By Rick Firfer
Held Jan. 18-20 at the Sheraton Grand Chicago Hotel, this year’s convention marked the 34th anniversary of the event. It featured 31 current Cubs players, as well as 40 former players, manager Joe Maddon and most of his coaching staff, the broadcasting crew, the team’s owners and front office brain trust, and even several members of the clubhouse staff. In other words, the whole gang was there, plus thousands of screaming fans.
Starting with the opening ceremony, there was no stopping the outpouring of love directed at the players, including all the old familiar faces as well as several new arrivals. The only notable no-shows among the players this year were Jon Lester, Addison Russell and Anthony Rizzo. Russell, of course, is still on suspension from Major League Baseball and is maintaining a low profile until he can work out his issues, and Rizzo was rumored to still be on his honeymoon. Lester, of course, has his own charitable activities that often create conflicts involving his time, but he remains a strong fan favorite as the ace of the pitching staff.
The convention schedule was again loaded with autograph opportunities for fans. Signatures from the most popular players had to be limited, of course, or else those players would have spent the entire weekend signing stuff and would not have been able to attend their scheduled seminars, interviews and other activities. Accordingly, autographs from most of the active roster players, as well as the several Hall of Fame players in attendance, were only available through a voucher system designed to provide all fans with an equal opportunity to score a coveted top-tier autograph.
Each fan received a scratch-off voucher when they registered for the convention. When the voucher was scratched off, it revealed a player’s name if it was a winner, and the fan would then have to show up at the player’s signing line on the date and at the time indicated on the voucher to get the promised autograph. If the voucher had no name on it, the fan was out of luck as far as the top-tier players were concerned, but still had the opportunity to line up for signatures that did not require vouchers. Given the number of current and former players in attendance, no one was going to go home empty-handed.
It should be noted that although the voucher system does have considerable merit, it also allows for a secondary market to form outside the autograph venues. Thus, as you navigate from place to place you might easily encounter another fan offering to swap a Ryne Sandberg voucher for a Kyle Schwarber voucher or a Billy Williams for an Andre Dawson. Actually, it was fun to watch because it brought back memories of swapping baseball cards with your friends on the playground when you were a kid.
In addition to spending hours in line to obtain autographs, many fans also enjoyed attending the seminars and panel discussions that were offered. In the past, the team offered so many of these sessions that some of them would have to run concurrently and fans would have to make choices depending on their particular interests. However, in recent years the Cubs started to reduce the number of seminars and panels, and held them all in the main ballroom so that more people could attend each session.
Perhaps the most popular panel discussion was the one at which Maddon and his coaches explained what was in store for the players at Spring Training and beyond. They also took the time to answer a host of questions thrown at them by the fans.
But before they took the questions, each of the coaches, both old and new, expressed their delight at being able to put on a Cubs uniform this year and work with Maddon and the current players. Some of the coaches, like Tommy Hottovy, had worked their way up in the organization, and others, like Mark Loretta and Terrmel Sledge, had just come to the Cubs from other organizations.
One of the fans asked Maddon about the current reliance by so many teams on sports psychology. That led to a discussion among Maddon and the panelists in regard to the importance currently being applied to the mental part of baseball. In fact, one of the panelists stated that organizations are now looking for six-tool players, those who are above average when it comes to the original five tools (hitting, throwing, defense, etc.), plus a sixth tool of mental agility (i.e., the ability to handle the pressure of playing in the major leagues). Mental agility also includes the ability to understand and properly utilize the analytics that have become so important to major league teams.
Another fan question related to the proper use of pitchers. The fan also wanted to know why starting pitchers no longer pitch as deeply into games as the old-timers, like Fergie Jenkins, used to do. Part of the problem, Maddon and the coaches thought, might be the issue of dealing with millennials who relate to information differently than older ballplayers and who are always looking for faster gratification. They may be overthrowing and not pacing themselves as well anymore.
While the seminars and autograph sessions were being presented to the adults, the convention also offered an opportunity for the kids to have fun as well. Kids could visit Clark’s Clubhouse to receive instruction from various current and former players in the fundamentals of hitting, pitching and base running. Clark, of course, is the Cubs’ mascot. The bonus for the kids was that when the players were finished giving instruction, they were more than happy to stick around, as time permitted, to sign additional autographs and take selfies with the kids.
