Sentimentality doesn't win baseball games. But the Cubs proved this weekend that it can energize a fanbase.
The Cubs had their annual convention this past weekend at the Chicago Hilton and Towers. Usually, these are pep rallies and a chance to discuss baseball with friends; fans can also ask questions of team management and spend too much money on overpriced pizza and baseball souvenirs.
This year, the Cubs actually broke some news at this event. Saturday, they announced that a LED board will be added to Wrigley Field.
But Friday night, the Cubs created high drama by announcing the re-signing of reliever Kerry Wood in front of thousands of Cubs fans at the opening ceremony of the convention. If you missed it -- or haven't seen it -- check out the deafening ovation this announcement received:
Now, even as a Cubs fan, I'm realistic. 14 years and multiple surgeries removed from his 20-strikeout game against the Astros, Wood today is a useful middle reliever/setup man, nothing more. His $3 million salary, a reasonable sum (with a 2013 option for the same amount) for that sort of work, reflects that status.
And yet, if you watched that video not knowing anything about this, you'd think the Cubs just signed a future Hall of Famer who will lead them to the Promised Land of a World Series title.
That's obviously not the case. Why, then, this signing, and done the way it was? Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein explains:
"In Kerry's case, I think he has some added value beyond his performance on the field, which is still quite good and still the most important factor," Epstein said. "[Wood also is] an outstanding teammate and understands the importance of mentoring younger pitchers, he understands how to deal with some of the distractions here in Chicago, he's not shy about setting a good example in the clubhouse and he's an active member in the community.
Those things all have value, especially as Epstein and Cubs GM Jed Hoyer rebuild the roster and bring in a lot of younger players, but Wood was also in demand by other teams; there were rumors he was about to sign with the Phillies when he and the Cubs reached a deal, almost literally as the convention was about to begin. Hoyer acknowledged that Wood's history with the Cubs and their fans mattered:
"We both understand the history of the organization and understand which players mean a lot to the fans and the fan base and Kerry is one of them," general manager Jed Hoyer said this week. "That's something we're aware of. Fresh eyes are one thing but that doesn't mean you ignore the rich past the Cubs have."
But why do it in this way? A press release (which was issued at the time of the convention announcement) would have sufficed, right?
There is value to energizing your fanbase. Epstein and Hoyer understand that -- Epstein brought Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield, both popular Red Sox players, for a year or two after they were truly effective players. (I don't think it is a coincidence that with the change in Boston management, neither player is likely to be back there in 2012.)
But why the timing? Epstein said this was not done for public relations:
"If you start making baseball decisions based on P.R., you're losing," Epstein said. "What does matter is the additional value that a player can bring by how he impacts his teammates. There's more to a player than just the numbers on the back of his baseball card. We want to try to fill that clubhouse with as many guys who get it as possible, and by 'get it,' I mean guys who are invested in the other 24 players."
Of course, that's true. But I believe there is room for sentiment in baseball decisions, to consider whether the players you sign will fit in with the rest of the roster and with the fanbase. If the clubhouse doesn't have strong player-leaders, it can fail even with talented players. Obviously, fans will support a winning team even if it doesn't have fan favorites. But there ought to be room, as the Cubs have made for Kerry Wood, for a player who is both productive on the field, a good clubhouse leader, and popular with the fans. I repeat Theo Epstein's words from above, with emphasis:
There's more to a player than just the numbers on the back of his baseball card.
Theo Epstein is a smart guy. And he clearly understands that fans have emotions and feelings about their favorite teams, and that players aren't automatons, but flesh-and-blood men who spend the better part of eight months a year together.
Sentiment doesn't win baseball games. But sometimes, grabbing hold of that emotion and making it work for you can energize everyone surrounding a baseball team and help it bring its talent to its peak.