In response to some of the grumbling related to the performance of the Chicago Cubs this year so far, a friend of mine recently posed the question; what happened to all of the true Cubs fans? My friend recalled the days of years ago when her grandfather watched the games and never really complained about the performance of the team…he merely enjoyed the game for what it was meant to be.
That particular question took me back to a time in which I experienced my first game at Wrigley Field. I was only eight years old back in the summer of 1968; however, I vaguely recall the experience as being much different than what the game experience would eventually become. I remember going to the game with my dad and brother and sitting in a sparsely attended stadium. Since there were plenty of empty seats nearby, the closest fans were a few rows in front of us. There was an older gentleman who was smoking a cigar and writing what appeared to be some sort of hieroglyphics on a scorecard. It would be years before I actually figured out what he was keeping track of….it was the game!
The following season of 1969, baseball life as I knew it would change forever. The Cubs got off to a roaring start to the season and they captured my heart. Soon, names like Santo, Banks, Hundley and Jenkins would become much like members of the family as we began to refer to them as Ronnie, Ernie, Randy and Fergie. A game of whiffle ball in the driveway was no longer just a game, but a fight to be who could actually BE the Cubs in the daily battle. Battling stances were copied and pitching styles were mimicked to the point of precise movements.
The elderly couple who lived at the end of my block was loyal to the Cubs through and through. Their door was always open to the kids of the neighborhood to come in and enjoy an afternoon of Cubs baseball. Their refrigerator was always stocked with cold Pepsi (in glass bottles) and we basically made ourselves at home. I can’t imagine parents allowing their 8-9 year old children to roam the neighborhood these days, much less camp out in someone else’s house for the afternoon, but times were simpler then.
The Cubs collapse during the waning days of the 1969 season broke my heart. What made the pain not too terribly severe, however, was we knew that the hearts of Ronnie, Ernie, Randy and Fergie were also broken. We, as fans, knew they cared about what happened more than anyone, so we remained loyal to the team.
Over the next 40 years or so, the team experienced their share of ups and downs and the dynamics and demographics of the fan population changed. Older men with cigars and scorecards were eventually replaced by young men with backwards baseball caps and young girls in tank tops. The ballpark turned into a party spot and the surrounding neighborhood became a haven for young people to live and enjoy life in.
In the 2000’s, the Cubs experienced a certain degree of success which included a few playoff appearances. As recently as 2008, the Cubs had the best record in baseball, although their playoff success did not match their in-season accomplishments. The team was sold and now it’s in a phase of rebuilding. Most recently, we’ve witnessed a dismal product on the playing field as well as the trials and tribulations of what to do with antiquated Wrigley Field.
Most fans know that Wrigley Field is a disaster in comparison to other big leagues venues. We know it needs upgrading and it needs additional streams of revenue. We’re told by Cubs ownership that in order for the Cubs to be competitive in the years to come, the revenues gained by things like outfield signage and Jumbotron screens are a necessity.
Although those revenues may very well be needed, that’s really the last thing on my mind as a Cubs fan. My interest level in the Cubs financial situation is nil…I only care about what I see happening on the playing field. The threats of relocation by Cubs ownership did not sit well with me and to make those threats at a time when the team is having trouble tying their own shoes brings not much more than a shrug from many fans. It seems to be becoming commonplace for both Major League teams in Chicago to place the burden on money (fans’ money) to ensure the success of the teams. I can’t remember Kellogg’s ever suggesting that in order to maintain two scoops of raisins in every box of Raison Bran that I need to first buy more of their cereal. Quite the contrary, if they put out a good product, I’ll buy it…if not, then I won’t.
If the Cubs want to incorporate a “business” into their message to their fans, then I think they bring in a dimension into the equation that, based on the reactions of fans, may surprise them. Fans, young and old, may start to look at the game experience with an eye on business and will evaluate the team, cost of goods and overall satisfaction rate with a different set of criteria. I think I’d leave all of that out if I owned the Cubs. I think I’d focus on giving the fans a product that they can enjoy and one that isn’t viewed as a laughing stock by fans in neighboring big league cities.