When I was a freshman in high school I somehow convinced my mother that if I achieved a certain GPA my reward should be a trip in the middle of January, away from the mild clime of southern California to attend the Cubs Convention that I’d been hearing about all summer on WGN. What a Cubs Convention was, I didn’t really know, but if it involved the Cubs I knew I wanted to be there.
That first convention was a whirlwind. I met Harry Caray, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks and many more great Cub legends and had them all sign my Cubs branded baseball as my mom snapped away with a disposable camera to preserve the memories. I loved every minute of it, not counting the sub-zero temperatures and every winter I long to go back.
I’ve attended three more times since my initial Con, and only this year have I gotten a companion willing to attend a second time. I try not to take it personally.
While each Convention has been different, this year provided some new bumps in the road. First, the obvious. The Cubs are the reigning World Series champions. Yay! Which leads to opportunists and bandwagon fans. Boo! It also leads to the Cubs selling more admissions than in years past according to many of the team employees I spoke with. The Convention-related areas of the Sheraton Hotel were a teeming mass of humanity the entire weekend, which leads into bump number two. Due to medical issues, I don’t move around very well these days, which necessitated my acquisition of a wheelchair for the weekend. While most people were very helpful, there was a select portion of the conventioneers who were completely oblivious to the fact that I was trying to travel through the common areas. That got very old very quickly. Overall, these were minor quibbles and I feel like the Convention was probably my most successful yet. Had you asked me about it on Friday night, my opinion might have been a bit more bleak.
Opening Ceremonies weren’t scheduled to begin until six in the evening, with Con registration beginning at noon. Since Fridays are still workdays for most people, Lauren and I figured that we could relax, make our way from our hotel to the Sheraton (a ten to fifteen minute trip at the longest) by mid-afternoon and still beat most of the crowd. A glance at Twitter upon waking soon told me that was not going to happen. Supposedly by ten in the morning a line was forming for the Opening Ceremony and growing longer by the second. This blew my mind. While I had never been at the very front for the Ceremony in the past, I had always been able to walk in and find a viewing spot with minimal waiting around. While the prospects of getting a spot weren’t quite as dire as I had been led to believe, we still needed to register for the Convention before we could even think of doing anything else. After forty-five minutes or so, we had officially logged our attendance and gotten our SWAG bags and weekend schedules. We went to the Cubs Charities room and browsed some game-used merchandise, but nothing really caught my eye. We did, however, donate money and got a “mystery autograph” baseball. While I didn’t quite hit the lottery and get a Kris Bryant autographed ball, I did get one signed by several players from the AAGPBL, the women’s baseball league started in WW2 and featured in “A League of Their Own” that I’ve become pretty attached to.
I was still wary of waiting in line for the Opening Ceremony with several hours to go and no guarantee of admission, so Lauren and I wandered around deciding what to do next. We met Bill Buckner and didn’t even mention 1986 and purchased our Convention shirts, since the last time we had attended they sold out before we got them. We decided that we were willing to skip the Ceremony that night and instead get dinner and return for the “autograph hunt” immediately following. Once again, it seemed like we would be ahead of the crowd, since certainly most of them would be attending the ceremony. Once again we were wrong.
According to the misleading information on the schedule, the autograph hunt was to be in the same area that we had registered earlier. On returning from dinner we saw that we weren’t the only ones prioritizing the autograph hunt, so he stuck ourselves in what seemed to be a ragtag line well over an hour before the hunt was due to begin. In spite of the fact that our line mates asked the ushers in the area several times about how the line was formed, how the hunt would work and even the fact that we were in a line to begin with, no one seemed to have any answers as to what exactly was going on and kept repeating that no one had told them anything. This was the most egregious to me, having a very strong customer service background. You can’t just say that you are ill-informed and expect that to be the end of discussion. You need to find a way to get the information you require.
