Have you ever read a novel that wants to be a film? Where you couldn’t shake the feeling that a movie deal was the author’s intent all along?
Too often it feels that way with the Cubs. Too often they feel like a baseball club that wants to be a real estate mogul or a TV network owner or the operator of an English Premier League franchise. They won a World Series in 2016, then built a hotel across from Wrigley Field, launched Marquee Sports Network and tried to buy Chelsea F.C. Is there a potential Marvel movie in any of that?
The Cubs are playing the Cardinals at Wrigley this weekend, a timely reminder that they should want to be the Cards when they grow up but in reality don’t. The Cardinals are where they usually are in the standings, near the top of the National League Central, and the Cubs are going through their second rebuild in 10 years, which explains all the losing.
The last time the Cardinals finished under .500 was 2007 and before that 1999. Since the Ricketts family bought the franchise in 2009, the Cubs have finished under .500 six times. This season will be the seventh.
Just to be clear, Chicago is the third-largest city in the United States, and St. Louis is the 72nd, smaller than Durham, N.C., Lincoln, Neb., and Corpus Christi, Texas.
The Cubs’ player payroll ranks 14th out of 30 teams at $148.5 million, a billion miles from the payrolls of the teams in the two bigger cities by population. The Mets lead the majors at $260.2 million, the Dodgers are second at $259.5 million and the Yankees are third at $249.7 million.
The Cardinals are 12th at $158.5 million. Did I mention that St. Louis is smaller than Greensboro, N.C., Lexington, Ky., and Bakersfield, Calif.?
There’s a reason for all of this: The Cardinals know that their fans expect greatness. There’s no explanation for what the Cubs are doing other than they’ve chosen making money over winning titles. And if you follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, you realize that the Cubs don’t think their fans expect greatness. If they did, they’d be pumping money into the product on the field.
The Cardinals know what their fans expect.
The Cubs think they know what their fans will swallow.
One more comparison, the only comparison that really matters, to illustrate the difference between the two franchises: The Cubs have won one World Series since 1908 (perhaps you’ve heard), and the Cardinals have won 11 in the same span. Now that’s a team culture.
Four years ago, I asked then-interim Cards manager Mike Shildt if he could ever envision the organization going through the painful losing of a rebuild in the hope of winning a World Series down the road, the way the Cubs had before they built up to their 2016 title..
“No,” he said. “That’s not what the Cardinals organization represents.”
At the time, the Cards were two games over .500 and struggling. It was mid-July. They went on to finish 88-74 – much better but not nearly good enough by their standards. The next three years, they lost an N.L. Championship Series after winning the division, lost a wild-card series and lost a wild-card game. Pretty good, right? It got Shildt canned.
The most damning thing you can say about the Cubs is that they should be the Cardinals – damning because the Cards are their purported archrivals and damning because there’s no reason a major-market club should be taking the rebuild route again. Dealing stars Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant at the trade deadline last year was a baseball decision. Not taking the money from those players’ contracts and investing it in the major-league product was a baseball sin.
Perpetual reinvestment is what people in a big city should expect from a big-city team. It’s not just about money and payrolls, though. If it were, the Cardinals wouldn’t be where they usually are. They don’t spend like the Yankees or Dodgers, but they know baseball. The big-market Cubs think the only way to win a World Series is by blowing up a team, starting from scratch and charging fans full price while losing scads of games.
When the family that owns the franchise is worth several billion, a rebuild shouldn’t be the first instinct. It shouldn’t be an instinct at all.
But the 13-year history of the Rickettses as owners is of a family more interested in turning Wrigleyville into an amusement park, buying rooftops buildings and bidding for a soccer team, even though they say they don’t have money to spend on baseball players. Yes, there was that 2016 World Series, and for more than a few Cubs fans, it was the highlight of their lives. But it wasn’t the end of their lives. They’d like more. Why is that so hard for ownership to understand? Because ownership only seems to care about what Cubs fans are willing to put up with.
Chicago, city of rubes. That’s what the Cubs think. Is there any other conclusion?