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In Praise of Inanimate Objects

Friday, May 29th, 2015

A strange thing recently happened at Wrigley Field. Something that, quite possibly, had never happened before.

On Saturday, May 16, the Cubs were playing the Pirates. Dexter Fowler led off the bottom of the third inning with a single, and promptly tried to steal second base. He was called out on a close play, and Joe Maddon challenged the call. None of this was out of the ordinary.

What made it different was that, rather than waiting in relative silence for the umpiring crew’s decision, the nearly 39,000 in attendance—including my wife and I—could see the replay for themselves. In fact, we saw it repeatedly, from all the available angles, over and over, in vivid and larger-than-life detail on Wrigley Field’s new video boards.

I’ll admit I was one of the skeptics who immediately turned up my nose at the idea of adding a giant video screens to Wrigley. For years, I have proudly defended the Cubs’ lack of a Jumbotron. Even when it was clear that it would greatly increase advertising revenue for the team, I was a staunch opponent. I didn’t need to be bombarded with ads after every half inning. I didn’t care about expanded stats for pitchers and batters, or having a better look at opposing players’ headshots. I didn’t want whatever meager insights we’re meant to glean from those awkward team Q&As. I had no interest whatsoever in an animated shell game. And while I’m always down for a good blooper reel, I didn’t need any of that, either.

To me, the only mildly persuasive argument for a Jumbotron was always the ability to show replays. And even then, I didn’t believe that one improvement was worth breaking up the picturesque outfield skyline.

I was wrong.

The Cubs have done a remarkable job integrating the new video boards into the look and feel of Wrigley Field, and showed a great deal of restraint as they stretch the legs of this new park feature.

For starters, I’d like to thank whomever it was that decided to stick with Wrigley’s established color palate for all the new graphics. It’s not necessarily something you often think about, but virtually all the signage at Wrigley falls in line with the colors on the scoreboard. Almost every printed surface you see in the park is a muted green background (just like the scoreboard façade) with white lettering (just like all the letters and numbers on the scoreboard), with occasional flashes of yellow (the color used to track hits for each team and indicate scoring in the current inning). I’m not sure the scoreboard first established that color palate, but it seems clear that it sets the tone for everything else in the stadium—including the new video boards. It’s a subtle touch, but a welcome one for those of us who obsess over pay attention to such things.

The same goes for highlighting the blue W in the Wintrust sign above the larger of the two boards after Cubs wins. Subtle, clever touches like that let you know that someone in the Cubs organization is paying attention.

But even in the less subtle uses, the Cubs have kept it classy. Check out this video that runs before each game, welcoming fans to the Friendly Confines. (Upon further review, it seems this is a slightly different edit of the welcome video, but it gives you the gist.) Pretty impressive, huh? It makes me wish I was there right now. Whether it’s your first time at Wrigley or you’re a season ticket holder, that video is a welcome reminder that you’re in a very special place.

And I haven’t even mentioned the quality of the replays they’re now able to show. My wife and I were in town for a couple games. Both times we sat in the left field bleachers, under the big Jumbotron—usually the worst vantage point for replays and other media on the video boards (by comparison, it’s virtually impossible to see anything on the Dodgervision screen from LA’s left field pavilion). But in Wrigley, I had no problem seeing the screen. In fact, the visual detail was fairly stunning.

Every eye in the stadium that day was glued to Jumbotrons. It was a little surreal to be able to watch it the replay over and over—watch the highlight from the game, and you can hear the crowd cheer as Fowler sneaks his hand in underneath the tag. Even the Pirates announcing crew spotted the difference in the fans’ engagement in the action thanks to the advent of the video boards.

But the video evidence we all enjoyed wasn’t enough to convince the MLB staff in New York. The umpires upheld the original, incorrect call, and the fans booed vigorously in response. Some things never change.

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Catching the Faint Whiff of Optimism in the Air

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

I blame my wife. Because of her, I have largely missed—or been spared, depending on how you look at it—the majority of the Cubs’ last two seasons. I haven’t had to watch them find new and exciting ways to throw away winnable games. I haven’t suffered the emotional and mental anguish of repeated late-inning collapses. I haven’t wallowed in loss after frustrating loss, desperate for October’s arrival and the end of the pain. Marriage is the best.