As the scheduled time for the hunt came and went, our line mates began leaving as well, and eventually, even my eternally optimistic self gave up too. There was one final show/panel going on as we left, but there was a very early autograph signing the next morning we wanted to attend, and honestly, I felt so defeated by the rest of the day that I didn’t want to try to do anything else that night. I was ready to swear off of the Convention, now that the Cubs had become the “it” team, it felt like they had forgotten the long-time fans who had always supported them.
We were up almost before dawn the following morning in the hope of getting to attend a meet and greet with the recently retired David Ross and were at the Sheraton well over an hour before the session was to begin. We were trying to navigate our way down to the area that the meet and greet was being held when a man associated with the Convention saw that we needed help and escorted us not only to the elevator, but to the meet and greet area as well. We chatted the whole way over and discussed our disappointment about everything that had, or had not, transpired the night before. As we began to approach our destination, the escort asked which of the meet and greets we were hoping to attend. We told him and he said he would see if he could help us. The curse of the bad Con employee struck again as the woman manning Ross’ line screeched to our new friend that David Ross’ line was full and there was no way that we were getting in that line. He didn’t seem bothered and told us to hold tight for a moment.
He disappeared but returned a few minutes later and told us to follow him and not draw attention to ourselves. We did and he snuck us through a “behind the scenes” area and put us in the very front of the David Ross line. We were astounded, as there were people waiting in the line who had been there since eleven pm the night before. Our new friend next handed me his card and said if I had any trouble getting into any of the panels that day to text him and he would help us. As it turns out, our friend was the hotel manager. We thanked him profusely then and every time we saw him for the rest of the weekend.
David Ross was wonderful, showing up early, thanking us for being there to see him and taking photos and signing autographs, including signing my baseball as “Grandpa Rossy!” All of the trials and tribulations of the previous night were forgotten and a new day dawned for the Cubs Convention.
Obviously this all took significantly less time than I had originally assumed, so we were able to see many of the booths and exhibitions while we waited for the first panel we were interested in, which included prolonged visits with all of the Cubs minor league teams and enjoying their amenities, as well as taking the opportunity to swing an actual game-used Ron Santo bat at the Louisville Slugger booth.
We had absolutely no problem getting into the panels we wanted to see, as there was a designated wheelchair section that provided a great view. We saw a panel hosted by Joe Maddon and the coaches, one with Kyle Hendricks, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery and Wade Davis and the amazing “Cubs All Star Infield” with Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist and Anthony Rizzo.
The nice thing about the panels is the opportunity to see the players as human beings and see their personalities emerge. All of the guys in question are character-first guys and very personable, which makes it fun and easy to root for them. During the All Star Infield panel, I noticed on Twitter that Anthony Rizzo’s charity was selling opportunities for a meet and greet with him, so Lauren volunteered to go and look into it for me. Unfortunately, it was $300 and at the time I couldn’t make myself pull the trigger. Looking back and having spent less at the Convention than I had budgeted for, I do somewhat regret not doing it.
In my SWAG bag from the day before I had won a spot in an autograph signing with Edwards Jr. and we headed to that next. Edwards was pleasant enough, but very quiet and didn’t really provide a chance for a photo so that was a bit of a bummer. At this point, the Convention was beginning to die down, so we did one lap of the sales floor and then headed out for some Chicago deep-dish pizza for dinner.
Even in a wheelchair and not walking very much at all the Convention wore me out every day. We didn’t stay until closing any of the three days and I was still exhausted when we got back to our hotel every night. It may have been the exhaustion that helped make this such a personally successful Convention, however. I realized from the start that I wasn’t going to be able to see everything and do everything, so I had to make conscientious decisions about the things I really wanted to experience and didn’t need to stress myself–and Lauren– out by trying to do every single thing. It was different for me, but overwhelmingly easier.
The final half-day of the Convention arrived and we had only one thing we needed to accomplish. Seeing the World Series trophy. It had been on display all weekend for people to take photos, but the line was consistently an hour wait or longer. We hoped with Sunday being a slower, more low-key day, the line for the trophy would reflect that…and it sort of did. We ended up waiting just under an hour to see it in the bizarre makeshift tent that had been setup in the parking garage of the hotel. The tent was fine, but it was a bit chilly and the single heater I noticed wasn’t quite warming the tent enough. Nor was the combined body heat of dozens of Cubs fans.
