Last Wednesday’s ninth-inning collapse had the misfortune of coinciding with Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary. Pedro Strop’s inability to throw strikes, Starlin Castro’s fielding mishap, and a bit of bad luck combined to ruin the otherwise festive atmosphere surrounding the “Party of the Century.” While only one loss in a season that promises at least 90 others, the 100-year anniversary defeat was a bitter pill to swallow. Meaningful games have been few and far between for the Cubs over the past five years and, perhaps, none appeared more important in 2014 than this highly anticipated contest.
With five months to go and the team struggling to play .333 baseball (this before the anticipated annual mid-season trades), the Cubs have no more remaining games of any significance. Perhaps fans will look forward to the cross-town classic, Masahiro Tanaka’s visit to Chicago, or a chance to play spoiler in late September. For most fans, and certainly the front office, the rest of the season will provide an opportunity to evaluate the team’s young talent. Will Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo bounce back this year? Will Welington Castillo, Junior Lake, or Mike Olt prove to be major league regulars? Similarly, can the Cubs “flip” any of their starting pitchers into quality prospects? Finally, how will the young bullpen arms respond to increasingly higher pressure situations as the season wears on? If any of this sounds familiar, it should. The Cubs seem endlessly stuck in a hopeless loop of sub-mediocrity.
The Cubs are mired in year five of their recent downturn. In fairness, Cubs’ President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein only entered the fray two and a half years ago. Regardless of the timeframe involved, Cubs’ management promises fans that their patience will be rewarded with waves of highly-rated prospects. At this juncture, the future seems far away. If everything goes as planned, the Cubs will promote a few high-level minor league prospects (namely Javier Baez) to the parent club before season’s end. Perhaps next year, a few more prospects (such as Kris Bryant) will make their way to Chicago. By 2016, the Cubs may have the ability to fill an entire line-up with young players. Even so, the farm system’s position players appear better poised to impact the major league team in the next year and a half than the pitching prospects. The Cubs might find a quality free-agent who can visualize the light at the end of the rebuilding process and agree to a market-value long-term contract. Such a move (especially in the form of a starting pitcher) undoubtedly would accelerate the master plan. The Cubs’ fan base, as loyal as it is, may need some incentive to stay engaged.
After over one hundred years of waiting, including several close calls (such as 1984 or 2003), Cubs’ fans understandably have grown impatient. A timeline that may stretch into 2017 does not assuage the concerns of the team’s fan base. Impatience and frustration have begun to noticeably impact attendance. The Cubs drew half a million fewer fans last season than they did in 2009. Attendance this season likely will decrease further. Even the ballyhooed 100-year anniversary game failed to sell out. The empty seats will not go unnoticed this summer.
The Cubs and their fans have shown resolve through the first years of the rebuilding process. The toughest years, however, may be those yet to come. So far, the team has not made any moves out of desperation or allowed dwindling attendance to dictate their course of action. Much like the fans, though, the team’s patience may wear thin if profits turn into losses (or even smaller profits). How many more seasons will Cubs’ fans continue to come to Wrigley Field to watch a last place team? This season’s attendance will reflect the deflated state of the fan base, but make no mistake — next year also will prove challenging. The 100-year anniversary game would have been a welcome respite in the team’s long, dark journey to achieving “sustained success.” Cubs’ fans, of course, have grown accustomed to things not working out as planned. Hopefully, the front office’s long-term plan will prove to be a refreshing change from the norm. Cubs’ fans have a lot invested in this effort.