How do you evaluate a 96-loss season? It depends on how you look at it.
Are you evaluating just the major league team or the organization as a whole? Your answers would likely be very different.
On the surface, things don’t look too good. For the second straight year, the Cubs languished in the basement of a stacked NL Central that sent three teams to the 2013 postseason. The offense consistently struggled to put runs on the board, the bullpen faltered early in the season, several key players failed to develop as expected, and manager Dale Sveum was released after two seasons at the helm. To hear General Manager Jed Hoyer tell it, that’s simply not going to cut it.
“One of the things about this job is that your report card is in the paper every morning,” Hoyer said. “Obviously, that report card tells us we’re not good enough. We’re not talented enough at the major league level, and we have to improve that.”
Despite the struggles in Chicago—and both President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Hoyer are quick to admit they’re disappointed by the win-loss total—the front office has never wavered from its initial blueprint for building a consistent winner.
When Epstein and Hoyer took over in October 2011, there was a severe talent deficit in the minor league system, and the major league team was saddled with expensive, aging players. The goal was to stockpile as much young talent as possible as quickly as possible and create payroll flexibility to ensure that the next time the team is competitive, it has a chance to remain competitive for years to come.
On that front, things don’t look bad at all. In 2009, Baseball America ranked the Cubs 27th in its annual organizational talent rankings. By the start of 2013, they had moved up to 12th. Thanks to shrewd trades, some aggressive international signings and a strong 2013 draft, headlined by overall No. 2 pick Kris Bryant, most experts agree the Cubs system is firmly in the top five heading into 2014. And 11 of the organization’s top 20 prospects, according to MLB.com, were acquired since the new front office took over in 2011. That’s a lot of progress in a few short years.
This month, we sat down with the Cubs’ GM for a frank conversation about the state of the organization. There is great reason for optimism, but the wave of young standouts developing in the farm system has yet to crest at Wrigley Field. Until that top-notch talent arrives, it’s imperative the Cubs find a way to improve their bullpen and generate more quality at-bats.
“The amount of talent and the athleticism we have [in the system] is a long, long way from where it was when we first got here, and we’re excited about that,” Hoyer said. “But all those things don’t hide the fact that the goal is to get better at the major league level, and we need to improve on what we’ve done in 2012 and 2013.”
We also talked to one of the key pieces Hoyer acquired last offseason that fits this new organizational philosophy—outfielder Nate Schierholtz. The 29-year-old veteran finally got a chance to play regularly in 2013, and he had a breakout season, with career highs in plate appearances, home runs and RBI. Everybody, from the front office to his teammates, says the same thing about Schierholtz: He’s a professional ballplayer who fights for every at-bat and brings his best effort every day.
Finally, despite the win-loss total, there were plenty of positive developments at the major league level. The Cubs strengthened their pitching depth behind the emergence of lefty Travis Wood, ace Jeff Samardzija continued to miss bats with the best of them, Junior Lake made a surprisingly successful major league debut, and the left side of the infield was as strong defensively as any in baseball. We examine several impressive stats from the 2013 campaign that should bode well for the organization’s near future.
If you want to get to know the future of the organization now, follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline. All winter long, we’ll be following the Cubs’ top prospects in the fall and winter leagues. And pick up the November issue of Vine Line today.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
As the Cubs held off the playoff-bound Pirates to claim a 4-2 win Wednesday afternoon, it marks the end of home games at Wrigley Field for 2013. Next season, the Cubs will start on the road at Pittsburgh before heading to the Friendly Confines, with the home opener slated for Friday, April 4 against Philadelphia. The 2014 season will mark Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary and will be celebrated all season long on the north side.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
The last time Ryne Sandberg was in the Wrigley Field dugout as a visitor was in 1981 when he was a rookie with the Philadelphia Phillies. On Friday afternoon, he’ll return as the Phillies’ manager, when the Cubs open a three-game set with Philadelphia on Friday. Sandberg spent 15 years in Cubbie blue during his Hall of Fame career. He went to 10 All-Star games, won nine Gold Gloves and was the 1984 NL MVP.
