Wrigley Gets a Visit from St. Nicholas

‘Twas the night before Christmas at old Wrigley Field.
Not a creature believed that the next year would yield
A World Series trophy for the downtrodden Cubs.
Our candles of hope had all dwindled to nubs.

The most hopeful of fans in their wildest of dreams
Think the Cubs could contend by sucking less than five teams.
There’s no feigning faith in the young Cubs’ potential,
But there’s always a chance in the craptastic Central.

If Ramirez and Pena play over their heads,
And injurious luck plagues the Cardinals and Reds,
And the wind blows out only when the Cubs are at bat,
The Cubs could top 80 in a division like that!

And we have Tyler Colvin and Castro and Kerry!
And the good vibes from CubsCon in mid-January
Will surely restore us from the darkness of doubt
By reminding us what being Cubs fans is about!

The sentiment and warm fuzzies might make your hope blossom,
And the fact that we have four Carloses is awesome.
But Kerry Wood’s old now. Mark Prior’s a Yankee,
While the Brewers have Gallardo, Braun, Fielder, and Greinke.

So if Santa brings a gift to the confines so friendly,
I’d settle for an analyst better than Brenly.
While the influx of talent is less flow than ebb,
The Cubs won’t be helped much by Garza or Webb.

No, the best gift to calm any poor Cub fan’s soul
Is the wisdom to dwell on what we can control.
Our displeasure won’t lower the high price of tickets,
And our myriad blogs won’t sway Hendry or Ricketts.

What we can do is care less (or a little less deeply),
Especially as the Cubs run the team so darn cheaply.
Our faith, like the ownership’s plan is mysterious;
If we know that they suck, then why take it so serious?

Just enjoy it, relax, and hope for the best.
Cheer a little bit more, analyze a bit less.
But, I shouldn’t presume to tell you how to feel, so . . .
Happy Christmas to all, and to all, go Cubs go.

Pat’s New Partner: Someone Completely Different?

This much we know: Pat Hughes has signed a 5-year extension with WGN; the Cubs and WGN are looking for someone to fill Ron Santo’s slot as radio analyst (seriously, follow that link and you can apply right now); no one can fill the void Ron Santo left in the heart of Cubdom.

Ed Sherman says it well in his column on the Cubs’ task of finding a new analyst:

Let’s make this clear: The Cubs never will have another Ron Santo.

They’ll never find another analyst who played the game harder and knew and felt more what it meant to be a Cub. There never will be another character in the booth who could make you laugh the way he did. Certainly, it is highly unlikely the new person will be wearing a toupee.

Indeed, Mr. Santo will be missed.

Sherman also informs us that Mark Grace is unlikely to leave his gig with the Diamondbacks, which allows him to moonlight with Fox on the weekends. That leaves a list of proposed usual suspects of Keith Moreland, Dan Plesac, Dave Otto, Todd Hollandsworth, Eric Karros, and Gary Matthews. If I had to pick between any of those prospects, I’d choose Zonk. But I’d much rather see the Cubs go in a completely different direction.

I don’t know if the aforementioned job listing is official or facetious and can’t say for sure how reliable the listed prerequisite is: “Preferred candidate will have played with the Chicago Cubs — or played major league baseball with previous broadcast experience as a game analyst.” I hope they’ll find someone who meets none of those criteria.

Really, are you pleased with the state of baseball analysis as we know it? Do you find yourself saying, I wish a former player could tell me when the big moments are coming and that a hit here would be big or a strikeout here would be big or a win today would be big, big, big, BIG? Will you be waiting all winter for that special ex-jock to pretend he knows what the pitchers and hitters are thinking? Are you going through Joe Morgan withdrawal?

Didn’t think so. I understand the value of former players who wish they were still playing can help us better relate to the action on the field, but for most of us who have been following the game for more than, say, two years, that style of insight has become repetitive. Every baseball broadcast I’ve ever heard follows that formula. Good-with-words guy describes the action, good-with-sports guy interprets it. Listen and watch enough games, and you pretty much know what’s coming. Only the personalities change (and some of those have been and are truly entertaining, don’t get me wrong).

