NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Fans of the Chicago Cubs come up with all kinds of explanations for the team's epic ineptitude: the curse of the Billy Goat, Steve Bartman's 2003 foul ball catch, and generations of incompetent management. In the Wall Street Journal today, Rich Cohen comes to a different conclusion: Wrigley Field. Destroy it, annihilate it, he wrote. Implosion or explosion, get rid of it, not merely the structure but the ground on which it stands.
So, Cub fans, what's the source of all your suffering? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Wall Street Journal contributor Rich Cohen joins us now from his office in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Nice to have you with us today.
RICH COHEN: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And why take out understandable frustration on one of the most beloved and historic parks in baseball?
COHEN: Well, you're hearing the plea of a Cubs fan. You know, I grew up in Chicago. And 1984, the Cubs were one game away from going to the World Series, and they collapsed. And ever since then I've sort of suffered, I believe, from that. And I suffer like Cubs fans suffer. And looking at it, what is it, you know, that the Cubs can't - why the Cubs can't win. And what's incredible about the Cubs is that they have one of the - of all the teams in baseball, I think they're very close to having the most wins. They have the single best season.
And in the early part of the game, they were the dominant team. And that continued basically until they moved in to Wrigley Field. And since they moved into Wrigley Field, they've done nothing but lose. The only time they made it to the World Series was 1945, and that was still a war year when there weren't teams with full rosters and a lot of the great players weren't even back yet, and they lost.
So I'm trying to sort of force a rethink here. I've gone through excitement about Dusty Baker coming, about Lou Piniella coming, now about Theo Epstein coming, and I'm just thinking, what's the real problem here? And the thing I keep coming up with is Wrigley Field, as sacrilegious as that might be to fans.
CONAN: And one of the people you spoke to in the course of this investigation, as it were, you mentioned one of the general managers of the team in years past saying the field, because of the way the weather works, you can't build a team around that ballpark.
COHEN: Right. I did this story a whole bunch of years ago for Harper's magazine, trying to figure out why the Cubs can't win. That was in 2000, I think. And when I joined the team, they happened to go on like a 12-game losing streak. Nothing like being around a team when they're losing 12 games in a row. And I interviewed Andy MacPhail, who'd come to the Cubs and was like Theo Epstein. I mean he had won two World Series in Minnesota, and he was from sort of baseball royalty. And I asked him, why can't the Cubs win?
And he said one of the really tough things about building a team in Chicago is there's sort of no home field advantage. Everybody thinks it's this incredible hitter's park, and it is when the wind blows out. But when the wind blows in, nobody can hit a home run. So you can't build a home-run-hitting team and you can't build a team around a lot of pitchers that throw balls that get hit for long flies. So he said you certainly almost have to build an all-star team, which is impossible, whereas teams like the Yankees, the Red Sox, they have these parks that allow them to sort of cheat and give themselves this huge home field advantage.
And Yankees - for the Yankees it was always left-handed power hitters who could reach the short porch, things that wouldn't be home runs in other parks. And of course in Boston it's the big green monster that guys can sort of bang doubles off of. The Cubs don't have that.
CONAN: The secret of success in Fenway Park eluded the Red Sox for, well, a large number of years.
COHEN: Yeah. Well, that's something that's funny. You know, people responding to this sort of say, what about the Red Sox? They didn't tear Fenway Park down, and the Red Sox then won. Well, I take the point, but the Red Sox are a little different. The Red Sox have been good, really good, many, many years. One of the biggest problems for the Red Sox is to get to the World Series they had to play the Yankees. So the Red Sox were great with all the years of Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio and all those teams, but they had to get by the Red - they had to get by the Yankees.
And the Red Sox, even more recently, Bucky Dent, all these years, they're close. It's a different kind of pain. It's different being close and not making it from being 20 games out of first place. I remember, there's a great radio guy in Chicago, Steve Dahl, and he used to joke that if the Cubs were more than 20 games out of first place at the all-star break, they should turn Wrigley Field into a park for the summer, they have King Richard Faire's, where they say things like, would ye like to see the dugout?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
COHEN: And I always sort of felt that. You know, it was sort of like it was great to have the park, but I kind of felt like sometimes I'd like to have the team.
