If the money’s right, Wrigley will be a destination for free agents

If the money’s right, Wrigley will be a destination for free agents

April 18, 2013, 6:45 pm
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While waiting out the rain on Thursday morning, Darwin Barney, Shawn Camp and Travis Wood played a version of the game H-O-R-S-E on a Fisher-Price basketball hoop.

They maneuvered around chairs, lockers and a ceiling fan in the same area of the clubhouse where the Cubs drop a net so pinch-hitters can warm up and take swings off a tee. You later heard loud laughing and yelling through the walls of the closed-door players’ lounge.

Yes, the facilities could use an upgrade, but it’s not like Wrigley Field is a terrible place to come to work each day. Why else would players – see Alfonso Soriano – cling tight to their no-trade clauses even as the franchise undergoes a full-scale rebuild?

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Nothing’s black-and-white at Clark and Addison. Everything’s gray, like the sky that framed a 6-2 win over the Texas Rangers, squeezed in during a two-hour, 37-minute window while an epic storm lefts parts of the Chicago area underwater.  

This week chairman Tom Ricketts guaranteed a World Series title if the Cubs get their $500 million stadium renovation/hotel project, which is obviously an oversimplification.  

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The day after Ricketts announced the “framework” of an understanding with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Alderman Tom Tunney, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein pointedly noted that the Cubs should have a payroll that ranks first in the division, not third behind the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds.

[MORE: Theo waiting for Wrigley deal, business plan, payrolls to come together]

The Cubs are using the Boston Red Sox blueprint and trying to create Fenway Park 2.0. But as Epstein learned while assembling two championship teams, you have to feed the monster.

“The renovations in the ballpark, the modernization of the ballpark and winning turned out to be a terrific combination,” Epstein said. “That then allowed us to take our payroll wherever we wanted it to go. Winning’s an essential ingredient, too. You can’t just make changes in your ballpark. You can’t just generate revenue and all of a sudden expect to be where you want to be.”

[SportsTalk Live: Will Wrigley renovations bring a World Series?]

It’s not that hard picturing Wrigley Field as the place to be again. All it would take is a .500 team midsummer to fill up the bandwagon. Even Lance Berkman – the outspoken Ranger who volunteered to push the button if they ever decide to blow up Wrigley Field – was once curious about signing with the Cubs.

[WATCH: Ricketts on where money will be spent]

Berkman had a sit-down scheduled with former general manager Jim Hendry leading up to the December 2010 winter meetings. As Hendry waited for a flight to Houston, the Cardinals essentially doubled their offer and convinced Berkman to sign with a team that would win the World Series.

The two went out to dinner anyway that night and had a good time. During an interview last year in St. Louis, Berkman admitted the stadium is only a small factor weighed by free agents.

“I don’t think that’s a deal-breaker,” Berkman said, “if the money’s right and somebody really wants to come there.”

The Cubs instead wound up signing first baseman Carlos Pena to a one-year, $10 million “pillow contract,” spreading the money out over 13 months and three fiscal years, a structure that raised suspicions about the team’s business plans.

As the negotiations drag out through public hearings, look for more talking heads and national pundits to be weighing in with State of Wrigley addresses. It’s already three months since the plan’s unveiling at Cubs Convention, and beyond two blown “deadlines” (Opening Day and the April 8 home opener) to get the first phase completed by the 2014 season.

[RELATED: From Jumbotron to rooftops, Wrigley deal still taking shape]

Whenever Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer get more resources to pour into the on-field product – the timeline’s hazy – they will be recruiting players looking at what the city offers, how the manager runs the clubhouse and the team’s overall direction.

But as Hoyer said one night last December, up in a suite at Nashville’s Opryland Hotel during the winter meetings: “A lot of times it does come down to years and dollars.”

Epstein and Hoyer have made it a policy that they will not give out no-trade clauses (at least right up until the moment they have to give in to sign their ideal player to a megadeal). And the threat of another fire sale is in the back of players’ minds.   

Reed Johnson – who dressed up as Hoyer for last summer’s “Superheroes” themed road trip and then got traded to the Atlanta Braves – doesn’t think the Cubs are a tough sell at all. Johnson has told friends that you have to experience playing there at least once in your career.

“Guys in general want to come play there,” Johnson said. “You get guys like an (Albert) Pujols or someone like that, those guys go on recruiting trips. (He) sees different parks and he’s obviously taking that stuff like: ‘OK, I’m going to be here for seven or eight years, I’m going to need a good weight room and good things to keep myself in shape.’ Those things – when you’re signing a big boy like that – really come into effect.”

[MORE: Superheroes or not, Reed Johnson still believes in Jed and Theo]

Mark DeRosa – Mr. Ex-Cub – has said that the biggest question he gets from other players is: How did you get used to the day games?

“You just do,” DeRosa says, “40,000 people in the seats make you get ready to play. It’s just such a unique place.”

The Cubs are lobbying to increase the maximum number of night games each season from 30 to 40. Epstein said the bottom line is that the team will get more television money in prime time (and in theory more investments in the major-league roster).

“It’s still not going to be overwhelming,” manager Dale Sveum said. “You don’t want to lose that aura about what we have at Wrigley, playing the day games. (But) it comes in handy to have a night game when you get back from a road trip.”

It’s crazy to think the idea of leaving a world-famous ballpark and moving to Rosemont actually gained some traction in the local media. Too much of the focus has been on what Wrigley Field isn’t, overlooking all the revenue-generating infrastructure already in place.

[WATCH: Ricketts makes a statement to the media after Wrigley deal]

Where else would a 101-loss team sell almost three million tickets?

Ryan Theriot, who helped the Cubs win division titles in 2007 and 2008, marveled at the energy here last summer before another World Series run, this time with the San Francisco Giants.

“This stadium’s an advantage for the team, these fans are an advantage,” Theriot said. “The intensity at this park, the electricity, we feed off that. Every day, they pack it out, win, lose or draw. Rain or shine, you got people here.

“What we do is so repetitive, so it gets to be ‘Groundhog Day’ to a certain extent. But (coming) to a place like this as a visitor, or even as a home player, when the game starts and you hear the crowd and they get into it, it makes it seem like Opening Day.

“(With) certain stadiums, you know, toward the end of the year, the middle of the year, it's tough to get up, it's tough to get going. (But when the) crowd’s on their feet and this place is packed out, who doesn't want to get a big hit?

“When nobody’s in the stands, it’s a little easier to let your guard down. That’s just human nature.”

Myth-making elevated Wrigley Field, the national advertisements on WGN selling the eternal promise of sunshine and beer. It could help pay for a player at some point, but the Cubs don’t absolutely need a Jumbotron that takes up 6,000 square feet beyond left field in order to compete. A building that’s nearly a century old also can’t stay the same forever.

[WATCH: Ricketts on video board in left field]

A.J. Pierzynski looked weird in a Texas uniform this week, but the old White Sox villain stayed in character, talking about how he enjoyed seeing “Eamus Catuli” back up on a Sheffield Avenue rooftop. The sign marks how long it’s been since the Cubs won the division, pennant and World Series. At 104 years and counting, change is inevitable.

[RELATED: Pierzynski still enjoys playing the villain at Wrigley Field]

“I’m all for updating anything,” Pierzynski said. “They did it in Boston. They’re trying to do it here. Obviously, you don’t want to lose the feel of the stadium or the nostalgia, but it is time to update some things here.”