It has been a long, strange, week in my world. I’ve had more ups and downs this week than the grand prize winner at a brothel. And yet, I persevere. I won’t bore you with the details but I can promise never to laugh at the phrase “may you live in interesting times” again. Those ancient Chinese knew how to craft a curse, I can say that much.
Speaking of interesting times, I’d like to take a moment to congratulate the St. Louis Cardinals on their highly improbable run to win the World Series. I’m sure it was only a fluke of fate that led Tony LaRussa to use, ex-Cub, Ryan Theriot in the lead off spot in the last game with everything on the line. In fact he shuffled his line up so much for this game it almost looked like someone played a game of 52 pick up with the roster.
In non-baseball news, the Bears cut safety Chris Harris because Lovie had a “gut feeling” about the kids who played the position last week. The Detroit Lions also had a gut feeling and immediately signed him. Given that Detroit does not play a Cover-2 defense, which puts all the weight of the defense on the safeties, my guess is that he will do very well there. The Chicago Sun Times explains why most teams rarely use the Cover-2.
Since when do we care about safeties in the NFL? Ever since the AFL popularized the bomb in the 1960s, it’s the cornerbacks who take all the heat in the defensive backfield. But not in cover-2. The corner covers an area, not a man, and then passes off coverage to the safety. When that communication breaks down, as it seems to have done repeatedly this season, it’s the safeties who get burned, not the cornerbacks. Walt Harris would love to play in this defense.
The safety is the cover-2’s appendix. You never care about it until you feel pain, and then you get rid of it as soon as you can. Cutting Harris was like an emergency appendectomy. The pain is gone, but you’re not any better than you were before.
In retrospect, it’s worth noting that when Harris explained how he got beat on Josh Freeman’s touchdown pass to Dezmon Briscoe after Sunday’s victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he threw Charles Tillman’s name in there.
‘‘There was a little dead spot in cover-2 in the coverage we played. [Freeman] found it and threw a laser in there,’’ Harris said. ‘‘Me and Peanut are both responsible for that. It’s a little dead spot, 15-18 yards between [the safety and cornerback]. That’s kind of the hole there.’’
That we were talking to Harris and not Tillman about that play might be the problem: too much emphasis on the safeties in the cover-2 defense. The cover-2 chews up safeties and spits ’em out. This is Smith’s signature defense, and since he became the Bears’ head coach, they’ve started 15 different safeties in eight seasons. They’ve changed starting free safeties 23 times and starting strong safeties 27 times in less than eight seasons.
There is zero continuity. The longest starting streak for a safety in Smith’s defense is 17 games (Mike Green, Chris Harris and Kevin Payne). The starting safeties from last year’s season opener already are gone (Harris and Danieal Manning). The starting safeties in the 2009 opener didn’t make it to 2010 (Payne and Al Afalava).
The Indianapolis Colts and the Buccaneers had the same problem in the cover-2 — a continuous revolving door of safeties. The lone exception in the Tony Dungy-Monte Kiffin-Smith version of the cover-2 is John Lynch, a nine-time Pro Bowler. As good as Lynch was, it didn’t hurt that he almost always played with a dominant defensive line with pass rushers such as Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice who commanded double- and triple-teams.
In other words ...... oh, hell, you know what’s going to happen as well as I do. Against crappy teams with no offense we’ll hear “It was a team win today ....” and against anyone with an actual NFL quality roster we’ll hear “We’ll look at the tape .....”
Just FYI to Mr. Harris, 18 yards of free space is not a “little hole” in the NFL, it’s a gaping wound.
One fun thing to note is that the Bears, since Lovie’s arrival, are among the worst teams in NFL history when it comes to using the challenge flag. That would be another thing you do based on a “gut feeling.” Or, as Lovie explains, it’s everybody else’s fault.
Lovie Smith, with the fifth-longest tenure among current NFL coaches, has compiled a 67-52 (56.3 percent) record with the Bears. But during his tenure, Smith has flummoxed fans and reporters with his challenges. The Bears are 19-for-61 (31 percent) in challenges since Smith took over in 2004 — fifth-worst among NFL teams during that span. The worst team in terms of challenges in that span is the Cleveland Browns (21.3 percent).
Smith took some time recently to explain his challenge philosophy.
‘‘First off, we start upstairs,’’ he said, referring to the coaches in the press box. ‘‘If we think we have a legitimate gripe, or we think we’re going to win, that’s a part of it. But if it’s close, and it’s a critical situation, I’m going to challenge it.’’
So even if there isn’t much confidence, Smith is going to use a challenge if the play is significant enough.
***EDITED FOR LENGTH***
Ultimately, Smith suggested too much is made of his use of challenges.
‘‘Even if you lose a challenge, you look at the end of the game,’’ he said. ‘‘Did you need the timeout at the end of the game? If you didn’t, it’s no biggie if you miss it.
