By Rick Firfer
In years gone by, all Chicago Cubs fans had to look forward to was the beginning of another season. But, as we all know, for the first time in 108 years, this is not just another “Wait ’til next year!” season. This is the season that baseball fans everywhere will refer to the Cubs as the “World Champion Chicago Cubs,” a title they will hold at least until the last out of the 2017 World Series.
How did this fortuitous change of circumstances affect the most downtrodden of all Major League franchises during the offseason? Well, in addition to a multitude of new marketing opportunities for both the organization and its players, we can report that there was also a profound effect on the team’s iconic annual fan gathering, referred to this year as The 32nd annual Cubs Convention.
Held again this year at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel, in the heart of the city’s River North and River East entertainment area, this granddaddy of all fan conventions brought with it a new urgency for fans, sparked by the fact that virtually all of the players on the team’s active roster, as well as the Commissioner’s Trophy, emblematic of the team’s World Series success, were scheduled to be on site during the weekend.
The convention program trumpeted that a total of 27 active players, 29 alumni, the manager and his seven coaches, the entire broadcasting team, the owner and his family, and the general manager and his front office staff, would all be in attendance to meet fans, sign autographs at the eight autograph stages, and answer all of their questions at the 12 seminars and related events scheduled during the convention.
Beginning with the Opening Ceremony on Jan. 13, and continuing through the final seminars and autograph sessions on Jan. 15, the convention schedule was so loaded with activities for the fans. Regardless of age, the entire mob of attendees seemed to be juiced with excitement, running from event to event until they were completely overtaken by exhaustion.
Attendees were trying to maximize their time so they could hear what owner Tom Ricketts and General Manager Theo Epstein had to say about the future of the franchise. They also wanted to absorb every nugget of wisdom and every piece of information that Manager Joe Maddon and his coaches had about the 2016 World Series and how they plan to keep the championship streak going.
In addition to not missing any desired autograph opportunities at the stages, attendees also had to keep their eyes open for any stray players wandering down the hallways so they could corner them for additional autographs or maybe even a selfie.
Because the folks in charge of the convention correctly anticipated the overwhelming demand for tickets this year, they successfully negotiated for additional space from the hotel so they could virtually double the number of autograph stages from prior years.
Also, for the first time ever, nearly the entire active roster attended the event. Jon Lester, John Lackey and Jake Arrieta were not able to stay much beyond the opening ceremony, at least they were there to wave to the fans at the beginning and bask in their adulation.
There were, of course, the notable absences of the departed players like Aroldis Chapman and Chris Coughlin that made it impossible to get any memorabilia signed by the entire championship team at the convention. This was made up for, to some extent, by the appearance of some of the new players, like John Jay and Wade Davis, who were happy to sign other items for fans.
Although some complaints were heard about how suffocatingly crowded the convention seemed to be this year, the fans were, for the most part, friendly and in a good mood. The players, in turn, went out of their way to respond in kind, many of them taking the time to pose for photos at the autograph stages even though they were not supposed to. Ushers and members of the security staff also got the memo, because they bent over backward to be cordial and make certain there were no serious negative situations.
Perhaps the only other complaint heard this year was the fans’ disappointment in regard to the changes made to the autograph voucher system. In the past, the team would set aside one autograph stage for the most in-demand players, such as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Ryne Sandberg. The only people who could obtain signatures from those players would be fans who received randomly distributed vouchers in their registration packets with those players’ respective names on them.
A separate autograph stage was also set aside for kids only, and some of the high profile players would rotate through that stage as well. Otherwise, it was first come, first served at all of the other stages and you just had to get to the autograph line before all of the free tickets for a particular player were given out. Even then, you were allowed to wait behind the ticketed people in the hope that the player you wanted would sign more than the designated number of autographs.
This year, in the hope that more fans would be able to get the highly prized signatures of the active roster players, almost every one of them was subject to a new lottery system. A voucher was given to each attendee at registration, and if the voucher had a player’s name on it, you were guaranteed to get that player’s autograph at a predetermined time and date. If there was no player name on the voucher, you were out of luck and could only go after the Cubs alumni and prospects who were manning the unrestricted stages.
As a result of this new system, a secondary market in vouchers quickly sprung up among attendees, and people were walking around with signs offering to buy or sell their vouchers. At the height of this nonsense, the most sought after autograph voucher, the one with Kris Bryant’s name on it, was being offered for sale at $300. The only players who had significant playing time on the Major League team in 2016 and who were not subject to the restrictive voucher system seemed to be relief pitcher Rob Zazstrynsny and reserve infielder Jeimer Candelario.
To be fair, Jim Oboikowitch, the person in the front office with overall planning authority for the convention, noted that because of the World Series commotion the team knew it would be impossible to satisfy everyone all the time, so they just had to do what they thought was fair for everyone. For taking that position, Oboikowitch and his colleagues deserve the highest commendation, because, other than the autograph situation, the convention went so smoothly that the many first time attendees who expressed an opinion to SCD gushed over the great time they and their kids were having. They also said they could not wait until next year’s convention.
It was also interesting to note how many fans came to the convention from out of town. Not only was the Sheraton filled, but so were many of the surrounding hotels. After briefly surveying fans while they were standing in line, SCD was able to determine that a large number of fans had come in from the neighboring states of Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa. Many of those people said attending the convention was a good way to combine an out-of-town trip with such personal celebrations as birthdays and anniversaries.
