Spring, in the four seasons metaphoric description, is always associated with “new beginnings”, and that’s just what the doctor ordered for sports fans in Chicago.
Just days after getting clobbered with a snowfall that we haven’t seen in recent years, the return of baseball this week is a sight for sore eyes in Chicago. Pitchers and catchers will report to Arizona and Florida for the start of Spring Training this week, with most teams reporting on Wednesday and opening full squad workouts officially on Monday of next week. Thank goodness, it’s about time.
In Chicago, we’re fortunate enough to have a pretty large sports market that features an NFL franchise, NHL franchise, an NBA franchise and a handful of collegiate football and basketball programs that reside in major Division I conferences for our fall/winter viewing pleasure. The problem with this winter is, save for the red-hot Loyola Ramblers, they all suck.
The Bears have been bad for some time now, and this season saw the three-year John Fox era coming to a welcomed close after yet another losing season. A season that saw the Bears showcase one of the most pedestrian offensive attacks in football, ranking 29th in the NFL in points per game (16.9). Fox and his staff are out, and Ryan Pace has hired Matt Nagy and an impressive field of coordinators to lead the Bears in 2018, but there’s a lot of questions still to be answered in free-agency and the draft, so we shall see in the coming months where that goes.
The Bulls are awful on most nights after joining the White Sox in the “rebuilding” party that is sweeping across professional sports, where teams bottom out and then build back up again with young talent. Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn all look promising as the future of the Bulls, but like the Bears, there’s plenty to be addressed in the upcoming offseason before they’re close to contention again.
Outside of Northwestern winning a bowl game after a late season surge, and the Ramblers of Loyola flirting with an NCAA Tournament bid next month, the collegiate scene has been a major let-down this fall/winter as well. Illinois looks awful in both football and basketball. Lovie Smith’s Fighting Illini went 2-10 and laid an egg in Big Ten play going 0-9 and finishing 7th in the conference. Brad Underwood’s hoops squad in Champaign has been nearly just as bad this season, sitting at 12-14 and a dismal 2-11 in the Big Ten. Admittedly, the hoops program looks to be in much better shape moving forward with Underwood at the helm, but this season was a major stinker for the blue and orange.
DePaul opened a new arena in November, and they are still looking for a Big East win on their new home floor, sitting near the bottom of the Big East with little time remaining in the regular season. While DePaul has improved vastly this season, their trio of conference wins have all come on the road, and have been over-shadowed by a laundry list of heart-breaking losses that they could have won if they had another shooter to close games outside of junior Max Strus. UIC recently had a seven-game winning streak snapped, but have little-to-no hope to be dancing next month.
Northwestern hoops actually entered the season as one of the bright spots this season, ranked No. 21 after their NCAA Tournament bid last spring, but the Wildcats were tamed by a March Madness hangover that has them as a fringe bubble team for the big dance with just two weeks left in the regular season.
And then there’s the Blackhawks, the team that has given us a decade-long playoff streak and a trio of Stanley Cup Championships in Chicago, who are currently free-falling in the standings. The ‘Hawks have lost six consecutive after getting shelled by the Arizona Coyotes, the worst team in the NHL. With roughly a quarter of the schedule left, the Blackhawks playoff chances are on life support, making them by far the most disappointing of the bunch for Chicago sports fans this winter.
Enter baseball, and everything that comes with it — the warm weather, the afternoons at the ballpark with an ice cold beer and a bag of peanuts, the pin-wheels and fireworks under the night sky at 35th & Shields, or the bullpen dance parties behind the ivy-laden walls of Wrigley Field — and the start of Spring Training is without a doubt the most overdue sports event in Chicago in a very long time.
It doesn’t matter what side of town you’re baseball allegiance lies, I know damn well that we’re on the same page on this one. The Cubs are set for another run at the National League pennant this season, and the White Sox have a promising crop of talent with a future shining as bright as the Arizona sunshine they’re about to embark on. Both sides of town have reason to be excited for their respective clubs upcoming campaigns.
There’s a foot of snow on draping the ground here in Chicago, and the winter sports season and the Blackhawks dynasty is coming to a screeching halt, but hope springs eternal on the backfields in Glendale and Mesa, Arizona this week. Many players have already reported to camp early, equally as excited about the upcoming season as we are, and the rest will join the party by this time next week.
Soon enough our timelines and Twitter feeds will be flooded with news coming from camp, and in just two weeks Cactus League action will feature the defending National League Central Champion’ Chicago Cubs and the up and coming Chicago White Sox.
For the Cubs, the story lines will consist of whether or not the addition of Yu Darvish and a re-tooled bullpen can get them past the Dodgers this fall, who will hit lead-off in 2018, will Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber bounce back from a disappointing 2017 campaign, and is Willson Contreras ready to establish himself among the elite catchers in baseball?
The White Sox excitement will be focused on the future, but projections be damned, if Michael Kopech and Eloy Jimenez join the party in June and the youngsters on the Southside can put it together, there’s a real possibility that this excitement could shift from the future to the now in the form of a Wild Card race this fall.
Will Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada continue their late-season success from 2017, and become the mainstay up the middle for the White Sox? Can Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez find success in their first full major league campaigns? The future of many hopeful youngsters will be hinged upon this season, and the hope for the future of White Sox baseball will conversely be hinged upon the success of those same youngsters, making 2018 an exciting season to be on the Southside.
Regardless of expectations, or what could be, the exit of a historically slow baseball offseason coupled with a dismal winter sports season in Chicago has baseball the talk of the town, and for good reason. Welcome back baseball, we missed you.