By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
In the Valley of the Sun currently the Chicago Cubs are as sure of themselves in the opening days of Spring Training as they could be, save for the first reporting of pitchers and catchers after winning the 2016 World Series.
Though last fall saw a second consecutive season where the North Siders failed to rise to the level of their century-due championship breakthrough, the failure to even last past the National League’s play-in game hasn’t kept the club from bravely entering this new campaign with basically the same roster.
In their current iteration the Cubs feel they have all they need, plus a top-line pitcher who didn’t offer much in his first season of a big free agent deal but apparently feels healthy and ready to give his all this year.
Also, there’s the much maligned short-stop, working on his second and likely last chance due to his mishandling of domestic affairs.
Addison Russell is being afforded his added chance due to the potential he has as a sure-fielding defender and a potentially steady bat who could provide pop in several places in the lineup; Yu Darvish is being afforded his chance because there is reason to feel bad for him — he didn’t choose to suffer the injuries he has over the past couple years — and though he did choose to take all the money his Cubs contract is affording him there is nothing malicious about a big free agent signing that doesn’t live up to expectations.
If that was the case, a class-action lawsuit by Cubs Nation against their beloved team would have been warranted after the first couple years of Jason Heyward in the Windy City, not to mention most of the nine-digit contracts taken in by the franchise from Alfonso Soriano to all previous attempts to try an make an impact via personnel.
Given all the swings and misses literal and figurative the Cubs have made in the last 100-plus years one could wonder what it would take to put the tip the beloved franchise underwater with those who’ve stayed with it for generation after generation with little to no reward.
Such a tipping point does exist and it may just have been the announcement Wednesday of the team’s new exclusive network, the Marquee Sports Network, which will bring the Cubs exclusively to cable television for the first time starting in 2020 and exists as another sign of the unfeeling, uncaring direction these once “lovable losers” have taken themselves into.
In Major League Baseball it would seem that you’re either taking arms against an Evil Empire or you are one.
For a long time the Cubs have had all the trappings of a potential empire — they hold the majority baseball attention in a Major League metropolis and millions more fans across the country, their owners have always been rich and their influence strong.
When the Cubs in years past — 1969, 1984, 1998, 2003 — have had moments they were moments for baseball as a whole and the ongoing drama of when (or if) the Cubs will ever lift their curse lasted through Boston’s exorcism of the Bambino curse and the White Sox’s temporary breakthrough as the second team of the second city to establish itself as a true transcendent sports moment, one of the real times when you knew history was being made in front of you.
But while the Sox couldn’t make much of their run in ’05, the Cubs and the Ricketts knew, even before they cashed in their rebuild equity in ’16 to make history, that winning couldn’t be enough, not for a family who is adorned in capitalistic glory and conservative values.
The Ricketts takeover of the Cubs in 2009 marked a sea change in Chicago sports. Every Chicago sports team has had its time of family ownership but no family like the Ricketts have owned a Chicago sports team, its wealth coming from TD Ameritrade and its influence growing with more and more time aligned with Republican lawmakers and other influencers (Democratic outliers exist within the family but not in the most influential positions especially regarding Cubs ownership.
Beyond their politics not necessarily aligning with most of what blue-shaded Chicago offers, the Ricketts have mostly separated themselves in their 10 years of ownership with their ease in spending and their effectiveness in spending, starting with putting the Cubs in control of President Theo Epstein, who year to year continues to earn everything he’s paid, including in the moments where he has to be trotted out in part to cover up for naughty Grandpa Ricketts.
The established Islamaphobia of Papa Joe, the overall head-in-the-dirt approach to Russell, the risky signings, the paving of just about anything resembling former working-class Wrigleyville into a white bread, rich-man’s paradise…all those things are being laid bare in front of Cubs nation right now, prices of and by-products from what could very well be one championship, one single period not even lasting an entire calendar year where it meant something else to be a Cub besides being pitied and having to look towards the next thaw of spring for new hope.
What hope will there be past 2019 for those who spent a lifetime watching the Cubs on WGN or various other free over-the-air Chicago channels? That’s primarily what’s being taken from Cubs fans with the establishment of Marquee Sports Network, which takes the Cubs out of their long-held agreement with the Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks which fueled the programming for NBC Sports Chicago.
As the remaining three move on and continue to distribute their games across pay TV and other free outlets, the Cubs are shutting themselves into one distribution lane that comes with less sharing of revenue and extra subscriber fees for those who will pay for access to Marquee on their respective cable, satellite or internet provider — that’s assuming said providers are down with carrying Marquee.
The Cubs are confident they won’t come across the distribution issues of the Dodgers’ exclusive rights holders in Southern California (Time Warner Cable first, now Spectrum), they assume they’ll have the same success the YES Network has had in increasing the Yankees value and extending the team’s brand.
Yes, the YES Network is a success. Its lasted 16 years, pioneering the idea of a team-owned network and establishing the Yanks as an entertainment brand as much as it is a baseball franchise.
Look to the East, at the team that defines the term “Evil Empire” in baseball, and to the West at the glamorous Dodgers with their $3 billion evaluation, the only teams richer than the Cubs and see just what they are looking to compete with. Also, look at what that means in regards to competing on the field.
Sure, many Cubs fans wouldn’t mind having the kind of competitive consistency of the Yanks and Dodgers but in the eras of their team-exclusive networks it hasn’t meant much in the way of World Championships for either team, its meant only one such for New York (2009) while L.A. is still looking into how to translate their N.L. West success to true playoff success.
So if having your own network to yourself doesn’t mean that the additional revenue streams don’t act as tributaries to championships nor does it even make this rank of teams irresistible to the latest top-rank free-agents — just why aren’t Harper and Machado already in pinstripes and evening out their sideburns? — then what the hell good is it to not allow some Cubs games on ‘GN or Channel 7?
Its a tough answer to swallow, but its one we all know. Its reflected in the changes in Wrigleyville, its worked out in the decisions to risk franchise integrity with risky men who could earn pennants for low cost, its portrayed in the political sidling at all cost of the peace and progress that could be made in our nation if not for the troublesome wannabe-tyrant in the White House.
Its made perfectly clear in the partner announced for the Marquee Network — Sinclair Broadcasting, which two years ago was called the “most dangerous US company you’ve never heard of” — they’ve certainly put an end to that with this deal.
Ironically, a previous attempt by Sinclair to take over a Chicago institution failed, had it not it may have helped the chances of some Cubs games being on free TV past this season.
Arm and arm, the Cubs and Sinclair seem perfectly willing to play a role in extending a faulty current legacy of conservative politics well past the disastrous presidency we’re all suffering through.
These are the kind of politics that find a way to touch you even when you just want to enjoy a sunny day at the park. These politics alienate the working class and exploit their loves and allegiances.
Who cares if the average North Sider has to dig more into their pockets just to see the team they love? To see the Cubs win used to be a blessing, pretty soon to see the team at all will be yet another division based on class and resource.
Are fans ready to come to grips with that aspect of their previously pristine pastime? Lack of access, unlike a player’s domestic squabbles and an old man’s out-of-date curses, can’t just be shaken off or overlooked — its either there or not and when the likes of the Ricketts family takes something away from those who can’t afford it, it doesn’t likely come back.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR