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rain delay tarpIn the pantheon of unlikely headlines, that one may take the cake. Never thought I’d use a couple of those words here, let alone in that order.

As you know, the Cubs/Giants game on Tuesday was suspended after a delay of more than four hours, which itself followed a burst of rain that was little more than 15 minutes long. The causes, it turned out, were an improperly spooled tarp, a fluke weather system that folks apparently didn’t anticipate, tarp deployment issues, and then an inability to get the tarp corrected quickly enough to save the field. The Cubs rightly supported the Giants’ request for the game to be suspended, rather than called, and it was quite a black eye for the organization. It’s one of those things where you simultaneously feel bad for the folks involved – especially the grounds crew – but also think in your head, “Man, how in the world does that happen?”

With the suspended game resumed and completed, however, that was that. It’s very hard to imagine the Cubs letting this happen again, come hell or high water. (Sorry.)

But then a Sun-Times report indicated that the cause of the ineffective deployment was actually an understaffed grounds crew, which had its time cut because of the Cubs’ desire to avoid allowing workers to reach 130 hours of monthly work – the cut-off for having to provide insurance benefits under the new health care law, colloquially known as Obamacare.

The report cited anonymous sources, as well as executives in other organizations who called the Cubs cheap, and blamed the decision to cut staffing for the fiasco on Tuesday.

Say what you will of the merits of the story, but it was certainly a sexy tale. Sports. Populism. Politics. Obamacare. Yeah, that’ll get some attention. And the story did, circulating the web as the latest hurr-hurr-Cubs-are-awful-off-the-field-too tale from a season full of them.

The question, however – too frequently asked after a sexy report has bounced around the web – is whether there is more to be said before drawing any conclusions. It’s been my experience that there’s always another side to the story, even if modern readers are sometimes uninterested in seeing it. You’ve heard me say it before: the world is gray. I know that nuance and precision isn’t fun, but if you care about capital-T Truth, you’re going to have to live in the gray.

Of the tarp-Obamacare connection, Cubs spokesperson Julian Green told ESPN, “We’ve made some organizational changes to make sure our scheduling is in line. If we want to be a successful, functioning, profitable operation, you have to make sure your personnel and workforce is in line. Anyone in this organization who would even suggest that it was Obamacare and tried to make this a situation about work hours at the expense of guys who are widely viewed as the best in the business, it’s unfortunate.”

The original Sun-Times report also includes a denial of the connection from Green.

Based on the Cubs’ explicit rebuke of the Sun-Times’ report, and some reporting by Jesse Rogers and Jon Greenberg, it looks like the “gray” here is something like this: (1) like any business or baseball organization in the last year and a half, the Cubs have probably considered the impact of Obamacare – among many other things – on organizational efficiencies (you can love or hate that, but it’s just business); (2) the Cubs have made staffing changes this year, but they’re probably more related to attendance declines than anything; (3) the Cubs did send workers home on Tuesday, but that probably had more to do with a policy to send morning staff home when it doesn’t look like there’s going to be inclement whether than with Obamacare; and (4) even if the Cubs had 500 workers going strong that night, we can’t know whether the malfunction and ensuing suspension would have happened regardless.

I would strongly recommend reading Rogers’ and Greenberg’s piece for a comprehensive take on the situation, including interesting comments from a grounds crew union rep, who confirms that hours have been cut, but believes that has more to do with simple economics than with Obamacare. The rep also said that, because of the cuts in staffing tied to attendance declines, the Cubs are rotating workers more frequently (i.e., reducing hours) so that they can at least still be giving lots of people work. That’s coming from the union, mind you, not the Cubs.

Even the Sun-Times report concedes that spreading the same total number of hours over more events at Wrigley could be a factor in the appearance of staff cuts. Indeed, the Sun-Times report indicates that the Cubs say there has been no reduction in the grounds crew/field maintenance budget this year.

In the end, then, what are we left with? A crummy thing happened, but there probably wasn’t a big, bad villain lurking in the shadows, orchestrating the mishap. Just normal business practices and a really nasty, fluky weather system.

Sorry if that’s boring. Watch these Baez/Soler homers if you want to be entertained this morning.

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