Have you met the Chicago Cubs new mascot, the furry little fella named Clark?
The Cubs rolled him out this week, complete with a weird origin myth on the team’s website: Clark, evidently, is the great grandson of the actual black bear -- this part is true -- named Joa who lived in a cage outside Wrigley Field for part of the 1916 season before being shipped off to the Lincoln Park Zoo that September.
I’ll let the Cubs’ marketing department take over from here:
When Joa retired to the Lincoln Park Zoo, he delighted the young bears with hundreds of amazing Cubs stories, and Clark was hooked! He dreamed of making his great-grandbear proud and playing for the Cubs -- even though he'd never even seen a game. Then one day, Clark heard the roar of the crowd coming all the way from Wrigleyville. Determined to finally see the Cubs in person, he followed the sound to Wrigley Field, just in time to see the Cubs raise the W flag.
Inspired by Clark's enthusiasm and love of all things Cub, the team invited him to continue the family tradition and become their official mascot!
It’s hard to know where to start. I guess, from an ethical point of view, Clark is a vast improvement over Joa -- to say nothing of the hunchbacks, midgets and mentally disabled individuals who baseball teams used to trot out as mascots. No actual bears were harmed in this costumed marketing strategy. Clark's primary purpose, according to a study that led to his creation, is to make Wrigley more “family-friendly.”
Considering baseball’s aging demographics, you can’t blame teams for wanting to attract young fans. But will the promise of a visit to "Clark’s Clubhouse" suffice to keep your five-year-old at the ballpark for nine innings? Wouldn’t you be better off with another soft-serve ice cream in a miniature batting helmet? More to the point, baseball's demographic problem won't be solved by someone walking around in a cuddly costume. Instead, it might consider speeding up games, which weren’t always so painfully slow.
We’re still months away from Clark’s big-league debut and already he’s the subject of such intense ridicule that the Cubs felt compelled to issue a statement in his defense. The team is standing by its new mascot. Which I suppose is better than standing in front of him, given that HE IS NOT WEARING PANTS. This is just one of the strange details that make Clark so freaky looking. There’s no science to sports mascots, but you know a good one (Mr. Met!) when you see one. With his blank stare, gaping maw and backwards cap, Clark looks like a cheap, slightly disturbing knock-off of the (depressingly) generic Berenstain Bears.
A soulless, cheesy mascot is perhaps not the cure to what ails the Cubs franchise, which finished last season with 50 home losses, the most in team history. Attendance was the lowest in 15 years. There’s not a whole lot of reason to think the team will be much better in the near future. Their minor-league system is short on developed, high-end prospects. Even if the Cubs wanted to try to buy a pennant, they probably wouldn't have much luck. Baseball's free-agent pool is going to be pretty shallow for the next few years.
The Ricketts, who own the Cubs, seem to feel the problem isn’t the team, but the old-fashioned park in which they play. After threatening to move, they managed to persuade the city to approve a massive renovation of Wrigley Field, which will include the addition of a Jumbotron. The Ricketts are also pushing for the Cubs -- the only Major League team that still plays most of its home games in the afternoon -- to play more night games. Some might argue that it’s about time the team joined the 21st century. But it looks to me like the Cubs are busy squandering the only things they have going for them: History and mystique. At this rate, they’ll soon be just another normal, crappy baseball team.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)