That’s not to say I’ve been totally disconnected from the Cubs—I’ve looked in from time to time to see how Castro and Rizzo were doing, or to remind myself who the starting outfielders were. And I’m still a season ticket holder, so it’s not like I could ignore them altogether. But for the most part, the Cubs have been less like an immediate part of the family. For the last several months they’ve been more like a distant relative—the only time I hear from them is when they need money.

But this season is different, and you already know why. This Cubs team, unlike the last few squads, has more than just a faint whiff of hope and optimism about them. Like a high school freshman trying to mask the stench of mid-morning gym class, these Cubs are drenched in the sweet perfume of high-ceiling potential and—here’s the kicker for me—competitive relevance.

Like most of you, I don’t have spectacularly high hopes for 2015. What I want to see more than anything else from this year’s team (and beyond) is simply that they’d be playing meaningful games late into September (and, perhaps, beyond). The Wild Card play-in game, the NL Central crown, and the World Series are all fine goals, and I’m thrilled that the players and the media are mentioning them without sarcastic smirks. But I’ll happily settle for consistent competitiveness that keeps us relevant throughout the season. And I’ll wait to start making my postseason plans until that’s the new norm.

Here’s a few other things I’m looking forward to this season, in no particular order:

  • Several writers have referred to the hiring of Joe Maddon as the best free agent signing of the offseason. I didn’t closely follow his work in Tampa Bay, but I know his reputation, and I’m eager to see what he does with the hand he’s been dealt. He won’t have to do much to be the best Cubs manager since, well . . . in a really long time.
  • I’m also interested to see how the Rick Renteria situation backfires on us. I’m thrilled we’ve got Maddon, but I concerned the way things went down with Reteria may come back to haunt us. Doubt me if you must, but just remember we had this conversation when a few months from now he inevitably takes a job with St. Louis.
  • I know the baseball world is foaming at the mouth for Kris Bryant, and that once his stay in service time purgatory is over, his every at-bat will be must-see TV. I got a chance to see him in person this spring, and the hype not unmerited. But I’m equally excited for a full year of Jorge Soler. Both guys possess Asgardian power, and Soler’s plate discipline has many people thinking he’s actually the better candidate for Rookie of the Year. Either way, I’m ecstatic at the prospect of watching the two of them treat us to a season-long home run derby.
  • Is Jon Lester an ace? And what’s it like to have one anchoring your pitching staff? I can’t wait to find out.
  • Anthony Rizzo is 25 years old. So is Starlin Castro. In spite of that, they’re now the veteran leaders, and two of the longest-tenured Cubs this season. While the youngsters (relative term) are getting the headlines, much of the burden still falls on those two. After bouncing back to form last season, what next step is there for either of them to take?
  • Is there an adjustment that can fix the gaping holes in Javier Baez’s swing, and is he capable of making it? Or is he just the next Corey Patterson?
  • It sounds crazy, but I like he idea of breaking camp with three catchers on the roster. I understand what Miguel Montero brings to the table, and that his familiarity with David Ross might make a huge difference in Lester’s performance. But I’m glad the Cubs didn’t simply dump Welington Castillo—that he was able to show he still has some value to the team. It’ll be interesting to see how they juggle all three guys in the early going, and how they feature Castillo if they still think of him as trade bait. And yes, if nothing else changes, I fully expect his value to plummet right around the time the Cubs are ready to promote Bryant.
  • I’m on record as being a big fan of the super-utility player, and it seems that the Cubs believe they have one in Arismendy Alcantara. I haven’t seen enough to know if he possesses DeRosian talent, but Maddon clearly likes the flexibility he affords, and I look forward to how the Cubs will exploit it.
  • While I can’t fully articulate why, I like Chris Coghlan. I thought he was a pleasant surprise last season, and in spite of the supposed benefits of a platoon, I’m rooting for him to win the left field job outright.
  • I’ll confess I have only a passing familiarity with our bullpen. I honestly might struggle to name more than two or three of our relievers without peeking at the roster. But I hear good things. And while it will be strange adjusting to an effective bullpen, I’m going to make every effort.
  • Finally, I’m looking forward to Opening Day. The sense of anticipation that surrounds this Cubs team had been noticeably absent for the last few years. The last couple seasons have been little more than sad inevitabilities. But now, finally, we’re looking ahead to legitimately exciting possibilities. Whatever the season holds, I’m happy to be happy for the start of baseball again. That’s not much, but it’s something. And it’ll have me paying attention to these Cubs in a way I haven’t for a while now. I can’t wait for Sunday to get here. Let’s play two.
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Love and Other Stuff

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

For the first time in, well… ever, I have a serious girlfriend. We’ve been dating for a while now, and I’m happy to blame her for a considerable amount of my recent silence here on VFTB.