CONAN: That, in fact, the park is too darn nice, you say.
COHEN: Yeah. Well, you know, there's a conspiracy theory about the Cubs, which is at a certain point after William Wrigley, who bought the team, died, his - the people that took over from him weren't so interested. His, you know, descendants weren't so interested in baseball, and they sort of substituted the experience of going to the park for winning. So now, you have these people that talk about how just great it is to be at Wrigley Field, to be outside and all of these things, and it's sort of like the park gets filled up whether they win or lose. And I do believe that the Cubs owners really want to win.
And I'm not saying that the fact that the team doesn't win is because it's great to go to, but I do think a psychology sets in over time, where if the Cubs have a .500 record, that's enough. You know, if the Cubs ever finish near the top, that's enough. And it's a whole culture bred by expectations of a hundred years. You know, Jack Brickhouse famously said everybody's entitled to a bad century. But now, we're past a century.
CONAN: Let's see if we get to Steve on the line. Steve calling us from Toledo.
STEVE: Good afternoon.
STEVE: I grew up in Chicago, went to school about three blocks from Wrigley Field at Lamar, and I live in Toledo now, and I'm still a die-hard Cubs fan. And I think you're absolutely right because I told my wife the other night that the Cubs had not won a World Series since 1908, and they got in Wrigley Field in 1914. So obviously, they can't win in Wrigley Field.
STEVE: Then you build a new field. When they do, I think you're going to lose your fan base. I think the reason the Cubs don't win is two things: They bring in guys like Soriano, give 'em long-term contracts, and then they don't produce at all. And they bring in guys who buy into the idea that you don't need to win in Chicago, you just come in and have fun.
STEVE: They need to bring a guy in who can get the players to buy into the idea that those days are over. It's time for a World Series. I've been a Cubs fan since '54. I'm waiting for the non-rebuilding years. They should make for the final product before, you know, I like to see a World Series in my lifetime. I'm taking my granddaughter, who is now 7 - or 10, to the Cubs games. I hope she sees a World Series.
CONAN: Just a couple of small corrections. 1916, I think, Wrigley Field opened. And it...
STEVE: 1914 wasn't it?
COHEN: '16 was the first season they played in Wrigley.
STEVE: '16, OK.
CONAN: And Alfonso Soriano, you referred to as recently described, I think, in USA Today today, as the worst contract in baseball.
COHEN: Ah. He was so great with the Yankees, too. You know, the thing about it is I just think that, you know, when I did that story all that time ago for Harper's that I mentioned, I interviewed Joe Girardi, who was then on the Cubs after having been on the Yankees, and he seem like the perfect person to ask, 'cause I think his from Peoria, Illinois. He grew up as a Cub fan.
CONAN: Went to Northwestern.
COHEN: Yup. And a great guy. And I asked him, you know, what do you think the Cubs haven't been able to win? And he said, look, go walk around Yankees Stadium and look what you see, the pictures they have. And it's all pictures in the clubhouse of the team celebrating victories and World Series and championships together on the mound. And in the Cubs clubhouse at that time, what they have was a lot of pictures of individuals getting individual accomplishments, you know?
So you had guys like, you know, Sammy Sosa or Dave Kingman, when I was a kid, who hit all those home runs. You know, but you didn't have the team. And about rebuilding, I remember that when Michael Jordan was either about to re-sign another contract and the Bulls are talking about letting him go, and Jerry Krause, who was the GM of the Bulls, said, we're going to start rebuilding, and Michael Jordan said, look at the Cubs, they've been rebuilding for a hundred years.
CONAN: Let's go next to Kim. Kim with us from Jacksonville.
KIM: Yes. My grandfather was Charlie Grimm.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KIM: The last manager to take them to a pennant. So I have begged for the Cubs to win a World Series forever.
KIM: For like my whole life. And Wrigley Field is a beautiful field.
