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Couch: Baseball Opening Day Is Full Of Hope … Unless Your Team Is Tanking

Walk around Wrigley Field in Chicago and you see green space, a boutique hotel, restaurants and hip bars that aren’t called taverns anymore. The car wash is gone. The scammers and hustlers who used to work the streets have been pushed back.

What was once a ballpark in a neighborhood has morphed into a frat party called Wrigleyville and now is an all-out theme park to Cubdom. I call it Rickettsland. The Ricketts family, owners of the Cubs, brought a World Series to the world’s most victimized sports fans and then bought up the surrounding area, partly to cash in and partly as a vanity play.

Under the Ricketts, the Cubs have ballooned into a $3.2 billion operation that somehow still couldn’t afford to keep ace pitcher Yu Darvish. The super-rich, big market Cubs have undergone a confounding salary dump and are just an example of what’s going on in baseball.

Today is baseball’s Opening Day, the unofficial beginning of spring that usually symbolizes optimism somehow. But this year, that optimism is false hope in most places. Two-thirds of the teams are not even trying to win. The players are. The owners aren’t.

Some teams, such as the San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox, have decided to go all-in to see if they can win. I hope the Padres play the White Sox in the World Series, which is a distinct possibility. The fact that I’m going to predict that, with a Padres win, might be wishful thinking, though.

For so long, baseball had an issue of haves vs. have-nots. Rich teams vs. poor. But now it is inexplicably this:

Tanking or trying? Which one is your team doing? Giving credit where it is due, I saw that line — tanking or trying — mentioned briefly on Sports Illustrated’s website. But the truth is that it now defines MLB.

To my count, only 10 teams — Padres, White Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, Twins, Angels, Braves, Mets, Cardinals and Dodgers — are actually trying. The rest are all tanking their seasons to save money, though the Nationals and Brewers are borderline.

This is not the welcome-back we need as we try to get to the finish line of the pandemic and no sport other than football has truly resonated. Maybe we’re going to have to wait for the NFL and college football seasons to truly be the welcome-back to sports.

To me, this is a dirty trick on sports fans from billionaire owners who have no business crying poor. I get that baseball is just a business to them, but their business is to play on the hearts of fans. Sure, COVID reduced the 2020 season and knocked out ticket revenues. The sport never really captured everyone’s attention. In December, baseball will also face an ugly labor crisis that will surely lead to owners locking out the players and jeopardizing the 2022 season.

So owners just let expensive players go in a garage sale. Darvish from the Cubs to the Padres for a middle-of-the-rotation starter and some too-young-to-be-counted-on prospects. Blake Snell from the Rays to the Padres. Stud closer Liam Hendricks from the A’s to the White Sox.

The Indians (Tanking) sent Francisco Lindor to the Mets (Trying), where he signed a 10-year, $341 million extension. The Rockies (Tanking) let Nolan Arenado go to the Cardinals (Trying).

The interesting thing is that while the financial hits for baseball should be temporary, these roster decisions are going to mean long term changes. They might rewrite baseball’s world order. I mean, when fans are still deciding whether they really need our sport anymore, that isn’t the time to go on the cheap, betray them and start tanking.

Back in Chicago, the White Sox have loaded up the best bullpen in baseball, a terrific rotation, an exciting young group that already reached the playoffs last year. And now they dusted off 76-year-old sourpuss Tony La Russa and made him the manager of all of that. And it’s going to work.

Meanwhile, Cubs fans, the most loyal fans in the world, waited more than a century for a World Series title and never once thought about their new success as something temporary.

The Cubs are clearly loaded financially, as Rickettsland screams out, and yet they couldn’t afford Darvish, or Jon Lester, or Kyle Schwarber. They’ve clearly been trying to get rid of former MVP Kris Bryant, and in the past few days, they low-balled the heart-and-soul of the Cubs, Anthony Rizzo, who shut down negotiations and said this could be his last year in Chicago.

I guess the Ricketts just didn’t want to risk short-term financial losses for long term gain and goodwill. They surely know business better than I do, so maybe they and the other tanking owners are right.

Fans don’t really go away that easily, but as someone who grew up in the area cheering more for the Cubs than for the White Sox, I can tell you I go into this season angry with the Cubs and much more interested in what’s going on away from the theme park.

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Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

5 Comments

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  1. I’d respectfully add the Rays to the trying list. Trading players who are about to cash in for prospects is just their business model. They can’t spend dollar for dollar with the Yankees and Red Sox, so they try to maximize value on the young players and then flip them before the salary maxes out. It’s a pattern they’ve been at for years, and they’ve stayed competitive. I’m not even a fan of theirs, but I can respect that they do the best with the situation they’re in.

    • I agree on the Rays, and I would also add the Phillies to the list. They shelled out huge for Harper, just ponied up big for Realmuto, and they are always in the conversation to trade for or sign the big names. They certainly aren’t tanking. The NL East is going to be a dog fight this year.

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