If you’re of a certain age, you can still faintly remember a different Rick Telander.Â He was the one “young” guy on the old Sportswriters on TV, he wrote some great takeouts for Sports Illustrated and he wrote a terrific book titled “Heaven is a Playground.”Â He was a self-effacing, broken down jock who had played football at Northwestern.Â Rick Telander was cool.
In fact, he might stilly be pretty cool.
But his writing has been shit for an awfully long time now.
Last week, Cubs Vice President for Everything Crane Kenney Doesn’t Get to Screw Up, Theo Epstein held a season post-mortem press conference.Â Fittingly, Telander’s rotting corpse of a career showed up to take copious notes.Â At one point, Theo mocked one of Telander’s questions, which apparently set Rick off to teach young Theo some manners.
Looking at the tiny, futuristic scale model of Wrigley Field and the surrounding area made me want to shrink to fly size, dive in and walk around.
Or, you know, just put your trifocals on and take a look like everybody else.
The model is in the back room at the Cubsâ€™ main office on Clark Street, and team president Theo Epstein gave us a look Tuesday after his state-of-the-organization speech to media members.
Was Dempster there playing Golden Tee again?Â That guy is the worst.
Hereâ€™s what I would do, if shrunk: Iâ€™d go to the bar in the airy, eight-story hotel on the corner of Clark and Addison, order an Old Style (a gazillionth of an ounce), dash across the street and run merrily through the plaza with its festive lights and pillars, sprint into the sparkling new Cubs offices near where the Yum-Yum Donut shop once reigned, climb to Theoâ€™s corner office, open the window and buzz over the hidden, subterranean clubhouses to the gorgeous JumboTron-laden ballpark and holler, in my little fly voice, â€œCubs win! Cubs win!â€
Somewhere, Rick Moranis just vomited.
Besides, do you really think the Rickettseses are going to serve Old Style in their boutique hotel?Â Hell, they only sell it at two beer stands in Wrigley just to keep all eight idiots who missed it happy.
Oh, itâ€™s a fever dream, I know.
Fever dream, CTE, whatever Roger Goodell is calling it these days.
But there was Epstein, three seasons into his task of making the Cubs and their ballpark relevant, telling us forcefully, â€œA message has been sent around the league. This place is going to get really interesting for a long time.â€™â€™
The most important part of this is “three seasons.”Â That’s all the time Theo has had to rebuild an entire baseball organization from bottom (rock bottom) to top.Â The job he’s done in three seasons is nothing short of amazing, particularly given that right after he took the job the owners, led by crosstown asshat Jerry Reinsdorf completely changed the amateur draft and international free agency roles in an attempt to “level the playing field for small market teams” while actually just allowing teams like the White Sox to keep spending nothing on player development, and trying to force other teams to spend less, too.
Three years in, the Cubs have one of the deepest farm systems in baseball, and all of the dead weight contracts are gone.Â Three years.Â This is a franchise that’s been terrible for 11 decades, and three years is too long to wait now?
It is.Â Pudding.Â Go ahead and have some.Â We’ll wait.
A skeptic could say itâ€™s already more interesting than one can stomach.
The Cubs just finished their fifth losing season under Ricketts family ownership, and the endless talk about the needed ballpark improvements, the rooftops rights, the coming free-agent stars, the building of the farm system from the soil worms on up has become a path through a briar thicket.
Well, the last three of those losing seasons have been by design, and the first two were fueled by a panicked attempt to recapture the regular season glory of the disappointing 2008 team.Â So let’s not worry about that too much.
Are the Ricketts good owners?Â Well, they hired Theo…and they kept Crane.Â They leave Theo alone to run the baseball side…and they fuck up every communication about everything else.Â So who knows?Â What we do know is that dad’s a billionaire who could give two shits about baseball, so they’re running the team on a budget, at least until a televised Obama speech finally makes the old man’s heart explode.
That glass-encased architectural model looks so inviting, so .â€‰.â€‰. sweet, that you just want to scream, â€˜â€˜Dig already!â€™â€™
But Epstein has a plan, and he will not waver from its seemingly endless dotted line.
Did I mention it’s been three years?Â Three years where they’ve had the patience to actually follow a plan that they’ve explained from the very beginning.Â They have not promised instant success and not delivered.Â They knew that in order to maximize farm system assets that they’d have to have high picks and large draft pick pool allotments.
He mentioned the machinery across the street at Wrigley that seems to actually be doing something (Digging? Destroying? Erecting? Laying down giant seed pods?), and he said, â€œI do think it provides a daily reminder of whatâ€™s coming.â€™â€™
By that he meant a team in a modern but historic stadium someday with young guys such as Javy Baez and Jorge Soler and Arismendy Alcantara and Addison Russell â€” plus the minor-league player-of-this-century-and-all-others, Kris Bryant. Plus, superstar free-agent pitchers who will have nothing in common with Theoâ€™s disastrous choice of pus-armed Edwin Jackson. And theyâ€™ll have a major-league batting cage and big lockers!
