I love my team, please destroy it

Why the only thing worse than a bad team is a bad team that won’t admit it

On July 31, 2004, the Chicago Cubs lost to the Philadelphia Phillies 4-3, but I didn’t care.

At the same time that Matt Clement, he of the transiently famous goatee, gave up four runs in seven innings in his losing effort, Jim Hendry scored the real win for the team.

He put the finishing touches on a doozy of a four-way trade, which saw the Cubs give up their starting shortstop Alex S. Gonzalez and prospects Brendan Harris, Justin Jones and Francis Beltran. In return, they picked up Nomar Garciaparra, the former star of the Boston Red Sox.

Now, Nomar had a decent but not great final two months of the season for the Cubs, who fell just short of winning the Wild Card. In fact, the other player the Red Sox threw in, a little red-headed prospect named Matt Murton, would give the Cubs more value than Nomar by most statistical measures — and Murton’s career with the Cubs was nothing to write home about.

But for a few weeks in late 2004, it was Nomah fever in Wrigley. The onetime batting champ and Rookie of the Year had brought his lumber, leather and OCD batting stance to the contending Cubs, who had suddenly gotten better and could see (fleetingly) October baseball.

It was a deadline deal, a trade — and isn’t that a peculiar concept we never think about, swapping around people like chattel — made at the last possible moment before the Major League Baseball rulebook slams down and says no more.* Trades made in the offseason cast their gaze out over a full 162 games. Fans and journalists can analyze and dissect the trades for months before the players acquired ever done their new team’s uniform. But on July 31, the contenders-that-might of February have become contenders-that-are of July, more than halfway through the season. The trade is made and the next day your team’s new player is frenetically adjusting his batting gloves at the plate. There’s an excitement, an energy to the great trades (and even to the trades where you know your team gave up too much for its new star) that’s hard to beat.

But of course it takes two to trade. Every trade where a baseball team acquires a star slugger involves a team saying goodbye to a star slugger. And while some deals are swaps of equals, the most common trade deadline deal involves good teams picking up the good players from bad teams, who are left with the younger, cheaper future players we call prospects.

Life on the bottom side of a trade isn’t quite as fun. The ace pitcher who led your team to the verge of glory just a year or two ago is suddenly being dumped, still surging with talent, because the billionaire who owns the team wants to save a few million dollars off a $100 million payroll. Players you’ve rooted for, cheered at, purchased memorabilia of, are suddenly gone. In their place are a few kids just a year or two out of high school. In five years they could be an All-Star, or they could be washed up, as forgotten as Justin Jones or Frances Beltran. They give you nothing at the present and even their future is uncertain.

And yet, and yet. As agonizing as it is to watch your team trade away its able veterans for callow youths, there’s one thing worse: watching your team not take this painful step.

As exhibit A for this rare but tragic occurrence, I offer up the 2011 Chicago Cubs. This is not a team to stir mens’ hearts. Rather, it’s a team who at projected to be mediocre and have spent most of the season determinedly failing to meet those meagre expectations. (I gave up on them two months ago.) It’s an old team, the remnants of the great 2008 Cubs now three years past their primes. Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Dempster, Kosuke Fukudome — all overpaid, all underperforming, all old and aging. Supporting them are a B-list crew: Marlon Byrd, Jeff Baker, Blake DeWitt, Koyie Hill. Useful players all of them, but none of them destined to be an important part of the 2012 Chicago Cubs.

I hold little ill will against them. Soriano and Fukudome, both frequent targets of Wrigley Field boo-birds, did not receive my contempt. Fukudome, in fact, I admired, a player in over his head but still useful, a professional hitter. Zambrano is polarizing and I’m on the positive pole, loving his antics and the days when “Good Carlos” pitches, and gritting my teeth and enduring when “Bad Carlos” shows up on the mound. Dempster, Byrd, Baker — all good ballplayers and, as near as one can tell, good people.

But none of them have any use for the Chicago Cubs.

And I want them gone, replaced by people who might someday have something to offer.

Not all of them, of course, you can’t blow up the team entirely. But many of them. Players like Byrd, Baker, and Carlos Pena could make a big difference for contenders clawing for a playoff spot. They could all bring prospects in return, players who might be striking out batters or hitting home runs for the 2015 Cubs.

And what did the Cubs do this July?

For starters, they traded Fukudome to the Cleveland Indians for a pair of mid-level prospects.

And then… nothing.

No other moves.

The same other 24 players who’ve conspired to drive this baseball team 22 games under .500 are all still around, all ready to contribute their unique brands of mediocrity as they play out the string on this lost season.

I’m not alone in making this observation. The Cubs should have — needed to — sell off players. Instead, they stood pat as management made noises about being still in the race, pretending they believed the words coming out of their mouths. This inactivity is “bone-headed” and “completely dumbfounding,” writes Jonah Keri, who notes that “there is no clearer mark of trade deadline cluelessness than the noncontending team that does nothing.”

So I don’t have much sympathy for you Astros fans, mourning the losses of Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn. You will reap the rewards of those trades in years to come. But when future Cubs teams take the field alongside Starlin Castro and Brett Jackson and Andrew Cashner and a cast of journeymen and scrubs, there will be no remnants of Ramirez, Dempster or Zambrano in the hallowed confines of Wrigley Field other than that lonely 2008 division champs banner flapping out towards the left field bleachers in a stiff 20 mph breeze that the Cubs still can’t manage to hit a clutch deep fly into.

*Yes, I know about the post-waiver trade period and all that. No, I didn’t think it worthwhile to interrupt my flow to lay out this process. For those curious: before the trade deadline, teams can make trades almost without restriction. After the trade deadline, players can only be traded once they “clear waivers” — a process in which a player is made available to all the teams. Any team can claim a player on waivers, at which point the waiving team can either cancel the waivers and keep the player, negotiate a trade with the claiming team, or simply turn the player and his whole contract to the claiming team without receiving any compensation. If a player makes it through the waiver period without being claimed, he has “cleared waivers” and can be traded to any team.