Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Cubs Social Experiment

Maybe this sounds familiar...A couple of guys in charge get together and decide to perform a social experiment. The bet is that they can take a previously productive person and transform him into an unwanted social outcast while simultaneously taking a jobless, no-good jokester and give him a position of leadership within the organization. You may think I'm talking about the movie Trading Places, but I'm actually talking about our Chicago Cubs. The guinea pigs in this case are not Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy, but Milton Bradley and Kevin Millar.

There is some precedent to this kind of experiment. The University of Washington recently performed a study to answer the question, "Does One Bad Apple Really Spoil the Bunch?". The study did find that a negative personality has strong influence on the rest of the group. The negative attitude can spread quickly and adversely affect the mood and transform a previously productive group into a dysfunctional one. It also found that no amount of "good apples" could stem this tide of negative influence.

Enter Jim Hendry and Lou Piniella and their own version of the "experiment". In 2009, the Cubs introduced their bad apple, Milton Bradley, to a group of apples that won 97 games. Despite having positive teammates like Ryan Theriot, Ryan Dempster and Derrek Lee, Bradley's negative influence did indeed overcome these positive influences and the Cubs' clubhouse became a gloomy one, and, coincidentally or not, the previously successful team won just 83 games and finished well behind the St. Louis Cardinals. It appears on the surface that one bad apple did spoil this bunch. Moreover, Bradley became such a pariah that the only way the Cubs could unload him was to take the worst pitcher in baseball over the past two years, Carlos Silva, in exchange. Other teams would only take Bradley if the Cubs would have also agreed to pay nearly all of his salary. In it's own perverse way, you could say the first part of the "experiment" was a complete success.

Now comes part 2 of this two-year "experiment". The Cubs are bringing in the unwanted, unemployed would-be comedian Kevin Millar. Millar is a "good apple" but he is no-good on the field. The 38 year old is slow and his hitting and fielding skills have eroded signifcantly as he has aged...but teammates always like him and he keeps the clubhouse loose. The teams best hitter, Aramis Ramirez, said this about the results so far this spring, "It is a huge turnaround," third baseman Aramis Ramirez said. "We've brought in some great guys. Kevin Millar, you can't find a better teammate than him..." It appears that, on the strength of his likeability, Millar is on the verge of landing a job with the Cubs.

While in the movie Randolph and Mortimer Duke bet a dollar to see if they could pull of their social experiment, the Cubs are betting a roster spot on Millar. A roster spot that would have otherwise belonged to a more useful-on-the-field player in Andres Blanco, who has since been traded. So will the second part of the "experiment" hold true? Will Millar be transformed from an unemployed, unwanted player to the Cubs clubhouse leader? Will the removal of one bad apple in Milton Bradley and the addition of a good apple in Kevin Millar return the Cubs to a functional unit again? Stay tuned...this is an "experiment" that is still in progress.

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