CHICAGO — Even for a team with a record of futility unmatched in professional baseball, this season has been one of the most dismal in Chicago Cubs history.
About the only good thing that could be said about a team poised to lose 100 games for the first time in 46 years — one of which came after the shortstop trotted off the field thinking there were three outs instead of two — is that the ugly baseball, at home anyway, is being played in front of fewer fans than in any year in the last decade.
"I've never seen the kinds of holes (empty seats) that I've seen this year," said Kate Dahl, a bartender at Murphy's Bleachers, across the street from Wrigley Field, where attendance will not reach the 3 million mark for the first time since 2003. "People can't give tickets away and the ushers aren't even stopping people from moving down into the box seats."
While the 1966 team finished with 103 losses, this year's club has managed something no other Cubs team has done before: Upset everyone from fans to the mayor.
Fans can't believe what they're seeing, not to mention the major league ticket prices the Cubs are charging for what looks to them suspiciously like a minor league team. News that the patriarch of the family that owns the team — which wants the city to help out with Wrigley's facelift — was thinking about bankrolling an ad campaign against President Barack Obama angered Mayor Rahm Emanuel so much that he refused to talk to the man's son, who happens to be the team's chairman.
"I don't see anything out there that is encouraging," said Scott Turow, the novelist and lifelong Cubs fan. "I'm embittered, to be honest."
What makes it hurt even more is that it wasn't that long ago that Cubs fans, among the most optimistic on the planet, had only good feelings about their team. When the Ricketts family bought the team a few years back, fans rejoiced at the idea that finally the Cubs would be in the hands of true fans — a feeling that was only enhanced by the story about how Tom Ricketts met his wife in the bleachers.
And Theo Epstein? He was the savior who would turn around another cursed baseball team, just as he'd done with the Red Sox when he helped end Boston's run of 86 years without a championship in 2004 and oversaw the team that won it all again three years later.
Now, though, some fans see Epstein, who has unloaded some of the team's best players such as pitcher Ryan Dempster, as a big reason why the Cubs have lost as many games as they have. Winning the World Series for the first time since 1908 seems as far away as it's ever been.
"Some people are angry at him because he's clearly tanked everything," said Al Yellon, who has a Cubs-themed website, bleedcubbieblue.com.
Many fans were willing to accept a team with a losing record during what everyone knew would be a rebuilding process. But accepting a "horrible team" would be OK if the players took the field with some hustle and played solid fundamental baseball, said Steve Rhodes, a longtime fan whose Chicago-oriented website once posted a song about the Cubs called "Please Stop Believin.'"
"But we haven't seen that at all," he said. "This team has been so bad, it's mind boggling."
Three years after the Cubs lost 103 games back in 1966, the team was fighting for a pennant — albeit a pennant that slipped away thanks to one of the biggest collapses in major league history.
"They had good players on that team," said Yellon, before rattling off a lineup that included Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins, along with solid players such as shortstop Don Kessinger and second baseman Glenn Beckert. "You don't have that now."
"We had some awfully good young players and we knew we were going to get better," Kessinger said in a telephone interview from his real estate office in Mississippi.
The Cubs headed into a weekend series at Arizona with 97 losses, including nine of their last 10.
Last month, the bumbling Cubs made five errors, their most in six years, in a 10-8 loss to Cincinnati. First-year manager Dale Sveum said afterward: "Not the prettiest game we've played all year, that's for sure."
He noted that All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro had been thrown out trying to steal after losing track of the ball — a "lack of concentration" that has been maddening to him and to fans eager for a Cubbie hero to emerge. It was Castro, after all, who failed to throw to first on a double-play ball in June when there were only two outs and the Cubs were on their worst road skid since 1954.
Fans say that if the team continues to flounder, attendance will continue to drop. One reason, said Turow, is that when Joe Ricketts thought about funding the anti-Obama ad campaign he tested the loyalty of Cubs fans in a way it has never been tested before.
"People don't want to run out to that ball park in a powerful Democratic city and think they are funding a Republican propaganda machine," he said.
Rhodes agrees that fans are going to get angrier if they don't see improvement next season, and attendance may fall even more. But he doesn't think Wrigley will turn into a ghost town — after all, this year's team will end up drawing more than 2.8 million fans. That's more than four times the fans who came through the turnstiles to watch the 1966 Cubs and hundreds of thousands more fans than turned out to U.S. Cellular Field to see the White Sox — a team that is actually fighting to get into the playoffs.
"This town doesn't make sense," he said.
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