MESA, Ariz. – Even as Tom Ricketts took a victory lap across the dirt filling this 140-acre construction site, the Cubs chairman couldn’t escape the shadow of Wrigley Field.
As the sun began to set on Mesa Wednesday night, the clock was ticking back in Chicago, where Ricketts still has to close the deal with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Alderman Tom Tunney, the rooftop lobby and the Lakeview neighborhood.
“It’s about time that we get this done,” Ricketts said.
The Cubs once used the threat of moving to Naples, Fla., to get Mesa to spend $84 million on a new baseball complex, plus $15 million in infrastructure improvements to the Riverview neighborhood. But they don’t have the same kind of leverage at Clark and Addison.
Ricketts spoke near the end of a staged tour of the team’s new spring-training facility, which should be completed by December. He declined to say whether Opening Day is a hard or soft deadline to reach an agreement, begin Wrigley’s facelift this fall and preserve the building season. But there’s definitely a sense of urgency.
After trying to get a cut of the amusement taxes, the Ricketts family changed the argument at Cubs Convention this winter, offering to bankroll the $300 million renovation in exchange for easing restrictions around the ballpark. That means more night games, advertising signage, concerts, street fests and some sort of Jumbotron.
The Cubs won’t be having any shovel-in-the-ground photo ops until City Hall and the other special-interest groups sign off on their plan.
“Before we green light the project, we want to know what the deal is,” Ricketts said. “What we said in January was: We’ll pay for the project, but we also need to have control over our ballpark. And that’s still our position.”
The Cubs were so close to getting $150 million in city funds until last May, when The New York Times shone a light on the Ricketts family patriarch, Joe, his “Super PAC” and potential racially charged attack ads against President Barack Obama that infuriated Emanuel.
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The Cubs have to lead the league in artistic renderings. (In a shake-your-head moment, one player noticed how the home plates were backwards in the sketches for Wrigley’s new batting tunnels.)
“There’s a handful of issues left,” Ricketts said. “We’re just working them out with the alderman and working them out with the mayor. But we’re hopeful we’ll get some resolution soon.
“If we’re going to be in the ground in October, we have to get to some resolution in the next few weeks.”
The Cubs believe their new Arizona base will be a game-changer. Wednesday’s caravan made three stops and included a pickup truck, an SUV and two buses filled with team executives, reporters and Mesa officials.
Ricketts even said: “When I look out at this dirt, I see W flags.”
You saw the skeleton of a stadium that’s supposed to have a 15,000 capacity, the slope of the berm and an outfield wall. You walked into the frame of a clubhouse that president of business operations Crane Kenney said will be 70,000 square feet and feature the largest conditioning space in either the Cactus or Grapefruit leagues.
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith hinted that there could be announcements soon about the businesses looking to set up shop near the lake and recreation complex. “Wrigleyville West” is the working title now, though Ricketts indicated the Cubs will explore naming rights.
All these factors are supposed to help Theo Epstein’s front office build a perennial contender.
“It’s a nice thing every day when you’re driving in, right when you get to the 101 and 202 (highways), to look out and see the progress that’s being made,” Epstein said. “If you want to be a world-class organization, you have to have world-class facilities.
“If you look just a couple years down the line at what this organization is going to have going for itself as far as facilities – between the new complex in the Dominican that’s opening in just a matter of months, the spring-training facility we’re looking forward to debuting next year and then a renovated Wrigley Field in a few years – you’re going to be as good as it gets in terms of facilities.
“And it’s our job to put a product on the field that matches.”
Right now, Riverview’s nine-hole public golf course has been transformed into a landscape of trailers, concrete blocks, cranes, yellow caution tape, temporary orange fences and workers in hardhats and fluorescent vests.
But maybe this is also a vote of confidence for Ricketts, who has been described by associates as sometimes being too nice of a guy. Before touring the site, Smith threw out the first pitch at HoHoKam Stadium, where it was 87 degrees and sunny and 10,875 fans turned out to see the Colorado Rockies beat the Cubs 2-0.
Playing hardball and playing the Naples card was tricky, but the Cubs got what they wanted, setting themselves up for perhaps 30 more years of afternoons like that in the desert. Back in Chicago, this will be a much different episode of “Boss.”
“They’re just such different negotiations,” Ricketts said. “But we’re glad that this one’s finally going to be behind us and we have a great partnership down here. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get the project started up in Chicago and move forward with them as effectively as we have moved forward with Mesa.”