Commentary

The clock is ticking on these Cubs

It's not quite time for the Cubs to become major seller

Updated: June 17, 2010, 10:32 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- There is a growing insurrection among the dissatisfied sect of Cubs fans, which is to say all of them. In their ranks, amateur baseball arsonists abound, conspiring to blow up this middling team, the peaked Lou Piniella era, and the head of the Jim Hendry regime.

And coming off a particularly dispiriting loss on a rainy Tuesday, not to mention dropping two of three to the White Sox, you couldn't blame the dissidents.

The prevailing question these days isn't whether the Cubs have a chance in October, it's whether they should dismantle the team, from top to bottom, and start over right now. The fantasy idea is that a clean slate to set up the future is better than the messy present. To that, I say, we should endure the now, for now. As in, it's too early to ship off veterans and jettison the captain. I have a feeling a lot of Cubs fans disagree.

[+] EnlargeDerrek Lee
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastDerrek Lee's two-error inning Tuesday was the first of his career.

Tuesday's loss to the Oakland Athletics put the Cubs eight games under .500 and closer to the bottom of the NL Central than the top. In that soggy farce, two Cubs combined for four errors and the team generally just looked like "a Single-A team," said Derrek Lee, who booted two balls and epitomized the Class D effort. It was a tough one to watch, and really at this point, that's all you can do with this team, wince and watch.

"I didn't know Class-A teams played that bad," Piniella joked Wednesday afternoon, before the Cubs rebounded and disposed of Oakland 6-2.

Nowadays at Wrigley Field, Lou's jokes are rare, ticket prices are up and attendance, like playoff dreams, is down (36,244 was the announced attendance Wednesday night, with pockets of the bleachers unfilled). So is the secondary ticket market (the purported strength of which was one reason team president Crane Kenney gave for raising prices more than 10 percent in December), which has all but disappeared.

Want anecdotal proof? Last Saturday afternoon, as I watched the World Cup with friends, we had six unused Cubs-White Sox tickets at our table alone.

The good news is that the Toyota sign is finally up, as is a giant piece of macaroni outside the park on Clark Street, part of a new deal with Kraft. The tagline, "You Know You Love It" is emblazoned on the hard noodle. I didn't know our public fondness for boxed pasta was an issue, but then again I picked the White Sox to go to the World Series, so what do I know?

Back to bad news about the Cubs, who have gone 7-12 since May 26, failing to win back-to-back games:

Aramis Ramirez is on the disabled list with a .168 batting average, while Lee is in the lineup hitting .230 (he did homer Wednesday).

Carlos Zambrano is still an enigma, Ted Lilly practically has to pitch a no-hitter to get a win and no one besides Carlos Silva has stepped up to give the Cubs reliable starting pitching.

Piniella, who has taken to growing a Grizzly Adams beard on long road trips, was so riled up last Friday, he picked on Steve Stone, a guy who's never had a bad word to say about anybody. Minutes after that tirade, Sour Lou also yelled at a TV host best described by a reporter as a "wheel master of an afternoon moo wagon."

The Ricketts family had to flee to Africa to get their collective mind off this team. (OK, Tom and Todd are on safari with the family.)

Unless you've quit reading by now, you know where I'm going. The question was posed to me earlier Wednesday: Is it time to blow up the Cubs and start fresh?

To that, I say, not yet. It's not sexy, it's not bombastic, but it's true. It's not April anymore, but it's not as though the Cubs are "17 back," as Hendry said. They sit 6 games behind Cincinnati and St. Louis. That's within hunting distance, there's no question about it.

"But we've got to get it going," Hendry said. "It's not early anymore. It's not disastrously late, but it's time to play better baseball. You can't play baseball like we have the last two weeks and think we're going to be a contender."

I think Cubs fans, both long-suffering and insufferable (often both), deserve to see competitive baseball through the summer and if the Cubs don't have ready-made replacements for the likes of Lee or Lilly or even Kosuke Fukudome, what's the point in dealing them? (That's presupposing there's a trade market.)

The Cubs could conceivably fire Piniella, as has been suggested by national columnists and cranky bloggers, but what would that solve?

Where's the empirical evidence that bench coach Alan Trammell would do anything better than Piniella, besides taking grounders at short? The idea of "promoting" Ryne Sandberg from Triple-A as if he was a 20-something basher is embarrassing. It would also handicap the front office in the event they embark on a real managerial search after this season. A lot of people would still want this gig. Cubs baseball may be a "way of life," but it's not a cushy alderman's gig.

As an organization, the Cubs are stable now and in good hands, but decidedly in transition with team chairman Tom Ricketts patiently assessing the new family business while making incremental changes on the business side.

[+] EnlargeLou Piniella
AP Photo/Pat SullivanWould anyone else do better than Lou Piniella with this team?

While he's looking at elephants in Africa, back home he's been stuck hunting rabbits, spending time dealing with provincial city government, a broke Arizona legislature and a disaffected fan base.

Ricketts, a real-life nice guy and a savvy businessman, is a regular at Blackhawks games and was excited to watch the Hawks win Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals in person. Is he a bit jealous at the love they're getting?

"I wouldn't say jealous because I really like those guys," he told me a couple weeks ago. "It'd be nice to bring that same kind of excitement into Wrigley at playoff time. It would be fun to deliver that kind of championship run."

This team had that run, but suffered premature jocularity back in 2008, with the too-good-to-be-true 100th anniversary of their last World Series title coinciding with their best chance at a repeat. When that dream died, it left the Cubs overpaid and perhaps under-motivated, a team whose sum is still worth less than its parts.

If you're an optimist you can look back to 2007, Piniella's first year with the team and the last time the Cubs were nine games under .500 (June 2). That team went 17-9 in July and wound up winning 85 games and a division title. Are there any corollaries?

"It's a different team," Piniella said, citing the early emergence of rookie players on this year's club. "I wouldn't compare this to the 2007 team. Now, do we have a chance for the same results? We do. But we have to play better than we have."

Hendry downplayed any comparisons to 2007 as well, but thinks Piniella's past is still worthwhile to consider, a notion that should rankle the Lou-haters in the blogosphere.

"I try not to look back, but Lou has a history of being able to rally the guys and get it going," Hendry said. "I think all of us can look at ourselves and say it's time."

The time is now for this team of yesterday. Starting July 1, the Cubs will host Cincinnati for a four-game series. By then, we'll know if it it's time for a run at the division or a run on veterans. Until then, we wait and watch. It's all you can do, really.

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.