The knowledgeable baseball fellow said a mouthful as we passed by the batting cage Sunday morning.
"Why doesn't this franchise ever decide to blow things up?" he said.
I could give him one explanation, right out of the mouth of Andrew Bowen MacPhail, tarnished golden-boy president of the Cubs from 1994 to 2006.
I asked MacPhail why he didn't just tear it down and start all over when he first assumed his job? After all, Tribune Co. overseer Jim Dowdle decided he had to cut the "cord" between Wrigley Field and the Tower of Power on MIchigan Avenue. MacPhail would be the all-powerful baseball czar at 1060 W. Addison Street who would operate autonomously, subject to only Dowdle's review when he submitted his payroll each fall.
MacPhail was viewed as a panacea, much the same as Tribune Co. was perceived as the well-funded white knight, by championship-starved Cubs fans. They'd follow him to hell and back if that was the right way to build a winner. But MacPhail opted to take his "slow, steady, unspectacular" middle-ground, middle-budget, little-progress approach. He told me he couldn't strip down the Cubs and start from scratch in '94-'95. The team had taken too many "broadsides" already, said the master and commander of the U.S.S. Wrigley.
Interestingly, Cubs GM Larry Himes, whom MacPhail demoted to Arizona-based scout soon after he took over, had proclaimed a similar strategy only a year earlier. Himes, who had build the White Sox from nothing to contender largely via good drafting, said marketing concerns such as WGN's ratings and advertising prevented him from wiping the Cubs clean and building them back up again in the same manner as on the South Side.
So now the Cubs are stuck with the same dilemma. And the pressure to win each year has been enhanced because fans' expectations have been dramatically lifted compared to the 1990s -- although I'll vehemently disagree that the Cubs Universe never just cared only about beer and babes in the sun at Wrigley Field. They wanted to win as strongly as the so-called discerning White Sox fans, who only show up when there's a contending team in residence at The Cell.
This time, the price of losing is great. The price of letting things string along and not do anything dramatic to fix the situation is greater.
Some 5,000 empty, unsold seats for night games on the last three homestands should reverberate all the way to Tom Ricketts' photo safari in Africa. Those after-dark contests typically have drawn more than day games, usually filling the park to the 40,000 level, over the past decade. But no longer will Cubs fans blindly buy tickets to a losing product when coupled with too-high prices and the backwash of the Great Recession.
Proper talent evaluation organization-wide has been the Cubs' Achilles heel for years. And in this case, the major-league roster has been overrated. Just because the core of players produced in 2007-08 (until the postseason) does not mean they'd come back good as new in 2010. On the contrary, the core of Ryan Theriot-Derrek Lee-Aramis Ramirez-Alfonso Soriano-Geovany Soto-Carlos Zambrano-Ryan Dempster-Ted Lilly appears tired and worn out as a unit. Individually, they could help other teams as complementary players. But the group cannot win as Cubs anymore. That window slammed shut on two surreal October nights in 2008 at Wrigley Field.
Locked-up, long-term deals continue to force a shotgun marriage of many of these players with Ricketts paychecks. Still, the overrating of talent continues a decades-long trend of keeping Cubs teams long past their expiration dates.
Worst example was the tail-end of the Leo Durocher-era Cubs. After the pennant-race failures of 1969 and 1970, the roster begged for a steady re-tooling by John Holland. But the ultra-conservative GM, ranking No. 2 to Phil Wrigley as the culprit of the Cubs' 101-season championship drought, inaccurately over-evaluated his individual players. Holland believed the likes of Ron Santo, Don Kessinger and Glenn Beckert were still the best at their positions in the National League. He hung onto them.
The Cubs showed signs of age as Durocher's final days as manager played out amid a team rebellion. They had a brief uptick in the final two months of the '72 season and the first three months of the '73 campaign under Whitey Lockman before collapsing completely, utterly, the hitting going south in mid-summer of '73 in the same manner of the 2010 team. When Holland had to blow it up, he did a thorough job for sure, but had no core of home-grown position-player talent on which to fall back. He traded away all the aging mainstays for young players like Bill Madlock, but it wasn't enough with a rotten-to-the-core organization and unstable coaching for home-grown kid pitchers like Rick Reuschel, Burt Hooton, Bill Bonham and Ray Burris. The franchise did not really come back until after Tribune Co. bought it in 1981.
Dallas Green's instant winner of 1984 could have won again if not for the epidemic of injuries the following season. By the time 1986 rolled around, the largely Green-imported core had gone bad, and the Cubs plummeted. Too many big contracts meant the end of the Green regime, the worst move being the ouster of player-development guru Gordon Goldsberry late in 1988. The Cubs farm system has yet to fully recover from that ill-advised move by under-qualified GM Jim Frey.
The shelf life of the wild-card playoff 1998 Cubs was just that season. MacPhail and frontman GM Ed (Mr. Freeze) Lynch tried to bring the entire exciting, but flawed, team back in 1999. Worst move was re-signing 40-year-old Gary Gaetti to continue to be the third-base regular. That was so successful the immortal Cole Liniak was playing third by September, a month after the Cubs had a 6-24 August.
Moving closer to the present, Jim Hendry tried to build upon the near-World Series miss of 2003 by adding Derrek Lee. He and Michael Barrett were supposed to be the finishing touches on what was supposed to be Dusty Baker's strongest Cubs team. But most of those players are long gone. It seems like eons ago. Teams have gone sour in much less time than that.
The Nats did not bring up Stephen Strasburg one inning too soon. Let that be a lesson to Cubs management, present and future. You cannot hang on to a stale team one game too late. Do that, you extend the championship drought three to four more years longer than necessary.