In the pantheon of sports history, there has perhaps never been a more daunting reclamation project. This storied franchise touted a rabid but increasingly disenchanted fan base. A franchise with pride and historical consequence, but fraught with bloated contracts, cheap owners and draft-day disasters. What was the summation of the discord? A championship drought that was unfathomable in the days of yesteryear.
I am referencing the Chicago Blackhawks, of course.
A few miles north of The House Michael Built, a similar story was unfolding. A franchise so beleaguered by a century of heartbreak and front-office mismanagement, the regrettable suffix “losers” is inextricably attached and accepted as simply part of the experience.
In June, the Blackhawks lifted Lord Stanley’s cup for the third time in six years. In the salary cup era, it has become irrefutable that we are witnessing a dynasty at work.
The Cubs just celebrated the clinching of their first postseason berth in seven years. It’s hardly three world championships in six years, but it’s a notable achievement nonetheless considering recent history.
Lacking the benefit of foresight, paralleling rebuilds is a futile task. It is only with hindsight that we will accurately reconstruct the puzzles that were assembled and the accomplishments those puzzles earned. Nevertheless, let’s compare what is for the Blackhawks, and what could be for the Cubs.
How Bad Did It Get?
Bill “Dollar Bill” Wirtz was widely regarded as one of the cheapest owners in sports. After his passing in 2007, Wirtz was so reviled by the fan base that they booed during his tribute proceedings. Legends such as Bobby Hull and Tony Esposito had been ostracized and had no public role with the team. The team had not had a winning season since 2002, and had failed to win a playoff series since 1996. The Chicago Tribune did not send a beat writer on the road. Home games were not on television. For the ‘Hawks, nearly a half-century of futility was punctuated by ESPN naming them the “worst franchise in sports” in 2004.
“We used to have business cards with a website address and we’d tell people, ‘Go there and you’d get two free tickets.’ People wouldn’t even take the cards!”
– Patrick Sharp
On the north side, the picture wasn’t much brighter. The promise of the years following 2003 never materialized mostly due to the fickle nature of the anatomy of the right arm. General Manager Jim Hendry made some savvy moves, including trading for Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee, but playoff disappointments in 2007 and 2008 left the team with bloated contracts, aging veterans and a murky future. Wrigley Field—a historical landmark—was falling apart. Owner Sam Zell was actively shopping the team to the highest bidder. The dreaded century-mark of championship futility had passed. It was the longest drought in professional sports, and the Chicago Cubs were for sale.
The Dawn of Promise
It may be dark to suggest the passing of a father, brother and son was the dawn of a new beginning; but the story is the story. Bill Wirtz’ passing signaled a new era was about to begin, one led by his son, Rocky Wirtz. The younger Wirtz immediately set out to prove that sometimes the apple does fall far from the tree. His first move bears shades of irony, as he hired John McDonough away from the Cubs to run the franchise. McDonough and Wirtz wasted no time:
“When Rocky hired me, we spent probably five or six hours together one afternoon, and our philosophies lined up. We had a lot of things we saw the same way, and then there was an incredible sense of urgency on both of our parts. This wasn’t going to be a two-year, let me assess what’s here and I’ll get back to you. We had to get after this right away, so I think that was the approach we took. At the same time, putting a real premium on hiring the right people, drafting, developing and, in some instances, making really tough decisions.”
McDonough understood what the Blackhawks meant to Chicago. He understood that the fan base stopped going to games not simply out of apathy for the team, but as a protest borne out of anger towards ownership. But even McDonough underestimated the gravity of the situation at the time of his hiring:
“It might have been a two o’clock start,” McDonough said. “My sons, Michael and Ryan, we got here probably around 1:30. I actually thought when we got here that it had advertised the wrong game start and that it was six o’clock. The building was empty. Ultimately, I think there were 5,000 to 6,000 people in the building. “I wanted my sons to really see what I saw—the energy, the passion, the enthusiasm that I saw when I younger. And it was a little disappointing because they really didn’t have the feel for it. They couldn’t.”
As bidding transpired for the Cubs, leading candidates emerged. One possibility was polarizing Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, another was the Ricketts’ family of TD Ameritrade wealth, led by Tom Ricketts. The fan base wanted drastic, sweeping change. In short, they wanted Cuban. Zell had other ideas, advising prospective bidders that he would sell the team under intricate financing provisions to limit his exposure to capital gains taxation. Cuban bowed out upon learning of the proposed hand-tying contract structure, leaving the Ricketts’ as Zell’s preferred choice. Tom Ricketts touted himself as fan first, business owner second, even revealing he’d met his wife in the sacred left field bleachers of Wrigley Field. He immediately began speaking a welcome language to the desperate fan base:
“It is a dream situation, a dream job. It’s the best franchise in sports…Everyone needs to know we are here for the long term and we are here to win.”
