Baseball season's here again. You can catch it all on...ESPN? No, that's not it. WBBM? I don't think that's it either, but at least it's Chicago. WSCR? C'mon, now you're just trolling; besides, that one doesn't even rhyme. One way or the other though, fans have only got a couple more months before they'll have to change the lyrics to "Go, Cubs, Go."
The dying Cubs fan's last request was to find out whether they still played the blues in Chicago when baseball season rolls around. Well, when the snow melts away, the Cubbies do play in their ivy-covered burial ground, only now there'll be a couple new stations broadcasting the funeral.
I suppose it's fitting that the current partner's call letters are an acronym for World's Greatest Newspaper, since both WGN-TV and radio are fast becoming as anachronistic as print media, at least when it comes to the Cubs. To quote myself from Twitter, the notion that WGN is still a huge evangelizing force for the Cubs is laughable.
I know that some you in the choir will read that and respond with "Amen! Preach on, Evan!" Still others out there in the congregation are likely shaking your heads and mumbling under your breath at the temerity of my words. And I'll agree that making such statements back in the 80's or 90's would have branded me a heretic, but those times are long gone.
The change in the radio coverage, while perhaps a bit jarring to the mind at first, will be unnoticed as long as Pat Hughes makes the move. I've seen nothing to indicate that this is a done deal, but surely the station that acquires the rights would do everything possible to bring Pat over. Heck, they might even pay him enough to start wearing clothes tailored in the last quarter century.
But with all due respect to Hughes and the late, great Ron Santo (and those who manned the booth before them), it's WGN-TV that gets the credit for prosthelytizing and indoctrinating millions of fans into the Cubs congregation. The TV signal reached coast-to-coast and almost every game was played in the afternoon, where the only competition for young viewers was soap operas.
Actually going to Wrigley was a real treat, but even if you couldn't attend the service, you could simply tune in to Channel 9 to be transported to that venerable old baseball cathedral by the lake. A charismatic and beloved preacher held sway over the masses, his love for the game evident in his heartfelt, if at times garbled, sermons.
Cubs games on WGN used to be destination viewing. Whether you rushed home off the bus to catch the last few innings, or took a break from playing outside during the summer, the ballgame drew young fans like moths to a porch light. Those broadcasts made it seem as though Wrigley was the center of the baseball universe, and watching on TV made you a part of the event.
Of course, it wasn't all about the kids; the pervy cameramen made sure to provide fodder for the older male viewers, which often got in the way of said preacher's homily. But in the end, it's all about reaching the youth, catching them early and creating a love for the team that goes beyond reason, to the point where it's intrinsic.
That's how it was for me. When I was growing up, we were lucky to pull more than 4 or 5 stations from the big antennae out on the farm, so it's not as though we had much of a choice. Lucky for us, WGN was one of those stations and my dad and grandfather had been exposed to the Cubs in the same manner already, so there was really no resistance.
My brother and I would sit there with our communal meal of Saltine (or maybe Zesta) crackers and our sodas of choice (mine was Pepsi, his Chocola) to watch the games, falling in love with the concept of the Cubs and developing an unshakable faith. Even when the team was woeful, there was a joy in the broadcast that gave us hope.
And it was kind of a circus, or maybe a zoo, back in those days as well. Ryno, Bull, Penguin, and Trout performed to the delight of the fans in their homes, the stands, and in folding chairs across the streets. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?
But as much fun as it is to hearken back to those days of youthful optimism with wide-eyed nostalgia, things just aren't the same. Gone are the days of green-screen DOS computers and 5 television channels, of pop in glass bottles (unless you buy the "throwback" version with, gasp, real sugar), and a commentator with pop-bottle glasses.
Back in the day, you didn't have to seek the Cubs out because they were on every day for nearly everyone in America to watch. Even if you weren't a fan, you didn't have much of an alternative on any given summer afternoon. Wrigley has lights and WGN has lost rights, Al Gore inventing this internet thing, and there about 15,000 different television stations with every kind of program imaginable.
If you can't reach the youth and capture their attention, you can't grow a fanbase; I hope this doesn't shock any of you, but WGN isn't the go-to for kids these days. I really like Len Kasper, but he's no Harry Caray. Maybe if Len goes out drinking for 288 consecutive days, he can rekindle the magic of those days of yore.
Sure, the Cubs still get a national outlet despite fielding a terrible product these last few years. But the relevance of that big reach is greatly diminished from the behemoth it once was. Take last night, for instance: the Cubs captured their first walk-off win since June 13th, 2013, nearly one full year between such victories. Dogpiles and shaving cream pies for everyone! And people were watching the game on...you guessed it: CSN Chicago.
WGN was showing the White Sox game, probably sandwiched between Salem and re-runs of America's Funniest Home Videos. While the Cubs made the move to opt out of their contract, WGN America has decided to drop sports altogether, a decision based purely on money. You see, the appeal of Chicago sports just isn't as great once you get outside of the immediate market. Huh, who'da thunk?
When you've got a partnership that's not working out for either party, the best option may simply be to move on. WGN feels it's better served by creating original programming to augment its slate of canned comedies and the Cubs want more money; both laudable pursuits.
I love WGN, but I love the Cubs more. Some will say that kids won't be willing or able to seek out the Cubs if they move to create their own network or if they're only available out-of-market on MLB,tv. But the thing is, kids aren't seeking out the Cubs on WGN as it is; if you still believe that's the case, I'm afraid you're way out of touch.
So if the team can garner a new deal for more money, that can only be a good thing. And if even a little of that money goes into building a better team to display on that new channel, even better.
The memories of our youth aren't going to be tarnished by a break with WGN, just like our memories of a loved one aren't lessened by their passing. So rather than bemoan the loss of a television broadcast partner, let's focus on the future of the Cubs. Because if this plan really works out, there'll be plenty of new memories to make.
Do you have any favorite stories about growing up and watching or listening to the Cubs on WGN? Share them in the comments.
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