By Rick Firfer
As has been the case for several years, the 2018 version of the annual Cubs Convention was completely sold out, once again providing eBay sellers with the ability to make a tidy profit. Strangely, however, the exuberance that attendees have all come to expect from the fans at the over-the-top celebration of everything Chicago Cubs was considerably more muted than one might expect.
This year’s Cubs Convention, its 33rd, convened Jan. 12-14 at the Sheraton Grand Chicago hotel.
As we all know, for many, many years, and across several generations, the Cubs were viewed as lovable losers and embraced by many as cuddly also-rans. There was a certain human quality about the team. The players were like so many of us. They tried hard to climb that mountain, but the way forward was steep and difficult to navigate. The team and its players seemed so vulnerable that fans actually took defiant pride in rooting for someone they knew was never going to succeed.
So, year after year fans would come to the Cubs Convention knowing they would hear a lot of talk about how great things would be “next year,” and they would buy into it because they wanted to. And having the opportunity to meet the players and commiserate about the things that went wrong last year was actually part of the fun. But the World Series championship of 2016 seems to have changed all of that. The Cubs were no longer looked at as lovable losers. In fact, they were no longer losers at all.
When fans poured into the 2017 Cubs Convention, they were on top of the world. They were euphoric and everything about the convention seemed to underscore that feeling. It was surreal. Over-the-top did not adequately describe the outpouring of love and emotion for all the guys. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez, Addison Russell and all the other players were heroes, almost instant icons. They were mobbed everywhere they went, and they deserved every bit of the praise they received.
As memory serves, all the fans seemed capable of talking about at last year’s convention was how the Cubs were going to repeat as champions in 2017. But, at the end of the day it was the Houston Astros who hoisted the 2017 trophy, and the Cubs, well, they could not even get past the Los Angeles Dodgers and back into the World Series. As good as the Cubs were, and as courageous as they had been in slogging through to another Central Division championship and a third straight appearance in the NLCS, there was a feeling among many fans of having been let down last season.
This feeling of disappointment may have been the reason why the 2018 convention felt a bit subdued. The fans were still very much on the team’s side and on the side of the players. The love was still there. And it was definitely reciprocated by the players.
But there was an edginess to the interaction this year. No longer did the fans seem to unconditionally embrace their Cubbies. It was more like, “What have you done for us lately?”
It is also possible that the excitement was tamped down by the fact that as of the start of the convention the Cubs still had not signed a front-of-the-rotation ace for their pitching staff, being far apart in their ongoing negotiations with beloved free agent Jake Arrieta. In fact, because he was a free agent, Arrieta could not appear at the Cubs Convention, which stymied the hopes of those fans and collectors who needed his signature to complete their 2016 team-signed collectibles.
There certainly was a lot to be happy about at the Cubs Convention, however. For one thing, the team continued last year’s innovation of having several additional autograph stages in order to maximize the chances of people getting multiple autographs.
Although the prior year’s voucher system had to be employed once again this year, at least it was not used to limit access to a majority of the active roster players like it was the year before. The big names, like Rizzo, Bryant, and even Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, had to be limited because of time constraints, but many of the other familiar names, like Russell and Carl Edwards, Jr. were not so limited.
The team also brought numerous alumni back to the convention to help fans fill out their autograph needs relating to older Cubs teams. That group included a number of former players who either had not been to the convention before or who had not been there very often in the past. Players included in that group were Larry Biittner, Shawn Boskie, John Baker, Jon Lieber, Ray Burris, Koyie Hill, Matt Murton, Bob Howry, Juan Pierre and Terry Adams. Others in attendance, like Lee Smith, Dwight Smith, Rick Sutcliffe, Rick Reuschel, Fergie Jenkins, Steve Trout, Sean Marshall, Bill Madlock, Billy Williams and Bobby Dernier, tend to come back more often, but they are always welcomed by the fans.
All in all, there were 25 members of the current team and 43 alumni in attendance signing autographs at this year’s convention, although Tommy LaStella, the most autograph shy of all the Cubs players, did manage to cancel his one scheduled autograph appearance, meaning once again that there was going to be a gap in fans’ team-signed balls.
Manager Joe Maddon and his coaching staff, as well as owner Tom Ricketts and other members of his family, and Theo Epstein and his front office brain trust, were also in attendance and available to the fans at various seminars and panel discussions that went on during the weekend. Although not scheduled to appear at any of the autograph stages, many of the latter individuals were accommodating in regard to autograph requests made at the end of the panels.
In the past, many of the current players and alumni would take a moment to sign autographs at the end of the opening ceremony, but because of the huge crowd that now attends this ceremony it has become much more difficult to get those signatures. Plus, many of the players have other commitments relating to the convention that come immediately after the opening ceremony, so they have to skedaddle as soon as they come off the stage. However, veteran convention-goers know they can position themselves at various strategic locations around the hotel and be certain to score autographs as the players move around from location to location with their security details.
Missing this year were the photo stages of the past. Back was an innovation from last year. The team provided fans with a special app that would tell them when and where certain designated players would be available for photos and/or autographs during the convention. That information was not provided in the convention program and could only be accessed via the app.
If you were registered to receive text messages via that app, you could run to the designated spot to get a wristband that would allow you to receive one of those photos or autographs. Fans not into social media obviously missed out on those opportunities.
The Cubs also rewarded their season ticket holders with certain perks at the convention. In addition to the activities available to all attendees, the season ticket holders also got to attend special seminars and meet-and-greet sessions with top players at the adjacent Loews Hotel. Autographs and photos with those players were also made available to the season ticket holders.
The Cubs kept media representatives happy by holding a media social prior to the Opening Ceremony. At the social, media members had an opportunity to go one-on-one with most of the current players and alumni. Everyone was very laid back and cooperative, which meant that Sports Collectors Digest had a chance to find out if any of the players in the room were collectors.
It turns out that pitcher Eddie Butler is quite a collector, while Kyle Hendricks admitted to collecting for a short while in his youth. Jason Heyward, Tyler Chatwood and Justin Wilson had no real interest in collecting, and Randy Rosario said he had a limited interest and only saved signed baseballs from his teammates.
Butler said he mainly collected baseball cards, which he has kept in unopened packs for the most part. He also has a collection of Hot Wheels in unopened boxes. Butler and his dad enjoyed hunting autographs together when Butler was younger. They lived near where the Norfolk Tides played ball, so that is where they mainly hung out.
As a result of his experiences as a kid, Butler said that when he is signing autographs he most enjoys signing for youngsters because he remembers what a thrill it was for him when he scored signatures as a kid. As a professional, he now only asks for autographs from special players whom he admires, like Derek Jeter. He currently has about one hundred signed baseballs and hopes to eventually display them in a rec room at home. Although he has not done any signing on the show circuit as of yet, he said it is something he might like to do in the future.
Although Heyward declared that he is not a collector, he said that he nevertheless did save a number of things from his days with the Atlanta Braves because he seriously enjoyed his time with that team. As for autographs, though, the only one he remembers ever obtaining was a Clint Eastwood signature that he purchased for his dad at a charity auction.
On the other hand, he does not mind signing for fans, particularly the youngsters. He also signs for baseball-related charities. Sometimes, when he is with a bunch of kids, Heyward said he likes to surprise them by signing autographs even when they don’t expect it … sort of like a bonus for being good little boys and girls.
Wilson, although not a collector, said he doesn’t mind signing for fans, mainly because it is an accepted part of the baseball routine. He said he was looking forward to meeting the fans at the Cubs Convention and signing for the kids.
Hendricks said his interest in collecting is limited to getting autographs and memorabilia from players whose careers he respects. His ultimate goal is to display such artifacts in a man cave. Whatever baseball cards he collected as a kid were given away a long time ago, he said.
All in all, the 33rd Annual Cubs Convention, although toned down a bit, was a huge success. None of the complaints of the past, such as long lines and limited autograph opportunities, were heard this year. The Cubs have always been very sensitive to their fans’ needs and suggestions, and have tweaked and improved the convention on a consistent basis.
As Ricketts said at the opening ceremony, the convention is really a moment for the team to do something nice for the fans. That is why, he said, the team brought in more alumni this year, added more kids’ activities and provided up to 25 percent more autograph opportunities for everyone.
Rick Firfer is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.