Column: Baseball’s lockout is spoiling the best part of winter for anxious Cubs and White Sox fans

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Pitcher Brandon McCarthy signs autographs at SoxFest 2006 at the Hyatt Regency. Bonnie Trafelet/Chicago Tribune/TNS

The middle of January traditionally signals the changing of the seasons in Chicago, a time to wash away the gloom of another Bears disaster and start thinking warm thoughts.

In most years, the sidewalks are caked in ice, another polar vortex is plunging down from the Arctic and the Cubs and White Sox are holding their annual fan fests at a downtown hotel, celebrating the past while hyping the future.

But the lethal combination of a pandemic and a baseball lockout have canceled the last two years of conventions, depriving us of our midwinter baseball fix. Instead of listening to Jed Hoyer and Rick Hahn talk about their plans for 2022, we’re scouring the internet and social media for any scraps of baseball news and lockout updates.

Offseason conversations between baseball fans have reached a new low.

“Did you know there’s now a bobblehead of the Cane Guy?”

“Looks like Melky Cabrera finally retired.”

“Hey, the left-field wall at Camden Yards is being moved back 30 feet, and the wall will be 6 feet higher.”

We can’t do anything about this, of course.

The baseball season is in the hands of the negotiators , and reports from the resumption of talks last week between owners and the players union offered little hope anything will be settled soon.

At this rate, pitchers and catchers will not report to spring training on time Feb. 14, though MLB Network will continue to rerun the Ken Burns “Baseball” documentary over and over, along with highlights of the 1982 season, and player bios will continue to be scrubbed from team websites.

Baseball writers, meanwhile, will continue to gripe about the sport shooting itself in the foot and losing more ground to the NFL and NBA because it’s our default mode.

But you still can dream, which is why I checked out the White Sox website Sunday morning just to gaze at the seat map for the Feb. 26 Cactus League opener against the Oakland A’s at Camelback Ranch.

Both the Sox and Cubs recently put spring training tickets on sale, like the rest of baseball, which could be construed as an act of supreme optimism that a deal will get done. Or it could be considered a cynical money grab, knowing teams will at least collect interest on the revenues from sales, even after the refunds for cancellations.

You make the call.

There is one option to satiate fans that definitely won’t be explored — rounding up replacement players, as the owners did back in the spring of 1995 when MLB players were on strike, and getting through the spring with fake teams. The way the world is these days, I wouldn’t bet against fans coming out to watch used car dealers and plumbers wearing major-league uniforms, as long as the sun was shining and the beer was cold.

Baseball tried to pretend its players were irrelevant back in ‘95, following the August 1994 players strike and the first cancellation of a World Series that October.

The Cubs even decided to hold their 1995 convention at the Chicago Hilton and Towers without players. President Andy MacPhail, general manager Ed Lynch and manager Jim Riggleman were introduced to much applause, as were former Cubs Bill Buckner, Andy Pafko, Bill Madlock, Jody Davis and Leon Durham. The loudest cheers were reserved for broadcaster Harry Caray, who was as popular as any player.

I asked the Cubs boss that cold January day why any fan in his or her right mind would pay good money to attend a Cubs Convention without any actual Cubs players?

“Cubs fans are quite a different group of people, they’ve proven that over the years,” replied James Dowdle, who ran the organization as executive vice president of Tribune Media Operations. “They’re not here because the Cubs win every year. There’s something about the Cub uniform, Wrigley Field and everything that it stands for.

“Harry is a factor there. There’s a lot of factors that really contribute to the success of the Cubs. You put them all together and it’s hard to define one single thing.”

A few days later, the Cubs announced they would hold tryout camps for players between 18 and 30 who had played professional baseball within the previous three years.

The Sox were well ahead of them. General manager Ron Schueler had already signed former Boston Red Sox star Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd for their replacement camp. (”If you enjoy watching me, come check out ‘The Can,’” Boyd told reporters.)

The Sox also had the most famous minor-leaguer in baseball coming to camp, and they knew Michael Jordan would be a draw even if he wasn’t going to be on the replacement team.

During a Cubs tryout camp in Orlando, Fla., that January, scouting director Al Goldis insisted many baseball fans wouldn’t know the difference between the lesser players and major-leaguers.

“What if I took a Double-A club and put ‘Chicago Cubs’ or ‘Philadelphia Phillies’ on the front of their uniforms and we put them in Veterans Stadium or Wrigley Field?” Goldis said. “How many fans would know the difference? I don’t know. Are they educated enough to recognize skill-level difference?

“There are people, yes, that will know. I think that in Chicago, Philly, you can’t fool those people.”

The replacement players got their moment in the sun at spring training before a new collective bargaining agreement was reached on the eve of opening day. MLB players reported to camps for a delayed spring training, Jordan went back to playing for the Bulls and Boyd was simply released, complaining he felt “used” by the Sox — and that the whole replacement spring was “a hoax.”

Baseball soon returned to normal, even as fan resentment toward players and owners continued for years.

It has been 27 years since the replacement spring of ‘95, but with so many teams in tanking mode nowadays, it could be argued owners eventually came around to Goldis’ way of thinking.

If you put a Double-A-caliber team on the field in a major-league ballpark while branding it as a “rebuild,” would fans stop watching?

Tanking is just one of the many issues that need to be resolved before pitchers and catchers report and this long, dark winter fades into memory, as the winter of ‘94-95 has over the years.

Rest assured there will be baseball again, and we can all resume complaining about the state of our teams. But until then, hope will not spring eternal.

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