COMMENTARY | When Brian LaHair hammered a first-pitch game-winning single off Hector Ambriz during his final trip to the plate in 2012, he helped conclude a miserable season on a high note. LaHair's single drove in Darwin Barney to give the Cubs a 5-4 win over the Houston Astros. Fans, including me, erupted as the white flag with a prominent blue "W" rose atop the scoreboard. With a new regime in place, Cubs fans didn't expect that the 2012 season would define the franchise.
But defining 101 losses as a step in the right direction? It's a bitter pill.
Though Cubs history may be lacking in recent World Series titles, since the team's infancy in 1876, the Cubs have only managed 100 losses on three separate occasions. Prior to 2012, the franchise had not lost 100 games since 1966 under Leo Durocher -- even with the talents of future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, and Ron Santo. Besides 1966 and 2012, the only other time the Cubs reached the century mark in the loss column was during the College of Coaches debacle in 1962.
The key word to rebuilding a franchise is patience. But how do you ask fans who have never experienced a World Series at Wrigley Field to write off a few bad seasons?
Despite Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer seizing the reigns, the team could hit triple digits in the negative column again in 2013. While the Cubs have pushed the limits of futility throughout the decades, they have never strung together consecutive 100-loss seasons. Speculation from fans claim the rebuilding process will take three years. Perhaps, but my estimate is less aggressive. I expect the Cubs to contend again in five years. Regardless, the big league team could drop 100 games again next season.
If that does happen, how will fans react? Will the masses remain dedicated to the rebuilding process and overhaul of the minor league system and the mindset of the franchise? Will fans lose faith in the Cubs' brass?
When the Ricketts family pulled the trigger and forced the franchise into the 21st century, they broke the old-school mentality. Regardless of which family or faceless corporate entity owned the Cubs throughout the ages, the same mistakes were replicated perennially. Huge free-agent signings of players who were well over the hill. Over-hyping minor-league prospects as the "next big thing" who never panned out at the big league level. The spiral continued for decades. Cubs fans signed an unwritten contract with the Ricketts family, Epstein and Hoyer. As fans, we agreed that the future was uncertain and the immediate future may look ugly. But the promise of a dynamic future appealed to us.
One could say that they inherited a team marred with bad contracts. Jim Hendry's regime willingly outbid itself with too many long-term deals with escalating paydays. There were too many no-trade clauses to wrestle with to move players with ease. While some moves were made, these weren't easy. Ryan Dempster, the staff ace, switched leagues and was moved to the Texas Rangers. That only materialized following a botched deal with the Atlanta Braves thanks in part to Dempster's no-trade clause. Geovany Soto was dealt to the Rangers in a separate deal. Once the National League Rookie of the Year, Soto's production steadily declined. Alfonso Soriano and his eight-year contract, of which three years remain, still lingers in the clubhouse. Plenty of housecleaning moves remain in order to rebuild the minor league system.
But will the fans stick? Being labeled as a Cubs fan is a polarizing experience. The fan base is divided in two equal parts. On one hand, there is a group of overzealous devotees who live and die with each pitch. They firmly believe the Cubs have a legitimate shot at earning a playoff berth until they are mathematically eliminated. The other group consists of fans who flock to games for the atmosphere inside the friendly confines of Wrigley Field and the myriad establishments that Lakeview provides. Win or lose, rain or shine, fans top the ivy-clad outfield walls. While these two groups do exist, a majority of the fan base falls somewhere between the vocal extremes.
Ever since the Los Angeles Dodgers completed the three-game sweep of the Cubs during the National League Division Series in 2008, attendance at Wrigley Field has waned. During their division-winning season in 2008, the Cubs were the seventh biggest draw in baseball when over 3.3 million fans packed the ballpark at Clark and Addison. According to ESPN.com, attendance has slacked each season since. While the Cubs remained competitive for most of the 2009 season, the turnstiles spun to the tune of 3.2 million. In 2010 and 2011, just a touch over three million fans paid annually. Last year, attendance dipped below the three-million mark. Will 100 losses in 2013 drive even more fans away?
When Theo Epstein parted ways with this hometown Boston Red Sox, Cubs fans sensed change was in the air. He rebuilt the long-suffering Red Sox and brought Beantown two World Series titles. Cubs fans were not certain how Epstein would work magic on the North Side, but they trust his vision. But Cubs fans are impatient. After all, the Cubs have not been called World Series champions since 1908. When a drought stretches longer than a century, next year cannot come soon enough.
We're waiting for next year, whatever may come.
Bill Pearch has been following Chicago Cubs baseball since the late-1970s. He has attended a game in every Major League Baseball park and blogs about them at www.humzoo.com/billpearch.