It was also heartening to note that there were approximately an equal number of male and female fans in attendance, as well as a lot of kids, attesting to the universal appeal of Cubs baseball.
One thing that Oboikowitch and his staff did this year that deserves special mention is the foresight they showed in merging all of the conference rooms together into one very large room that could literally accommodate thousands of fans for the team’s seminars.
For example, they correctly anticipated the huge demand that would arise to hear manager Joe Maddon and his coaches talk about last season’s success and their plans for the future, as well as hearing owner Tom Ricketts and members of his front office, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, talk about the continuation of their “plan” to turn the current Cubs team into a dynasty.
Although combining the numerous small seminar rooms into one giant room meant that fewer seminars could be held this year, it provided an opportunity for everyone to attend the most important seminars and not be shut out, as sometimes happened in the past. Of course, the logistics of the new, larger room, together with a more compact seminar schedule, made it virtually impossible for the players and other panel members to stay in the room after their respective gigs to interact directly with attendees. There were just too many people and too little time.
The most interesting and most well-attended seminar was the one featuring Maddon and his coaches. Maddon is known as a guy who does not have to be serious all the time. He also happens to have a pretty thick skin when it comes to baseball matters. From the time the World Series ended, right up until his seminar at the convention, Maddon had to constantly answer questions about his Game 7 strategy, in particular, the way he handled Aroldis Chapman in that game and throughout the Series.
Maddon simply told the crowd that he is happy to answer their questions, that what he did made sense to him at the time, and regardless of the questions, the Cubs won and they are the world champions. He said all of that without any rancor whatsoever. In fact, he said he is really all about what he calls “Fun Baseball,” and that he was thinking about copyrighting or trademarking that phrase to emphasize the point.
Maddon also said, in passing, that he was amazed the entire ballroom was packed that afternoon, just as he was amazed and heartened by the happy expressions on everyone’s faces at the victory parade and rally in November. In an answer to a fan’s question, he also said that the turning point of the post-season for him, was not having to face Johnny Cueto of the Giants in a potential deciding Game 5 in the National League Divisional Series.
Maddon’s coaches also got to weigh in on their feelings about the players and the season that the team had last year. In an understatement of historic proportions, John Mallee, the hitting coach, said of Kris Bryant, “He is really good!”
Coach Eric Hinske said of Anthony Rizzo, “He is the heart and soul of the team.”
Gary Jones, one of the base coaches said Javier Baez is an instinctive runner, and that “Sometimes I just want to watch him.”
Bench coach Dave Martinez, who is a former Cubs player, said about Jason Heyward, “Best outfielder I have ever seen. Didn’t have a great year hitting, but what he brought to the clubhouse, ‘Wow!’”
Finally, coach Lester Strode added his observation that Jon Lester and John Lackey coming out to the bullpen in Game 7 was huge, and was a display of the unselfishness and positive team chemistry that helped the team win.
At the pitchers’ seminar, an interesting remark was made by Kyle Hendricks, the most low-key pitcher on the staff. He acknowledged how low-key he is, and how he likes to keep everything bottled up inside. But when he is out on the mound and he hears the ovations of the crowd at Wrigley Field, he said he thinks that is just great and makes him very proud. After that, all he can think about is making the next pitch. He also said he never likes coming out of a game, but he knew that when he started Game 7 of the World Series he would have Jon Lester and Aroldis Chapman behind him, so he was not nervous or worried in the least.
Besides the autograph stages and the seminars, the Cubs also made certain to bring back other favorite convention activities such as Cubs Bingo and Cubs Jeopardy, where fans enjoy the relaxed kidding around of the players engaged in such activities.
On Friday night, former Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster again hosted a talk show type event in which he and his guests say and do funny and outrageous stuff on the stage.
The Kids Only Press Conference on Saturday is also an annual highlight because only young children are allowed to ask the panel of players any questions. Some of the questions they ask are doozies. You would expect the kids to ask a player what it was like to step up to bat in the Major Leagues for the first time, and the players will go for levity and say they felt like throwing up. But one year a youngster asked each player on the panel what his first kiss was like, and you can imagine how that one brought the house down as the players blushed and stammered trying to answer.
The Cubs also held a live auction of game-used jerseys and other items to benefit Cubs Charities. However, as in most years, the better live auction items were mostly purchased by professional memorabilia dealers, leaving only the less desirable items for the ordinary fans. To partially compensate for this fact of life, the team has now introduced a Cubs Authentic shop where some highly prized items could be purchased by anyone at predetermined prices, although many of those items were set at prices that could be considered budget-busters for most people.
As if fans did not have enough incentives to become season ticket holders, during the convention the team also hosted a number of special season ticket holder only events at the neighboring Loews Hotel. Since the Loews is attached to the Sheraton by an indoor walkway, season ticket holders did not even have to go out in the cold to attend these special seminars and player interaction events. Many additional autographs were also available at these events.
One exhibit that drew special attention this year, of course, was the display with the Commissioner’s Trophy. What the Cubs did was set the trophy up in its own special area, with appropriate lighting, and allowed fans to file by and take photos of themselves standing next to the trophy. Each day, from the time the trophy area opened until late in the day, huge lines formed and the fans waited up to an hour or so to get into the exhibit to take their pictures. When asked by SCD if it was worth the wait, every fan essentially answered the same: “Absolutely!”
Rick Firfer is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.