‘‘You can’t carry them over. They don’t let you keep accumulating them.’’
No, they don’t let you keep them, that’s true. But they do tend to come in handy at the end of the half for lots of reasons that professionals in the NFL could explain to him. If they used small words and pictures, that is. Lots and lots of brightly colored pictures. Maybe some with arrows and stuff too.
Anyway, switching back to baseball, the Cubs and Red Sox have two more days before the glaring intellect of Bud Selig takes over the compensation process. Not only can I imagine many things going wrong, I can imagine the Red Sox suing MLB due to the results. Why? I’ll share with you a bit of wisdom that Chris De Luca shared with me, via the Sun Times.
Though Major League Baseball sources indicated last week that Selig was getting irritated with the protracted negotiations, he downplayed the idea his patience had been tested by the drawn-out process.
‘‘I don’t know if testing patience is right,’’ Selig said. ‘‘Obviously, I talked to both parties a lot, all parties involved. I’m sensitive during the playoffs and World Series that nothing should take away from it. Fortunately, nothing has, despite the fact there’s been a lot of conversation [on the Epstein saga].
‘‘I thought, in the end, it was OK. It really was all right. Everybody tried. It’s now done. We’ve moved on.’’
It’s no secret Selig is extra-protective of the Cubs.
‘‘I know how much it means to [chairman] Tom Ricketts and all the Cubs fans,’’ Selig said of the Epstein hire. ‘‘Believe me, nobody understands the history of the Cubs any better than I do. So given the fact that it occurred during the postseason, I think we worked around that pretty well. I’m quite satisfied.’’
Now, if the Red Sox don’t get compensation near the amount they think they deserve, and based on recent history they aren’t asking anything out of the ordinary, then you watch the whole issue of anti-trust exemptions come flaring to the fore with a team of angry lawyers, who all sound like JFK, carrying the battle flags into the Supreme Court. Bud Selig might, just might, be dumb enough to make this happen. Tom ”Gosh, golly, Mr. Selig, thanks for patting me on the head” Ricketts, on the other hand, has no dog in this fight whatsoever so you may continue to consider him irrelevant.
Since we’re on the topic of the Cubs, and not much else is happening around town, let’s let Rick Morrissey take a whack at them.
Before Tom Ricketts introduced Theo Epstein as the Cubs’ King of Baseball last week, he reaffirmed the franchise’s priorities: winning a championship, preserving Wrigley Field and being a good neighbor in Wrigleyville.
He went on to say that the Cubs had the best fans and the best ballpark in baseball. All of it, of course, was a buildup to the chairman’s declaration that the club now had the best evaluator of talent in the big leagues and that the pursuit of the elusive species known as the ‘‘World Series’’ was full-on.
But before Ricketts got there, I wanted to stand up and tell him to knock it off with the schmaltzy peripheral stuff, the stuff about the ballpark and the fans, the stuff that has nothing to do with the business of winning.
No one cares about that anymore. Check that. Only those hopelessly lost in a sea of sentimentality care. I always want to ask those people: What are you sentimental about? The magic of the ’69 Cubs? Or the century-plus of losing?
It’s time to stop pandering to them. It’s time to begin deprogramming them now, if it’s possible to pry the souvenir Harry Caray glasses off their faces. It’s time for ownership to have the courage to let the ballpark and the game-day experience speak for itself and to stop shoving it down people’s throats at every turn. To be fair, the Rickettses aren’t the first to do it. The Zell people did it. The Tribune people did it.
Nobody in a position of power wants to put the golden goose in the corner, marketing-wise, for fear it will stop producing.
But if the last two seasons have taught us anything, it’s that fans are getting fed up with the futility. After 103 years, better late than never. Attendance in 2011 was down about 3,500 people a game from 2008. Lots of people have stopped going to Wrigley because of the bad baseball, not because of the narrow concourses inside the old park or the struggling economy outside of it.
This is the perfect opportunity to break from the past. It’s the perfect time for a cultural revolution, for the Cubs and their fans to go through a re-education program. Enough with the fascination with the statues outside the ballpark and the retired numbers fluttering from the foul poles. Enough with the advertising campaigns that celebrate sitting in the sun at Wrigley with your son or your beer or both.
This is about winning now. Nothing else. That’s what the Epstein hire says. The past is history.
Fans still will come to the games. They still will enjoy the ballpark. The franchise won’t lose those people for developing a single-mindedness about winning that borders on obsession. That single-mindedness will have just the opposite effect.
Wrigley is like the last living actress from the silent-film era, full of rouge and faded memories. The world has moved on to talkies, if not 3-D films. Everybody else seems to have won a World Series, while the Cubs sell tradition. It’s time to catch up.
Let Cubs team president Crane Kenney slap as many advertisements as he wants inside Wrigley. If it makes more money that the family can throw into player development and player salaries, great. If it keeps Kenney away from the baseball side, perfect.