After we thawed out a bit we went to the Charity room again and met one of the all-time great closers, Lee Smith. He is a big man but sounds like “Boomhauer” from “King of the Hill.” He is a genuinely nice man, and it is honestly a crime that he is not yet in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
While we finished up with Smith I saw on Twitter that Cubs organist, Gary Pressy, was in the hotel lobby giving away some of the bobbleheads of himself that the Cubs gave away at a game the previous summer. We found him and lucked out and got one. He even signed it for us. With that, the Convention was pretty much over. There was some area with apparently tons of wiffle ball sets because–I’m not joking–we saw families walking through the hotel lobby all carrying 5-6 sets apiece. I want to know why one family needs 25 wiffle ball bats.
Overall, I’d give this World Champions edition of the Cubs Convention a solid B+. The first night was really hard and I questioned if I’d ever come to another one, but Saturday’s meeting with David Ross helped redeem that and there were very few, if any, issues from then on out.
The Cubs created the idea of a winter fanfest and still host the largest and greatest of them all, though most–if not all–teams do something in the same vein. I’m proud to have been able to go this year after having one, if not two, planned convention trips have to be cancelled in recent memory. Remember, pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in less than a month!
Until next time, keep tripping baseballs!
I have been spoiled with the offseason offerings of my favorite baseball team. For as long as I’ve been aware, the Cubs have held the Cubs Convention in the middle of January in the frozen tundra of Chicago, providing a jolt of baseball excitement for the longest suffering fans in sports. The convention has always sold out, but I have been able to attend three times and the reminder that spring training is right around the corner is always welcome.
Within the past few years I have heard about several other teams hosting pre-season fan get-togethers, including the Padres. Reports the past few years have been that the FanFest was a professionally run and much enjoyed event, so I made a point to keep my eyes out for any information about the 2014 event.
Fortunately it fell on a weekend that I was able to get away and, after acquiring “early entry” passes from a friend of a friend, my brother, Chris, and I were standing in line outside of Petco Park far too early on a Saturday morning.
Having never been before, I wasn’t sure how the autograph sessions worked. All I knew was that there were vouchers for the various sessions and that you needed a voucher to get the autograph. I misunderstood what I was told by a Padres employee and thought that the earliest sessions would be available to the early entry guests and tickets for the others would be staggered throughout the day.
Chris and I grabbed our vouchers for the Yonder Alonso/Robbie Erlin session and headed over to the Padres Garage Sale. The sale is where the Padres sell all sorts of things left over from the previous season(s), including jerseys, bats, caps, and banners that hung around the ballpark.
There was a sizable crowd when we got there, but it wasn’t unmanageable and we managed to peruse all of the items without any issues. While flipping through the jerseys I happened across a 1984 Padres “throwback” jersey that had been worn and signed by Anthony Rizzo and I was sold immediately. The funny thing is that I had thought just that morning that had I gone to the FanFest the year prior, I could maybe have grabbed a Rizzo jersey since he had been with the club sporadically throughout the 2011 season.
I wound up spending a little more than I had planned to acquire the jersey, but it is now one of the prize pieces of my baseball memorabilia collection, and well worth the expense in my mind.
After finally checking out, which took a very long time due to Wi-Fi issues with the credit card readers, Chris and I looked at the time and saw that we still had over an hour before we could even start queueing up for our autograph session, so we decided to enjoy a walking tour of the Padres clubhouse and facilities.
I had already seen the clubhouse on my tour of Petco nearly a year before, but it was a good way to kill time and there were various areas open that had not been accessible on our tour. Plus, it’s always fun to see the “behind the scenes” areas of the ballpark.
After the clubhouse, we popped out into the Padres dugout and relaxed for a few minutes as we decided what to do next.
There were several tents set up in the outfield grass, so we decided to see what was happening out there. Sidenote:One of the benefits to going to a fan event for a team that plays in a warm climate is the ability to walk on the field, a perk that is not offered on any ballpark tour that I have experienced, or even read about.