In similar fashion to McDonough, Ricketts understood the goal, but clearly underestimated the height of the hurdles to attain it:
“I’ll be honest. I think we have a team that can do it next year, the fact is, there is enough talent coming back to this team next season.”
These words would quickly resemble something a fan would proclaim more than a realistic owner. Much as Wirtz had discovered two years previously, Ricketts would come to understand he needed a new plan. He needed a general to guide the franchise. A man who was unconcerned with appearances and the scars that would be required to start over. He needed Theo Epstein.
In Boston, Epstein had played the part of hero in the renaissance of the Boston Red Sox. In the span four short years, he toppled the other curse and brought the city two long-awaited World Series titles. You would think such an accomplishment would have awarded him deity status in Boston, but a late-season collapse and clubhouse discord marred the 2011 season and created a fissure that would eventually lead to Epstein picking up Ricketts’ call.
On October 12, 2011, Ricketts landed his general.
Burn It to the Ground
McDonough acutely saw that the deepest problem the organization faced was one of culture. His message to the existing staff:
““I want all of you to succeed.” But I could tell from day one that there were a pretty high percentage of people who were not going to be on board because it was going to be a different pace. I remember calling him after my first day and I said, “Rocky, it appears there’s going to be a lot of changes soon.” He said, “Do what you have to do.””
“I think the one thing I would say: We’re not entitled to any of this. The mindset around here is very humble. We’re not entitled to one more fan coming into this arena, we’re not entitled to one more viewer, one more listener, one more win. We’re not entitled to any of that.”
McDonough’s overhaul did not merely reach front-office personnel. He understood that culture is more than just people; it’s atmosphere, intensity and most of all, joy. Pat Foley was brought back to broadcast games on television. Organ use was minimized and the rabidly-catchy ‘Chelsea Dagger’ was instituted as the post-goal celebratory theme song. Taking a page out of his Cubs days, he established a fan convention to ensure their marketable young players, like Patrick Sharp, were front and center for public consumption. The Winter Classic came to Wrigley Field. Momentum was building.
Epstein’s first days in Chicago were met with the realization that the mountain he faced was more treacherous than he had imagined. The Cubs had the third-highest payroll in baseball in 2010, but the eighth-worst record. The farm system was underwhelming, at best. The complicated financing arrangement Zell had required for the sale would hamstring the operating budget for years to come. The recently implemented collective-bargaining agreement had closed many of the loopholes Epstein had taken advantage of in Boston. He needed a new plan:
“I thought he would hit me when I told him the truth, I told him that of the 60-some prospects I saw, there might have been three of them who could pitch in the majors.”
Epstein immediately set to work overhauling the front office. He brought in Jed Hoyer from San Diego as his general manager. He recruited Jason McLeod to lead the critical department of player development. He built a state-of-the-art scouting complex in the Dominican Republic. A brand new spring training complex in Mesa was erected. The beautiful, hallowed ruins of Wrigley Field were squarely in his sights. The murky world of Chicago politics and the threat of lawsuits from the adjacent rooftops stood in his way.
No epic journey is traveled without stumbling blocks, and these stories are no exception. McDonough took the blame for a clerical error in 2009, when the front office failed to issue their qualifying offers to restricted free agents in time, leading to a grievance being filed by the NHL Players Association. Then general manager Dale Tallon opened the coffers wider than advisable, foreshadowing the great selloff after the 2010 Cup was brought home. Tallon wouldn’t survive the spring with the team, and was eventually named the Florida Panthers general manager. Patrick Kane created numerous off-ice headaches. Multiple questionable contracts have been handed out, promising talent has been traded away, but at the end of the day a quick glance at the banners hanging in the rafters more than justifies any residual bruising.
Nobody understands pain in the realm of sports quite like Cubs fans, which makes what Epstein asked them to bear from 2012-2014 all the more polarizing; 200 losses, multiple fan-favorite players traded creating forgettable lineups and patchwork pitching staffs. Anyone of use was moved at the trading deadline to acquire prospects. Hoards of Cubs fans would cry foul at the idea of fielding a profoundly uninteresting team in such a large market. The argument was that a rebuild should consist of equal parts competitiveness and development. Epstein clearly disagreed.