Ramirez, Ryno, Big Z: Forget it
The team has bigger issues than its stadium or its attendance.
Does free agent Aramis Ramirez fit into Epstein’s model for sustained success? No, he does not. If Ryne Sandberg becomes the Cubs’ manager, will that be a step backward into the Dark Ages of sentimentality? Yes, it will be. Should the Cubs consider bringing back Carlos Zambrano? Only as a bouncer.
Epstein, as if taking his cue from Ricketts at last week’s news conference, talked about the power of tradition and history.
‘‘Baseball is better with fans who care,’’ he said. ‘‘Baseball is better in ballparks like this.’’
Nobody with an ounce of passion can disagree with that. But baseball is best with a pile of players celebrating a World Series victory near the mound.
I called Wrigley ‘‘a dump’’ several years ago, and some fans were angrier about that than anything the Cubs had put on the field over the last few decades. It’s time to get priorities straight, folks.
The ballpark matters, but not as much as the baseball being played inside. It’s about the winning experience now, not the Wrigley experience. This is where Epstein comes in. He’s supposed to be brighter than a day game. Imagine that.
Not that long ago I wrote about a fan who was worried that a culture of winning might destroy his beloved Cubs. Not that he held anything against the team winning the World Series or anything like that, he just wanted it done in true Cubbie fashion.
Considering that the Cubs now join the ranks of the San Diego Padres, Texas Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays, Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners and Washington Nationals as teams that have not won a World Series in the last century, I’m not sure this is a fashion trend worth pursuing. Of course, none of those even teams existed as much as 60 years ago, let alone a century, and several of them have been to the World Series since thier inception. Some more than once, even.
But, hey, if it puts fannies in the seats and sells $7.00 Old Styles, then go for it. Who am I to deny you obscene wealth made off the backs of the gullible. It’s not ownership’s fault these people are dumber than a box of rocks.
Actually, I probably owe an apology to boxes of rocks the world over.
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And now .......
You might want to be sure children aren’t in the room and that you’ve taken your meds.
You okay? Cool. I just want to be sure here.
Anyway, the next monster that will not die?
CARLOSSSSSS ZAMMMMM BRANO!
MU HU HA HA HA cough cough, urgh, heh.
Sorry, are you okay? I tried to warn you that this was going to be scary. Maybe not as scary as a Cubs’ themed haunted house, but scary enough that I wanted to make sure you had taken your heart meds prior to continuing.
Seriously, a Cubs’ themed haunted house? Well, it is for Harry Caray’s and they’ve always embraced the flotsam and jetsam of the various curses and foibles that make up the Cubs legacy. I’ll probably head down tomorrow to check it out. But, far scarier than any smelly old goat is the prospect that the Cubs are so freaking desperate for pitching that they may give Zambrano another chance. Paul Sullivan at the Tribune has the whole, horrifying, story.
After a long lull, another chapter of the Carlos Zambrano saga will be written over the next few months as the Cubs’ new management decides what to do with the recidivist offender.
Zambrano has been suspended, placed on the restricted list, sent to anger management, suspended again and placed on the disqualified list, all in a span of about 14 months.
The Cubs were so anxious to get him out of the clubhouse they let him take an extended paid vacation in the final weeks of the 2011 season rather than take him back into the clubhouse at the tail end of a losing season.
Chairman Tom Ricketts told ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” in September that he didn’t envision Zambrano pitching for the Cubs again, and Big Z suddenly was out of sight and out of mind.
But now the ball is in the hands of new Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, and incoming general manager Jed Hoyer, who will decide if it makes sense to eat a significant part of Zambrano’s salary in a trade just to rid themselves of the potential headaches.
Epstein surprised some observers Tuesday when he mentioned he wanted to talk to Zambrano before drawing any conclusions.
“I need to get to the bottom of that,” Epstein said in an interview on “Chicago Tribune Live.” “I think the best organizations get the most out of their players, even the ones who might be harder to get the most out of it. But the best organizations also know when it’s time to move on.”
Is it time to move on, or are the Cubs so bereft of starting pitching Zambrano could get yet another chance to stick around.
Zambrano is now back in Venezuela, getting ready to make his debut for Los Caribes de Anzoátegui in the Venezuelan Winter League. Zambrano threw his first bullpen session Tuesday and is expected to make his first start in a week or so.
The Cubs owe Zambrano $18 million in 2012, and have a $19.25 million option for 2013.
The arguments against keeping Zambrano are obvious. His reputation as a troublemaker is part of his persona, and any team that is interested in him knows it’s “buyer beware.” There has been talk the Marlins will be interested in acquiring Zambrano because of his friendship with new manager Ozzie Guillen, but they are unlikely to assume much, if any, of his 2011 salary.
While Zambrano’s velocity has gone down the past few years, he still has some outings that show signs of the old “Big Z.”
“He has talent,” Epstein said. “Obviously, things haven’t gone the way he would have liked or the organization would have liked the last few years.”