While on our way out to left field, we ran into the Friar and had to get a photo with him. The tents seemed to be for local radio stations and all of the lines to reach them were quite prohibitive, so I leapt at the outfield walls a few times, like I was robbing a home run, completely disregarding the fact that I have no jumping skills whatsoever, and decided to head up to the Alonso/Erlin signing.
The best part about having the voucher for the session was that the queue was basically just sitting in the nice shaded seats and waiting for the players to show up. They arrived on time and were fairly quick with the signings, even though they were both very good about talking with the fans who came up.
I had Alonso sign a ball for me, but unfortunately I wasn’t paying close enough attention and he signed in blue sharpie before I could ask him to use my own pen. I told him that I thought this could definitely be an All Star year for him and he thanked me and said that he was feeling really good this offseason.
I had decided not to get Erlin on a baseball, so I didn’t have him sign anything, which I regret in retrospect.
At this point Chris and I headed back to where the vouchers had been distributed to try and get some for a later autograph session. As it happened, the vouchers were not staggered throughout the day, they were given out as soon as the previous session had run out of vouchers. So, rather than waiting until 10:00am to give our the 11:30am vouchers, they were given as soon as the 11:00am session had “booked out.”
The system makes sense and I don’t have a real issue with it, though I wish that there had been better communication with the fans and more of a premium given to the early entry (read:season ticket holders) attendees. For example, two of the more desired autograph sessions were Jedd Gyorko and Andrew Cashner, both of whom only had one autograph session in the late afternoon. I would have hoped that the Padres would have had them available early, as a premium for the early entry folks.
While bummed, Chris and I weren’t devastated, as we were trying to make it to USD for the USD alumni game featuring Cubs top prospect, Kris Bryant, and after getting out and throwing a few pitches in the Padres bullpen, that was just where we went.
After finally finding parking on campus, we made our way to Fowler Park, the brand new USD baseball facility. To say that it is a gem is to sell it short. This tiny, college ballpark is nicer than some major league spring training facilities that I have visited. (Maryvale, I’m looking at you!) and if I were a student, I think I would be wiling away far too many hours not studying, sitting in the grandstand.
When we arrived, Bryant had already been officially presented with his Golden Spikes Award, for the best college baseball player, and the game was in the bottom of the first inning. After sitting down I noticed a crowd of people in the stands by the third base bullpen not watching the game.
I made my way over, and sure enough, there was Kris Bryant, signing autographs for anybody who wanted one. I had him sign a ball for me and inscribe it “Go Cubs!” which he did with no hesitation. Bryant didn’t play in the game, presumably as part of the contract he signed with the Cubs, but there were a lot of other alumni who did, including Orioles starter, Brian Matusz.
One of the highlights for me was hearing the guys on both the current USD team and the alumni giving each other a hard time and I found myself cracking up after several exchanges.
As the game drew to a close, we made out way to the first base dugout where the alumni team was situated. In addition to Bryant, another Cubs prospect, Corey Black was there throwing a bullpen session and I was hoping to have him sign a ball for me as well, a goal which sadly ended in failure.
After the game I stood by the dugout with several other fans, hoping to grab a few more autographs. As Matusz walked into the dugout, two kids next to me asked him if he’d sign. He said, sure, with a big smile. The kids then asked him for a ball since they “didn’t have anything for [him].” Matusz then said he didn’t have one and disappeared into the dugout, ruining it for the rest of us.
While standing there, I heard rumblings about going to wait for Bryant by the clubhouse door after the game and thanks to my patient brothers, we were able to meet him again and get a photo. My brother, Jonathan, also had him sign a ball with a “Team USA” inscription.
All in all it was a fantastic weekend to welcome back baseball and a great boon to my Cub collection, despite both events being held in San Diego. Not long now and spring training games will start and then the regular season will be upon us. I can’t wait, as I have big plans this year!
Thanks for reading, and keep tripping baseballs!