A White Knight
There is a wonderful scene in The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers where the battle for Helms Deep is raging, and all appears lost and humanity is hanging by a thread. At precisely the darkest moment of night, dawn breaks and Gandalf the White crests the hill leading his army into the fray to save humanity. With a stroke of fortune on June 24, 2006, the city of Chicago was delivered its white knight. We may never know whether Blackhawks management shared the same look Aragorn and Gandalf did when he appeared over that imaginary peak, but the benefit of historical perspective allows us to understand that this was precisely that moment. Just before the break of dawn, Jonathan Toews slid to third in the draft, racing down the hill into the fray.
The Cubs savior(s) would not come just in the form of draft-day follies, but rather as the first in a series of brilliant Epstein and Hoyer trades. Anthony Rizzo was well known to the pair, as Boston drafted him under Epstein and subsequently traded him to the Jed Hoyer-led Padres in the deal that sent Adrian Gonzalez to Beantown. Rizzo’s precocious leadership qualities were admired by Epstein and Hoyer as much as his talent, and a lackluster cup-of-coffee in his 2011 major-league debut cracked the door open just enough for the Cubs to acquire him. Epstein pulled the trigger on a controversial trade that saw him give up his best starting pitching prospect—flamethrower Andrew Cashner—for the young leader he so coveted. This trade marked the beginning of a long series of unconventional moves for Epstein, highlighted by his preference for acquiring projectable young hitters instead of volatile young pitchers, thumbing his nose to a century of baseball tradition in the process. However, no matter how infallible a knight may be, even Holmes needed Watson. One cannot help but wonder; what if the Astros had taken Kris Bryant?
For Wirtz and company, the dynastical foundation was built the old-fashioned way. After a decade of utter draft futility, the ‘Hawks finally began to land significant homegrown talent. There was the White Knight, puck-handling magician Kane, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brandon Saad, Corey Crawford, Brent Seabrook and others. Free agent acquisitions Brian Campbell and Marian Hossa solidified the young core. The earlier trade for Sharp and a deal for Johnny Oduya rounded out the attack. Year after year, a new roster was molded around a venerable group of elite players to keep them consistently in championship contention.
While Epstein struck gold with Bryant and proved doubters wrong with his controversial selection of Kyle Schwarber, his regime will most certainly be remembered for stunningly successful trades. Rizzo was first, and then there was the system-bolstering Matt Garza deal with Texas, bringing much needed pitching depth. Rental Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger would bring future-ace Jake Arrieta and bullpen stalwart Pedro Strop into the fold. Finally, as people watched fireworks celebrating America’s 2014 Independence Day, A’s general manager Billy Beane relented and agreed to include mega-prospect shortstop Addison Russell in a shocking deal for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. A Cubs system that appeared virtually bare just a few short years before now boasted more offensive talent than any other organization in recent memory.
Entering the 2008 season, the Blackhawks expected to contend for the first time in years. Just four games into the season, management decided that franchise legend Denis Savard was not the leader the young group needed to thrive. Veteran Joel Quenneville was hand-selected as the leader to elevate the team to a championship level. One year later, he would do just that. “Q” has gone on to legend status by compiling a 503-293 record over seven seasons, not to mention bringing three cups to town.
The leadership transition wasn’t as seamless for Cubs leadership. Following four seasons of Lou Piniella, Mike Quade had his turn. Hitting-guru Dale Sveum was then tabbed for two years, compiling a miserable—if not expected—127-197 record. Rick Renteria and his infallible enthusiasm came next, and everyone fully expected him to stay in place at least two seasons as his predecessor had. On October 14, 2014, everything changed. Tampa Bay Rays vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman resigned his role, becoming the president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers. This move triggered a little-known clause in Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon’s contract, allowing him to leave the team without penalty if he so chose. In a franchise-altering decision, he did just that, becoming the Chicago Cubs 60th manager. Epstein faced considerable internal and external grief for summarily dismissing Renteria in such shocking form, but it did not change the fact that he finally had his man.
The magnificent beauty of the Blackhawks rebuild is currently in hindsight. The banners are in the rafters, unforgettable memories made and the names engraved in silver. The only thing left to achieve now is greater historical significance.
For all of the advanced measures utilized to understand the game, baseball is predictable only in the sense that it’s unpredictable. To be sure, Epstein and Hoyer have just one goal; ending the longest drought in professional sports, and with it dismissing once-and-for-all the mythical absurdity known as ‘the curse’. The wheels are in motion, a sterling example has been set just down the road, Wrigley is rocking. Just get it done, boys.
Thank you to friend and long-suffering Hawks/Cubs fan Jeremy Beutel for significant contributions to this piece.
Lead photo courtesy of Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports