From the Pages of Vine Line: Celebrating 30 years of the Cubs Convention

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The 30th Cubs Convention is in the books. In the January issue of Vine Line, we looked back at how the convention got started and some of the event’s highlights from the last three decades. Check out our recaps of the 2015 panels here on the blog. 

Have you ever been to bingo?” asked Jim Oboikowitch, laughing. “You will think it is insanity. It is so fun. It is so packed.”

Out of context, you’d be hard-pressed to find many 30-somethings who would refer to a retirement center game-night staple as insanity. But Oboikowitch, manager of game and event production for the Cubs, has a very different take on things. His job puts him in charge of the most entertaining weekend of the offseason for North Side fans—the annual Cubs Convention—and one of the event’s centerpieces is always Cubs Bingo.

So while matching numbers and letters might sound a little tame or old-fashioned on the surface, the reality is Cubs fans will do just about anything to grab a game card and get in on the action. And the man in charge has a front-row seat for all the excitement generated by one of the convention’s most popular events.

“[In 2013] at the Sheraton … one door kind of cracked open, and people just started pouring through,” Oboikowitch said. “[Manager of Broadcast Relations] Joe [Rios] was about to get tackled by about 1,000 people. They come running in, looking for a table and grabbing the bingo card. There’s not a seat to be had. They’re sitting in the aisleways.”

For nearly 30 winters, masses of Cubs fans from all over the country have congregated at a downtown Chicago hotel to take part in a weekend’s worth of activities centered around the team they spend their summers supporting. Where else can fans and players share an elevator ride and spark up a conversation? How often do young players get the opportunity to receive instruction from major league talent in the batting cages? And is there any other place you can ask Cubs owner Tom Ricketts a question and snag Gary “The Sarge” Matthews’ autograph in the same day?

While attendance at modern conventions generally nears five digits, there was a time when the club was unsure of what to expect turnout-wise, so they intentionally limited admittance to roughly the number of people who can fit in today’s bingo hall. But that was almost 30 years ago, when the Cubs became the first professional sports team to ever attempt a fanfest and well before the event became an annual institution. Now it’s safe to say they probably underestimated themselves—and the passion of their Cubs-crazed fan base—in those early days.

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The Cubs were hot. In the offseason following their magical playoff run of 1984—the same campaign that snapped a 39-year postseason drought—John McDonough was looking for a way to grow the brand. The then-Cubs sales, promotion and community services director, now the president and CEO of the Chicago Blackhawks, wanted to capitalize on the new wave of fandom that had swept over the club and made its players the talk of the city.

“McDonough’s idea was ‘Hey, this is a great brand. It’s something everyone knows, but we’re only being seen six months out of the year,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig.

One of McDonough’s first orders of business was to gather a large group of die-hard fans willing to share their ideas for how the organization could grow. They met at the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Illinois, and there McDonough collected opinions on how the Cubs could maintain relevance, even in the winter months. This led to the idea of a convention celebrating Cubs fandom.

Sports memorabilia shows were at their peak during the 1980s, which gave McDonough a solid framework for his own concept. After more than a year of brainstorming, the initial Die-Hard Cubs Fan Club Convention opened its doors from Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 1986, at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. The event was the first of its kind—no other professional sports team had ever dedicated an offseason weekend to celebrating its fans.

“At this time, card shows, autograph shows, those were pretty common,” Hartig said. “But the idea of actually having people mingle with the players and [offering] hitting clinics, that was all new.”

McDonough had no idea what to expect and kept event promotion to a minimum. One of the few places the convention was marketed was in the small “Odds and Ends” section of the Chicago Tribune. The blurb, which was published nearly a year before the event took place, stated what the weekend would entail, when it would take place and where it would be held.

“The only thing they told [fans] was that this wasn’t going to be a card show. This was not going to be an autograph show. This was going to be interactive,” Hartig said. “You’re going to see the players walking out of the hotel. You’re going to see them in the elevator. You’re going to see them at the restaurants. … It was going to be all-access. You were going to be with the players all weekend.”

Nearly 3,000 fans—roughly 1,000 more than expected—packed into the Hyatt in late January 1986 to witness something totally revolutionary. Ryne Sandberg and Rick Sutcliffe hosted hitting and pitching clinics, panels included the coaching staff discussing topics like Spring Training and injury recovery, and President and General Manager Dallas Green was made available for a Q&A session with fans. This was all in addition to memorabilia auctions, raffles, vendor booths and autograph opportunities.

The convention’s special guests included most of the 1985 team and Hall of Famers like Ernie Banks. For many of the players, showing up to that first event was a no-brainer. They understood the work McDonough had put in and immediately grasped what this could mean to the organization in the long haul.

“When [McDonough] created that … as a player I remember, quite honestly, we were open arms because we trusted him,” said former Cubs outfielder Bobby Dernier. “The idea is ‘Look, it’s good for the team, it’s good for the organization, and it’s good for the former players—on top of being good for the current players. So, really, it’s good for everyone.’”

