Even without any kind of a game, the last 24 hours in Chicago have brought something resembling a win.
It sounds silly for a top-three market to get giddy over anything less than a major sports championship, but such is the case when the team closest to the city’s soul has done all it could to crush it to bits, responding to a season of high expectations by playing a series of nationally-televised embarrassments, and now limping to a sad, confused end.
A Bears fan can be excused for a premature baseball celebration in the middle of December.
First it was the White Sox, still reverting to their go-for-broke instincts to please their 78-year-old owner and a small, cranky fanbase. A trade for pitcher Jeff Samardzija solidified what is now one of the game’s top starting rotations, notable for the cleverly-negotiated contracts for Chris Sale and Jose Quintana that allow for payroll flexibility. That’s why they could also sign veteran reliever David Robertson away from the Yankees, and they did that too, with more set to come.
Next were the Cubs in the wee hours, landing the biggest free agent prize with the richest contract in team history, out-bidding the Red Sox for Jon Lester with a deal worth $155 million over six years, and signaling the onset of their own intention to win right now.
This was more than just the addition of a top player. By successfully recruiting Lester, Cubs boss Theo Epstein earned validation for a deliberate rebuild of an entire organization. He had set out to construct a baseball machine, and had been tinkering in his workroom for years, assembling and fusing the highest quality parts. With the splashy hiring of manager Joe Maddon followed by the acquisition of Lester, the machine has been turned on, the power switch flipped. Now, all of baseball is hearing something hum.
Just a sense of promise provides a needed, refreshing change from the drear of Bears misery, and it took baseball to do it. Sure, the Bulls are good as always and the Blackhawks are their usual selves, but those parties don’t start until spring. And it’s more powerful to feel the positive pull from two baseball franchises in the same town at the same time, allowing Bears fans of either tribe even some temporary distraction.
Being a two-team MLB market means baseball’s place in the city is second only to pro football, the game’s footprint and lengthy history undeniable.
As the Bears wither through their final games amid sour recriminations and a creeping sense of longer-term helplessness, their poor, overwhelmed coach remains a steadfast optimist, insisting everything is fine. He’s Voltaire’s Doctor Pangloss, or more aptly he’s Lt. Gorman in “Aliens,” muttering uselessly into his headset while his troops are being dismembered.
And he doesn’t have to matter so much, for a little while at least, thanks to aggressive moves from Epstein and Sox GM Rick Hahn.
On one side of town, the relentless White Sox continue to refuse to give in to economic headwinds in their bold attempt to compete while rebuilding. Working without a blueprint means perhaps they are creating one, but whatever it is deserves some credit for its sheer pugnaciousness. They just don’t want to stay down, and refuse to accept second-tier status.
On the other, a big contract signed just after midnight signals a new, exciting phase of a massive operation. Anybody paying close attention to Epstein’s consistent description of his plan from the moment he arrived in 2011 knew this time would eventually come, when patience would be rewarded.
It’s a double-dose of very good news for a sports town that really needed it.