Other impromptu opportunities to obtain autographs from players also presented themselves. Often, as the players were being escorted around the hotel by security, fans would beseech them for autographs and several of the players would sign things as they kept walking. Also, several players were called upon to do radio interviews in the hotel lobby, and when they were finished, if they had the time, they would sign autographs for nearby fans. Other fans would just stand in the lobby in the evening and wait for players to walk by on their way to or from dinner so they could ask for signatures. This was one way for fans who did not receive winning vouchers to get a crack at the players who were most in demand, like Kris Bryant, Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Jason Heyward and so on. Even Ian Happ and David Bote had their fan base out looking for them.
Prior to the opening ceremony, the team made most of the players available for interviews at a media social. The scrum that develops at this event each year is a bit like Super Bowl Media Day, only more sedate. It does, however, provide an opportunity for reporters to ask their questions before the general madness of the convention begins. Accordingly, we always get to ask the really important questions about how the players feel in regard to collectors and the hobby.
For many years, players interviewed at the Cubs Convention (and other fanfests for that matter) have maintained that they have very little interest in the hobby and were polite to collectors only because dealing with it was part of their job. In recent years, however, the players have shifted to a more pro-hobby stance, principally because a greater number of the younger players were collectors themselves as they were growing up, and many are continuing their collecting habits into their professional years by exchanging autographs and memorabilia with their peers.
In talking to a number of current players at the convention, it became apparent that a growing number of them are also taking an interest in collecting because they have developed an appreciation for the history of the game. Some also recognize the increasing economic value of signatures and memorabilia they are accumulating, but for most it is a way to stay connected to the game when their playing days are over. They know that one day they will have kids of their own and by sharing the memorabilia and the stories behind the memorabilia with their kids they will be able to bond with them in a unique way.
One player who understands the importance of collecting is Kyle Schwarber. Schwarber said that he has been concentrating his collection on playoff items such as uniform patches and other team-related items. He also said that although he collected baseball cards as a kid, he does not do much of that anymore, and he leaves the collecting of Kyle Schwarber cards to his dad, who loves saving them.
Another player who has been into collecting is Justin Steele. When he was younger, he collected baseball cards and kept them in a box that had slots for each team so that he could slip the cards into the box in an organized fashion. He also allowed that he was an Atlanta Braves fan when he was younger and concentrated his collection on cards of Braves players like Tom Glavine. Steele also said that he leaves the collecting of Justin Steele memorabilia to his mom.
Ian Happ has done some card collecting, but he is currently more focused on an art project that he is involved with on behalf of certain charities. In fact, he and the artist who is producing the prints being sold for the charities had a booth at the Cubs Convention. Happ said he would be spending some time at the booth promoting the project. People who bought the prints were also likely to get some extra Happ autographs as a thank-you.
Jose Quintana, who also does some charity work on behalf of a foundation in Colombia, did some collecting as a kid. He collected model cars and old magazines. Nowadays, he said that he collects jerseys of his teammates and other players whom he admires, particularly fellow Latin players. He also said that he enjoys signing autographs for his fans because it builds good relationships with those fans.
Yu Darvish, who is being counted on by the Cubs to bounce back from injuries, has not only worked hard on his rehab activities but has also worked hard to improve his English skills. He is now able to do interviews without his interpreter always being present. Darvish was, in fact, very friendly and communicative while at the convention and seemed amped up to prove himself to the fans in 2019. It also turns out that while he does not do much collecting these days, he did collect Japanese baseball cards when he was younger, and he has no problem with providing other players with autographs or memorabilia when he is asked.
James Norwood collected cards with his dad when he was younger. His dad had been an avid collector when he was young, but unfortunately his dad’s mother threw out all his dad’s cards somewhere along the line. This was novel as it related to Norwood. Usually, the story you hear is that mom threw my cards away. In this case, it was grandma who threw the cards out.
Kyle Hendricks, a Dartmouth grad and an important member of the Cubs’ starting rotation, does not collect much of anything himself but he recognizes how important the hobby is to others. In fact, he may be the only member of the team who has signed an exclusive deal to provide his signature to fans through appearances and mail-ins. His deal with Fanatics Authentics just makes things a whole lot easier he said, and he does like making the fans happy.
Finally, it was a pleasure for the fans to see almost all of the Cubs’ living Hall of Famers come together at the convention and to welcome Lee Smith to their ranks. Ryne Sandberg, Billy Williams, Andre Dawson and Fergie Jenkins had big smiles as they waited on stage at the opening ceremony for Lee Smith to be introduced and join them. Smith was given a rousing round of applause by fans and players alike, and Williams made a point that evening of letting people know that he would be taking Smith under his wing to make sure that he got the most out his induction into the Hall this Summer.
Rick Firfer is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.