In a one-year stretch from Aug. 14, 2010, when he was coming back from anger management counseling, to Aug. 6 of 2011, Zambrano posted a 17-6 record. But then came the night of Aug. 12 in Atlanta, when he tied a franchise record by serving up five home runs in 41/3 innings in a 10-4 loss to the Braves.
That was when Zambrano was ejected for throwing at Chipper Jones and left the clubhouse before the end of the game, telling Cubs clubhouse personnel he had had enough and was going to retire.
A close friend of Zambrano’s said the pitcher is looking forward to talking with Epstein about his future. Though his suburban house is for sale, he’s still amenable to staying with the Cubs. Whether Zambrano’s teammates would accept him back remains to be seen, though they did so after his incident in 2010, with Derrek Lee and Zambrano hugging in the visitors’ clubhouse in Colorado.
Zambrano still has the hammer — the no-trade clause he would have to waive to allow the Cubs to get him out of town.
Will he have to use it?
The saga continues.
Let me toss a couple of other scary stats at you. The Cubs have had 14 players come through their farm system and make the big leagues over the last year. Only two of them are on the Cubs.
Their next three highest prospects are all slated to head to other venues in order to pay for all the super nifty spiffy cool talent that now calls Clark and Addison home.
Yes, the Cubs did have a good draft this year but those players are three to five years away from making any sort of impact.
Now that you’re numb from all that horror let’s get back to Big Z. and take a peek at what the Cubs are proposing for 2012 in way of pitching.
I said “in way” not “in lieu.”
I have them in alphabetical, as opposed to hypothetical slotting, order just to keep things simple. Cashner is coming off a major injury and only saw limited work in the pen at the end of the year. Samardzija wasn’t bad, once he got his head out of his ass, going 8-4 with a 2.97 ERA. But he’s been a reliever all year and that seems to be a role he excels at. I am comparing that to his 18.90 ERA as a starter. Harden, although listed as a projected starter, isn’t actually on the team right now. He also has a medical record that sends up red flags, smoke signals and warning shots all over the league.
Which brings us to Dempster. Proof that being the best pitcher on the Cubs is like being the tallest midget.
The Cubs have, for a little while more, one pitcher in the minors who warrants a look at the big league level in Trey McNutt. After that you’re three to five years out from any player being ready.
In other words, any warm body that can throw faster than 85 mph must be considered.
Even if it is Big Z.
Sorry Cubs’ fans. I know you got your new, fair haired, boy to run the empire. But you still need worthy minions to make it all work and you just don’t have them right now.
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Theo Theo Ho
Hey Big T, Big T
Will you win for me
Sannah Ho Sannah Hey
With many, heartfelt, apologies to Rice and Weber.
The Cubs do not have a new GM, at least not yet. What they have is Boston’s old GM who is now their President of Baseball Operations.
And nobody cares.
All they care about is that the Cubs have a young, two time World Series winning, guy in charge of stuff. And not just some stuff. He’s in charge of all their stuff. He may even, someday, be powerful enough to force Crane Kenney to try and get a job across the street at Mickey D’s. Not that I would wish that on a fine company such as McDonald’s, but you get the idea. Like closing time in bars, we don’t care where you go but you can’t stay here.
Listening to the callers into the various talk radio shows I had to walk outside to make sure I hadn’t missed the skies opening up and bathing the Northside in a heavenly light. I seriously searched for angels. The winged ones, not the California variety. Honestly, I half expected the press conference to start with the sound of distant thunder, some smoke and then listen as Epstein appeared from the mist and defined the “Cubs’ Way.”
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. Much like the uncomfortable looks I’ve been getting from men around here lately. You will know them by their fruits. And I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Could Hendry tell them apart? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. And this tree needs to be cut down and used for kindling. And what’s up with that freaking ivy?”
And so on.
Toss in something about removing a beam from your eye and call it a day.
My fear is that, while Epstein is rational and has pointed out on several occasions that this is going to take some work to fix, fans aren’t listening. Drooling? Yes. Celebrating? Absolutely. Listening? Not so much. And it is that exact attribute that they’ll need if they don’t want to be suicidal by May. Epstein knows he has 2/5th of a rotation and gaping holes in several positions. The one spot he probably isn’t worried about is first base, which is where he’d have to stick Pujols or Fielder. So, color them gone and, if you’re being honest with yourself, not really needed. Not in the sense that their presence would accomplish anything.
Rick Morrissey tries to take a calmer look at recent developments.
Let’s stop being coy. The Savior has arrived.
Never mind Theo Epstein’s protestations. If you paid attention to the gooey reaction from fans and media as the Cubs wooed him over the last several weeks, there can be no mistaking his divine properties.
In word and in Pavlov salivating, people are indicating he is the one to do what nobody has done in 103 years.
For his own sake, he had better.