Though Cubs regulars probably enjoy more interaction with their fan base than most other professional athletes—just ask the outfielders about their relationship with the Bleacher Bums—it’s still unusual for them to spend a lot of one-on-one time together. But the athletes quickly learned that the interaction with fans was one of the most enjoyable parts of the weekend.

“Most players would feel that it’s more flattering than nerve-racking,” said former Cubs outfielder Gary Matthews Sr. of the constant flock of supporters. “You’ve got to understand the Cubs fans.”

And for players who didn’t already understand Cubs fans, the convention served as quite the introduction. Former Cubs catcher Michael Barrett came to the team in December 2003 after spending his previous six years playing in the fan-starved Montreal Expos organization. Rios, who was in charge of the convention prior to Oboikowitch, still remembers the backstop’s reaction to the reception he received at his first opening ceremony.

“[Players] get quite a rush from the applause they get from the fans, especially the new ones,” Rios said. “I think of Michael Barrett, who played in Montreal, who played in front of [so few fans], and to come to the convention and have that many or more, and be sweating when they announce it—he was freaked out, and that’s still kind of cool to see.”

Mingling with the fans quickly became one of Dernier’s favorite parts of the weekend. The former center fielder said he’s missed only three of the 29 previous conventions, which puts him “in the 95th percentile” in terms of attendance.

“To be quite honest, I’ve gotten a lot of endearing experiences because I did take the time,” Dernier said. “Whether I sat with a bunch of 13-year-olds at the lobby there or I sat at the bar and had a cocktail with a dozen Cubs fans ready to watch the Bears at the playoff game that afternoon, they were enjoyable experiences.

“Whatever position I’ve been in, to get to come, it’s not a hard arm twist because all it is is just a giant hug waiting to happen.”

For the people in charge of the convention, knowing the players—the de facto entertainment—have an open mind about the event makes their jobs easier and allows a weekend with a high potential for chaos to run a little more smoothly.

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Though the Convention spans only three days in January, it takes a lot longer than that to plan and organize the festivities. Oboikowitch said even during the baseball season, the convention is in the back of his mind. As the 162-game campaign is winding down, he’s in meetings and throwing ideas against the wall for what the next fan weekend will have in store.

“We’re always talking with fans throughout the season and through the offseason about what they might want to see, who they want to see, what activities they want to take part in,” Oboikowitch said. “We start putting together a road map of how we want to program Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”

This road map is a jigsaw puzzle of panels, events, autograph signings and meet-and-greets. When it all comes together, it looks like a work of art, but getting things to that point is a painstaking process.

The staff has to juggle player and personnel arrivals (many attendees come from out of town), make sure individuals aren’t accidentaly booked in two spots at one time, and provide fans the opportunity to attend must-see events like the opening ceremony and the Ricketts panel. Despite doing their best not to overschedule the program, Rios said forcing fans to make tough decisions is all part of the plan.

“One thing that fans should realize is we want to make it difficult for them to decide what to do,” Rios said. “Every hour of the convention, day or evening, has something going on. You can be getting five or six different autographs, you can be getting a photo of somebody, you can be in the interactive room learning about pitching, you can be in a seminar with one of our business teams talking about The 1060 Project. … You have to decide what’s important to you.”

But amidst all the commotion, while fans are making those red pill-blue pill decisions, one thing they seldom see is just how busy the players really are. They are constantly moving into private rooms for one-on-one interviews or doing special autograph signings for Cubs Charities.

“We do a lot of behind-the-scenes interviews with players that our broadcast partners will use during the season,” Oboikowitch said. “That’s where you get some of that footage for rain delays and for different pieces when you want to hear a player talk about Jake Arrieta’s season preview. So we do a lot of filming in that time.”

Perhaps the best indication that McDonough hit the ball out of the park on the first try is how little the convention’s format has changed over the last three decades. Certain panels have come and gone, venues have switched (the Hyatt from 1986-90, the Hilton Chicago from 1991-2012, the Sheraton Hotel and Towers from 2013-present), and there are fewer vendors today than in years past. But fans still get the chance to interact with their favorite players through seminars, clinics, autograph sessions and meet-and-greets, just like they did in 1986.

“I think what the fans really like, that I’ve learned from them, is that they just really like having that experience where they get to actually sit down in that little floor lobby with Anthony Rizzo, and he’s signing autographs for the kids,” Dernier said.

Of course, the planning committee is constantly learning from fans, and they fine-tune things every year. In 2015, the Cubs will add a second interactive instructional field with hitting tees and batting cages. They will also pay tribute to the 2007-08 NL Central champion teams with a panel featuring Ryan Dempster, Mark DeRosa, Bob Howry, Jacque Jones and others. Another panel will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the convention and will include regulars like Dernier and Matthews.

The goal is to improve the weekend every year, while still offering the panels and events fans have come to know and love. In other words, rest assured, Cubs Bingo isn’t going away anytime soon.

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