COHEN: Yes, it...
KIM: Don't tear it down.
COHEN: Yes, it is. I mean - but you got to really think about it. I mean, some of it is like an exercise of forcing you to really think about what's the problem here. I mean, there's not a money problem. The Cubs are spending the money. They're getting great people. So what really is the problem, I mean, for a hundred years? The moment, I think, that I really got upset was when the Florida Marlins won the World Series, and they've been in the league for like three years.
And I was like, you know, what, this just stinks, you know, and I would like nothing more than to sit and watch a World Series game in Wrigley Field. But I really think, you know, the Cubs have to think what is the problem, and there really is a strange thing about how as soon as they started playing in Wrigley, they stopped performing.
KIM: Yeah. Well, yeah. They certainly had great players throughout the '60s with Ron Santo and the whole gang. I mean, they've had them year after year after year.
COHEN: And I thought the '84 team was incredibly great. They had Rick Sutcliffe and Sandberg, and they had Ron Cey and Steve Trout. I mean, they had - I thought they had a much better team than the San Diego Padres who beat them, and yet they lost. There was a very eerie moment in that 2003 Steve Bartman game, and what it was to me is they had a shot of Dusty Baker sitting in the dugout, and the look on his face said to me, is there a curse? I mean, he seemed to really kind of understand the idea for a second. Like, he seemed suddenly freaked out. It was like the "Twilight Zone."
KIM: Yeah. Well, you're right there. But I have it in my blood to have the Cubs win someday.
COHEN: Yup. I'm with you.
CONAN: Kim, we wish you the best of luck.
CONAN: That's if they're playing Yankees.
KIM: Thanks. Bye.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Bye-bye. It is interesting, you wrote in your piece, Rich Cohen, everybody says what a beautiful place it is. My view on this changed when I moved to New York from Chicago and took the Yankee perspective. It's not ivy that makes a place beautiful. It's winning. Conversely, a century of stinking renders even the loveliest of parks a monstrosity.
COHEN: Right. I mean, it is sort of all philosophical. It's like Cubs fans, and I'm one of them, have sort of turned the baseball field into a shrine. You know, that's about - not about the game being played and not about the team and not about winning. And if someone's, like, the team - really, the management said you'll - we'll give you the park instead of the team. And it's sort of like this idea, like what makes a place a great? And, really, when I came to New York, I saw that everything - the old Yankee stadium was kind of ugly to me.
I mean, like a Cubs fan, every place you go to that isn't Wrigley Field is ugly to you. Nothing compares to Wrigley Field. But then you sort of think what makes a baseball stadium beautiful is winning; being there and winning, and being there for those big games and those World Series that almost never happen in Wrigley Field. And I sort of thought, you know, the physical beauty of it might be a little overrated.
CONAN: It's been also said that Yankee fans don't go to the stadium to watch the Yankees play. They go to the stadium to watch the Yankees win.
CONAN: Is that - is there a problem of the fans, to some degree, in Chicago, that they become used to losing?
COHEN: Yes. I mean, I think that there's a complex, where if the team, you know, when they lost in that year in 2003, I just remember everybody cheering and the team coming out and giving like a parade on the field after they lost. And it was because they had gotten to the playoffs. And I just think expectations are very low after so many years of losing. And I do think, I mean, I think, that the owners really want to win. But I think everybody's locked into this sort of group psychosis of low expectations, and you're trying to think there's a whole paradigm here that's governed the Cubs for my entire life, and you have to sort of blow it up.
Now, I said literally blow it up, Wrigley Field, OK, but even metaphorically blow it up. Something big has got to change. Maybe that'll be with Theo Epstein. But every couple of years, they bring in some sort of messiah, and it doesn't work.
CONAN: Rich, thanks very much for your time today.
COHEN: Thank you.
CONAN: Rich Cohen, a contributor for The Wall Street Journal. He joined us from his office in Ridgefield, Connecticut. His piece, "Why Wrigley Field Must Be Destroyed," ran in today's copies of the paper. You can find a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. His book, "The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King," comes out next month. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.