Welcome to Chicago: Baseballtown, USA
By JON ALBA
College Contributor Network
Unless you are a fan of the Giants or Red Sox, it was hard not to smile when the big story broke: Jon Lester was headed for Chicago, at a sizable discount from his highest bid, and was going to be the foundation for the rebuilding of Wrigley Nation.
But the move was bigger than just a team taking on an expense for its growing payroll. It was more than a highly touted free agent going somewhere a year ago many would not have thought possible. Instead, it was a step towards the revitalization of one of America's original true baseball towns, Chicago.
It seems almost poetic, in retrospect. Both the Chicago Cubs and White Sox finished 73-89 in 2014. The same record, amazingly a sign of improvement for both, but still, the same mediocrity to which fans of both franchises are becoming accustomed.
Now though, Chicago is changing. And in more ways than a few new bleachers on the North Side. A baseball renaissance is on its way to the Windy City.
I can recall working on a documentary transcribing interviews for a piece at MLB Network earlier this summer, and I remember it for its uniqueness. It was a look at the resurgence of youth baseball in the inner-city portion of Chicago, leading to some escaping the confines and achieving success at the collegiate level. It had not quite hit me prior to that that Chicago had fallen out of love with baseball, despite having two of the oldest teams in the sport's history, but was aching for that passion to return.
It started Oct. 29, 2013. White Sox general manager Rick Hahn hit the jackpot. For six years and $68 million, Chicago had its star in the 26-year-old Cuban José Abreu. Some thought the team overpaid for an unproven import, but all it was going to take to disprove that was a calculated risk.
The Cubs had their own franchise face in Anthony Rizzo. Now, the Sox had their own.
On July 4, a day America celebrates its independence and baseball, Abreu hits his 27th home run of the season, this one against the Mariners. But the Cubs plant their own seed. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, one of the youngest front office tandems in baseball, bring in one of the youngest, hottest prospects in baseball. In parting ways with their ace Jeff Samardzija, the Cubs pick up the highly touted (and foolishly traded) shortstop of the future, Addison Russell.
The writing is on the wall: if you build it, and in this case, "it" being the core, they will come.
And gravitate they did.
The moment former Rays skipper Joe Maddon declined to return to Tampa, he became the most obvious candidate for the Cubs job, one not even open. And while tampering accusations accompanied Rick Renteria's exit, those seemed to be overlooked. Its rare a manager can act as a draw for fans, but Maddon is the outlier. He wanted to be in Chicago...when was the last time that happened?
Actually, it would happen shortly thereafter, this time in someone who had already "been there, done that." Samardzija, after a brief tenure in Oakland ultimately ended in disappointment, gets dealt back to the midwest. But this time, he'll be wearing black and white. And his statement following the trade speaks volumes towards what is becoming of the team and city.
"This is a dream come true," he told Hahn.
Sometimes, it just takes a mentality to make something happen. Samardzija's decree makes the South Side squad a hotbed for others to invest in. Former Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche already did such in November, and the team struck big by securing David Robertson as its closer for the next four years. A 2014 White Sox team with bullpen stability, one where each pitcher knows their role, is a potential contender in the AL Central. Now that changes.
And yet the Cubs continue to make their own luck: the investment in Maddon alongside his former bench coach in Tampa, Dave Martinez, making ends meet in a weak free agency market by dealing for the popular Miguel Montero of Arizona, and using your own stock from the pool of talent you've amounted in order to begin the move towards relevance.
Lester was brought in on principle of humanity, as the Cubs reportedly sent him a package that included a camouflage-colored Cubs hat and t-shirt. The team showed its interest in him by catering to who the 30-year-old is as a person, making him realize his importance to not just the immediate season, but ultimate future of the team.
That's the thing with the Cubs. It's not about what happens in 2015 (though Biff Tannen may have personal investment in a World Series appearance). It's what happens the year after, and the year after that, and the year after that, when names like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler are solidified as members of the main roster. They recognize such, and any form of true competition in 2015 will be a bonus. There's reason to be excited down the line, and the line isn't far away.
On the other end, the White Sox will enjoy continued production from the reigning Rookie of the Year in Abreu, alongside an artillery of arms including Chris Sale, the newly acquired Dan Jennings and more. If either team will make an immediate impact, it will be this one, and manager Robin Ventura must be salivating at the prospect of facing a radically changed AL Central.
The underlying motif here? Optimism. There is a reason to invest in Chicago baseball once more. Even as the White Sox picked up a World Series win in 2005, it made little noise beyond the city gates and carried on little true success past that. But the new-look Cubs and Sox have an opportunity to restore a sport for a city mainly preoccupied at the moment with the Blackhawks and CM Punk's prospective UFC career. Baseball is ready to become important again in Chicago.
Besides, if not now, when?
Jon Alba is a senior at Quinnipiac University. There he serves as general manager of the school's television station, Q30 Television. Follow him on Twitter: @JonAlbaSFC