Faith used to come easier for a Cubs fan. If you’ve been paying any attention, it has been beaten out of you. Over the years, we’ve been told to believe in one can’t-miss phenom after another. Cubs fans have lived on them. They were all saviors.
I don’t know where any of them are now.
Last time I talked to Karl Pagel, once featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, he was driving a UPS truck in Arizona. Felix Pie. Corey Patterson. Gary Scott. The names are just flying by.
Rich Hill, wicked curveball, used to read self-help books on the road to gain confidence. Lance Dickson. Mike Harkey. The point is that the Cubs have lost 101 games this year, just the third time in their history they’ve broken into triple digits. Losing is nothing new for the Cubs, of course. They’ve been doing it for over 100 years.
This year, they’ve perfected it. And it comes in the first year in the hands of their latest can’t-miss phenom: Theo Epstein.
Do you still believe in him, Cubs fans? After he brought two World Series to Boston, do you still believe he can bring the magic to Wrigley Field?
That’s all it is now. It’s air, hope and nothing tangible. Andy MacPhail came to the Cubs with magic years ago after winning in Minnesota. Poof, he disappeared.
One year was never going to be enough for Epstein. But the Cubs are baseball’s last story. Everything else has been told. Epstein is supposed to tell this one.
It was national news when he left the Red Sox to build the Cubs. But as the season ends, it’s clear that this whole thing is still entirely on faith.
In his first year, Epstein has assembled the worst team in Cubs history. Meanwhile, the team he left behind is in last place, with 90 losses for the first time in 46 years.
But believe, Cubs fans. Just believe. And don’t ask questions.
Um, Theo? You got a minute to talk?
“Not really,’’ he said before the game, as he tried to pass through a bunch of writers in the dugout following some sort of presentation.
“If you guys want, I can talk now,’’ he said, grudgingly. “But we’ve got something (scheduled for) Thursday, right? This is annoying. Thursday."
In Chicago’s older suburbs, it is the in thing for people to buy a house, tear it down and build another one on the spot. The Cubs are a teardown for Epstein. He has spent his first year knocking down everything about the Cubs, getting rid of as many players, and their contracts, as he can, rebuilding the scouting system and shuffling around the front office.
Going into Wednesday’s season finale, the Cubs have been shut out twice in a row at home, 3-0, to Houston, the worst team in baseball.
The Cubs are now mostly hopefuls who are too young, too inexperienced.
Epstein called the 60-101 record a “very stark baseline of where we are.’’ But Cubs fans are being asked to ignore the record, ignore what they saw and believe in something they can’t see.
I asked Epstein if, counting everything in the franchise, he’s satisfied with his first season as a Cub.
“I’m going to answer these big-picture questions on Thursday,’’ he said. “But no we’re not satisfied about the way the year has gone."
What if you count only the off-field stuff?
“Some good things, some bad things,’’ he said. “Learned a lot.
Understand there’s a lot of areas we still need to improve.’’
The Cubs lost 103 games in 1966, when Leo Durocher was named manager following an eighth-place season. It ended a run when the Cubs didn’t actually have a manager, but instead rotated coaches through the system in what they called the “College of Coaches.’’
Durocher said he wasn’t the manager of an eighth-place team. He was right.
They finished 10th.
But that team had an established superstar in Ernie Banks, and future stars in Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins. It had the core of what would go on to be the most beloved team in Cubs history, the 1969 Cubs, who choked away the division to the Mets.
The question now is whether the current Cubs will turn out to be Williams, Santo and Jenkins or Ty Griffin, Earl Cunningham and Derrick May.
On Tuesday, Cubs phenom shortstop Starlin Castro let a groundball roll under his glove. Young defensive specialist second baseman Darwin Barney didn’t make the tag during a rundown. One-time phenom Brett Jackson got too far off second base and was thrown out by Houston’s catcher. In the 8th inning, Cubs reliever Albert Cabrera, a hopeful for his live arm, threw wildly on a pickoff attempt. The runner later scored on Cabrera’s wild pitch.
These guys are all considered core players for the future, except for Jackson, who is now out of favor because he strikes out every other time he bats. (Two others in the core, guys even I’m believing in, are pitcher Jeff Samardzija and first baseman Anthony Rizzo.)
Epstein has focused on scouting and drafting amateur players. He has unloaded as many big contracts as possible at the major league level and put money into amateurs. The Cubs spent a team record $12 million on last year’s draft class.
At the lower levels of the system now are can’t-miss guys Jorge Soler of Cuba, Albert Almora, Javier Baez. The Cubs also have several young pitchers with big arms.
They are all just names and numbers and hope now. And the problem isn’t just that the Cubs have lost for so long, but also that they have marketed that hope for years. Packaged it. Sold it.
It’s a big ask for Chicagoans this time, who are going to have to actually see progress at some point. The world’s most loyal fans are starting to turn away: On Monday, tickets on StubHub were going for 75 cents.
The hope now is to lose big next year while young players develop, add a few free agents in 2014.
And then, just wait till 2015. In the old days, the term "Wait till next year” was considered a joke.