It's been 103 years since the Cubs called themselves World Series champions, and more than a half-century since they've even contended in the game.
As the sentiment shifted from "this is the year" to "maybe next year" last season—one that saw 91 losses overall and way more losses than wins by July—something remarkable happened. A reliably and historically packed ballpark, even in the worst of times, began to see empty seats and gaps in the bleachers. Fans weren't just leaving after beer sales ceased, they were simply not showing up at all.
But Cub fans say there are glimmers of hope this season, which kicks off with the home opener Thursday against Washington, even as experts and analysts predict the team will be one of the worst in the league. For one thing, a new president of baseball operations, Theo Epstein—who, as the youngest general manager in the history of baseball, broke the Boston Red Sox's World Series drought—represents a new chapter for the team. For another, investment in younger players like Starlin Castro, who stand a chance at becoming break-out stars, is giving some fans reasons to hope.
"I think last year kind of drew the line for us Cubs fans," said Zack Serceo, 25, of Garfield Ridge. "We were sick and tired of being losers. It's time to take up that Sox fan's motto: 'What have you done for me lately?' "
Last season was a reckoning of sorts, Serceo said, when even the most dedicated Cubs fans began to have enough. He didn't attend a single game in 2011, when the idea of a packed stadium during a terrible run went from being a point of pride to being a badge of shame.
The numbers reflect that sentiment.
Total attendance in 2011 was down 1.5 percent compared to the previous year, at 3,017,966. The average daily attendance dropped by 555, and that's not accounting for no-shows, which the club tracks but does not release. But Serceo said he'll be back this year, if only for the hope that new leadership will lead to more exciting games at Wrigley.
"Just win, play hard and win baseball games," Serceo said. "Finally be that team that steps up and says, 'We're not going to let you win.' "
Heather Manning, a 33-year-old season ticket-holder from Wicker Park, is a realist about the season.
"You have to be an eternal optimist as a Cubs fan," she said. "This year, I feel like the optimism is a little more realistic. I think a lot of it is going to come down to individual performance." If the team wins more games than they've lost, that's enough reason for her to watch.
Manning has seen it all, having attended about 10 games a year over the last seven years. She saw the team clinch the division in 2007. She also sat about 30 rows away from fan Steve Bartman as he wrote himself into the pages of Cubs history in 2003. That was the year Bartman infamously reached for a ball that could have been caught by left-fielder Moises Alou, derailing the inning and—in hindsight, for many fans—marking the beginning of the end for the team's World Series hopes.
But 2012 is not 2003.
Dave Hawse hopes the team can hold the interest of fans, both as a loyalist himself and a bar general manager blocks from Wrigley. The 32-year-old from the Gold Coast manages Red Ivy, which last year saw less business as a result of what he said was a decreased interest in the team.
"Our business revolves around the Cubs, it revolves around Wrigley Field," he said. "We want consistency throughout the whole season."
As a fan, there's a simple way the Cubs can keep up interest, he said. He's seen it in Spring Training already: "The team just needs to make the games enjoyable to watch, and at least look like they are trying."
"I can understand if the Cubs lose because they are outhit or outpitched," he said. "But not out-hustled."
With Opening Day here, Manning's expectations aren't high. She feels last year was rock bottom for the North Siders, and she doesn't expect to see as many bare seats. It's a rebuilding year, and while she doesn't expect overwhelming success, there's reason to watch.
"I don't think this year is going to be awesome, I really don't," she said. "But you have to look for signs of life, and any real fan is going to look for that. You're going to want to be there for that. I think things are good. Do I think this is the year? No. Do I think this is the decade? Yes.
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