Like any baseball fan who came of age in Chicago during the 1990s and 2000s, I followed the Cubs religiously during the boom of sports talk radio. Which is just another way of saying I can recite the Heavenly Bodies commercial more accurately than the national anthem.
And anyone who listened to the reasoned and insightful Cubs analysis on The Score or AM1000 from those two decades remembers this particular topic:
“The Cubs will never win because of Wrigley Field.”
It was a quick and easy way to light up the phone lines so that all of Chicago could hear the deepest and most profound thoughts of intelligent baseball fans who chose to be addressed as “Lincoln Park Slumpbuster” and “Manny Alexander’s Glove Compartment.” (Or as he was more commonly known in real life: George F. Will.)
The thinking went like this: because the ballpark was such a draw, the Cubs had no incentive to put a winning team on the field. So in order for the team to finally win a championship, they would have to leave Wrigley for a place where people wouldn’t want to go. Therefore, the only thing that would enable the Cubs to win a World Series was the Tribune Company moving them to… Planet Hollywood? Or something. No one who ever made this assertion ever actually thought that far ahead.
It was one thing for this kind of thing to be discussed between interviews with the Bears long snapper and “Jagbag Thursday.” That filled time and was mostly harmless. Thank goodness the people in charge of the Cubs organization who were tasked with assembling the roster and spending ownership’s money never fell for such a transparent hot taek. Right?
So… funny thing… I just finished reading The Chicago Cubs: Story of Curse by Esquire writer Rich Cohen. And it included a passage where Cohen recounted a candid interview with Andy MacPhail in the mid-2000s. At a time when his spirit as a Cub fan was at its lowest ebb, he asked the former team president why it was that the Cubs were unable to win despite all of his… let’s call it “best efforts…”
“He looked at me and looked at me, then said, ‘You want the truth?’
‘You can handle the truth?’
‘That’s what Cubs fans always think,’ he told me, ‘till they actually hear the truth, then they curse me. Are you going to curse me here today?’
Oh for Christ’s sake, just answer the Goddamn question, Colonel Jessep Sweatervest. Did you order the code red? (As you no doubt have already guessed, in this instance “code red” translates to “signing of LaTroy Hawkins.”)
Finally, since he was speaking truthfully, MacPhail answered: “Because the Cubs keep hiring subpar executives who disguise their mediocrity with family connections or an unearned reputation for team building genius that never manifests itself in reality.”
I’m kidding, of course.
In actuality, MacPhail proceeded to name the biggest impediment to the Cubs ending their championship drought:
“It’s Wrigley Field.”
And there you had it. A team president laid the blame for his roster’s underperformance squarely at the feet of where it belonged: the place where they played. Wrigley Field forced the Cubs to suck. Like that time MacPhail heard all the fans by home plate complaining about the lack of breeze in August so he decided to draft Corey Patterson.
Cohen further clarified MacPhail’s main complaint about Wrigley, and it actually made some logical sense…
“In the end, his argument came down to this: Wrigley Field is schizophrenic. You cannot build a team with its particulars in mind because it has no particulars. On paper, it looks like a hitter’s park. And is. When the wind blows out. On such days, no pitcher in the world can keep the ball from going over the fence… But on days when the wind blows in, it’s a pitcher’s park and would-be home runs become easy outs.”
And then MacPhail went for the rhetorical mic drop:
“There is no home field advantage. To win you need to be an all-around good team—pitching and hitting, everything. It takes a long time to build a team like that.”
A long time. Hey, here’s a fun piece of trivia: Andy MacPhail was Cubs team president for twelve years.
Also worthy of note: he essentially admitted “I know how to solve the Wrigley Field conundrum. But that would take effort.”
On a base level, I could understand a front office’s frustration about a home field that plays as either a pitcher’s or hitter’s park depending on the day’s weather. It had to be extremely irritating to MacPhail to see a roster like the 2004 Cubs get shut down when the elements made it near-impossible for the ball to leave the yard.
But in this passage, MacPhail inadvertently offered a telling glimpse into how he planned on building the Cubs’ roster during his tenure as president. For all the lip service he gave to the “slow, steady, and unspectacular” method of team building, his complaint about the lack of home-field advantage made this clear: he was looking for a shortcut.
Specifically, MacPhail was wishing for a home park that played in an extreme manner so that he could build a team that could dominate in it. Look no further than his 1991 Twins, who took advantage of the Metrodome’s offense-friendly environment (Park factor of 106) and numerous quirks to the tune of a 51-30 home record on their way to a World Championship.
So if MacPhail were in charge of the Wrigley renovations, the first phase of the 1060 Project would have been “make the sky the same color as the baseball.” Which would be an interesting dilemma since anyone who’s ever looked at the bleacher crowd on a Friday afternoon can tell you that it’s damn near impossible to make Wrigley Field any whiter.
And in retrospect, MacPhail’s lament reads like less a valid complaint and more like a sour grapes excuse from an executive who came to Chicago with a reputation for brilliance but couldn’t get the job done. It’s really not all that far removed from arguing that if only his team played in a ballpark that didn’t come with a pitchers mound, he wouldn’t have been forced to subject us to the Les Walrond experience.
As far I have found, Theo Epstein has never offered such a dire assessment of the Cubs’ home. His public assessments about the challenge of building a team that plays 81 games at Wrigley Field have usually been measured, such as in mid-2015 when he told the Chicago Tribune “Executives here have thought of these things for decades… we’re not going to reinvent the wheel but try to be thorough and have a thoughtful approach to all issues.”
Based on the rosters that Epstein and company put together over the past couple of years, their solution to the Wrigley Field conundrum appeared to be this: construct a team built to win everywhere—not just to take advantage of their home ballpark. The 2016 Cubs changed history because they were designed to be great at everything. And they won 103 games because of elite pitching, hitting, and otherworldly defense.
In other words, they decided not to complain about how much time assembling such a team would take and chose instead to just get the job done.
Furthermore, the reason Epstein was able to assemble an Avengers-level roster was because he fully committed to a complete rebuild of the entire system from the bottom up and he stuck with it. Now MacPhail also paid the idea lip service at the beginning of his tenure—even going so far as to change the team slogan to “We’re working on it.”
The 1990s Chicago Cubs: all the fun of a cable outage… plus Jeff Blauser!
The difference was that three years later, MacPhail and GM Ed Lynch took a look at that farm system they were working on and decided the best route to the World Series was to make moves like signing Blauser and trading Jon Garland for Matt Karchner. Because any good longterm vision is worth sticking to unless a pitcher with a career -2.2 WARP and 6.30 DRA becomes available.
It was definitely the ballpark’s fault, though. I guess the wind must have been blowing out that lifetime.
For all of the times that we as fans have been given the Sophie’s Choice of Wrigley Field or a winning team, the answer was surprisingly satisfying: we can have both. And all it took to find this out was to hire a team builder who didn’t use the park as an alibi to cover up his own shortcomings.
It turned out that acquiring one of those was about as rare as a Cubs world championship.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports
Cohen, Rich. The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. pp. 166-67