Being in a serious relationship has forced me to ask all kinds of questions I’ve never had to consider before; it’s also revealed just how few good answers I really have. One of those questions–and perhaps the only one pertinent to this blog–is “How do I talk this woman into caring about the Cubs?” And frankly, I didn’t have a clue where to start.

Some of us were born Cubs fans, while the rest chose to jump aboard one of the many doomed bandwagons along the way. But when it comes time to sell someone else–especially someone you care deeply for–on a team as historically snake-bitten as the Cubs, where do you begin? How do you look your significant other in the eye and knowingly invite her into our world of dashed hopes, frustrated plans, and annual depression? Wouldn’t it actually be more loving to encourage them to cheer for another team?

Obviously we don’t have a rich championship history to draw on. But even the history we do have is a fairly mixed bag–really, who’s attracted to endless stories about near-misses and late-season collapses? We’re also a little short on colorful characters these days. Apart from Ernie Banks, are any former Cubs legends all that endearing or engaging? We love them because they’re our guys, but would a stranger to the team really want to hear Billy Williams or Fergie Jenkins wax eloquent about the good old days? And the current roster isn’t much better when it comes to catching and holding the interest of the casual fan.

In the end, Wrigley Field might be the team’s only selling point. However, it is an extraordinarily strong one. How many Cubs fans point back to their first visit to Wrigley–that first plunge into the intimate sea of green ivy and grass–as the moment they fell in love with the Cubs? How many die-hard fans started out as casual bleacher bums during their college days? How many lifelong fans fell in love with the team on endless summer afternoons spent in the stands? I’m convinced if you could take someone to Wrigley Field, you could get them to love the Cubs. Or at the very least, tolerate them.

As it turns out, my girl is a pretty good sport, so she didn’t take that much convincing. So far I’ve dragged her to three Cubs games during their recent West Coast trip, and they managed to win two of them. I told her she’s good for the team, and that I need to take her to as many more games as possible. We’ll see if she buys it.

Elsewhere, the Cubs broke out the bats Tuesday night behind Edwin Jackson, pounding the Reds for nine runs on four home runs, including two from Welington Castillo and one from Jackson himself. You can see all the highlights of the drubbing here.

Jesse Rogers thinks we might be on the other side of Starlin Castro’s extended slump. Hooray!

Pete Ricketts is running for Governor of Nebraska. The article also serves as a good primer for any fans not up on all the Ricketts’ political leanings.

And finally, the Cubs have released their schedule for the 2014 season. Am I the only one who, despite this dumpster fire of a season, looks at this and starts making plans for next summer?

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Joey Chestnut and the Pride of a Nation

Thursday, July 4th, 2013

About Last Night

Warm center of the trade-talk universe Matt Garza out-dueled a hippo Bartolo Colon in the Cubs’ 3-1 victory over the A’s. Colon threw his first wild pitch in more than four years, which is particularly remarkable when you factor in all the sloshing around involved in his windup. Luis Valbuena hit his 7th home run of the season, Alfonso Soriano drove in his 37th RBI in the last 50 games, and Kevin Gregg recorded his 14th save in 15 attempts. Click through for the box score and highlights from the game. Earlier in the day, the Cubs made room for some of their new acquisitions by demoting Chris Rusin and DFA’ing Shawn Camp. Camp has played for Cubs’ manager Dale a couple times in his career, and Dale was not pleased to give him the news.


Detroit’s Matt Max Scherzer is the first pitcher to start the season 13-0 in 27 years.

The Rangers took a gamble and signed Manny Ramirez to a minor league deal.

