CHICAGO TRIBUNE / DANIEL I. DORFMAN
For a franchise whose last World Series championship occurred when Teddy Roosevelt resided in the White House, there have been many rebuilding plans. So there might have been some cynicism when Cubs fans were told young talent was on the way and a bright future for the team was ahead.
It’s probably fair to say names like Joe Maddon, Jake Arrieta and Kris Bryant have stifled those suspicions, at least for the moment, leaving local fans and business owners rejoicing.
Now finishing his 11th season as the Cubs TV play-by-play man, Glencoe resident Len Kasper endured some rough nights from 2010-14 when the team averaged 69.2 wins a season. But Kasper, like everyone else, had been told of the young talent being stockpiled by the Theo Epstein-led management team. In 2015, everything finally came together with the Cubs making their first playoff appearance since 2008.
“It’s been the most fun season I’ve witnessed,” Kasper said by email in recent days. “This team is so likable, so enjoyable, so entertaining. And to think this is just the beginning, it’s pretty darn cool.
“It feels especially good knowing Cubs fans everywhere are enjoying a winning team for the first time in awhile. The building process was fascinating to chronicle, but this season has been absolutely magical.”
Not surprisingly with the reversal of fortune on the field, Kasper has enjoyed a larger audience to entertain and inform.
Comcast SportsNet saw a 120 percent increase in ratings this year, according to station spokesman Jeff Nuich. Along similar lines, attendance at Wrigley Field is nearing three million fans this season, far exceeding last year’s count of about 2.6 million.
That spike in Cubs interest can be seen in some local establishments as well, as fans are coming in and watching games more regularly than has been the case in recent seasons.
“The biggest difference this year when they are on is that everyone wants the TV turned to the Cubs,” noted George Stavrou, the owner of the Valley Lodge Tavern in Wilmette. “People are asking more questions, they want to know who is pitching. They just seem to be more involved in the game. People are paying a lot more attention.”
Stavrou said one of his occasional customers is Wilmette native Tom Ricketts, who he said last stopped in around Labor Day.
The buzz for the Cubs is sensed up north in Highland Park, as well, where Richard Holleb is one of the two proprietors of Norton’s Restaurant.
“We are a sports bar, so any time that we have a local team doing well, that is big,” Holleb said. “Hockey has been a huge draw over the last eight years and when the Sox were doing well, that was good. Now that the Cubs are doing well, we are showing increased interest in the TVs.”
Fans all over the Chicago area – and around the nation – have been re-energized by the 2015 renaissance. But two Glencoe residents have deep connections to the North Side franchise and they are simply thrilled.
Carol Haddon, a season ticket holder since 1971, sits in the first row behind the Cubs dugout at Wrigley Field. This will be only her 12th time watching a team that finished above .500.
“This season gave me confidence in the plan outlined by Theo Epstein. I’ve seen so much bad baseball over the past few years and I am totally appreciative of the performance delivered by the young players,” Haddon said. “Kyle Schwarber is one year from the draft and has performed at the great level. Kris Bryant has been great and Addison Russell is the dancer from hell.”
Local businessman Andrew Berlin has had an interesting first year as an investor in the Cubs. Berlin is the owner of the South Bend Cubs, a Class A minor league farm club. Berlin has been an investor in the White Sox, but he said those shares are now in a trust fund following purchasing an undisclosed portion of the Cubs in February.
“When I bought into the team, I had the chance to talk with Tom Ricketts, Theo Epstein and (senior vice president) Jason McLeod,” Berlin said. “I got a much better vision of their plan to make it to the World Series. Everyone had confidence their farm system was fantastic. The plan was the talent would be ready in 2016, but we are pleased and mildly surprised that the team has jelled so beautifully in 2015.”
While there have been a lot of victories to celebrate, Berlin pinpoints his favorite moment of the year as a dinner in Arizona with Joe Maddon, the Cubs manager who has earned much acclaim leading the young roster.
“He is one cool cat,” Berlin said of Maddon. “He is a brilliant manager and leader. He is inspirational and loyal and I think his players respond to those qualities.”
Now the focus shifts to the postseason, where the Cubs have not won a single game since 2003, losing nine straight in three different series.
Major League Baseball added a Wild Card play-in game to the playoffs in 2012, which potentially can work both ways for the Cubs. If not for the postseason expansion, there would not be any playoff baseball this year for the Cubs, yet Berlin and Haddon wonder how fair it is to have qualifying for the next round determined by one game that will be played on Oct. 7.
“It’s unfortunate that it is only one game, but those are the rules and we have to abide by it,” Berlin said.
“I’m almost afraid that after this sterling season, a single game can determine the fate,” Haddon added.
Yet after all the victories he has called in 2015, Kasper expresses some optimism that Chicago will be wrapped up in baseball for the next several weeks.
“This team could go deep into October,” he said. “I wouldn’t bet against them.”