May 3, 2013, 10:00 am
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Frankie O

If it’s baseball season in Chicago, it means it’s time to start talking about what’s going on off the field to divert our attention to what’s happening on it, at least on the northside. In the never-ending financial saga in Cubdom, owner Tom Ricketts finally dropped the m-bomb, in his never-ending quest to get his way. (As in, move the team, for those of you not riveted to the drama that is almost half-way to, “When will Derrick play?” status in Chicago lore.)

Since his family took control of the Cubs in October of 2009 the team has a 218-296 record. That is losing at a prodigious rate even for a franchise that has had its share of competitive ignominy.

Also since his family bought the team, we’ve heard about the fact that the team is at an economic disadvantage compared to its competitors.

Excuse me?


I can’t count the number of words I’ve devoted to this topic in this space. It’s enough to put a quarter-full stadium of fans fast asleep, I’m sure. But I can never seem to escape this conversation, at the bar at least, so here we go again.

My first question is, who on God’s green earth, did the research for this purchase?

Now I’m no rich kid, but I’m sure when the adults put the signature on the purchase that they felt very confident that this was a no-lose proposition. Then again, Sam Zell put up so many hoops to jump through on the way, who knows? Maybe they were so dizzy by the elongated process that they approached the signing of the documents (the really important part) like those contestants you see in the spin around the bat game.

I always remember the idea of Mark Cuban buying the team and his remarks when he did not. ( He talked about his disappointment, but it was tempered with the economic realities of what the sale price would incur. One quote in particular stayed with me. “I thought I had the experience (as an NBA team owner) to come in and improve the business so that I could continue to invest in the product on the field without having to squeeze every nickel from Cubs fans.”

Invest in the product on the field.

Seems rather simple, doesn’t it?

And that’s where the fun starts. Because in this chicken vs. egg argument, I don’t think it matters until the team is competitive.

So we get to the facts.

1)      The Ricketts own the Cubs. (This is huge.)

2)      The neighborhood has some rights, due to creative zoning and landmark status of the stadium. (“Make a deal.” “What kind of deal?” “A deal, deal!” - Cold one for the 1st person who recognizes that movie dialogue!)

3)      The Cubs have a 20 year signed partnership with 17 rooftop owners. (What?!! Who did that?)

I’m not sure, but I think that third one is kind of a big deal, or else this wouldn’t be such a mess.

Again, I’m just a bartender, so some of this obviously alludes me, but shouldn’t a lot of this been thought out before the purchase of the team? The Ricketts family bought a national icon of a baseball team, one that would be a cash cow and boon to the family trust with which it was purchased. Remember the rooftop video of Tom Ricketts and his father? “It’s like this every night.”

My question is when did the outstanding contracts or dilapidated, outdated state of the stadium come up? Or when did they discuss who the point man would be to navigate the shark infested waters that is Illinois politics?

It always seems that each new plan is a reaction to something they didn’t have the foresight to see.

No money for payroll? Can you say youth movement with an emphasis on the minors?

We want public money. Oh, we can’t? That’s all right. We have enough to do it ourselves. What?

The stadium needs to be brought up to date. Wait, isn’t that part of the charm?

That’s something that gets me. Stadium issues, neighborhood issues, none of this is new. If you’re a Cubs fan, you know these things have been going on forever.

I hear the “equal footing part.” Why should other owners have an advantage? But is it on the field? Or do other stadiums have things you want? Read: Revenue streams.

Other owners are making a ton of cash from all of the signage inside their stadiums. (Thank you, Jerry Jones.) Video capability only increases that ability.

But to this outsider, it’s that lack of video, and blaring rock music, that give Wrigley its charm. Watch the game! Anyone who’s been there remembers their first time. It’s that cool. Not being overly modern is part of that.

I understand this is business. And I believe a business owner should be allowed to run it how they want. The free market will determine whether it succeeds or fails. The Cubs have made the neighborhood they inhabit. It is not the other way around.

In that same line of thinking, Wrigley Field has made the Cubs. Who is in the stands? People from around the country, that’s who. The Cubs fans are like most of the rest of baseball. When there is a winning team, they are there. When there isn’t they sell their tickets to tourists on Stub Hub.

I have no disagreement with the Cubs wanting to improve their ability to make money. But call it what it is. Just because you don’t have a Jumbotron isn’t the reason you haven’t won in over a century. Bad teams, worse ownership and even worse luck is the reason. And if they win, it won’t necessarily be due to being able to outspend or out-profit their competition and the fact that they have a freaking Jumbotron in left field. It will be due to the fact that they have a better team and for the love of a severed goat’s head, some good luck for once. Teams have won with low payrolls. The Yankees don’t win every year. In fact since 2001 the average rank in payroll of the last 12 World Series winners is 10th.  (And that includes the #1 payroll Yanks of 2009 and Theo’s 2 in Boston were both with the 2nd highest.)(Oh, and the White Sox were ranked 13th BTW.)

The Cubs will win when they finally have a team that is full of Major Leaguers.

The team they put on the field now is not worth the 3rd highest average ticket price. I think this is starting to become an issue. Money is not the problem. Forbes said the team made $32 million last year.

Is it debt ratio? The team says not. They just have chosen, or there bankers have, not to put that money back on the field. It’s when they make even more that we will see a difference.

I’m still not so sure.

The championship team will be built through the draft, or so we are told. But remember, the way the last CBA was set up, the player draft can’t be manipulated like it was, say, 10 years ago. So the best way to draft your team is to be horrible for about ten years. Kind of like how Tampa Bay got competitive.

Wait a second. That’s interesting.

Anyway, for me, it all gets back to the Jumbotron. I know that this team wants to do everything that the Red Sox have over the last 15 years since they bought, I’m sorry, won 2 World Series titles and make a boatload of cash. But I’ve been to Fenway before and after the titles. The energy within the stadium was not due to watching videos. Well maybe it is now. The old Fenway was one of the coolest places ever. But that’s gone now. Time for a new generation I guess. Watching Jumbotrons and being glued to your smartphone are the new way to enjoy the game. Whatever!

I would like to see a Wrigley field that is newer, but older at the same time. Building revenue streams is the prerogative of any owner. No problems with that. But like many things, it comes with a cost not easily measured. So threaten to move. We all know it won’t happen. And add all of the gaudy baubles you want, really, who is going to stop you? I still will go, but it won’t be the same. It truly will be a Wrigley for the next generation, even if they don’t understand, that the “new” stadium in was magical for a reason way beyond the team in it.  

I’m reminded of the great speech given by James Earl Jones as Terrence Mann at the end of “Field of Dreams.” You can interpret it how you like, but it always brought to mind my own vision of what Wrigley Field is and means.

(Edited)(paraphrased)(and embellished!)

“People will come. They’ll come for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll arrive as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we don’t mind if you come on in. It’s only $100 per person. (Couldn’t help myself!) They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it; for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. (That’s right. Keep your shirt on, shirt off!) They’ll find themselves sitting where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it will be as if they’ve dipped themselves in magic waters. (At 10 bucks a pop!) The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come. The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good and can be good again. Oh…people will come. People will most definitely come.”

Call me old-fashioned, or just plain old, since I am. But one of the constants of my lifetime is the last generations Wrigley Field. Well, with lights that is. I remember the firestorm over that and it seems quaint now. It’s tougher and tougher to hold on to the past. I guess in the case of Wrigley Field as I love it, it’s time to let go.