I was driving toward Wrigleyville yesterday to meet a former Cubs colleague – Randy Bush – for lunch (he treated, so he better get a shout out in the opening paragraph. Thanks Randy!).
As I was heading south on I-94, a sports update was on the radio. The Rockies were closing in on a deal with free agent Greg Holland. The Athletics had signed free agent Adam Rosales. The Dodgers and Athletics had completed a trade. All of that was mentioned at the top of the sports update – before Super Bowl preparations.
It’s late January, and there is still plenty of activity going on.
In other words, it’s not like it used to be. And that’s OK.
I couldn’t help but think back to my baseball beginnings – when this was “The Calm Before the Storm” part of the year.
Back in my media relations days, the downtime in the calendar – and sometimes the only slow point of the year – was the last couple weeks of January and the first 10 days of February.
Up until around 2004 (I’ll get to that later on), the team was basically set by Christmas. You had your annual free agent feeding frenzy wrapping up at the Winter Meetings. You had trades taking place from the end of the World Series through the end of the calendar year. The rest of your smaller moves and ancillary acquisitions took place the first couple weeks of the new year. There was a general belief that players wanted to know who they would be playing for by the holidays; teams felt that way, too. There wasn’t a whole lot of transacting going on once the calendar flipped to January.
By the second half of January, the key first month events – the Cubs Caravan and the Cubs Convention – were off the plate. Also, since the team you were taking to spring training was already in place, the Media Guide – my yearly off-season baby – was getting its finishing touches and heading to the printer.
So other than trips to the printer in Waukegan to check on the Media Guide as it hit the press, this was the quietest stretch of the year.
Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock.
You sat and waited for nothing to happen.
You took whatever excitement you could get, breathlessly typing the press release announcing the date that the equipment truck would be leaving for spring training.
You took whatever excitement you could get, breathlessly walking around the TV crews showing up to film the equipment truck being loaded for spring training.
You counted down the days until you, too, were on that airplane to spring training.
And then you sat around and waited for something to happen at the beginning of training camp – when pitchers throw to catchers before the infielders and outfielders report. But that’s another story.
Why am I telling you all this? Because if you’re waiting and waiting – and waiting some more – for the season to start again, then I totally get how you’re feeling. To quote my inner Tom Petty, the waiting is the hardest part.
Truth-be-told, it’s mostly quiet on the Cubs front right now, too, just like in the good old days – although the excuse this year is World Series-related. Winning championships with a bunch of young core players tends to do that.
But I do have to say listening to all the activity on the radio reminded me that it wasn’t always quiet for me with during this time of the year. In fact, the baseball landscape was just starting to change after I moved to the Baseball Operations department.
During the 2003-2004 off-season, players weren’t signing as quickly as they had before. And it wasn’t just the lesser guys; some bigger name players were still on the board as spring training neared.
One in particular was still out there, a former Cubs Cy Young Award winner by the name of Greg Maddux.
Some agents had figured out that signing early wasn’t always in their clients’ best interests. If you wait, teams with need might be willing to spend more.
In the past, the perception was that teams were out of dough by Christmas – so you had to get that money early. That thought process was starting to be put to the test.
Maddux was allowed to leave the Cubs as a free agent after the 1992 season. He went to Atlanta for 11 years – where he “only” won 194 games and Cy Youngs two, three and four.
Meanwhile, the Cubs were only five outs away from getting to the World Series in 2003 (you might know that story). The rotation of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement looked pretty young and pretty solid – but who wouldn’t want to add a proven veteran leader like Maddux?
The courtship of Maddux was legit, but it wasn’t a quick process. The typical off-season I was used to was changing, but the wooing process of Maddux dragged on and on.
Cue Tom Petty …
“The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part.”
January turned to February. February went from cold Chicago to sunny Mesa.
It was early evening mid-February as a sat in my rental home in Mesa – when I got the call from Jim Hendry.
“It’s done! Greg Maddux is a Chicago Cub. He said you should give him a call.”
I was with the Cubs when Maddux was called up to the majors. I was with the Cubs as he rose year-by-year from youngster to rotation ace to 20-game/Cy Young Award winner. And I was there all those years when he pitched in Atlanta – and he made fun of me every time he saw me.
I could only guess where that conversation would lead.
So it was with great delight when I picked up the phone and called him. If nothing else, I wanted to hear my name.
“Hey Wassermacher,” he said. “I have a new car, and I don’t trust this map system. How do I get there?”
Sometimes, the waiting was the best part.