Bud Selig went on the offensive against the rooftop owners and his negative perception of the Chicago media, defending the Ricketts family in the never-ending drama at Wrigley Field.
While the Cubs celebrated the ballpark’s 100th anniversary on Wednesday, Major League Baseball’s commissioner used the platform to promise to do whatever it takes to help Cubs ownership kick-start the $500 million Wrigleyville development.
“They know the right thing to do for this franchise and for the sport is to preserve this,” Selig said. “Just like the Red Sox preserved Fenway. These are our cathedrals. That may sound trite to some people, but they are.
“They’ve chosen to do this and done it in really a very sensitive, reasonable way. I know they’ve had trouble. I’m disappointed. I think it’s unfair. I think they’ve been unfairly criticized in so many ways.”
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Moments before Selig met with reporters inside the media dining room, chairman Tom Ricketts walked through the press-box hallway and briefly peered into the window. The neighborhood, the city and members of the rooftop lobby have made concessions as Mayor Rahm Emanuel waits for the Cubs to put shovels in the ground.
The commissioner is a Milwaukee guy who remembered first visiting Wrigley Field in 1944, saying he still reads the Chicago newspapers and listens to the city’s radio stations. When asked to clarify who’s been so unfair to the Cubs, Selig sounded like a “Game of Thrones” character: “Without me portraying it in great detail, I can look out and see a lot of things over the walls. So that’s all I’ll say.”
The Cubs have already lost one offseason of building and won’t start construction until they receive guarantees the rooftop owners won’t sue them over advertising signage and a video board that could block views into the ballpark.
Selig glossed over the 20-year revenue-sharing contract with the rooftops negotiated by current Cubs business executives Crane Kenney and Mike Lufrano, and inherited by the Ricketts family.
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“OK, whatever the contract is, whatever they have to do on that score, fine,” Selig said. “But you can’t tell them to stay in this setting – and you can’t put this up. You can’t put that up. You can’t do that. And people can watch your games under conditions that don’t exist anywhere else. (Don’t) tell me that’s fair.”
Selig dismissed the idea the Cubs would move to a suburb like Rosemont and said his office would do “whatever is legally” possible to help close the deal.
“That’s how strongly I feel about preserving Wrigley Field,” Selig said. “You can’t ask a team to be competitive. You can’t ask people to do things and then tie their hands and their legs. That’s just wrong.”
The Cubs have been handcuffed by the leveraged partnership the Ricketts family formed with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. in 2009, an $845 million deal that also included a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago.
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The Cubs have lost 197 games across the last two seasons and appear headed toward a fifth-place finish for the fifth year in a row. The on-field product costs roughly $75 million this season, a huge drop from the 2010 Opening Day payroll that came in around $145 million.
Selig was asked if he had any regrets about approving the restrictive terms of sale Zell demanded from any group trying to buy the team.
“None,” Selig said. “Zero. Absolutely none. I think the Cubs are in very good ownership hands. They’ve been great baseball people. They’ve done what they’ve had to do.
“I have absolutely no (regrets). I have a lot of concerns on a daily basis. This is not one of them, nor ever has been.”
Ricketts and Kenney have both publicly admitted that the debt structure – believed to include annual payments in the range of $30 million and limitations in place through 2019 – has impacted the way the Cubs run their business.
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“Wait a minute, that keeps getting repeated like it’s fact,” Selig said, alluding to the Chicago media digging and focusing on the franchise’s debt burden. “The fact of the matter is this group is more than capable economically. I have no concerns about their economic viability.
“The fact of the matter is – as this park gets older and things happen – they’re going to have to do things that haven’t been done before.”
Like possibly selling minority ownership shares as a way to help finance the stadium renovation, an idea Ricketts has discussed with Selig and would need MLB approval.
“When I owned the Brewers, we had a lot of limited partners, and it was not a sign of financial distress,” Selig said.
The Cubs are acting like a small-market team now. That leaves Wrigley Field’s future as a big agenda item before Selig (allegedly) retires in January and a new commissioner gets a crash course on Cubbie Occurrences and The Chicago Way.