Column: Dreary winter days seem tailor-made for Chicago sports scene — but Caitlin Clark’s visit should provide a respite

It’s the time of year in Chicago when the snow slowly melts into a big, black ball of crusty ice on sidewalks and streets.

But this winter has a slight twist.

Thanks to the city’s premature end to street-sweeping season and a recent snowfall and polar vortex followed by a quick thaw, most curbs are filled with mounds of wet leaves and sticks, combined with mud and dog feces. It’s perfect for tramping into your house and leaving footprints all over the place.

As we await the next round of street sweeping by Streets and San, we can only turn our minds to the latest goings on in the dreary world of Chicago sports. Here are seven thoughts on the past, present and future.

Waiting pays off for Jed: The signing of reliever Héctor Neris was a good one for Cubs President Jed Hoyer, who didn’t mind taking some hits for an uneventful offseason if it meant filling holes without having to overpay. The “wait, wait … don’t tell me” strategy is part of what he looks at as “intelligent spending.”

Neris, 34, gives manager Craig Counsell three viable options — along with Mark Leiter Jr. and Julian Merryweather — to get the ball to Adbert Alzolay. Neris basically is taking Michael Fulmer’s place.

Hoyer never was going to shell out $95 million over five years for Josh Hader, whose deal with the Astros was Shohei-esque. At one year and $9 million, with incentives and a reachable player option, Neris gives the Cubs a solid reliever at Joe Kelly prices.

Kelly signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He had a 5.59 ERA in two injury-marred seasons with the White Sox before being dealt to the Dodgers last summer.

SoxFest is (almost) back: SoxFest 2025 is scheduled for next January, putting to rest speculation that the White Sox were getting out of the massive fan-fest business and opting for a smaller event such as Friday’s season ticket holder gathering at the Field Museum.

The Sox will have a 20th anniversary celebration of the 2005 champions, which should include former executives Ken Williams and Rick Hahn returning, perhaps for the first time since their firings. Hopefully the Sox learned some lessons from the Bulls Ring of Honor ceremony about what not to do at a reunion.

Bulls settling for whatever: The Milwaukee Bucks shockingly fired coach Adrian Griffin on Tuesday despite a 30-13 record in his first season, replaced by former Proviso East great Doc Rivers.

Bulls coach Bill Donovan has a .489 winning percentage (138-144) in his four seasons in Chicago, including a .457 winning percentage (69-82) since the 2022 All-Star break. He doesn’t have to worry. The difference is Bucks management expects greatness from its team, while Bulls management settles for competing for a play-in spot.

Big Ten game of the year: Sure, 11 months remain in 2024, but there might not be as entertaining a game to watch as Northwestern’s 96-91 overtime win over Illinois on Wednesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The game featured 18 lead changes and 15 ties, with both teams hitting big shots down the stretch until the Wildcats pulled away in OT behind Boo Buie and Brooks Barnhizer.

The Big Ten race looks a lot like last season’s, with almost everyone having a chance to finish behind Purdue. Wisconsin led the conference Saturday and will get its first shot at Purdue on Feb. 4 in Madison. The two best teams in the conference finish off the regular season against each other on March 10 at Mackey Arena.

Only Rutgers and Michigan seem to have no chance at finishing in the top four and having a bye until the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament in Minneapolis.

Caitlin’s victory tour: Clarkapalooza comes to Evanston on Wednesday at sold-out Welsh-Ryan Arena, where Iowa star Caitlin Clark will make her only Chicagoland appearance against Northwestern. Scalpers are working their magic to try to make some money off the Iowa phenom who has seen big crowds everywhere she goes.

Though Iowa is a prohibitive favorite, the mere presence of Clark is what makes the game a must-see event. Perhaps not since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) played for UCLA in the 1960s has any college basketball player been this popular. One listing on StubHub on Saturday was asking $2,489 apiece for two tickets.

Bears fans’ dilemma: Detroit Lions fans were invisible in Chicago for years but they’re everywhere these days, wearing team swag all over town in anticipation of Sunday’s NFC title game in San Francisco.

Is it OK for Bears fans to root for a longtime rival, or does the longtime chant heard at multiple Chicago sports venues — “Detroit sucks” — still take precedence over the Lions’ Cinderella story? An unscientific poll revealed a majority of Bears fans want to see the Lions go to the Super Bowl.

The admiration for coach Dan Campbell, who tends to channel his inner Ditka, appears to be the driving factor. We wish he were ours.

Communication breakdown: The Blackhawks went into Saturday’s game in Calgary with a 19-game road losing streak, fourth worst in NHL history. They were outscored 85-29 during the streak and 2-7-1 since Connor Bedard suffered a broken jaw, forcing the rest of the team to maintain interest in his absence.

But the big Hawks news this week revolved around what NBC Sports Chicago analyst John Scott said on his podcast, on which he suggested the reason the team dumped veteran Corey Perry was for Perry making “a pass” at a TV employee.

Scott, defending his pal, said Perry “made a mistake in Columbus one night, he drank too much and he made a pass at a staff member who worked for NBC. And then Chicago, the environment that they live in now, if there’s any hint of anything like that, they just get rid of everything. Scorched earth. He’s gone.”

Perry apologized in a statement for remarks, calling it a “false and misleading statement.” But the toothpaste was already out of the tube. Will the Hawks go “scorched earth” on Scott? Or perhaps they’ll wait until the offseason when even fewer people are paying attention.