Today marks a monumental day in Chicago Cubs history. While 8-8-88 gets the proper hype for being the first game under the newly installed lights at Wrigley Field, a postponement due to rain actually pushed the first full game to the next day. Therefore, today actually marks the 25th anniversary of the first completed night game at Wrigley Field. The following feature can be found in the July issue of Vine Line. For stories like this and more all season long, be sure to subscribe today.
It’s not often you get that Opening Day or postseason feeling during a mid-August game. That time of year is usually reserved for the baseball doldrums. The All-Star break is over, and it’s a little too early to get excited about the divisional races—especially in 1988, when only four teams reached the postseason.
But Game 111 for the Chicago Cubs, set to be played on Aug. 8, 1988, was one for the ages at the Friendly Confines. An estimated crowd of 40,000 was on hand, a then-record 556 media credentials were issued, and 109 newspapers and magazines, 38 radio stations and 49 TV crews—including the Today show, Good Morning America and Entertainment Tonight—packed the venerable stadium. The announcers wore tuxedos (except for Harry Caray), and Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Billy Williams were on hand to toss out the first pitch.
At 6:06 p.m., the festivities came to a head when 91-year-old Harry Grossman, a Cubs fan since 1906 and the team’s oldest season ticket holder, stood on the field with ball girl Mariellen Kopp and Hall of Fame announcer Jack Brickhouse and bellowed the fateful words that propelled Wrigley Field into the modern era:
“Three … two … one. Let there be lights!”
Viewers from around the country watched in awe as Grossman flipped the switch and six banks of lights—three each on the left- and right-field rooftops—slowly glowed to life at Wrigley Field for the first time. The famed Chicago Symphony Orchestra, there to help mark the occasion, broke into the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“Witnessing the field lit for the first time was pretty cool, but also a little eerie to me because it was so different,” said Ben Hussman, a longtime Cubs fan and high school history teacher at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, Ill., who traveled from Iowa to watch the game with a friend.
Though the lighting ceremony was high theater, there was also a game to be played, as Cubs ace Rick Sutcliffe was set to take the mound against a fifth-place Phillies squad under ominous clouds for the first home night game in franchise history.
Things got off to a fast start. After nearly being blinded by the simultaneous popping of about 40,000 flashbulbs, Sutcliffe surrendered a long home run over the left-field bleachers on the fourth pitch of the game to Phillies leadoff hitter Phil Bradley.
In the bottom of the inning, after Cubs outfielder Mitch Webster led off with a single, Morganna the Kissing Bandit—a fixture at many major sporting events in the 1970s and ’80s—ran onto the field to try to plant one on Cubs star Ryne Sandberg, but security was ready for her, and she never sealed the deal. Ryno, apparently motivated by his close encounter, then blasted a two-run home run off Kevin Gross to give the Cubs the lead. The North Siders added another run in the third inning when Rafael Palmeiro singled home Sandberg.
Only, as far as the record books are concerned, none of this ever happened.
Midway through the fourth inning at about 8:15 p.m., a torrential rainstorm washed into Chicago and washed out the game. After a two-hour-and-10-minute delay, home plate umpire Eric Gregg officially put an unceremonious end to the first night game that never was.
Apparently the excitement of the event was too much for some people. During the delay, as many as 13 Cubs fans ran out onto the field to slide on the tarp—one unlucky reveler was even taken to the hospital after running into the third-base wall. Around 9:30 p.m., the Cubs got into the act as well, as Jody Davis, Les Lancaster, Al Nipper and Greg Maddux all took their turns making a giant slip-and-slide of the infield tarp. The fans were arrested; the unrepentant Cubs players were merely fined.
Of course, countless jokes about God not wanting to have night baseball at Wrigley Field followed, but the Cubs proved the doubters (and the heavens) wrong when they played their first official night game at the stadium the following evening, a 6-4 victory over the Mets. Frank DiPino picked up the win in relief of starter Mike Bielecki, left fielder Palmeiro went 3-for-4 with a triple, and right fielder Andre Dawson drove in two runs.
To understand the importance of the lights going up, it’s essential to know the history behind the event. This was the first time a big league ballpark had added lights since Tiger Stadium (then called Briggs Stadium) in Detroit did so on June 15, 1948. It was also a deeply controversial decision that divided the city between supporters of modernization and traditionalists who believed day baseball at Wrigley Field should last forever.
