MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs made Theo Epstein an offer he couldn’t refuse.
No one else could give him a president’s title, total control of baseball operations, an iconic stadium, a world-class city and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to break another “curse.” Burnout made it the right time to leave Boston after nine seasons as Red Sox general manager.
Some 17 months after Epstein’s “Baseball is Better” Wrigley Field press conference, there is all this noise about moving to Rosemont and knocking down the center-field scoreboard for a Jumbotron. The new narrative is that a can’t-lose business in an $8 billion industry is somehow being suffocated.
Back in Chicago, chairman Tom Ricketts and president of business operations Crane Kenney have to make a deal with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Alderman Tom Tunney, the rooftop lobby and the Lakeview neighborhood.
Epstein is overseeing his own renovation plan in Mesa, putting the finishing touches on a team that’s supposed to be noticeably better than the one that lost 101 games last season. Standing in the HoHoKam Stadium dugout on a postcard-perfect Sunday morning, he was asked: Have the Cubs lived up to their promises?
“Absolutely,” Epstein said. “It’s a very special place. The best things about this franchise are the things that no one can ever take away, like the bond between the fans and the team and the multi-generational aspects of that, the connection to Wrigley Field.
“There are going to be some challenges that I didn’t fully anticipate. Like our ability to leverage our market size into financial advantages is more difficult than I expected. I thought that would have been something that was easier for us to do - and do now. Instead, it’s something that is out of necessity probably several years away. But given the timeline we’re on, that’s not the worst thing in the world as long as we get there.”
Epstein called Wrigley Field “the epicenter of those connections.” Anyone making back-of-the-envelope calculations about how much money the Cubs are losing by playing there are looking at it the wrong way. Think of how much they make because it’s the place for diehards, tourists, singles, drunks, bachelor parties, corporate schmoozing, Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam.
The Cubs are 72 games under .500 since the Ricketts family purchased the team – as well as a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago – from Tribune Co. in an $845 million deal that Crain’s Chicago Business once called “highly leveraged.” They’ve still sold almost nine million tickets during those three seasons combined, while beginning to spend like a mid-market team.
Ricketts described the escalating win-one-for-the-Tower payrolls – which rose to around $146 million in 2010 – as “unsustainable” during a visit to Fitch Park at the beginning of spring training.
Which means the Cubs can’t swing and miss on the Wrigley Field renovation plan or the opt-out clause in their WGN television deal after the 2014 season.
Ricketts has said that he won’t green light the $300 million project until all the details are nailed down and the Cubs get the concessions they want – eased restrictions that will lead to more night games, advertising signage, video boards, street fests and concerts.
There’s one week left until Opening Day, which is viewed as a deadline of sorts to preserve this building season and not push everything off until October 2014. The first phase of the renovation would focus on player amenities and training areas that would directly impact the major-league product.
“We’re on a relatively short timeline to get things ordered and start that work so we can move into a new clubhouse in 2014,” Epstein said. “Our expectation is that’s going to get done. But there are certain things that need to happen, that should happen, so I expect them to happen. But if for some reason they don’t, then we’re going to have to look at every alternative.
“I do think that this is just part of the process. It’s politics and there’s money and influence involved, so there’s going to be a rollercoaster. I think when it’s all said and done, it’s going to be a true win-win for all parties and we’ll look back at this as just sort of a crazy way to get to a very good place.”
The Cubs appeared to be on the verge of getting $150 million in help from the city last May, until The New York Times exposed the links between the Ricketts family patriarch, Joe, his “Super PAC” and the campaign against President Barack Obama. The potential racially charged attack ads angered Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, and forced the Cubs to reboot.
Team executives went for the splash at Cubs Convention in January, changing the argument and striking a more reasonable tone by essentially saying: We’ll write the check and pay for it all if you let us run our business the way we want.
Epstein said he speaks with Ricketts and Kenney several times a week but otherwise hasn’t used his clout or felt the need to get involved as a closer.
“We sort of share updates on our respective areas and bounce ideas off each other and make suggestions,” Epstein said. “Since I’m not involved in the day-to-day, I can provide them with some big-picture feedback, and they do the same for me.”
Epstein said he hasn’t contacted the mayor’s office to lobby for the Cubs behind the scenes. (After Boston won the 2004 World Series, Epstein campaigned for Democratic nominee John Kerry alongside Red Sox owners John Henry and Tom Werner at a rally in New Hampshire. Last year Epstein headlined a private fundraising event for Obama in a Lincoln Park home.)
Ricketts has been described as someone with a strong sense of family, history and tradition, as well as a genuine interest in player development. He has wondered why the Cubs never bought up the rooftop buildings years ago, so they could own the entire experience.
Looking back on the last several chapters of history on the North Side, Wrigley Field hasn’t held the Cubs back so much as ownership instability, making the wrong bets in free agency, cutting corners in the draft and getting to the international scouting game late.
There’s also an element of luck involved. Maybe in some alternate universe, the marketing department would be preparing for the year-long celebration of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and the 10th anniversary of the 2003 forever team that changed everything.
Even when Ricketts authorized former general manager Jim Hendry to spend $12 million on the 2011 draft, it was a last-call shopping spree in the final year of the collective bargaining agreement.
A new labor deal has severely regulated the flow of amateur talent, and all that national and local television money has allowed small- and mid-market teams to retain homegrown stars before they hit the open market, meaning free agents are typically leftovers, older, more expensive and/or health risks.
Epstein is banking on a few “watershed events,” the Cubs capitalizing on their television rights and the revenues pouring in from a renovated Wrigley Field. By then, the Javier Baez/Jorge Soler/Albert Almora generation of prospects could be maturing alongside Jeff Samardzija, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo.
If all those “Feeding The Monster” tensions between baseball operations and the business executives became too much at Fenway Park, the two sides here absolutely need each other at Clark and Addison.