Chicago Cubs Rebuild: It's a Jungle out There

Chicago Cubs Rebuild: It's a Jungle out There
Cubs President Theo Epstein has a plan.

No problem, we were told.  It takes time, they said.  And with Theo Epstein's track record, we all figured it'd be a no brainer.  But all the business moves that were supposed to increase revenue and inflate the payroll have sprung leaks.

The Cubs’ PR moves have been as inexplicable as Dale Sveum's platoons or Kelly McGillis's status as a sex symbol.  What many had thought would be a relatively painful process has been anything but.

I know that the more discerning among you understood the process going into it, but even you have had to throw up your hands at some of the pitfalls that have come up.  The Cubs are heading in the right direction, but the methods used to guide them there haven't always seemed too humane.

All of which reminds me of English class in my freshman year of high school.  Mr. Gappa, who was -- and still is from what I understand -- an insatiable autograph hound who owned binder upon binder of signatures from athletes, musicians, etc, had us reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

As an aside, one of our assignments was to write a letter to an athlete to request his John Hancock.  I wrote to Mark Grace and actually ended up getting the card back with the autograph.  I've since misplaced it.

But anyway, back to the lecture at hand.  The Jungle describes the plight of immigrants living in Chicago and working in the Stockyards, which represented the absolute nadir of wage slavery and unsanitary and unsafe conditions.

Serendipitously enough, there was a meat-packing plant, Judson Pack, within sight of our school.  JP was a place I had walked or driven past nearly every day for years, but had never had a reason to visit.  After all, the smell radiating from the building was enough to make you hold your breath for a few hundred yards in any direction.

But even then, you’d still have some of that lingering funk in your car, some of which inevitably found a way to settle into your nostrils and quickly wear out its welcome.  Still, a break from the classroom was always welcome, even if it only meant walking over to our olfactorily (yeah, I think I just made that up) oppressive neighbor.

It’s funny how quickly you get used to something stinking when you’re forced to deal with it.  Story of a Cubs fan’s life, eh?  Anyway, we arrived and got the nickel tour and the dog and pony show about how much more sanitary and humane the butchering process was nowadays.

Oh, and just in case the PETA or ASPCA people are reading, there weren’t really dogs or ponies there.  No, Judson Pack worked strictly with cows and, I think, pigs.  Maybe the occasional goat and a stray horse every once in a while.  But only under cover of dark and only those that were otherwise just going to be euthanized.

All right, stay on point, chief.  Right, so they told all of us wide-eyed youths about the process, how they used a captive bolt pistol (think Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men) to quickly and painlessly prepare the bovines for butchering.  Nothing like in the olden days.

Ah, the irony.  Tension mounted as the students in our class pressed up against the rail next to the pen where the cow would be brought for slaughter in the name of steaks and education.  Well, some of the girls in the class lingered back, their faces tinted green.

So Bessie was guided in and made to stand over the large grate of the floor drain while another worker mounted an elevated platform from which to use the pistol.  Leaning closer for an even better vantage point, time slowed as the fateful cylinder was lowered to the animal’s skull.

I’ll never know whether it was stage fright or just bad timing, but the butcher was off his game that day.  With a “pffft” punctuated by the whip-crack of the bolt firing, the cow fell to the ground, writhing and crying out in agony.

Many of the young women in present cried out in horror and sympathy, tears welling up and falling to the smooth concrete floor.  The two white-coat-clad butchers overcame a momentary bout of paralysis and sprang into action, mercifully ending the unfortunate scene with a second shot.

Despite the ignominious start to the tour, things quickly settled down as we watched the butchers dress and break down the carcass for processing.  Watching the men work with their knives was almost hypnotic, they moved with such deft skill and ease.

And while nothing could make me forget the FUBAR euthanasia, seeing the process come to fruition was enough to make me forgive it.  So I guess the moral of the story is that sometimes you're going to flail a bit, maybe even in a pool of blood, bile, and feces. But you can still end up providing plenty of meat for the local grocery store.

Wait, no, that's not what I meant to say.  I think what I'm driving at is that it's easy to romanticize things, to assume that it'll all be sunshine and rainbows, despite what we may know to be both logical and true.

Sometimes things take longer and are much harder and messier than we'd like for them to be.  But does that mean you just abandon the task at hand?  No, you forge ahead and carry out the plan.

And, slow and sloppy though it may seem, that's exactly what the Cubs are doing.  I only hope the next bullet is one that propels them forward and not one that puts them out of their collective misery.

So, who wants to grab a nice, juicy burger tonight or a mid-rare steak tonight?

@DEvanAltman

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  • Nice piece. This year is certainly a have-faith-in the-5-year-plan moment. Plus love "The Jungle" reference. Other favorite line: "Kelly McGillis's status as a sex symbol." Cool stuff.

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    In reply to SkitSketchJeff:

    Ha, thanks! That field trip is my favorite story; it's just so rich with irony. And the Kelly McGillis thing was fun. I shared this with the teacher mentioned and he had a good laugh at it. The Jungle, while politically motivated, was one of those books that just made you feel awful. Good writing, or any art, should make elicit an emotional response of some sort. Thanks for reading.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    As an aside, I've always thought Frank Norris' less remembered Chicago book of the same era "The Pit" (about the greed and immorality of the early 20th century Chicago Board of Trade trading pit) to be an interesting companion piece to The Jungle.

