Commentary

The wreck at Wrigley is tough to watch

Dwindling attendance numbers and diminishing veterans could make for a long summer

Updated: June 1, 2011, 9:26 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Darwin Barney hasn't been a Cub very long, but he's practically an elder statesman right now in a clubhouse in which the starting center fielder looks like a bat boy.

And Barney, an old-school type who was actually reading a real book in the pregame clubhouse as opposed to staring at an iPad, is already getting the hang of explaining why things always seem to go wrong for the Cubs.

"Baseball's kind of a gambling sport," he said. "It's like blackjack. You love it and you hate it."

[+] EnlargeDarwin Barney
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRookie Darwin Barney has been one of the lone bright spots on the North Side this season.
I can hear the Cubs' marketing department now: The Cubs: We're just like blackjack! Love us or hate us, just give us your money! (This message is sponsored by the New Downtown Casino.)

"This game, you can hit a line drive right at somebody or you can hit a dribbler for a base hit, a game winner," Barney continued. "We're waiting for our hot run. Balls are going to start falling, and pitchers are going to start getting the outs they want to get. We're just waiting for it. We're trying to hang in there as well as we can, and hopefully when that happens, we can go."

Barney will have to wait another day for the Miracle at Clark and Addison.

The second baseman had a go-ahead hit in the eighth Tuesday, a double at the wall near the 368-foot sign in left-center. The Cubs took advantage of a throwing error by Houston pitcher Jordan Lyles and scored three in the inning.

But Carlos Marmol gave up six in the ninth, and the Cubs lost 7-3. And the beatings go on. With Barney giving directions to fresh-faced call-ups such as Tony Campana and D.J. LeMahieu, it looks like September 2006 in the Cubs' clubhouse.

And to think, you doubters thought Mike Quade would be out of his league managing this club. It's more like Triple-A than ever.

It also looks like September 2006 in the stands thanks to high prices, a spate of bad weather, a flood of low expectations and a lingering malaise over this franchise that stinks like a spilled $7 Old Style.

Alfonso Soriano is the latest casualty for the Cubs, who now have four position players on the disabled list, along with Matt Garza and Andrew Cashner, who recently was moved to the 60-day DL. Soriano left Monday's game with a strained left quad, necessitating the call-up of Tyler Colvin, who was sent down to Triple-A to get more at-bats.

"The guys going down are the core of the team," Barney said. "But you can't roll over and die."

Soriano was at Wrigley Field on Tuesday, where he talked to the media and got in an upper body lift before the game.

"How long, two weeks?" reliever Scott Maine asked him in passing.

"Yeah," Soriano said, scrunching his face in affirmation as he downed some chicken wings.

And speaking of … chicken wings? I haven't been around much the first two months thanks to the Bulls, but I thought the Cubs eat healthy now under Todd Ricketts' reign of flab-busting terror. Maybe the wings were baked, or maybe the front office realized that healthy food doesn't equal a healthy team.

In his fortnight on the DL, Soriano still has a very good chance of out-homering Aramis Ramirez, who has a slightly better chance of getting his team option picked up than the Cubs do of drawing more than 3 million fans for the eighth straight season.

If I were general manager Jim Hendry (who should put "beleaguered" before his job title on his card), if things keep going south, I'd try to save my bacon by turning what little trade bait I have left into a stockpile of prospects.

For instance, I'm finally on board with dealing Marmol, who has a low salary and high value to a contender, despite the sporadic meltdown such as he had Tuesday.

Ryan Dempster, Marlon Byrd, Carlos Pena and Geovany Soto could have suitors as well.

Forget nostalgia or personality; it's time to make tough choices and move on with the restructuring of this team. The 2008 season isn't coming back.

The way things are going, I'm starting to think the Ricketts family will get the city and state to pay for a new ballpark before they have another winning season.

If Hendry can move some veterans and get something positive in return, he has to do it -- if the Cubs don't turn things around in the next month.

Of course, the Cubs probably would wind up with another Ted Lilly-for-Blake DeWitt deal, but anything's possible. Maybe the Pirates will rehire Dave Littlefield as a consultant for the stretch run. Soto for Andrew McCutchen, anyone?

[+] EnlargeWrigley Field
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThose aren't buzzards but the bleachers were somewhat desolate terrain on the Cubs' recent homestand.
It's obviously a sign of the times that I'm talking about blowing up the team on May 31. But the 23-30 Cubs are in fifth place, and things could definitely get worse. The Cubs start a three-city, 10-game road trip to St. Louis, Cincinnati and Philadelphia on Friday.

With all the negativity swirling around like infield dirt, it's easier to be a miserable Cubs fan right now than at any other time in recent years. But while we, the media, point out the daily pains of the Cubs, from their meager run production to the slight but consistent decrease in attendance, there are some positives right now.

OK, there's one positive.

While ticket prices aren't going down across the board, it is a buyers' market out there, and as wealthy trader Tom Ricketts can attest, that's a good thing for the buyers, especially in Chicago. And let's be honest; two-thirds of the crowd is there just because it's Wrigley Field. They don't know Tony Campana from Lou Montanez.

According to ticket aggregation site FanSnap.com, the average ticket for the remaining 51 home games is $82. Last year at this time, it was $91. Two years ago, when the Cubs were still competitive, it was $111. And those numbers don't tell the whole story. There were $3 tickets for the June 1 homestand finale as of Tuesday afternoon.

"One interesting thing, though it's more anecdotal, are the deals to be had on a one-off basis," said Christian Anderson, the director of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based FanSnap. "Like all the $3 tickets available for [June 1] game. We see all kind of those, because there are so many tickets available."

Bad news for season-ticket holders. Good news for other fans.

The Cubs have been very proactive, to their credit, in offering regular deals. I believe you can get two tickets, two hot dogs and two beers, call the sixth inning for WGN radio, and have Montanez drive you home for $75.

I'm not buying any of Barney's optimism, and neither should you. And there's a school of thought that empty seats are the only way to demand change for a front office that cheers first for the bottom line.

But a long summer is beginning, and while the baseball will probably be bad, the beer is still cold here, the bison dogs are cooking and the sun shines on occasion. Sometimes, the Cubs win, too.

Anyone not have extras?

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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