Listen to what Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said at Epstein’s introductory news conference Tuesday and tell me there’s nothing messianic in his description:
‘‘We look forward to the day where we can say that we have the best team in baseball. And we are confident that our new president of baseball operations will lead us to that day.’’
That sounds like next-door neighbors to ‘‘And a little child shall lead them.’’
OK, Epstein is no longer the kid he was when the Boston Red Sox named him their general manager at 28. But he’s 37 now, still young and still with a lot of time left for miracle-working. Bringing a World Series to the North Side for the first time since 1908 is the one and only reason he’s here.
No pressure there.
Epstein clearly is aware of the oversized expectations of him, and it’s probably why he stressed the team dynamic so often Tuesday.
‘‘When we do achieve that sustained success and ultimately win a World Series, it will not happen because of any one person,’’ he said. ‘‘It will happen because of all of us.’’
An ever bigger Goliath
Epstein is wrong there, judging by the lovefest that has taken place since the Cubs began recruiting him. He helped Boston break its 86-year dry spell without a World Series, in case you haven’t heard. When you hear a Cubs fan or a radio talk-show host describe how those two Red Sox championships came about, it usually has more to do with Epstein than with any actual baseball player.
In Chicago, he’s up against both a ponderous history and the fervent belief that he’ll change things immediately, if not sooner.
When was the last time there was this much anticipation in town for the arrival of a sports figure? The reaction to Epstein’s hiring has been bigger than the reaction to the Jay Cutler trade.
The Cubs’ arduous pursuit of Epstein and the money they have given him says it all: he’s The One.
But give him this: Just because he’s trying to avoid that kind of talk doesn’t mean he’s avoiding the huge challenge in front of him.
‘‘When I got to Boston . . . they hadn’t won in 86 years,’’ he said. ‘‘We didn’t run from that challenge. We embraced it. We decided that the way to attack it was to build the best baseball operation that we could, to try to establish a winning culture, to work as hard as possible and to bring in players who cared more about each other and more about winning than what the people around them thought or the external expectations or the external mind-set.’’
Despite the desire to believe in Epstein’s curative powers, it’s hard to look at his arrival without some skepticism. The room at Wrigley Field in which the Cubs introduced him Tuesday is the same room they used to introduce Lou Piniella and Dusty Baker as manager. You remember them. They were the previous two saviors.
You say this time is different. I say prove it.
Forgive this skeptic
The negativity in that previous sentence isn’t in the attitude of the person who wrote it. The negativity is in the 103 years without a title.
Epstein’s hiring says the Cubs have finally entered into the 21st century in terms of statistical analysis and objective data, which won’t be mistaken for Ron Santo and Harry Caray. That’s a good thing. The Rickettses have rightly recognized that the Cubs’ farm system isn’t nearly as good as it should be.
‘‘Over time and together, we will build a solid foundation that delivers sustained success to the Cubs,’’ Epstein said.
When he says “we,” he means the organization, not the royal “we,’’ though you get the feeling that Cubs fans would be OK with that, if that’s what King Theo wanted.
The Cubs went 71-91 last season, but that was then and this is, as you know, wow. I suppose nobody wants to hear that the team Epstein inherited when he was named the Red Sox’ GM had won 93 games the year before.
Nah, I didn’t think so.
Some headlines for you.
HOLY COW! IT’S THE START OF THEOLOGY (Sun Times)
Epstein ready to show Cubs the ‘Way’ (Tribune)
New Cub Epstein gets a bear hug (Boston Globe)
Media circus accompanies Cubs’ new Theocracy (Daily Herald)
Rose wants to do away with NBA salary cap (Defender) [they had no stories, of any kind, about baseball]
You get the idea.
So here we are. A guy who can guarantee the Cubs a World Series. Just like .....
Charles “Boots” Weber
1934 - 1940
1940 - 1949
1950 - 1956
1957 - 1975
E.R. “Salty” Saltwell
1976 - 1976
1977 - 05-1981
05-1981 - 10-1981
10-1981 - 10-1987
11-1987 - 10-1991
10-1991 - 10-1994
10-1994 - 07-2000
07-2000 - 07-2002
07-2002 - 08-19-2011
That’s all of them folks. The position of General Manager didn’t exist the last time the Cubs won a World Series. And now the Cubs will, most likely, bring in a new manager to join the ranks of these guys (the list is too long) to guide the team to the promised land.
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“Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta (Blue), because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly color. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.”
- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Ch. 2
As I listened to the various and sundry quotes coming from the Wrigley brain trust I was reminded of the above quote. After all, Brave New World is all about jettisoning history to create .... well, a brave new world. It also has the 1930’s equivalent of government sponsored orgies, but I really don’t want to go there today.
Instead I’ll stick to the, fully clothed, matters at hand.
Theo Epstein, a/k/a the subject of a great, holiday, work by Handel, comes to Chicago to accomplish what numerous predecessors have failed to do; win a World Series.
