August 03, 2012
I received an email recently from an Ole Miss fan (I'd call it hate mail, but I received much, much worse during my days as a columnist/radio talk show host in Mobile, Ala.) criticizing me for tweeting about things other than Rebel athletics.
He told me he was tired of reading my thoughts on the Oklahoma City Thunder, and more recently, my thoughts on the Chicago Cubs as the Major League Baseball trade deadline approached. At the conclusion of his lecture regarding how he believed I should use Twitter, he took a gratuitous slap at the Cubs, a team I've followed passionately since childhood and a franchise that doesn't appear all that close to winning its first World Series since that glorious autumn of 1908.
While I'm confounded that people actually are bothered by what I tweet on a personal Twitter account, I tried to come up with a clever response. When it comes to responding to Cubs insults, it's difficult. For example, the other day, my good friend/Circle of Trust expatriate/St. Louis Cardinals fan Kyle Veazey tweeted "1908" at me. All I could do for a response was send him a clip of Anthony Rizzo's walk-off two-run homer against the Cards on Sunday in Chicago. I elected to just let it go, but I couldn't stop thinking one prevailing thought: At least right now, Ole Miss and the Cubs have a lot in common.
The Cubs, after decades of mismanagement, are rebuilding. As of this writing, they're 43-60, some 20 games out in the National League's Central Division. They're tearing down the team down to the studs (that's a construction metaphor, not a commentary on the talent level of the remaining players) and building around youth and prospects. The Cubs finally moved away from traditional scouting and are now embracing statistical analysis as a huge part of player evaluation and development. The owner, Tom Ricketts, hired Theo Epstein away from Boston and Jed Hoyer away from San Diego and has taken a hands-off approach. Novel concept, huh? Hire good people, give them carte blanche and then judge them on their jobs.
There finally seems to be an understanding on the North Side that having just enough big names to fill the beer garden that is Wrigley Field isn't enough. Instead, actually winning a championship finally seems to be the franchise's mission, as difficult as that will prove to be.
To Ole Miss fans, that should sound familiar. After decades of mismanagement and neglect, the athletic program appears to be in good hands -- hands that seem to be attached to young, energetic people focused more on winning than on their status inside the country club culture that _ at least in my opinion _ prevented Ole Miss from keeping pace with the rest of the Southeastern Conference during the 1970s, 80s, 90s and the first decade or so of this century.
New coach Hugh Freeze, who is charged with rebuilding a wrecked program inside the toughest division of the toughest conference in America, is similar to Cubs manager Dale Sveum. He's a focused, process-oriented leader without a sexy pedigree. Cubs fans wanted a big name; Sveum has a lot to prove. That rings true for a portion of the Ole Miss fan base as well as it pertains to Freeze, though he seems to be doing an amazing job of winning fans' confidence already.
Anyway, here's the point: For fans, this rebuilding thing is tough. I've been a Cub fan forever. I have friendships that are built around Cub fandom. I've talked to those friends less this summer than I have in years. I no longer watch games with any real interest. I harbor no expectations that the Cubs will contend for the National League Central Division crown for at least three more years. I hope prospects such as Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and Shawon Dunston Jr., change the fate of the organization, but I fully realize they're just kids. I tell myself Rizzo's winning National League Rookie of the Month is a good sign for the future. I've read the Cubs' goal is to contend by 2015, 2016 at the latest. I wonder if I'll care by then.
Ole Miss fans, at least those who don't consume red and blue Kool-Aid in mass quantities, know the rebuilding of the Rebels' program is going to be a long process. Realistically, like the Cubs, Ole Miss is three years away from title contention, and that's if all goes well. Fans are going to find it difficult to remain engaged at times. They'll have to take solace from great effort at times, from recruiting victories that bring the promise of better days ahead. They'll have to have patience. As we all know, that's easier said than done.
The similarities don't stop there. Epstein and Hoyer have talked about changing the Cubs' culture. They've instituted something called the "Cubs Way" in the minor league system. Don't ask me what that is; I have no idea. Freeze has a culture to change as well. He has to get kids who haven't won football games the past two years to believe they'll win now. He needs a larger percentage of players to buy in to his program. A program insider told me recently that will happen; it's just a matter of when. It's a chicken-and-egg thing, really. Once something good happens (i.e., an upset of Texas or Auburn or Texas A&M), guys will buy in. However, the sooner players buy in completely, the sooner that good thing happens. It's a fine line. The script isn't written.
Bottom line: Rebuilding is tough, both for teams and the fans who cheer for them. There's nothing remotely fun about it. But if it's done right, the results should be worth the pain and the wait. At least that's what I'm telling myself these days about the Cubs. I suspect you Ole Miss fans can relate.