But wouldn’t you like to see something different? Wouldn’t it be a stroke of genius to add a little spicy variety to the broadcast booth? What if we actually *gasp* learned something during a baseball game? It could happen if WGN would take a page out of Billy Beane’s Moneyball manual.

Let’s try putting a stathead in the booth. I’d prefer a witty, friendly one, but even a person with a caustic edge would be new. Regardless, Pat Hughes, for all his brilliance, is not a champion of advanced statistics. I don’t get the impression he’s closed to the concept, but he’s an unabashed traditionalist in the most endearing sense. Imagine if the Cubs countered Pat’s calm, old-fashioned play-by-play with someone who brought the conversation into the 21st Century of baseball metrics.

While Pat gives us the colors of the pinstripes, caps, shirts, shoes, and socks, his partner could hit us with win probabilities, linear weights, wOBA, and WAR. How much more interesting would the broadcast be if the analyst could tell us how the run expectancy would change when Quade chooses to sac bunt? I would love to hear someone challenge the antiquated myths of baseball lore, an anti-Morgan of the broadcast world. It would actually teach me something and inform us all. Scary, I know, but I’m willing to try.

WGN and the Cubs should be willing too. There’s no reason this couldn’t work. Pat Hughes can establish an on-air relationship with just about anyone, though I don’t dream any pairing will be as magical as Pat & Ron. So how about some science instead? Do something new, something different, something informative for all who listen. I guarantee, it would have the entire baseball world talking. And some of the discussion might actually be complimentary.

Mark Prior, Yankee

Mark Prior is one focused son of a gun. Literally. His parents are Smith & Wesson. I kid you not..

Mark Prior is a Yankee. Kind of. He signed a minor league contract with the Yankees, and he has a shot at earning a place in their bullpen. If he makes the big-league club, it will be the first time he has pitched in the majors since 2006. A lot of people have mocked and will continue to mock this signing as a worthless, desperate move for both parties. The Yankees lost out on the Cliff Lee spend-a-thon, and Mark Prior just wants to do more towel drills with Larry Rothschild.

Screw that. Mark Prior wants to pitch. He will pitch. The Yankees obviously think that’s a very real possibility, which means you should too.

Somewhere along the way, Mark Prior got a reputation as being soft. Look at that man! That is not the face of someone who lacks toughness. Prior was always the portrait of determination when he pitched for the Cubs. He just got broadsided by the star of doom. I’ve pointed out before that his injuries were much more the product of freak happenstance than mechanics issues, and the nature of his descent from future Hall-of-Famer to president of the DL-for-Life Club is grossly misunderstood. Up until the end of 2006, almost none of Prior’s missed time was due to arm trouble. About one or two missed starts worth.

Then came the shoulder trouble. Prior missed all of 2007, 2008, and 2009, but 2010 saw him pitch again. He pitched for the Orange County Flyers. He pitched (ever so briefly) in the Texas Rangers minor league system. He did so because he has been working, after surgery upon surgery, to get back into Major League Baseball, where he once dominated. If that’s a punchline, I don’t get the joke.

The last time Mark Prior stood atop a major-league mound, it was for the 96-loss Chicago Cubs. The next time he does it, it very well may be with the New York Friggin’ Yankees. It could be as a teammate of Kerry Wood. Put ’em on the cover again, Sports Illustrated, I think Prior’s seen the worst your curse had to offer. Here’s hoping the best for him is yet to come.

The Final Stage of Grief: Wrigley Field

Ron Santo deserved better.

I confess, when I learned of Ron Santo’s death last week, one of the very first emotions to bubble to the surface was anger, and it was directed at four main parties, three of which I openly cursed: death, diabetes, and the Baseball Hall of Fame. The reasons for those three are obvious enough, so I won’t explain them. The fourth recipient of my ire, though, may have been the most intense and prevalent, and I’m not sure why I didn’t say anything about it right away.