But this wasn’t the first time lights were attempted at the Friendly Confines. A series of concerts, rodeos, circuses and a combined boxing/wrestling match were held at the stadium under portable lights in the early to mid-1900s.
Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley and treasurer Bill Veeck started looking into installing permanent lights at the stadium in the early 1940s. In the fall of 1941, Wrigley went so far as to order light standards for the park to be installed in early 1942. The material for the lights was stored under the Wrigley Field bleachers, but after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Wrigley donated the 165 tons of steel, 35,000 feet of copper wire and other equipment to the U.S. war effort.
“We felt that this material could be more useful in lighting flying fields, munitions plants or other war defense plants under construction,” Wrigley said.
Later, when President Franklin Roosevelt and Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis requested more night baseball games, the Cubs looked into using wooden poles and secondhand equipment to erect lighting for the 1942 season, but those plans were rejected by the War Production Board.
Throughout the 1940s, Wrigley tried to find a way to add lights to his stadium so more people could see the games after the workday was over, but to no avail. He even initiated talks with the White Sox about playing a limited number of night games at Comiskey Park, which had installed lights in 1939.
Although adding illumination to the Confines was always on the table, the organization didn’t resume serious talks about it until 1982, shortly after the Tribune Company purchased the team from the Wrigley family. In March of that year, General Manager Dallas Green publicly stated that lights needed to be installed at Wrigley Field “or we’ll have to think about playing in another ballpark.”
In August 1984, with the team making a surprising playoff push, MLB announced the Cubs would lose home-field advantage in the World Series if they got that far because they couldn’t play night games. Under the typical AL-NL rotation, the NL club was set to host Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 of the World Series. Without lights, however, network TV commitments would force Game 1 from Wrigley Field to the AL home park.
Baseball owners feared a $700,000 loss in television revenues per club as a result of World Series games played in the daytime. In subsequent years, the Cubs explored the possibility of playing night World Series games at Comiskey Park or St. Louis’ Busch Stadium.
Finally, on Feb. 25, 1988, after years of arguing, cajoling and negotiating, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance, 29 to 19, that allowed the Cubs to play night baseball at Wrigley Field—if they complied with a substantial list of terms. The deal permitted the Cubs to play eight night games in 1988 and 18 per year from 1989-2002.
On April 7, 1988, a helicopter lifted the first of three towers onto the roof along the third-base line, and crews began working every weekday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Most of the project was completed in June and July when the Cubs were on the road. When the team was at home, work had to stop at 10 a.m.
On June 20, 1988, the Cubs held a press conference at the park to announce a slate of seven night games for the current season, the first of which was to be held on Aug. 8. After commitments were met to season ticket holders, dignitaries, front office personnel and the like, there was only a limited number of available seats left for the night opener.
The team decided to hold a phone lottery on June 28 for the remaining 13,000 tickets to the historic contest. During the three-and-a-half-hour lottery, the Cubs ticket office fielded more than 1.5 million calls.
The lighting system was tested throughout July, leading up to a Cubs Care event on July 25 that debuted the $5 million system to the public. That night, the club held an informal workout for the team and a home run contest featuring Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg, with Ken Holtzman and Fergie Jenkins pitching. Approximately 3,000 fans, including then-National League President A. Bartlett Giamatti, were in attendance.
“I think the future of Wrigley Field is secure and assured because of the installation of this modern convenience,” Giamatti said.
The rest is Cubs history. Day baseball at Wrigley Field hasn’t gone away; it has just been augmented. Now the team can finish day games that stretch into the twilight, play nationally televised games on ESPN, host the All-Star Game (which it did in 1990) and maintain home-field advantage in the event of a postseason berth. Night baseball now feels normal, but a quarter of a century later, fans still remember what it was like to see the stadium lit up for the first time.
“[It was] a big relief, because I knew night baseball would help the Cubs be more competitive, and because it would be easier for more Cubs fans to go to more games during the week,” said Walt Denny, owner of an advertising and public relations firm in Hinsdale, Ill., and a season ticket holder since 1984.
Fans traveled from all over to attend the game and watched around the country on the WGN broadcast. The fact that the game was ultimately rained out didn’t dampen the spirits of the fans or the players who were there that night. And it didn’t erase the memories of what was one of the most important nights in modern Major League Baseball history.
