By Rick Firfer
Every Cubs Convention is filled with good cheer and excitement for the team, regardless of the showing made on the field during the previous season. This year, during the 31st annual renewal of festivities, things were no different. Unless, of course, you take into account the enormous wave of World Series excitement that has overtaken the team for the first time in the history of the convention.
In the past, all of the good cheer and excitement seemed a bit tempered by the realization that the Cubs have not been to a World Series since 1945, and have not won one since 1908. So, while the fans could cheer wildly for their favorite players as they appeared at the convention, there was always the spirit of “Wait ‘til next year!” hanging over the crowd. But this year was different. The fans can no longer wait. Given the talent the Cubs’ front office has accumulated for the upcoming season, there is every hope – no, every expectation – that this is the year the championship flag will once again fly over Wrigley Field.
As always, the 2016 convention began with an opening ceremony on Friday night at which all of the players and all of the key management personnel were introduced. The welcoming cheers were overwhelming, and there was a noticeable lack of booing for the front office suits because there was no reason to vent any anger this year. How could the fans be mad at the guys who previously brought them Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and Addison Russell, and this year added John Lackey, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward? In fact, the Cubs lineup for 2016 is so scary that most pundits have already conceded the NL Central Division to them and feel it is a foregone conclusion the World Series will be played in Wrigley Field for the first time in 71 years come October.
Of course, injuries could always derail the most optimistic forecasts, but based on the way the players looked at the convention, their offseason conditioning plans seem to be going well and they look ready to handle anything. In fact, at the seminars that were held over the course of the convention, most of the players who appeared on the panels were heard to echo the sentiment that the entire team is focused on winning that championship and each individual player is doing everything in his power, including staying in shape, to make that dream happen.
At the conclusion of the opening ceremony, the thousands of fans who made up the sold-out crowd dispersed around the host hotel to begin the weekend-long hunt for autographs and selfies. Some of the fans made a beeline for the main autograph hall to stand in line for the signatures of “mystery guests.” That did not mean the fans did not know who the players in attendance were, but rather that no one other than the convention organizers knew who was going to be on the various autograph stages that evening. So, the fans just had to guess which line they wanted to stand in and hope that they got a major autograph target when the players came down from the opening ceremony. That contrasted with the next two days of the convention when there was an actual schedule of which players would be on which stages at what time.
Since less than half of the current and former players were due to make autograph appearances on Friday night, that meant that the rest of the players were free to do what they wanted that evening, including wandering around the hotel and mixing with the fans. They also had to eat, so many fans just stood around outside the hotel restaurants and bars and waited to see who might come by. In this way, astute fans and collectors were able to garner a significant number of additional autographs in a more non-traditional setting. Presumably, those fans felt that the wandering technique beat standing in line for up to three hours to get one or two autographs in the more traditional way.
On Saturday and Sunday, the activities were more institutionalized. If you wanted autographs, you really had to stand in the lines. Because the players’ schedules were so tightly regimented, and because the players had Cubs security personnel accompanying them wherever they went, it was very difficult to get a player to stop momentarily in a hallway to sign something for you. They knew that if they stopped for you, in an instant they would be surrounded by dozens of fans and their trek to their next scheduled appearance would become impossible. Most fans understood this and gave the players a pass for not being more friendly in the hallways the last two days of the convention.
As they have done in the more recent past, the Cubs attempted to organize the autograph lines in democratic fashion, so that every fan had an equal chance to score the autographs they deemed most important to them. For example, when each fan came to register for the convention, he or she was given a tote bag that included a number of goodies, including a secret voucher for an autograph at Stage A. That stage was reserved for the most in-demand players, such as Bryant, Schwarber, Russell and Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, who appears to be back in the Cubs’ good graces. When the fan pulled open the tab on his voucher, it would tell him what day and time to show up at Stage A for an autograph. Then, he would have to consult the convention program, also in the bag, to find out who was going to be at Stage A when the fan’s day and time came around. This led, of course, to a fair amount of trading among fans who were not thrilled with their vouchers because they wanted a different autograph.
Another way in which the Cubs sought to make the autograph lines fair was to limit the number of non-secret vouchers given out at Stages B-F. Thus, after you consulted the program to see which autographs you wanted, you had to hustle to the appropriate line to get a voucher for that line before they were all given out by the ushers stationed at the beginning of the line. The number of vouchers for each player was limited, but if you got a voucher you were guaranteed to get an autograph from the scheduled player. If you got there after all of the player’s vouchers were given out, you could still get in line, but you were not guaranteed a signature. It all depended on how fast the player signed. If he was quick, then he could fit a lot of fans through his line, voucher or not. But if he was slow, then pretty much only the people with vouchers would get his signature.
As you might expect, the lines for the rookie prospects were not all that long, and you could get through two or three of their lines during any given hour of autographing time. But if you wanted the proven stars, then good luck on getting more than one autograph during that same hour. Of course, not many of the top players were available in the regular lines, as most of them were on Stage A or on Stage F (the latter stage was reserved for kids only). In fact, the only really big names available at Stages B-E were newcomers John Lackey and Ben Zobrist, and their lines literally stretched almost into infinity. It was hard to figure out where they started and where they ended. Both Lackey and Zobrist seemed incredibly overwhelmed by the entire situation, admitting to local media that they had never seen anything as crazy as what they were witnessing. Some of the other players were so consumed by what was going on that they whipped out their smartphones and started recording the craziness.
