Cheers to the Cubs and White Sox
Chicago's baseball teams can drive a fan to drink, and to dream about a return to glory
CHICAGO -- First and foremost, this is a baseball city. Not a Bears town, not a hockey town or a Bulls town. Not a lingerie football town (yet).
Those are all unifying teams.
Unlike the segregating infrastructure of Chicago's history, baseball divides the city (and suburbs) in a positive way.
This is a city that loves an argument, be it on the radio, on Twitter, at a bar or in an office. And there is no greater argument than Cubs or White Sox.
Forget the noise about this becoming a Sox town given the Cubs' struggles. Chicago will always be heavily partisan when it comes to baseball, and truth be told the Cubs have less of an advantage in game-attending fans (more on that later).
But what does it say about the quality of baseball in this town when one stadium has the Captain Morgan Club and the Bud Light Bleachers (only $80 a "seat" for Opening Day!) while the other names a new restaurant "Bacardi at the Park"?
Well, I guess both teams do have a unifying effect: These teams will drive you to drink. This is a toddlin' town, too.
While the arguments will never cease, maybe both teams will have their fans popping bubbly in the fall. A Red Line World Series? Why not?
OK, there are plenty of reasons, but I'd like to think both teams can compete through September for playoff berths. And they shouldn't have to worry too much about fan/media pressure early on, because everyone will be paying attention to the Bulls.
After down years, following a nosedive in the 2008 playoffs, there is little buzz surrounding the Cubs. But truth be told, the Cubs are less of a mess than you think, given the disappointments of the past two seasons. Hiring Mike Quade is the best decision Jim Hendry has made since he fleeced Dave Littlefield in 2003, and the general manager made some savvy moves in the offseason, bringing back Kerry Wood, signing Carlos Pena and trading for Matt Garza.
Of course, the Cubs organization is so excited about this team that the tickets include zero pictures of actual players. But don't worry, there is plenty of ivy and even a shot of the Toyota sign in left-center.
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Local guy Quade, the most engaging coach/manager in this city (Ozzie Guillen is godfathered in as the funniest), isn't being touted as a savior, though he probably should be marketed at some point. ("Bud Light presents: Have a beer with Mike Quade.")
Quade is organized, confident, engaging and despite his attempts at acting like a rube off the turnip truck, professorial in his approach to the game. His personality connects him to players and his baseball instincts could help this team compete.
"I think we have a good team and I think the manager makes everyone relaxed here," Alfonso Soriano told me in spring training. "That's the big difference, the communication he has with the players. He's a very exciting guy, a very happy guy."
Of course, Quade can't do much more than set an atmosphere and change pitchers.
Aside from second base, the lineup will pretty much create itself. All the usual baseball bromides come into effect here: You win with pitching and defense, stars have to play like stars, etc.
One thing is for sure, this team needs to achieve (note the absence of the prefix "over-") to keep the hometown fans coming through the gates.
I've been thinking a lot about the cost of being a fan in Chicago, and while you can't put a price on enjoying a sunny day at Wrigley Field or a clear night at The Cell, it's interesting to look at who is going to the games, because fiscal support can mean the difference between adding players or subtracting hope.
A Cubs survey last year found that 37 percent of fans (13,991 out of 37,814 per game in 2010) come from outside of the state, and 56 percent of those fans come solely to see a game. That includes the commuters from northwest Indiana, of course, but we're still talking about thousands of fans who come to tell their friends back in Polk County they saw Wrigley Field.
If that 37 percent is valid, it basically means that just as many Illinoisans go to White Sox games as Cubs games. A White Sox official told me that the club's latest poll showed 13 percent of fans (3,522 out of 27,091 per game) said they were from Indiana or "other."
If you take out the nonresidents, the Cubs draw about 23,823 fans to the White Sox's 23,569. Of course, those tourists at Wrigley are taking away seats from Chicagoans who would love to go to games too, but it's still interesting.
Ticket prices at Wrigley have become a big story since the Tribune Co. started jacking up prices after the 2003 season, and I think high prices are as much to blame for a general lack of enthusiasm among the fan base as the product on the field.
The current management is largely blameless in the increases, and technically kept season ticket prices steady with a sleight-of-hand pricing structure that saw the addition of some cheaper games (almost all in April), while creating an obscenely expensive "marquee" ticket level (13 games). There are now five pricing tiers for Cubs tickets.
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For marquee prices, you get $125.44 club box infield seats, $374.51 dugout box seats or for the real brainiacs, an $80 bleacher ticket. (By comparison, the Yankees sell bleacher seats for $14 and the Red Sox $12.) Even the worst seats in the house, the upper deck reserved sections, are $30 or more for those marquee dates.
Not surprisingly, some of those high-priced seats were still available for the home opener (a marquee date) on the Cubs' website as of Thursday afternoon. I don't get that.
Who wouldn't want to spend $342 for four bleacher seats or $750 for two dugout box seats? Parkas and psychiatrist bills are extra.
Across town, the White Sox have made their team and their ballpark more fan-friendly with a real designated hitter and that aforementioned new restaurant (not to mention a shiny new Metra stop servicing the south suburbs), which will be operated by Gibsons.
The organization has adopted Kenny Williams' offhand "all in" comment from the winter like it's an original thought. But I guess it's easy to digest and better than a return to "Grinder Ball" or something as equally facile.
It's true enough. The Sox gave Williams a pile of money to add on to a decent team, and the inclusion of left-handed basher Adam Dunn should make people stop whining about the loss of aging slugger Jim Thome.
Guillen took a lot of heat last year, especially when he kept trotting out Mark Kotsay. Guillen seems happier this spring now that his feud with Williams has subsided. He and his family bought a house in Chicago, and the added stability could do wonders for his moods. He certainly has a better team this year.
With a payroll of $125 million, the Sox are favored by many to win the AL Central, and the team is making no bones about its marketing strategy: Sell everything.
After the cessation of the Jim Beam sponsorship of a luxury seating area that used to be the press box, the organization just sold the naming rights to a local ticket-scalping company.
So we've gone from working press to bourbon to ticket scalpers. But it's not all about money.
On the fields in Arizona, both teams had relatively calm springs, Carlos Silva excluded. I'm curious to see how this no-drama spring plays out in the real world.
"Well, we haven't lost three games in a row yet," Sox closer Matt Thornton said.
If you can remember far back, the Sox were exciting for about a month last year, putting in a 25-5 run through the All-Star break. But a bad start preceded it, and a listless, injury-filled finish followed. If the Sox can't click early, there will be trouble.
"I hadn't even thought about it," pitcher John Danks said. "I don't know. We got off to a pretty crappy start last year and ended up in the middle of it too. But no doubt we've got to hit the ground running."
There is no sense dragging out some hackneyed predictions, because the fun part is being wrong anyway. No one expected the Cubs to get to five outs from the World Series in 2003, or the Sox to win it in 2005. And whenever fans get their hopes up, well, 2008 happens.
The best thing to hope for, as always, is nice weather, a cold Captain Morgan and Pepsi in your hand, and maybe, just maybe, a scalped ticket to a party suite sponsored by a scalper.
A man can dream, can't he?
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.