Yes, he’ll need to shore up, that thing other teams have that the Cubs don’t, the farm system. And, yes, he’ll need to do some juggling to dump salary so that he can sign players who want to play baseball. And, yes, he’ll need to construct a professional organization, as opposed to current three guys named Larry, to run the thing. But, at the end of the day, he was brought here for one reason only; win the damn thing.
First the good news; He’s done it before.
Now the bad news; Never with something in this sad shape of disarray.
In Boston he had a culture that was getting used to wining and had just come off a 90 win season. They also had a farm system that was rated in the top five by anyone paying attention. He also had a bank account to rival the Yankees.
He has none of that now.
This is not to say he can’t do it, just that he has nowhere near the tools or resources he used to have. Also, in Boston, he didn’t have Crane Kenney. Paul Sullivan thinks that may the one obstacle that most bears watching.
While celebrating one of the most significant and well-received moves in franchise history, Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts has skillfully avoided the question of what happens next with President Crane Kenney.
A polarizing figure among fans, players and many in the front office, Kenney’s reign as second-in-command to the Cubs owners officially ended Friday with the naming of Theo Epstein as president of baseball operations.
Kenney will move exclusively to the business side of the organization, a shift Ricketts said in August already had begun. But while Kenney was supposed to stay in the background during the “general manager” search that netted both a president and a GM, sources indicate Kenney was involved from the get-go, bragging to associates he was running it.
So was Kenney really an integral part of the Epstein hiring or just pretending for appearance’s sake? Was he an impediment to the Cubs-Red Sox compensation talks, making it personal with Red Sox President Larry Lucchino, or just taking a hard stance for Ricketts?
Kenney declined to comment, a Cubs spokesman said, out of respect for Major League Baseball’s request the Epstein saga not distract from the World Series.
How Epstein and Kenney share their power is a story that will play out over the next few years. A former Tribune Co. attorney who wound up as team president and top adviser to Ricketts, Kenney rubbed many the wrong way while climbing the corporate ladder.
His business contacts and ability to enhance Wrigley Field revenues make Kenney a valued asset of the Ricketts family, while his reputation for turning the ballpark into his own playground annoys others. An associate of both Ricketts and Kenney said the Cubs owners feel they “owe” Kenney.
“Tom is an uber-fan when it comes to the Cubs, but he doesn’t know baseball,” the associate said. “He looks at Crane as someone who deserves his undying loyalty because he helped him with the financials of the sale.
“Someone advised Tom that he needed a sacrificial lamb when he took over, to separate them from (Tribune Co.). But he wouldn’t do it. He kept Crane and really did nothing at first to change the culture, except to extend employees’ benefits. The talk at the (Tribune) Tower was that Crane wanted more than anything for the Rickettses to retain him so ultimately he could wind up commissioner of baseball.”
Those who have worked with Kenney describe him as a driven individual who ingratiates himself to whomever is in charge, whether it was at Tribune Co. or at Clark and Addison streets. There’s no shortage of detractors, including one fellow board member of a local nonprofit organization Kenney once served on. The source said their relationship soured almost immediately after Kenney touted himself as a fundraising expert.
“He made a big deal about how much money he was going to raise for us and got some publicity for it,” the source said. “The day of the fundraising event, he showed up and didn’t get any of the money he’d promised, yet he acted like he’d done nothing wrong.
“When you’re dealing with nonprofit organizations, it’s a very polite world, and no one calls you out when you do something like that. I was in control then, so when it came time to reappoint (the board), I just made sure he wasn’t on it.”
Whether it’s getting bottled water from the dugout during a game, using the team’s training room for his personal use or refusing to give up the biggest office at Wrigley Field to the new owner, Kenney has angered someone in every nook and cranny at Wrigley.
Former manager Lou Piniella, however, was one exception.
“I enjoyed working with Crane,” Piniella said. “He was learning baseball, and he had a good sense of humor. He was a carry-over from Tribune Co., and I got a chance to work with him for four years. He wasn’t all that involved in the baseball operation per se, so I didn’t deal with him that much. He was more involved in things business-wise.”
But even Kenney’s business dealings have been criticized. Fellow baseball executives were enraged two years ago when he tried to get Arizona to implement a tax surcharge on tickets for all Cactus League games — the so-called Cubs tax — to help fund the team’s proposed spring training complex in Mesa. MLB eventually stepped in and told Ricketts to come up with another plan.
Perhaps the biggest blot on Kenney’s resume was the “Greek priest” episode of 2008. Before the Cubs’ playoff opener against the Dodgers, Kenney, then the team chairman, came up with the idea of blessing Wrigley Field. He found the Rev. James L. Greanias, a Greek Orthodox priest in Valparaiso, Ind., who performed such blessings.
“He said he didn’t believe in curses, but just in case we are dealing with the spiritual world, we’d like to offer a blessing for the field,” Greanias said. “I told him OK, as long as we did it in private and it was not mocking anything.
