McGRATH: Divorcing Cubs leaves WGN different but not dead

Written By BY DAN McGRATH For Sun-Times Media Posted: 07/09/2014, 06:24am

Robin Ventura seemed weary of all the gooey Derek Jeter tributes that accompanied the New York Yankees captain’s visit to Chicago last month. Or maybe worn out by so many requests to ladle on some goo.

‘‘It’s not like Derek died,’’ the White Sox manager reminded us. ‘‘He’s just retiring.’’

A similar reaction seems appropriate to the announcement that the Cubs and WGN-AM (720) are ending a relationship that encompasses 90 years, exclusive and uninterrupted for the last 56.

It’s not like Cubs broadcasts are disappearing from the radio waves. They’re just moving three clicks up the dial to WBBM-AM (780).

They’re also leaving behind a ton of history, but let’s not act surprised. Dollars and cents trump tradition and nostalgia in the sports culture every time.

Pat Hughes is staying, and that’s good. With his cheerful voice, his clear, colorful call and his infectious love of the game, Hughes is a throwback to the great Jack Quinlan, who was just 38 when he died in a car accident during spring training in 1965. Quinlan was the Cubs’ radio voice for only eight seasons, but the talent, knowledge and humor he brought to the booth endear him still to geezers of my generation. ‘‘Nice play, Frank — it’s over your head. Two runs will score.’’

The Cubs were 549-707 (.429) during Quinlan’s tenure. He began the tradition of announcers outperforming the team. Hughes upholds it.

‘‘I have one year left on my contract, which WBBM is picking up,’’ Hughes said. ‘‘After that I’ll be evaluated like anybody else. I hope to stay. I feel good. I still enjoy what I do.’’

‘‘Pat’s part of the package,’’ a high-level Cubs source told me. ‘‘He’s not going anywhere.’’

As often happens these days, the Cubs are taking a PR hit for a development in which they are complicit but not solely responsible. The business side believed the in-house radio deal they were bound to as co-subsidiaries of Tribune Co. was undervalued. WGN, emerging from bankruptcy and citing plunging ratings for a crummy product, believed it was overvalued and opted out at the first opportunity. So the Cubs took their radio package to the market. They got what they wanted from CBS and its seven Chicago outlets, and WGN declined to match.

Game over.

‘‘It’s difficult to depart from such a historic brand,’’ said Crane Kenney, the Cubs’ president of business operations, ‘‘and we are protective of our iconic elements. But we’re not going to be held back by them.’’

They shouldn’t be. But it’s almost impossible to think of WGN and the Cubs as one without the other. It’s sort of like State without Madison or government without corruption or streets without potholes.

The effect on the two stations could be transformative. Sports in general and the Cubs in particular are symbolic of WGN’s culture — ‘‘The Cubs play here’’ is heard more than any other station promo. Upon taking over management of the Blackhawks, John McDonough moved quickly to align with WGN. A Hawks convoy scoots past its downtown studio in the snappy skating-through-town video that precedes every home game. Station personalities taking part in the pregame show before Game 7 of the conference final chattered as if they’d be manning coach Joel Quenneville’s fifth line.

WGN retains the Hawks and Northwestern football/basketball, but that’s pretty light inventory for an outlet whose identity has long been linked to sports.

WBBM, meanwhile, consigns more news to the FM side to add sports. It already owned the heavyweight champion of local properties in the Bears, and now it has cornered the baseball market with the Cubs on WBBM complementing the White Sox on WSCR, a fellow CBS affiliate.

Television is the next shoe to drop, and the thud will be much louder. Self-controlled cable packages are the current Big Thing in baseball — they draw revenue from subscriber fees as well as advertising, creating enough income to cover mega-contracts for the likes of Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols. Radio is a bench player in that game, but nobody was acknowledging it in the euphoria over the WBBM deal.

‘‘I’ve spent most of my career in Chicago, and I never thought the Cubs would be available in my lifetime,’’ said Rod Zimmerman, senior vice president of CBS Radio Chicago. ‘‘It’s exclusive, marquee, ocean-front property that’s hard to come by in the radio business.’’

It also looks like Hurricane Sandy just blew through — the Cubs are 222-325 (.406) under Ricketts family ownership. We keep hearing that repairs are under way.

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