I suppose I didn’t want to redirect my grief where it didn’t truly belong. Ron Santo was dead, and that was and is the truly sad part. It’s natural for us to deflect the blame to a target that might actually yield positive results. There was no shortage of people to rise up and make the case that Ron Santo deserved to be in the Hall of Fame. That’s something that can still be changed. It’s too late to do it the right way, the way it should have been done decades ago, but it’s not too late to do the right thing, and that’s to honor Ron Santo as one of the greatest players ever to man the hot corner. But that won’t take away an ounce of the grief of his death. It’s not even what he really wanted.

If you think about what Ron really wanted before he died, you’ll see exactly where I’m going with this. The entity against whom I fumed in unspoken rage was the team Ron loved with all his heart, the team that had kept him on life support with nothing but ivy, hope, and generally subpar baseball. Yeah, I was mad at the Chicago Cubs for failing to deliver what was probably the only item left on Ron Santo’s bucket list: a World Series.

It’s just a game. It’s not important. To borrow from the classic film of the season, in the whole vast configuration of things, the Cubs are nothing but a scurvy little spider. The world doesn’t revolve around them . . . but Ron’s world did. As long as we’re talking in holiday movies, I’d compare Ron Santo’s wish for a Cubbie World Series to Natalie Wood’s hope in Miracle on 34th Street that Santa would prove to be real. Maybe it was just a glorified childhood fancy, but it was important to Ron, and Ron was important to us.

And really, Ron Santo wasn’t asking for a Miracle on Addison and Clark any more than he was asking for reindeer to fly or elves to travel at warp speed. All it really would have taken was for the Cubs organization to give two craps about how the team performed on the field. A lot of fans whine and moan about the sacrifices they’ve made for the Cubs, and it’s laughable. Not so with Ron Santo. The man gave a lot to the organization. He lost his legs waiting for a championship that never came.

Maybe it is stupid to bring it up. The Cubs’ failures aren’t the reason I’m sad about Ron Santo dying. But they do seem insulting to his memory. And as his memorial services almost literally revolve around his beloved Wrigley Field and his connection to the Cubs, a half-hearted, half-baked attempt at kinda sorta contending does very little to honor a man whose legacy is his utmost passion for the Cubs and excellence in the game of baseball.

Perfect 10: We Will Miss You, Ronny

I’d tell you to rest in peace, Ronny, but wherever you are, you’re probably as active and vocal as ever.

Ron Santo’s death hurts. Took me about two days to write just that*. I wasn’t sure why it hurt so much at the time I heard the news, but as it all sank in, one by one the reasons became clearer.

Santo was a fan. Up until Thursday, anyone who said he or she was the biggest Cubs fan in the world was misinformed. That title belonged to Ron Santo. He played almost his entire career as a Cub. The entirety of his professional broadcast career was for the Cubs. His Cooperstown plaque would have, if not for the worst oversight in the Hall of Fame’s existence, featured a Cubs cap. He may have never been considered “Mr. Cub,” but no one in the universe had as much emotion invested in the success of the Chicago Cubs as Ron Santo did.

For most people, that kind of commitment to a terminally lost cause would be considered absolute nonsense. For Ronny, it made perfect sense. Cubs baseball was the joy of his life, and his life was a battle. You can forgive him getting more than a little absorbed in a kid’s game, because it kept this Old Cub, this dying Cub, young. Even when it seemed like this team was killing him.

In Ron, we had someone who identified with all our irrational joys and frustrations. His every “Yes!” and “Come on!” and, of course, “Nooooooooo!” were our primal reactions broadcast to millions, exclaimed to guttural perfection. Sometimes he would impart the insight of a Hall-of-Fame caliber ballplayer, but the art of telling us what we didn’t know was never his forte. No, Ron excelled at shouting out precisely what we felt. More often than not, disappointment. The occasional jubilation. Never a word without at least a trace of hope. Maybe the respectable person should have bottled some of that up, but Santo could pull it off. And even when we chose to be a little more reserved, a little more rational, or a little more at work, where yelling, “What is that man doing!?” just wouldn’t be acceptable, we could at least live vicariously through Ron’s unbridled, unfiltered enthusiasm.

