mutual mediocrity is certainly cause for a lack of enthusiasm over this series, especially coming off a dizzying Bulls postseason. Chicago baseball looks shabbier than ever, and that's saying something.
Regardless of the teams' records being good or bad, the "buzziness" of this series likely peaked in 2006, when A.J. Pierzynski and Michael Barrett started a bench-clearing brawl that resulted in: Ryan Dempster accusing Joey Cora of biting and the Guillen children of getting involved; a successful All-Star vote campaign called "Punch A.J."; and a T-shirt of Barrett clocking Pierzynski that read "Who Says the Cubs Can't Hit?" (What I remember most about that shirt is former Chicago Cubs reliever David Aardsma packing a couple in his bag when he cleaned out his locker. For some reason, I found that hilarious.)
But it's OK the buzz has died down. We're in a postmodern world in which we spend more time arguing about how we feel about a sporting event than talking about what actually happened in it. The reason this series doesn't feel like a big deal is because it isn't one, and no fake award is going to create excitement. Both teams are just trying to reach .500, and for one, that's going to be impossible. Being the best baseball team in the city this year is a small victory, and nothing to brag about.
"The Cubs will be better when they fire Jim Hendry, Mike Quade and Crane Kenney."
I'm on record for writing that I think Hendry's days are numbered, and he let me know he read it by ribbing me about writing he told "bad jokes" in that column. I apologize for that brain cramp, because it's not what I meant. Hendry's jokes have never been bad. He's a consummate BS-er with reporters, and a truly warm, funny person.
That being said, I don't see how the Ricketts family can win over fans by expressing their support to Hendry and the current regime, especially not if the team continues to have one of the worst records in baseball. He has one more year left on his contract, and they either need to extend him or shuffle him off to Arizona to "consult" after this season. But if he goes, will his replacement be better? Can the Cubs lure some Theo Epstein clone, or will they end up with a Paul DePodesta or J.P. Riccardi? The rumpled GM you know is often better than the "genius" you don't.
While Hendry's misses are legendary, the baseball operations department is supposedly thriving with more funding being provided by Tom Ricketts & Co. For years, the Cubs' lack of productivity in raising position players was legendarily poor, but now the Cubs boast Geovany Soto at catcher and a middle infield of Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro and a couple of outfield prospects are on the way.
It's not a noticeable thing, but Hendry's lieutenants are seemingly loyal to their boss. No one left during the Cubs' interminable sale process, despite limited security. A change could be good, or it could be devastating.
I like Quade. He's a helluva guy and he's not baseball stupid, like some might think after a few of his late-game decisions went awry. But while I was for his hiring, I never thought he would be the long-term answer, and nothing has changed my mind this season. It will look poorly on Hendry and the owners if he's fired after the season, but I have to imagine he could be a sacrificial lamb to the fans.
As for Kenney, his reputation in media and team circles is less than complimentary, even though few have day-to-day dealings with him. I'm sure he's good at the ins and outs of making money for rich people and Ricketts seems to like him, so I assume he has real value to the organization.
His public embarrassments are relatively minor and mostly just show a lack of tact on a newfound public stage. My personal favorite was when he essentially blamed the team's ticket-price hike after the 2009 season on fans selling their tickets on the secondary market.
The Cubs, of course, own and operate their own secondary ticket outlet, which was founded during Kenney's Tribune days.
Also, the secondary market for the Cubs cratered in 2010 and season-ticket holders are now eating their expensive seats. With that in mind ...
"We should be worried about bad ticket sales hurting the White Sox/Cubs."
I'm not worried, are you? This isn't independent baseball, after all. The teams aren't going to disappear. But the slow sales and smaller crowds are noticeable, and a topic of conversation.
The Cubs are averaging 36,174 per game, down 2,298 fans than at this point last year, though that number will decrease when the White Sox come calling for a weekend series. It's the sixth-biggest drop in baseball. Overall attendance in baseball was down around 300 fans per game, according to Baseball-Reference.com's figures, going into the weekend series.
The Cubs' numbers are a trend. They are coming off an average decrease of 1,796 in 2010, and I imagine by the end of the season, 2011 will eclipse those numbers.
But let's not overlook that the Cubs, buoyed by tourist dollars, are selling more than 36,000 tickets per game. The White Sox would kill for those numbers.
