Sunday, July 10, 2011

Relegated to Perennial Futility, Unless...

The Chicago Cubs lost today. 9-1 to the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that has about one-third the Cubs' team payroll and 10 more wins--including in 6 of 9 games against the Cubs--through the All-Star break, which begins tomorrow.

Yes, the major league baseball season is roughly half over and for all practical purposes, the annual refrain of "Wait 'til next year" already applies for Cubs fans...and has for several weeks.

For those keeping track, and I guess even those who aren't, the Cubs are a robust 37-55, giving them a winning percentage of .402, second worst in the major leagues. For those looking for small consolation, the only team with a worse record--the Houston Astros at 30-62--are also in the National League Central, so the Cubs aren't technically in "last place."

Of course, the Cubs being bad is nothing new. Even in recent years when they were relatively good, seasons that forewent futility still ended in abject failure. Remember the glory years of 2007-2008, when the Cubs made the playoffs in consecutive seasons, only to bow out meekly in first-round sweeps?

Even ignoring that their payroll has been in the top 3-6 overall in recent years, the Cubs' perennial ineptitude is almost a mathematical improbability. Over the last 20 seasons, 20 different teams--of 30 major league franchises--have played in a World Series and many of those that have had longer dry spells--including the Pirates, Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland A's, Kansas City Royals won World Championships in the dozen years before 1991.

As the toteboard accompanying the Eamus Catuli (Latin for "Let's Go Cubs!", approximately) sign on a Sheffield Avenue rooftop alludes, it has now been--not yet counting 2011--2 years since the Cubs have been in the playoffs, 65 years since they won a pennant (and thus appeared in a World Series) and 102 years since they last won it 1908, for the mathematically-challenged.

Although the Ricketts family, who bought the Cubs from the Tribune Company at the end of the 2009 season, inherited some atrocious--and terribly stifling--contracts, like $18 million committed to under-productive left-fielder Alfonso Soriano each year through 2014, they have now seen the Chicago National League ballclub win 112 games and lose 141 during their brief ownership rein. And especially given some lagging attendance, the Ricketts as of yet don't seem willing or able to do anything about ending the futility.

Certainly, money itself isn't the answer; many franchises that spend considerably less than the Cubs have done remarkably better, with the Tampa Bay Rays being the latest prime example. Although I believe it is time for General Manager Jim Hendry to lose his job and Manager Mike Quade looks like another failure--though I supported his hiring after interim success last year--I'm not here to say that the Cubs aren't trying their hardest to win.

The players' goofy decision to wear "F**k the Goat" t-shirts at a practice earlier this season--referencing an age-old but not recently pertinent "curse"--certainly seemed pathetic. And shortstop Starlin Castro stands as the only current player that I enjoy watching. But from the players to the manager to the front office, I want to believe the Cubs are trying their best.

But for 103 years--yes, including this one--their best hasn't been good enough.

So instead of simply being relegated to their annual fate, I think it's time the Chicago Cubs faced the threat of relegation.

You see, in the English Premier League, the highest level of club soccer in England and likely the world's most prominent sports league, every season begins with 20 teams. But the next year, only 17 of those teams are around to play at the highest level of competition, with the worst 3 dropping to the next level, the English Championship League, from which three teams ascend to the EPL.

This system of promotion and relegation is common in many soccer (football) leagues around the world, including in Spain, Italy, Germany, Brazil and Argentina, where River Plate, a perennial powerhouse, just got relegated to the second division for the first time in its historic 110-year existence.

Now, although serious baseball writers and thinker --including supposedly Bill James, although I can't readily find a specific reference--have floated a promotion and relegation system for the major leagues, given the current landscape of minor league teams being affiliates of big-league clubs, I'm fundamentally being facetious.

While it might be fun, even judicious, for the Iowa Cubs--who went 82-62 last year but aren't doing so hot this year--to replace their major league counterparts, anyone decent enough in Iowa should already be in Chicago. And a pure promotion system of the best AAA teams replacing the worst MLB teams doesn't really make sense. Right now, the top AAA team is the Columbus Clippers, a Cleveland Indians affiliate. It wouldn't work, without a whole lot of systemic change, for them to replace the Cubs. Or even the Astros.

And although I wouldn't really fancy seeing the Cubs in AAA playing the Durham Bulls, Toledo Mud Hens and Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs (managed, not incidentally by Ryne Sandberg, pretty successfully at 52-37), as my soccer-rabid friend pointed out, the threat of relegation adds tremendous late-season interest for fans of lousy teams.

It would be nice to have something to root for after the all-star break for a change. According to the website, which tabulates likely baseball outcomes, the Cubs have just a 0.1% chance to make the playoffs this year. But if all they needed to do was overtake the San Diego Padres to avoid demotion to the minor leagues, well, we'll all be singing "Go Cubs Go" though the end of September.

And then watching on Opening Day as the Cubs travel to Syracuse.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Well done Seth! At this point, let's try ANYTHING...what can it hurt? All I can say is, "Carpe Diem...Tempus Fugit!"