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    In reply to SkitSketchJeff:

    I've not read The Pit, but sounds good. Sinclair actually went undercover to work in stockyards as part of muckraking newspaper story. He was a socialist, so it did have lots of thinly veiled proletariat propaganda. That's not to say that his was not an accurate portrayal, just that he had a vested interest in the topic beyond just reporting the situation.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    Know the muckrakers well. Lincoln Steffens' "Shame of Our Cities," their role in the Sherman Anti-Trust Law, etc. My old Medill journalism teachers would rap my knuckles if I didn't. =) Keep up the enjoyable writing!

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    Sorry guys, but The Jungle was pure propaganda, and I'm using the term in the contemporary sense, i.e., horse-bleep. You can easily get the straight dope on it with a google search. His descriptions of horrific conditions in the meat packing industry were entirely imagined or based on unreliable and not disinterested hearsay. The book was intended as a socialist polemic. The ironic thing is that it resulted in a regime of regulation of the meat-packing industry which Sinclair publicly opposed once he realized that the whole campaign had been orchestrated by the giant meat-packers to put their smaller competitors out of business by imposing crippling compliance costs on them that the larger firms could more easily absorb.

  • They say you don't want to see sausage being made.

    However, the difference is the sausage EVENTUALLY gets made so it can be delivered to the deli case the next morning. Business project management is supposed to be about goals and time milestones. If nothing else, the supposedly sage Ricketts family has missed the milestone of breaking ground October 5, 2013, for at least one year, despite having received zoning approval. If your local butcher shop did business that way, it would be as closed as Dominick's.

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    In reply to jack:

    Well, Judson Pack didn't stay open for much longer, though that had more to do with the difficult economics of operating in a town of 1,500 than their products or processes. But yes, the business side of the Cubs' operations seems to be sorely lacking initiative or ability, maybe both.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    Reading over your reply (yes, there are other reasons Dominick's closed) and Paulson's comment, I didn't think your post was directed to the baseball side, as Paulson's was.

    But your reference to the "business side" gets down to while Theo and Jed are clearly in charge of the baseball side, one has to think that the ultimate say on the renovation project as well as PR for the team has to be on the Ricketts, not Crane Kenney. It isn't even like Jerry Reinsdorf is the face of several limited partnerships; it is eventually family money that is going into these projects, just like it was George Steinbrenner's money that rebuilt Yankee Stadium across the street. I don't think Joe ran TD Ameritrade that badly, but maybe Tom isn't that sharp.

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    In reply to jack:

    Yeah, I mean, both the biz and the baseball sides work together, but all accounts are that biz comes first. Once that's in order, the on-field product can and will improve. But as the biz side is hampered by false starts and public mistakes, the baseball side flounders. Likewise, you have to kill a cow in order to provide beef to consumers. Despite the fact that the cow's death was far from a clean process and was messier and more time-consuming than would have been preferred, the end result was the same.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    But my question was, who is the individual responsible for messing up the business side. It has to be Tom Ricketts. If he couldn't have figured out that he was dealing with an abattoir before he bought, he is ultimately responsible.

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    In reply to jack:

    Ah, I see what you're saying. I think it's a combination of things, and Crane Kenney's name comes to mind right away. But a fish rots from the head down, right? So then Ricketts is to blame. Rather than say that any one individual is responsible for the mess, I think this is more like the time I decided to replace our garage door opener by myself. Wait, that might make a decent article. Hmmm, I think I'll get that written.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    At least our condo board, when they figured out that the garage door repairman was ripping them off, got another one.

  • Sorry Evan, but I can't really say I enjoyed your analogy of a meat processing plant to the Theoyer regime. First of all, you spent 90% of your time going through a gruesome depiction of your local plant which I found a bit offensive.

    As a contractor with a company needs to work at these types of facilities on occasion, I can assure you that the employees there have an extremely difficult and thankless job to perform so you and the rest of us Cub faithful can scarf down burgers, chicken nuggets, polish sausage, and just about anything else most people crave. Your simplified version of what currently transpires at these facilities is far from accurate or the norm.

    Furthermore, you spend no time detailing specifically what is wrong with the process Theo or Jed have used to improve the ball team since their arrival. For everyone that insists that the Cubs should have signed Pujols, Cano, Tanaka, ARam, Garza, or whoever, I've yet to see what they would have done differently to enable the Cubs to sign them. It's a hell of a lot easier to carp about the management style of others than to give your own suggestions and open yourself to criticism. And don't think I don't like you man- just an observation by a 54 y/o businessman that's seen a thing or two.

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    In reply to Paulson:

    I appreciate you reading and caring enough to comment. However, my depiction of the event I encountered was not meant to portray an entire industry, but rather, an isolated event. I didn't feel that I was indicting either the plant or the trade. In fact, I went on to compliment the deft skill of the butchers.
    As to the current goings-on, it was not my intent to explain what they are or should be doing. Rather, the point I (perhaps ham-handedly) wanted to drive home is that even something that appears to some to be a messy mistake can turn out just fine in the end.
    My role here at CI, I think, is to sort of be the somewhat off-the-wall guy. I don't have sources and I'm not a stat-head. Rather, I'm an opinionated writer who tries to make people laugh or yell or get offended. So I suppose I did my job this time around.
    I'm just happy that you read this and that you cared enough to comment, and that you did so in a respectful manner.

  • I think that this piece was a good read, thanks. The meat packing business is a rough go for short dough these days with all rules, regulations and government inspectors. A good parallel for what Ricketts is trying to accomplish pleasing all factions. I don't think that time is more important then getting it right so that all sides can live with the results.

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    In reply to 44slug:

    Thanks. I think the rules, regs, and inspectors are pretty much right in line with city government and angry neighbors. The Cubs are trying to move ahead with plans, but can't just do what they want how and when they want.

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