Rapper, media mogul, and burgeoning sports agent Jay-Z takes a swipe at Scott Boras in a new song. Mr. Z recently stole Robinson Cano away from Boras.

More evidence has come to light in the Aaron Hernandez case. Whether it’s the smashed phone and security system, trying to get a quickie, post-incarceration marriage to his girlfriend, or keeping a secret “flop house” apartment, it’s like he was working his way through a checklist of incredibly suspicious behavior. Even with only the limited information that’s come out so far, it’s virtually impossible to imagine a scenario in which he’s totally innocent.

Competitive eating living legend Joey Chestnut is going for his 7th consecutive win in the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. With no Kobayashi again this year, it would appear Chestnut should have an easy time of it. As stomach-churningly gross as it is, I’ll be watching.


It’s the Fourth of July today, so it seems like a good time to revisit the finest snag of Rick Monday’s career. Happy Independence Day, everyone.

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The Unfamiliar Taste of Victory

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

Last week my favorite hockey team hoisted the Stanley Cup. It was their second championship in four years, but the elation of their success was still slightly foreign to me. I’m not yet used to the taste of victory.

It’s not that I’ve gone out of my way to cheer for losers. I don’t have a fixation on underdogs, and I’m not particularly fond of suffering, even when it comes to something as relatively inconsequential as sports.

But at the same time, I’ve never been one to leap aboard bandwagons. At least in the sports I care about, I’ve got my teams and I’m content to win and (usually) lose with them. In most cases, I’m not adopting one of the remaining championship contenders as much as rooting vigorously against teams I already can’t stand. Often it comes down to a simple process of elimination—“Which team can I most tolerate winning?”

But even in sports I’m relatively new to, I can’t bring myself to latch onto the front-runner. That’s how it was with the NHL. My friend Mike—the biggest Detroit sports fan I’ve ever known—first introduced me to hockey about six or seven years ago. Of course I was aware of hockey before that, but I’d never really paid attention to it. The poor quality of standard definition television made the sport more of a chore to watch than a pleasure. It took someone with the boundless enthusiasm of Mike to teach me the nuances of the game and to appreciate its uniqueness, both subtle and overt.

As I said, Mike was a massive Detroit fan, which meant the first several games I attended in person were Red Wings games. And with their unbelievable streak of consecutive playoff appearances (twenty-two and counting) and their frequent trips to the Stanley Cup finals, the Wings would have been an easy team to cheer for*.

*And in Mike’s memory, I often do.

But my inherent aversion to bandwagoning wouldn’t let me hop on board with Detroit. Not that I’m particularly overflowing with any of them, but shouldn’t class, dignity, and good taste keep someone from deciding they like a sport and that sport’s best team at the same time? Perhaps there’s something broken in me that makes me think fandom ought to include struggle, but I’m not sure you can ever truly appreciate winning with a team until you’ve lost with them.

Instead I decided to root for the Blackhawks. It was an easy choice really. I already had ties to other Chicago sports teams, they were young squad with lots of raw talent (Toews and Kane were drafted right around the time I started following hockey), and they were an Original Six team with lots of history—that last one was particularly important to Mike. And most important of all, they had no bandwagon to speak of.

As it turns out, I was catching the team at just the right time. Within a couple seasons, they were facing off against the Red Wings in the conference finals. That next year they won their first Stanley Cup since the early 60’s.

That was the first time one of my teams had ever been the champions, and even amidst the celebration it felt a little uncomfortable, like perhaps I hadn’t yet earned the right to celebrate. I hadn’t passed through the crucible of repeated disappointment on my way to the promised land of victory**.

**Yeah, something in me is definitely broken.

This most recent celebration felt a little more earned. I’d watched as that first championship team was gutted, and as the Hawks were bounced early from the playoffs two years in a row—not exactly lean years, mind you, but the kind of performances that make you wonder which direction the team is headed.

The reality is I didn’t earn anything. My suffering or not suffering along with my teams has no bearing on their performance or the outcomes of their seasons. I am inconsequential to their victories as well as their defeats. It’s mostly a one-way investment, but the amount time you suffer with them in defeat is directly proportional to your ecstasy in victory.

Which is why I can’t wait for the day when the Cubs win it all.

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