There was one way to “cut” the lines, however. If you were willing to donate $100 to the fight against cancer, you would receive a special one-time-use-only “fast pass” to go to the head of any line of your choosing, as long as the line was at Stages B-F. The Cubs sold only a limited number of these passes, but they would have been very useful for the Lackey and Zobrist lines. Other items for sale at various team booths included autographed baseballs and opportunities to attend special player meet-and-greet sessions held throughout the weekend. In addition, the Cubs provided to 2016 season ticketholders only the opportunity to attend several up-close-and-personal sessions with various players and management, but those sessions were held at another, nearby hotel.
For the more serious fans – those who cared less about the autographs and more about what to expect from the team this year – there were some fascinating seminars that yielded insight into how the current team was put together and the balance that the owners and the front office were looking for. Obviously, there is a lot of enthusiasm over the young studs like Bryant, Schwarber, Rizzo and Arrieta, but Tom Ricketts, the Cubs’ chairman, and Theo Epstein, president of Baseball Operations, felt that they also needed a few more key veterans in the clubhouse to keep the young guys grounded. Especially in light of the heightened expectations for the upcoming season. Which is why they went out and got Lackey, Zobrist and Heyward, all of whom have been around long enough to know how to temper those expectations against reality. The team is also fortunate enough to have Joe Maddon as the master chemist to blend all of those talents and egos in the right proportions for success.
Other seminars dealt with such topics as the players’ off-the-field lives, the business management aspects of running a major league team, what it was like for guys like Bryant and Rizzo to become baseball rock stars so early in their careers and how Cubs Cy Young Award winners Jake Arrieta, Fergie Jenkins and Rick Sutcliffe felt about winning that award. The Cubs also offered some lighthearted entertainment, such as Cubs Bingo and Cubs Jeopardy, the latter pitting select teams of Cubs alumni against each other in answering questions relating to Cubs history.
This year’s group of fans also seemed to ask more of the knowledgeable questions that the insiders like to answer, rather than the more frivolous, rambling statements that seemed to be a hallmark of past conventions. Good for them; it kept everyone’s head in the game and the seminars seemed to end too soon rather than too late as a consequence. Also, the players and other panelists seemed more willing to stick around a bit more this year to sign autographs at the lip of the stage when the seminars concluded. In the past, they would usually just rush off, saying that they were late for their next appearance, even if they did not have one scheduled.
Of course, one of the best panels each year is the session called “Down on the Farm.” This one gives certain selected prospects and rookies the chance to tell the fans how they really feel about becoming or almost becoming major league ballplayers before they become so jaded that they simply resort to the standard clichés when answering questions. There is such a “deer caught in the headlights” feel to this seminar that it is always a must-attend feature of the convention, even though it is the closing session on the last day. Carl Edwards Jr., Eric Jokisch and Dan Vogelbach were the prospects on the panel this year, and each had some amusing observations to help enlighten fans. It had to be a little tough for Vogelbach, however, because he is a first baseman and caught behind Anthony Rizzo in the big scheme of things. Everyone expects Vogelbach to eventually be traded, but to his credit he said, “I just worry about keeping myself in shape and helping the team any way I can. I can’t control the rest.”
Other features that make the convention so interesting were also brought back this year. As always, the live auction of game-used caps, jerseys and equipment to benefit Cubs Charities was held near the autograph area and attracted a lot of attention from both collectors and casual fans, alike. Led by principal auctioneer, Tom Hellman, the Cubs clubhouse director fondly known as “Otis,” this annual auction is always a highlight of the weekend. New this year was another little area run by Cubs Authentic, which allows the team to sell other game-used and team-issued items in a non-auction setting. Collectors were thrilled to see this new addition and were eagerly buying a lot of the stuff on the racks and tables to fill holes in their collections. The casual fans also had the opportunity to buy less expensive replica items in the Cubs’ merchandise store, which was located in the same area.
Also new this year was the separate room that the team allocated to the Fergie Jenkins Foundation, which allowed Hall of Famer Jenkins to spread out with his guests, Lee Smith, Bill Buckner and Rollie Fingers, to sign autographs and sell merchandise to benefit Jenkins’ charitable foundation. The separate area for the kids to test their baseball skills, such as hitting and pitching, was also brought back, along with a photo booth on the main lobby level where fans could grab a quick photo with whomever was manning the booth at the time. A separate table was also set up for the Cubs’ young star, Jorge Soler, to autograph and sell his “Soler Power” T-shirts to fans. Fans could also purchase memorabilia at tables located in the Vendors Alley that were manned by some of the regular Chicago-area dealers, and the local Comcast operation also set up an area for its products and brought in Cubs players Pedro Strop, Travis Wood and Trevor Cahill to sign autographs for the fans on Saturday. Wood and Cahill wowed the fans with their friendly, upbeat demeanor, but Strop caused a bit of grumbling by keeping fans waiting more than two hours after his scheduled appearance before he finally showed up.
Another item of interest involved the young ladies in costume sent to the convention by one of the vendors to roam around and pass out faux Joe Maddon glasses. Made of simple transparent plastic lenses mounted in the readily recognizable thick black plastic frames that Cubs manager Maddon favors, this handout temporarily turned the seminar level of the convention into a sea of mini-Maddons, as the fake glasses were mostly being worn by the kids in attendance. It was cute to see.
All in all, there was plenty for everyone at this year’s convention. Thirty-five current players and prospects were in attendance, plus 19 Cubs alumni, the manager and his coaches, and most of the team’s senior management. If you did not score at least a couple of dozen autographs at this event, and if you did not hear a considerable amount of inside information about where the team is heading this year, then you had no one to blame but yourself, because you either slept through the convention or you forgot to come out of your room. Otherwise, it was all there for the taking, and the buzz is that you better make your reservation for next year’s convention as soon as possible or you will miss out on the World Series celebration to end all World Series celebrations.