Edwin’s been awful, but he’s also signed at roughly the qualifying offer salary for four years.Â He’s not crippling the payroll.Â The Cubs thought he’d be a league average, durable starter so their bullpen wouldn’t have to pitch five innings every game of the week.Â That hasn’t worked. But apparently that means every free agent they sign will end up like that.Â That’s for the warning.
It all sounds so good. So fun.
Itâ€™s a plan that some smarter-than-anyone houseboys have swallowed like Jonestown party juice.
Great reference.Â Very current.Â Maybe in your next set you can work in some hilarious airline jokes about Amelia Earheart.
Just trust Theo, they peep from their brown bog. Heâ€™s a genius, and everyone else is dumb.
Well, it’s not like Theo’s ever built a perennial winner before.Â Or that his moves make the kind of obvious sense that his Cubs predecessors’ never did.Â So nobody is saying that he’s a genius and everyone else is dumb.Â We are saying that you are dumb.
What are three years with a record of 80 games under .500 when, by 2019, the Cubs will have a new TV deal for lots of money?
Hey, hey! Thatâ€™s only five years from now. Watching Triple-A players is awesome! Anybody can win the World Series, but watching guppies develop, priceless!
The importance of a bigger income stream in five years (more TV money, more merchandise money, more ticket sales) isn’t just so that the Cubs can continue to sign free agents, but what if Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler and Addison Russell are as good as people think they might be?Â It’d be nice to have the money to keep them, wouldn’t it?Â You don’t have to wait to be good, but you do need a plan to try to stay that way.
Epstein said the Cubs will be better next year (worse than 73-89 should be off the table), but â€œweâ€™re not going to sell out to win in 2015.â€™â€™
Why should they? Cubs fans will take anything. They are more loyal than comfort dogs. And hope? Faith? They eat that like dirt-gorging amoebas.
You can’t worry that TV ratings will doom the team to miss out on a huge TV payday and also claim that Cubs fans will accept anything.Â The idea that Cubs fans would buy tickets to see this team no matter how terrible they are has been disproved over and over…by empty seats.Â But what’s proof when you can make strange, fictional pseudopod references?
â€œI feel like most fans have put their trust in us to get this thing right and bought into the vision that we have,â€™â€™ Epstein said. Correctly.
Because that vision is out there, on the horizon, moving like the sun. Just a little farther. Always. And the Cubs fans lurch toward it, arms outstretched, half-insane with desire.
And some people buy season tickets to Northwestern football.
â€œEven if we win the World Series next year, I donâ€™t think it represents the apex,â€™â€™ Epstein said.
Imagine that! A Cubs franchise that hasnâ€™t won a world championship in 107 years will someday be tossing trophies around like marshmallows.
The Red Sox once went 86 years between world championships and now have three in the last 10.Â You know what the Cubs should do?Â They should hire some of the guys who did THAT.
Maybe this all will work, this grand solution. Dear God, it should. For a major market to tank for years and say, â€œBe patientâ€?
Major market- small market, whatever.Â This plan marks the most straight forward, sensible way to get and stay good.Â But if you have money I guess you shouldn’t use it.Â You should just spend $350 million on Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton and watch them waddle to a three and out playoff appearance.
Where else could this happen but in Cubdom? The White Sox can only dream of such splendor. The Sox finished with the same record as the Cubs this year and drew a million fewer fans. So it goes.
I don’t think anyone has ever disputed there are far more Cubs fans than White Sox fans.Â So, all things being equal as far as shitty on field play goes, the Cubs are going to have more people watch it.
Has Epstein ever wondered why the small-market Cardinals never go to the bottom of the division and stink for years? Indeed, the Cardinals have had but six losing records in the last quarter-century, while going to four World Series and winning two.
I’m pretty sure that the Cardinals win by mixing in their own prospects with a few veteran free agents, so they are never reliant on just buying players who, given the current player acquisition system put in place by Major League Baseball are almost always past their prime when they finally hit the free market.Â In order to consistently compete with the Cardinals, the Cubs need to be set up to produce impact players of their own, on their own.Â Gee, I wonder why Theo never thought of that? Also, the idea that the Cardinals never rebuild is wrong.Â For more than a decade from the end of the Whitey Herzog era until Tony Larussa showed up with a suitcase full of needles, the Cardinals were a non-factor in the NL East and Central.Â It wasn’t until Walt Jocketty committed to rebuilding a farm system and to stop trying to patch holes in the roster with free agents that they competed consistently again.Â You can blame the Cubs for taking an extra 15 years to figure that out, but don’t blame Theo for creating a plan to do it, and sticking to it.
So I asked Theo about those pesky Cardinals.
â€˜â€˜How do you balance admiration and contempt?â€™â€™ he replied, smiling.
To admire the Cubs someday â€” thereâ€™s the goal.
I’d say I’d like to balance admiration and contempt for Rick Telander, but I’ll just stick to the latter.