Mascot misstep trips up Cubs

CHICAGO -- It was the first week of March in his first spring training back in 2007 when Lou Piniella realized what he was in for as the new manager of the Chicago Cubs.

"This is not some push-button operation," he said then, with a laugh. "I'm starting to figure that out."

By the end of his turn as Cubs manager, Piniella was dazed and grizzled, a three-day's growth of prisoner beard attached to a guy who needed out.

He's not alone.

Everyone, from field managers to marketing managers, comes to the Cubs with a head full of ideas and dreams of championship parades.Then, you see them with bags under their eyes, a hangdog expression, shaking their heads like a bobblehead doll.

By the end of the upcoming Cubs Convention, Clark the Cub might regret not going to graduate school for his MFA (Mascot Furry Arts) degree.

People come and lame mascots go, but working for the Cubs always comes at a price.

Have you seen the gray hairs on Theo Epstein's head lately?

The mascot flop of 2014 is just another link in the chain.

When the Cubs announced the creation of a furry, pants-less mascot earlier this week, it set off a wave of incredulity and hilarity online and off. Far from a Twitter joke phenomenon, Clark the Cub was also mocked from Deadspin to Keith Olbermann's Show to the New Yorker.

Yes, the revulsion toward Clark cuts across cultural boundaries.

Nationally, the Cubs will always be a joke until they win a World Series. That's part of the deal.

And locally, when a mascot is your biggest addition (with apologies to new manager Rick Renteria and reliever Wesley Wright) in an offseason that followed 197 losses in two years, you should expect some blowback.

It's difficult to pull off something as naively unironic as a mascot introduction in a world where snark travels faster than light.

It's even more difficult when the artistic rendering of said mascot has such a high count of "Poochiness," it's impossible to take it seriously.

You don't need to be a cultural critic to note there is something altogether lame about the entire idea. And here's why.

The one thing the Cubs can sell to their fans is authenticity. Wrigley Field has it. The Cubs have it. A new mascot does not have it. A better time to introduce Clark would've been in a few years, when Wrigley was getting remodeled and there was a reason to pay attention to this team besides mocking it.

Still, it's a harmless thing, really. Everyone gets that. But the Cubs don't get much in the way of leeway these days.

Between the historical nature of the organization's most basic failure -- 105 years and counting! -- coupled with its recent long-term plan to openly forgo competing at a major league level while they build a dominant farm system, the Cubs just aren't very likeable.

The Cubs are spinning this debacle as a misunderstanding compounded by the echo chamber of meanness of Internet-style writing. Of course, the White Sox endured a disastrous mascot rollout in the 1980s, but why let common sense ruin an argument.

And of course, Clark is for the children. You can't hate on a mascot who goes to children's hospitals.

But there's more to it than that. Cubs ticket sales are way, way down from their peak before Tom Ricketts bought the team in a heavily leveraged deal. Interest is sewer-low.

So what do you do in that situation to market the team? You introduce "family-friendly" ideas. Kids don't care that they have better OPS+ numbers than Darwin Barney. They want to run the bases, eat ice cream out of a helmet and see a furry bear with a backward hat.

I'm sure that's what the Cubs' focus groups told them, anyway.

Of course, the baseball operations department and marketing department have almost nothing to do with each other. Time spent concocting the Clark rollout did not affect the time spent on scouting and developing young players, or in the case of Epstein's interest in the major league team, time spent scouring the waiver wire.

But each group, marketing and baseball, has to live with the other one to put out a unified product.

On one hand, it's difficult to market a team with few recognizable players, no real identity and a lousy record. On the other, it's difficult to put together a competent major league roster without a major league budget.

Until the Wrigley renovations take shape and start providing revenue, and until more profitable TV and radio deals are signed, and until the young prospects make the majors … Well, that's what being a Cubs fan is like today.

It's a lot of waiting.

The Cubs, from Ricketts to Epstein, have basically told their fans to be patient for the past two years, and more patience should be expected this season and maybe next.

While many Cubs fans are fine with this arrangement because they see the good times ahead, many more don't want to be patient, and they shouldn't be expected to fall in line. After all, what is fan short for?

No matter how informed you are about the process of building a team from the ground up, being a fan is really about basking in reflected glory through a bunch of strangers who wear a uniform representing your city.

It's about yelling and cheering and enjoying yourself, either at home, at a bar or at the game. And when you have nothing to root for, you find things to root against.

An inauthentic, focus-group tested mascot is perfect.

Poor Clark was teed up by the team so perfectly, even the actual Cubs hitters could knock him onto Waveland Avenue.