Window closing if Cubs want to begin Wrigley renovation on time

Window closing if Cubs want to begin Wrigley renovation on time
April 30, 2013, 10:00 pm
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This could be another wait-until-next-year moment for the Cubs.

As chairman Tom Ricketts and his business/public-relations team prepare to roll out more visions for Wrigley Field on Wednesday, the window is closing if the Cubs want to complete Phase 1 of the renovation by Opening Day 2014. 

The baseball operations department had been promised certain upgrades for next season – new clubhouse, batting tunnels, weight room, training/medical facilities – assuming the city approved the $500 million stadium/hotel project in time.   

Sources confirmed those features are no longer a lock for 2014 as team officials have missed the self-imposed/perceived deadlines to order materials, set plans in motion and begin construction this fall: Opening Day, April 1 and the April 8 home opener attended by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Alderman Tom Tunney.

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Manager Dale Sveum admitted as much during Monday’s pregame media briefing in the interview room/dungeon, where he was asked a broad question about how much he pays attention to the negotiations.

“We’re all interested in the final vote and (what’s) going to happen,” Sveum said. “I’m not going to lie, most of the players are concerned if we’re going to get that new clubhouse. That’s what’s on the players’ minds. Everything else is going to be here and there. Things still have to be passed (for it to happen).”

Ricketts – who’s scheduled to speak at a City Club of Chicago event downtown on Wednesday morning – has said that his family won’t green light the project until the entire deal is finalized. It would be a huge neighborhood investment as the iconic ballpark celebrates its 100th birthday next year.

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Those facilities aren’t revenue-generators, meaning the changes are tied to items like how many night games and street fests the Cubs are granted, the size of the Jumbotron and the overall advertising signage portfolio.   

To be clear, having a tricked-out clubhouse isn’t going to define the 2014 Cubs. But there’s a definite sense of urgency when president of baseball operations Theo Epstein repeatedly points out that the business side has to deliver more revenues if these future plans are going to come together.

The Cubs have chosen to operate like a mid-market team in recent years. Epstein went on WSCR-AM 670 last week and pointedly said: “The baseball department is spending every dollar that is allocated to baseball operations.”

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As long as the money’s being allocated to the on-field product, free agents are always going to want to come to Chicago, because the players are treated like kings here.

Maybe the one-percent types (think Albert Pujols) that can command megadeals would really weigh facilities before signing, but otherwise it’s a myth that those amenities will attract free agents.   

Sure, there’s the lure of being on The Team That Finally Wins It All. But just look at the veterans on bad Cubs teams that struggled so much with their decisions to waive no-trade clauses (Derrek Lee, Ryan Dempster) or showed no interest in leaving (Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano) or took hometown discounts (Kerry Wood).

“It would be night and day to have a little better facility here,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “I don’t really mind it, to be honest. But to have what they have planned would be really luxurious. Even all the outside stuff sounds pretty cool, too.”

Ricketts has said that the players’ workspace would take priority and be remodeled during the first of five offseasons. Whether or not construction begins in October depends on how long the public-approval process lasts (or if ownership shifts thinking and pushes forward without every detail already rubber-stamped).

It’s been two-plus weeks since Ricketts stood at a podium inside the dark Wrigley Field concourse, announcing the framework of an agreement with Emanuel and Tunney. (Neither politician attended the press conference.)

“If this plan is approved, we will win the World Series for our fans and our city,” Ricketts said on April 15. “Our players need major-league facilities where they don’t have to warm up to pinch-hit on a tee in the clubhouse. Our players need better locker-room facilities to work out and have their injuries treated, to watch game film and prepare for games.”

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Two days earlier, Steve Clevenger felt like he was stabbed with a knife.

Clevenger had spent about four innings in the weight room loosening up. He then began to prepare for the pinch-hit at-bat he expected in the ninth inning against the San Francisco Giants.

At one end of the clubhouse, the Cubs drop down a net so players can hit balls off a tee. This is in front of a dry-erase board and a flat-screen TV, next to two refrigerators filled with Gatorade and water bottles, with a purple Barney stuffed animal resting on the shelf.

Clevenger struck out to end a 3-2 loss, collapsed to the dirt and strained his left oblique, almost one year after straining his right oblique.    

“I felt good going out there,” Clevenger said. “I wasn’t tight or anything. I did what I needed to do to be ready to go out there. It was just one of those freak accidents. It would be more beneficial if we did have more things like a batting cage. You could get more done in there and actually take live pitches instead of hitting off a tee. (But) you can’t really blame it on that too much. That’s just one of those freak things.”

In the middle of the team’s recent trip through Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Miami, general manager Jed Hoyer observed that the Cubs can actually get more accomplished on the road.

“That’s one of the hard things with the early season in Chicago,” Hoyer said last week. “How much early work do you lose when the weather’s bad every single day?

“I do think that’s one of the oddities of our current ballpark situation and one of the things that needs to change. We get almost all of our early work done on the road because we don’t have the facilities to really get the quality of work done at home, especially in April. So, hopefully, at some point, we’ll get a new batting cage and new facilities.”

No one seems to know exactly when, which means the action inside City Hall, the lobbying in neighborhood meetings and the negotiations over the next television contract will be the most interesting parts of this season.

“It’s the nature of being in a big market,” Sveum said. “It’s going to be a story. This is a historic place – the best place to play baseball. And sometimes places need change. That’s what we’re trying to do – just mix in a few things here and there to get fan-friendly and create a different atmosphere, a new kind of atmosphere. But keep the historic old-style stuff that goes on in this park every day.”