For Cubs fans, this is a good thing. The Tribune Company jacked up prices for years after it saw the effect of 2003, with demand outstripping common sense. The Cubs responded to last season by adding more games to their cheaper pricing tier and adding a new monstrously expensive top tier and claiming prices stayed the same. The Cubs will examine their pricing after the season.
For people who make their living off the Cubs, this is a bad thing. Beer vendors have told me their sales are down dramatically, and I've heard the bars around the park are suffering, too.
The Cubs brass is getting the message that demand is down, even as it blames the team's record and the weather. I understand it's been a cold spring, but in past years, the Cubs have sold most of their inventory before the season. The blame goes first to the players, for being mostly uninspiring, and to the front office, for not cutting prices.
Regardless, the secondary market is a buyer's paradise nowadays, especially if you don't care if the Cubs are good.
On the other side of town, however, I think the lack of support is damning Kenny Williams' mission of spending a ton of money for overrated free agents/veterans. The White Sox simply can't draw enough fans on a consistent basis to support this kind of payroll. Or maybe it just means the team needs to be smarter on how it spends its resources. One smart thing the team did was insure Jake Peavy's contract, bringing back millions of dollars over the last two years for a high six-figure investment. Sadly, the policy has lapsed.
The Sox are down -1,117 fans per game after a disappointing draw for the Cubs series, and are averaging an embarrassing 23,797 fans per game. We don't expect as much from the Sox, who draw few tourists, but the organization needs to make concessions to a fan base that is either too unenthusiastic or uninspired to fill the stadium. My suggestion is induce fans by offering real perks, such as free or discounted parking and the ability for the upper deck hoi polloi to mingle in the lower deck with the affluent.
"The White Sox need to fire Ozzie Guillen or extend his contract."
I'm all for locking up Guillen for a few more years. He's the perfect manager for this team, and this town, and while I wish he and his general manager, Williams, could coexist in harmony, it probably won't happen, and that's OK, too, as long as they're civil and respectful of each other's abilities. They've managed to do that, publically at least, this season.
The coaches under Guillen need security, too, though I think it's safe to say no one's pulling a Riggleman anytime soon. Guillen hasn't been his usual boisterous self this season. The pain of a losing season and the uncertainty around his future is obviously weighing on him. Maybe a trip to Wrigley Field will cheer him up. Umm…
"Adam Dunn will hit his way out of this slump."
History tells us Dunn will rebound from an atrocious start, but as Don Draper once said, "You can't tell how people are going to behave based on how they have behaved." I have to agree with the fictional ad man. Why must Dunn rebound? He looks bewildered, lost and useless, and maybe he needs some time on the disabled list to get himself together. This looks to be another high-priced blunder by Williams. If Dunn can't produce, this team can't win the AL Central.
"The Cubs need a fire sale."
This is ultimately true and likely impossible. Hendry said he doesn't see it happening, but what's he going to say? No one wants these Cubs veterans, not at their salaries, and if they could go, they wouldn't bring back much in return -- another Blake DeWitt perhaps. You're dreaming if you think someone wants to pay Carlos Zambrano that much money for the remainder of this season and all of next, with the possibility of a player option kicking in for 2013. The Cubs will have to let Aramis Ramirez play out his deal this year and Alfonso Soriano his final few years.
These deals, made with good intentions, show the folly of long-term contracts, regardless of no-trade clauses. As they say in baseball, the Cubs just have to wear it.
I'm all for dealing Carlos Marmol if the Cubs can get some strong, major league-ready prospects and Soto, too. Those two, along with Carlos Pena if a need arises, have trade value. The rest of the team does not.
"The White Sox are going to win the AL Central."
Sorry, but I don't see it. I know the argument for them winning is based on a weak division, and Minnesota and Cleveland don't look to be winners either, but unless Dunn and Alex Rios have a midsummer renaissance, I don't see this team overtaking Detroit in the fall. There's just not enough heft in the lineup.
The White Sox's six-man rotation issue lingers on, too. Can Peavy make it through the season and Phil Humber stretch his made-for-columnists story through the summer?
If history proves correct, the White Sox won't be playing in mid-October. I predict 85 wins and a second-place finish. How that will affect the team moving forward is the more interesting discussion.
I wish I had optimism about our baseball teams, because they are so important to the fabric of the city. But like most Chicagoans, we find ourselves waiting for football season to resume, even if that means we trade Starlin Castro and Guillen for Lovie and Cutler.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.