“I remember thinking that the most beautiful place to watch day baseball was now the most beautiful place to watch night baseball,” Denny said.
Twenty-five years later, it still is.
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Replacing the injured Luis Valbuena, who went on the DL with a strained oblique, the Cubs’ 2012 Minor League Player of the Year Logan Watkins made his major league debut Sunday afternoon against the Dodgers. The 23-year-old got the start at second base and recorded his first big league hit in the bottom of the sixth off Los Angeles’ Stephen Fife. The left-handed hitter took a fastball to left field for a single and finished 1-for-4 on the day as the Cubs fell 1-0.
Like most Cubs fans of a certain age, I remember exactly where I was on Aug. 8, 1988.
My family had recently moved to the Dallas area. But despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Braves man (or kid, more accurately) and living in Rangers country at the time, I—along with most of the baseball-loving universe—was glued to WGN’s national broadcast of the Cubs-Phillies game at Wrigley Field.
There wasn’t really much to recommend the series—the North Siders were just 53-66, sitting a distant 13.5 games back of the NL East-leading Metropolitans, and the Phillies were even worse at 48-62. But there was at least one good reason to tune in that night.
At 6:06 p.m., 91-year-old Harry Grossman, a Cubs fan since 1905, flipped a switch, and the brand new Wrigley Field lights flickered to life for the first time. It was a momentous evening. The stadium was packed, a then-record 556 media credentials were issued, the broadcast crew wore tuxedos, and Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Billy Williams were on hand to throw out the first pitch. Even Morganna the Kissing Bandit made an appearance.
Mind you, night baseball didn’t start off that well for the Cubs. After being nearly blinded by the simultaneous popping of about 40,000 flashbulbs, Cubs starter Rick Sutcliffe gave up a long home run over the left-field bleachers on his fourth pitch to Phillies leadoff man Phil Bradley. But in the bottom of the inning, after Cubs outfielder Mitch Webster led off with a single, Ryne Sandberg clubbed a two-run home run off Kevin Gross to give the Cubs the lead.
The night seemed to have everything—except, of course, an ending. Midway through the fourth inning, just as the lights were taking hold at about 8:15 p.m., the game was stopped due to a powerful storm. After a two-hour-and-10-minute delay, home plate umpire Eric Gregg officially called it. As far as the record books are concerned, the first official night game at the Friendly Confines was the Cubs’ 6-4 victory over the Mets the following night.
I’ve mentioned in this space before that the first time I ever visited Wrigley was in 1984, and that I was immediately enthralled. I grew up watching and loving baseball, and had been to my share of ballparks by then—most, unfortunately, of the multi-use, 70s-era, cookie-cutter vintage—but visiting Wrigley Field was like stepping back in time. It seemed shocking, almost quaint, that in the ultra-modern, go-go 1980s, a professional sports venue could still lack an artificial lighting system.
Putting the lights on Wrigley Field was a fascinating journey that took decades to accomplish, and the 25th anniversary seems like the perfect time to revisit it—especially given the Cubs are again working to modernize the soon-to-be 100-year-old park. In the August issue of Vine Line, we take you back to that illuminating evening to examine what the lighting of Wrigley Field meant to the park, the team and the future of the franchise.
We also talk to a significant piece of that future, Cubs lefty Travis Wood, who is having a breakout season in 2013. When Wood was acquired along with Dave Sappelt and Ronald Torreyes (since shipped to the Astros) in December 2011 for set-up man extraordinaire Sean Marshall, it looked like a steal for the Reds. Marshall had a great season in 2012, while Wood bounced between Chicago and Triple-A Iowa. But this season, Wood has solidified his position as one of the best young left-handers in the game, and he doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon.
Finally, we check in with the voice of the franchise, Cubs radio announcer Pat Hughes, now in his 18th season as the play-by-play man for WGN Radio. Hughes has led a charmed professional life, sharing a booth with such broadcasting luminaries as Al McGuire, Bob Uecker and the beloved Ron Santo. He talked to us about his storied career, making the inevitable on-air mistakes and preparing calls for the biggest moments.
If you’re looking for a little illumination, we shine a light on the Cubs organization from the lowest levels of the minor leagues to the Wrigley Field broadcast booth every month. Subscribe to Vine Line, contact us at email@example.com or follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.