CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 28: A fan sits in the upper deck as a pigeon flys past during the last game of the season between the Chicago White Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays at U.S. Cellular Field on September 28, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blue Jays defeated the White Sox 3-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Opening Day is upon us, yet the normal excitement that comes with the beginning of baseball season seems to be missing.
There's a well-worn cliche that states baseball's Opening Day is a time when hope springs eternal. From Pittsburgh to San Diego, Toronto to Houston, every team has a chance at glory and every fanbase is refreshed by the impending thaw of winter. This is what Major League Baseball wants you to believe, and you'll be reminded of it incessantly over the next few days each time you turn on the TV.
There's only one problem: any fan worth their salt knows it's all bullshit, the type of league-sanctioned propaganda sent down to make you forget that the New York Yankees' third baseman makes more than half of the Kansas City Royals' total payroll. Every few years, a team like the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, or the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, will win the World Series in the face of impossible odds and make you momentarily dismiss baseball's clear class divide, an economic despair so bad I'm not even sure how Oakland A's fans continue to wake up in the morning.
Ah, the wonders of Opening Day. Here again, right around the corner. Chicago is a football city through and through, and never forget it. But even if our decidedly workman-like metropolis is an upstart basketball-breeding hotbed and a sleeping giant of a hockey town, it's baseball that invigorates our blood like nothing this side of a Devin Hester punt return. The Bears bring us back together, but not before the Cubs and White Sox divide us. This city loves its baseball, and we love the incessant bickering that comes with it.
At least in Chicago, baseball season sparks the type malicious back-and-forths that can only be found in high school cafeterias. If other two-team towns can co-exist harmoniously, more power to them. I am genuinely jealous. That isn't the case here. Even if future generations grow increasingly more self-aware, it doesn't look like the no-your-team-sucks scraping that defines Chicago's baseball culture will end any time soon.
So what are we to do in 2012 when, well, both of the teams suck? If you think this Opening Day is missing some of its prepackaged optimism, you aren't alone. Neither the Cubs or the White Sox are expected to even compete for a spot in the postseason this year, much less threaten to win the whole damn thing. But even as both teams share a similarly bleak immediate outlook, the long-term prognosis between the two clubs couldn't be more different.
Theo Epstein -- or maybe the idea of Epstein -- has been romanticized to a laughable degree this offseason in the days that ensued after the Cubs procured the services of the one-time Boston Red Sox wunderkind. Rightfully so. Epstein's signature brand of reason and logic plus patience flies in the face of everything Cubdom has come to be defined by. He was the ideal hire, and everyone involved deserves to be excited. I'm not here to cut you down. But Epstein's master plan certainly took a hit when baseball changed the rules for its amateur draft; ie: no more paying over slot to acquire the top talent that slides when the small market teams can't afford to pay huge bonuses to young aluminum bat mashers. It's a major blow to the Epstein-Hoyer regime, but they'll survive. They're too smart not to.
Epstein was hardly brought to the North Siders for a quick fix, though. In Year One, the Cubs on the field will mostly resemble the team that won only 71 games a season ago. Hopefully the fans will have as much patience as the team president and general manager, and will rightfully see this season as playing with house money. The Cubs are a blank canvas, or maybe an outline, and should be treated as such. Sports fans in general are hardly known for serenity in the face of constant losing, though. The hope is that Epstein is given the privilege to work on his long-view of the organization before the bleacher denizens burn it to the ground.
On the South Side, the future is the present, and it's not terribly bright. Kenny Williams probably shouldn't have a job anymore, not after whiffing on Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, and Adam Dunn. He's a mad scientist-type whose 'genius' tag has long since expired. Eventually, the old guard is bound to go senile, as evident by Williams' serious consideration to make Paul Konerko player-manager this offseason after the dismissal of the iconic Ozzie Guillen.
Player-manager. Think about that for a second. Konerko is a reluctant captain, and it's not like the captain has to manage a bullpen. While some could twistedly view the thought as progressive, it's almost unquestionably stupid.
Of course, Konerko isn't the manager. He might as well be. Paulie has as much managerial experience as his new boss, '90s White Sox legend Robin Ventura.
Packing the stadium has always been an issue for the South Siders, and it always will be until the team is able to build a sustainable contender. In Ventura, the White Sox are hoping a former hero can bring a few more people to the ballpark. Of course, that novelty will grow old eventually, and the only thing the more fickle Sox fanbase will want is wins.
The White Sox should win some games this year, but it's hard to image them winning many more than they lose. It's true, they have suitable replacements for all three of their biggest departures -- starter Chris Sale for Mark Buehrle, corner outfielder Dayan Viciedo for Carlos Quentin, and late inning reliever Addison Reed for Sergio Santos. And yes, there's (probably) no way Adam Dunn and Alex Rios can be worse than last year, when they were possibly the two worst hitters in baseball (Dunn being the worst by a wide margin). But even if everything goes right (and that's always a long shot), the Detroit Tigers just look too good to overcome. The moment the Tigers inked Prince Fielder, it was probably over. Over the course of a 162 game season, the Tigers' clearly superior talent would figure to be too much for Chicago.
Baseball is weird sport, maybe the weirdest. They'll be intrigue in every season, and that goes for this one, too. For the Cubs, 2012 is just the start. Nothing happens overnight, certainly not in the MLB, and Epstein's remodeling job is considered to be a three-to-five year plan. If Cubs fans can bide their time that long, they'll deserve the winner that should follow. The Sox should do what the Sox usually do: entertain throughout, stay in contention long enough to hold our attention. But so far as the standard optimism that generally comes with Opening Day goes, it seems to be missing this season. If you love baseball, drink all of it in. For many more, the start of baseball will only distract us until the Bulls begin their playoff push. And after that? Bourbonnais will be right around the corner.