“Blessings are for protection, not to help a team win. I’ve blessed houses, a junkyard … it’s not unusual, so I agreed.”
But a camera crew filmed the act, and Greanias was able to bless only the dugout, not the entire field. As he was rushed out of the dugout, he met Cubs coach Mike Quade and was introduced to the future manager by Kenney.
The Cubs lost the game and were swept in the series. Greanias became a footnote in Cubs history but didn’t fault Kenney until the 2009 Cubs Convention, when a fan asked Kenney why he did it.
“That’s one of the dumber things we’ve done, right?” Kenney replied. “In my six years making decisions, that’s probably (No.) 2 or 3 of all the dumb things we’ve done.”
Kenney told the fans the decision was made after the priest emailed the Cubs asking for playoff tickets and offering to bless the dugout to remove the so-called Billy Goat Curse. He took full responsibility for the decision.
“I said, ‘Let (the priest) in,’ “ Kenney said. “He wanted to say a blessing for our good health. We had good health, but the results made us sick. … If I could do it again, I wouldn’t have, no question about it.”
After reading Kenney’s spin, Greanias called the Tribune the next day to call him a “liar.”
“The last thing on my mind was calling the Cubs to ask them to bless the field,” he said. “In fact, I thought it was a joke at first.”
The Cubs have gone progressively downhill the last three years, a fact Greanias laughs about. Though he remains a Cubs fan, the priest is no fan of Kenney.
“From a business standpoint, is that really what the Rickettses want to put out there?” Greanias said. “That you want to win at all costs, even if you have to have a guy who lies as one of your top executives? You’re dealing with business leaders, dealing with the city, and you want someone who is not honest representing your organization?”
Former general manager Jim Hendry was reportedly livid over the holy water incident, believing Kenney put his publicity-seeking ways ahead of the team that had been trying to put the “curse” in the rearview mirror. Hendry did not return phone calls.
Piniella recalled he was flabbergasted by the episode but said “it didn’t bother me one way or another” when it occurred.
“I didn’t know it was happening,” he said. “I wasn’t aware of it until after the game. But, look, that didn’t have anything to do with what happened to us in the playoffs, one way or another. He got a lot of flak for it, sure, but there are a lot of small idiosyncrasies there that get a lot of attention.”
“Like the jinx,” Piniella said.
Kenney mostly has stayed away from the clubhouse for the last year and has refrained from speaking publicly, allegedly after being ordered to clam up by the Ricketts family. While the Cubs owners are happy with the job he has done increasing revenues, they’d just as soon he stay in the background with Epstein in town.
One former Cubs employee predicted it won’t happen anytime soon.
“I’m not fully convinced Crane is completely out of the baseball side,” the source said. “Let’s wait and see.”
Really? This is the guy you want handling your business? A guy who was called a “liar” by a freaking priest? A man who, according to one reporter I know, is an “asshat” and that was the kindest thing he could say. The rest was flat out unprintable. And this was coming from a guy who’s previous level of high unction was to utter a “darn” when his car got stolen. I can’t see how someone who inspires that level of ire can be an asset. An asshat, certainly, but not an asset.
Oh well, I wonder what costume Epstein will wear when he sneaks out of Chicago. I mean, after all, the whole gorilla thing’s been done.
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Yeah, I get easily distracted. Before we get to yesterday’s epic clash in London I’d like to note that there’s been a World Series going on. It has two teams, just like most years, and they’ve been playing some seriously good baseball. The first two games were defensive gems with pitchers throwing nasty curves and sliders and fielders making one “Web Gem” level play per inning (or so it seemed). Game three was a slug fest that actually saw a hundred year old record tied when Pujols homered three times in one game. Game four was a mix of both and suffered not in the least for the mingling. And, after all this, the series is tied. Neither the Rangers nor the Cardinals are going down without a fight.
Yet the series will not do well in the ratings. For that I blame ESPN entirely. They spend all year talking about East Coast teams and whoever is in first anywhere else (and then only in passing) and then seem surprised that people have no clue who any of the post season teams are. Even Fox, with its godawful announcers and annoying show plugs, does a far better job of representing the country as a whole. Of course, thanks to their godawful announcers and annoying show plugs, no one’s paying them any attention. So it’s not much help.
If you want to see some high quality baseball, or even if you just want to find out what it looks like, check out these last three games.
Okay, on to football.
Yesterday Da Bears decided to laugh at statistics. The last time a team won after flying in to London on a Friday was never. The average score for those Friday teams was any number bigger than 16 to 16.
And yet .....
And yet the Bears come home 4-3 much to everyone’s surprise. Probably even theirs.
Rick Telander somehow finagled the company expense account to get his happy butt to London and see the game.
Bottom line: the Bears are undefeated in London.
Undefeated in Wembley Stadium.
Undefeated in the United Kingdom, undefeated in BST (British Summer Time).
They’re undefeated when one of the Queen’s rodents prowls the red zone, when Matt Forte is tackled for a safety, when a drunken (I’m guessing here, though with a high level of confidence) fan peels off his shirt and rumbles around the playing field just before a fourth-quarter kickoff, high-fiving a Tampa Bay Buccaneer and then the Bears’ astounded Corey Graham.
Back in the 1986 preseason, the Bears beat the Dallas Cowboys here 17-6, with lots of weirdness. And the modern-day Bears beat the Buccaneers here Sunday night, 24-18, with just enough weirdness to distract from but not overwhelm the final result.
So why wouldn’t the Bears gladly travel to London, anytime, until the streak runs out?
“If you win, it’s great,’’ agreed Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.
B-Url had a fine game, by the way, as did fellow linebacker Lance Briggs. Between them they finished with 11 tackles, two interceptions (one each), four passes broken up (two each), and a quarterback hurry (Briggs).
“This wasn’t too bad,’’ continued Urlacher. “About a seven-hour flight. Time change not too bad. This was fun.’’
When pressed by a British media member on whether the player would then eagerly agree to more England games, Urlacher chuckled his bullet-headed chuckle. Maybe the dude wasn’t hip to the NFL power structure.
“Wherever they say play the game, we do it. We have no say. We just play where they tell us to play, and put a smile on our face while we’re doing it.’’
Indeed, at one point, the Bears looked to make a laugher of this contest. With the Bears up 21-5 in the third quarter, Briggs intercepted Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman’s underthrown pass and returned it to within inches of the “home-team’’ Bucs’ goal line.
If they could score a touchdown here, the Bears would have a Piccadilly Circus on their hands. But a penalty on the play kept the Bears far from the end zone, and then things got sticky late in the game, what with the Buccaneers having the ball with 37 seconds left at the Bears’ 39 and needing only a TD and an extra point to win.
Thanks for the last-second interception, D.J. Moore, old bloke!
A win is a win, wherever, however it arrives. And the Bears are now 4-3 and winners of three of their last four games.
“Same record we had last year,’’ head coach Lovie Smith said. “But our arrow is going up. I feel real good about our ball club.’’
There were other things to feel good about.
Beautiful weather, a stadium as modern as any in the U.S., fans wearing a potpourri of NFL jerseys ranging from Jay Cutler to Franco Harris to Art Monk.
Before the game I chatted with a fellow wearing a tricked-out Oakland Raiders NFL All-Star jersey with “ASOMUGHA’’ on the back.
“I’ve been to the NFL games here the last five years,’’ said Stuart Mansfield, 40, from London. He was with his wife, Angie, 39, who was wearing a blue Colts Peyton Manning jersey. She smiled weakly when hubby explained how he had the NFL double-header package on Sky Sports TV. And if he didn’t like either game, he could “push the red button and go to ‘Red Zone’ and watch the scoring for all the games.’’
So why the unpronouncable cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha jersey?
“He was with the Raiders before he got traded to the Eagles,’’ Stuart said.
“And I love the Raiders.’’
The Raiders. He saw my expression.
“Yes, I’m a bit of a nut case,’’ he said.
So was the squirrel that ran onto the field in the first quarter, zipping as far as the Bears 40-yard line, no doubt trying to remember where he buried his winter’s stash a while back.
And how about that hefty fan who stripped off his shirt and ran all over the gridiron, giddy with demented joy, clearly wondering, like the rest of us, where in the hell security was.
“That was exciting,’’ admitted game savior Moore, who was watching from the sideline. “The guys facing him we’re kind of slow — most times you see it on TV and the guys are real good at tackling, and these guys, they were bad’’
Did Moore consider helping out?
“No!’’ said the little cornerback. “I thought he was going to take his pants off and everything.’’
You didn’t see any of this impropriety, beloved reader. The NFL, moral and pure, made sure.
But maybe you did see the weirdest thing of all. Maybe of ever.
Buccaneers safety Tanard Jackson, 6-0, 200, intercepted a Jay Cutler pass in the first quarter and ran it back 43 yards before ducking out of bounds at the Bears 12 so he could avoid getting hit by ... Cutler!
This scribe has never in all his football days seen such, hmmm, shall we call it diaper doo-doo?
As noted before, it doesn’t matter where or how you win games.
In truth, the Bears may be better than we think.
For sure, they’re bloody British bullies.
Yes, now they have the same record this year that they had last when they got to their bye week. And, yes, they played a half of really solid football yesterday. Unfortunately someone let Martz out of his cage in the second half and the Bears almost handed this game back to the woeful Bucs.
But a win is a win and everyone’s career is justified for another week. And, to be fair, the team that played Atlanta and the first half of the Bucs could be a playoff caliber team. Unfortunately they have this other team that wears identical jerseys but plays like demented squirrels that they let loose from time to time. If they can keep the squirrels caged there may be hope.
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