Santo was a friend. They called it The Pat & Ron Show for a reason. Pat Hughes and Ron Santo weren’t baseball’s typical play-by-play and analyst tandem. They were two guys who happened to be watching the Cubs every day with rapt attention in the middle of a decade-long conversation about soup. Seriously, they could talk about anything. Anything. They were a never-ending episode of The Odd Couple. All in all, they were good friends who didn’t mind if we eavesdropped on every word. Although they obviously didn’t have time to read all our emails and faxes, they appreciated them just the same. By my calculations, I probably spent at least 2,000 hours listening to those two chat, and Santo was easily the less guarded of the duo. I learned more about Ron Santo (the trivial, Seinfeldian, brilliant stuff about nothing) than most friends I know in real life. No offense, real friends, but Ron was there for me three hours a day for over half the year.

When a friend dies, one you hear from on a regular basis, you know you’re going to feel that loss on a regular basis. You don’t just deal with it and move on. You’re reminded that they’re gone every time you would have spent with them. That feeling fades, but it never goes away. And I know for a fact, I’ll never watch another Cubs game without thinking of Ron Santo and what he would have said in certain situations. In that way, he lives on. But, in a much more accurate way . . . he will be sorely missed.

Santo was a hero. This part’s really hard to write, and I apologize if it’s hard to read. But I think we’ve all known someone who suffered, or is suffering, on a daily basis. Not “aw, geez, the Cubs suck” suffering. “My body is eroding before my eyes” suffering. “The chemo is eating me alive” suffering. “I know we’ll find a cure for diabetes, but not in time to save my legs” suffering. Not everybody handles it with a smile. Very few do. So if you’re lucky enough to have had someone in your life who fought through constant pain and yet managed to cheer you up every time you saw them, Ron Santo holds a special place in your heart. Has a strangle hold on it, in fact.

I’ve known people like that. I’ve lost someone like that. For whatever reason, those are the people who always seem to get taken too soon. You see them roll through setback after setback, but the positive attitude never fades. The smile rarely leaves their faces, and when it does, not for long. You see them win every battle and emerge scarred but undeterred. You always hear them talk about a cure, a victory, a better place, and you never hear them complain. You believe from watching them that nothing can defeat the human spirit.

So when that person dies, you realize that there are some battles that can’t be won. At least, not in the traditional sense of victory. I hope I can live with joy and courage and dignity until the indignity of death takes hold. There is victory in that, I suppose. But all that rationalizing and processing takes a long time to work up to. A long time. When a hero like Ron Santo dies, someone so many people have looked to as an inspiration, you don’t get over that. And by you, I mean me. I don’t get over that.

Ron Santo was a great player. He should be in the Hall of Fame, not because the Hall deserves to have him, but because future fans deserve to know how great he was. He was a great man. A great friend. A great fan, and a lot of fun to listen to. I’m going to miss him, and that won’t ever change. He brought a lot of joy to a lot of people. One of the best ways to honor him is to try to do the same. A donation to JDRF wouldn’t hurt either.

*One of the byproducts of the media age, especially the social media era we find ourselves in now, is the compulsive need to report and hear and re-report every detail within seconds of its transpiring. When the story is a game-changing trade that could bring the Cubs into contention, I love that I can learn about it before the players involved. But that wasn’t the story on Friday. When the story is the death of an old friend, even one I’ve never met or even talked to, a little silence and pause for mourning would be nice. That just isn’t the world we live in anymore. I was surprised and impressed at how many of my fellow bloggers already had published responses before I could get a pot of coffee brewing. That is not a criticism in any way. Frankly, the memorial posts I read were heartfelt, touching, and brilliantly written. More than one had me in tears. I was glad to have them available so quickly. Thanks to all who poured out their memories and reflections so swiftly and poignantly.