Commentary

Ricketts family's new team needs work

GM Hendry deserves scrutiny

Originally Published: August 23, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- It took only two-plus seasons, two division titles, two quick playoff exits, a trip to bankruptcy court, a few Sam Zell head fakes, the premature demise of Mark Prior's once-magnificent right arm, a couple of hundred turns of "Go Cubs Go" and enough money tied up in contracts to buy the Dominican Republic, rather than just its finest baseball players.

But it's done. The Cubs have a new owner, pending approval by Major League Baseball and a bankruptcy judge, and it is the Ricketts family. The family and Zell have finally made a deal.

If the Cubs weren't so painfully disappointing this season, this would be news worth celebrating. After all, the deal took about eight months to finish, not counting the courting period. If the Tribune Company didn't end its ownership stint spending money as if it were on shore leave, maybe the prospect of a singular owner would bring the prospect of brighter days.

As it happens, Cubs fans across the city and out into the diaspora are tuning out the 2009 Unlovable Losers at an alarming rate. Nearly every Cubs fan I know was in one stage or another of resignation as the high-payroll, low-intensity Cubs went to the West Coast on Monday in their own bizarre interpretation of Manifest Destiny.

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesAmong the items on the Ricketts' to-do list is to renovate Wrigley Field. Adding some new culinary choices would be a great start.

A little more than a month remains in the baseball season. Do you remember one moment when you felt confident in this Cubs team? Has there been more than one stretch of games when you felt this team had what it would take to win in the postseason? No and no. Forget the injuries. This is a team that for whatever reason never coalesced into a winner. It was a high-priced disaster, the "Ishtar" of baseball teams.

Chicago investment banker Tom Ricketts was the point man of his Omaha-based family's purchase, which initially was approved all the way back in January and broke baseball records in the end, despite staying less than $1 billion: $845 million for 95 percent of a lousy team (the Tribune Company will keep a 5 percent stake), a dilapidated ballpark with a great vista and a quarter of a cable station. Not that it's a boondoggle. The Cubs still turn a tidy profit thanks in part to very high ticket prices.

Most folks in the know think it will take 20 years to pay back the $450 million in loans the Ricketts family took out to purchase the package. That, of course, doesn't count the $250 million in repairs that Wrigley Field needs to be modernized.

I don't think the Ricketts family, led by the patriarch, Joe, who supposedly is worth more than $1 billion, is in this for a financial windfall, as the Ricketts have more than enough money to buy the Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates, then use the latter as a Cubs feeder system. This is a vanity purchase, nothing more, nothing less. Tom Ricketts, just 43 years old, will be the most recognizable face in his 'hood this side of Glencoe's own Harold Ramis.

When the Cubs went on sale, tongues wagged at the exorbitant price tags. Groups bidding in excess of $1 billion were waved away, and Ricketts eventually distanced himself from the competition, which included a group led by Bud Selig pal John Canning and a solo shot by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

Thanks to Zell's intransigence and difficulties with the Tribune Company going into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, tax shelters and other complicated business stuff, the price went down. Amid the credit crisis, the overall dismal worldwide financial morass and a compromise on media rights, the Ricketts family paid less than it initially bid while Cubs general manager Jim Hendry had to juggle salaries and all but turn off his cell phone when players were available at good prices. Then again, he hasn't exactly managed his payroll deftly, so no one can wholly blame the ownership vacuum for this team's struggles.

With more than $120 million in payroll currently on the books for 2010 and more than $96 million in 2011, things will have to change at Clark and Addison.

Cubs fans need to know how Ricketts plans to add more talent while keeping ticket prices under control. My guess is that the pricey seats, which top out at $100 for "platinum games," will see either a price hike or the addition of personal seat licenses, or probably both. The auctioning of prime seats has delivered some extra revenue for the club, and could be expanded.

The Ricketts family tried in vain to get silent partners to put in $25 million for hubris investments and courted so-called famous fans such as Bill Murray and Jim Belushi for similar deals. If Tom Ricketts hikes prices in the nosebleed seats or under the second deck, he might see a fan uprising.

So what can he do? What should he do?

Even before the Tribune Company announced it would sell the Cubs, Hendry saw his already-generous corporate benefactors, desperate for a championship and the related revenue, open the purse strings to Tribune Tower's Scrooge McDuck-like vault.

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesGeneral manager Jim Hendry might impress his new bosses with his "inside baseball" stories, but Ricketts need to do his due diligence as to whether Hendry should remain as the GM.

Hendry made some shrewd moves (signing Ted Lilly), some that were costly but seemingly necessary (signing a superstar type in Alfonso Soriano) and some moves that were just disastrous and expensive (every deal this past offseason, Kosuke Fukudome's $48 million and Jeff Samardzija's bizarrely overvalued $10 million contract).

Hendry is a good general manger, in theory, a guy who embodies everything you want in the GM archetype: gruff, funny, profane, witty, intelligent, confident and not risk-averse. As they say, he's got all the tools. But is he one of the greats in the business or just an old-school J.P. Ricciardi, a guy who wildly overpays veterans with long-term deals, with better media? The Cubs' farm system still can't produce position players, aside from the recent influx of Iowa Cubs who won't be stars.

Ricketts will love Hendry's personality and all his inside baseball stories, but if this is to be more than an ego trip, he must do his due diligence on whether to keep Hendry as general manager, fire him and eat the rest of the four-year deal he signed last year, or reassign him in the organization until he leaves or his deal expires.

My guess is that Hendry stays and Ricketts states his confidence in him while privately setting some goals and standards he wants to see achieved in the next few years. I think Hendry deserves at least another season to wade his way out of the swamp he created. And if he finds a way to trade any of his three high-priced outfielders during the offseason, I personally will treat him to the fanciest meal that White Sox GM Kenny Williams' restaurant, Market, has to offer.

Staying in the front office, we know Hendry's track record and what he does from a baseball side, but can anyone tell me what Crane Kenney does?

Kenney, the team's chairman, according to the Cubs' Web site, was a relative unknown outside Tribune circles until then-team president Andy MacPhail left at the end of the 2006 season. He went from senior vice president and general counsel to his current position after John McDonough, who had been the Cubs' president, decamped in late 2007 to the United Center to save Chicago hockey.

Kenney has made himself known to Cubs fans by being a ubiquitous presence in local media, moving from schmoozing with beat writers to making more appearances on sports talk radio shows than Ed from Crown Point.

He even made an appearance at the Cubs' playoff rally downtown this past fall, and Belushi introduced him as the guy responsible for bringing Lou Piniella and Alfonso Soriano to Chicago, although that now sounds like rather faint praise. Kenney found himself scorned by fans and Piniella for having a priest sprinkle the Cubs' dugout with holy water, giving the franchise an amateur-hour feel.

Of course, none of that meshes with a now-hilarious quote told to Paul Sullivan of the Tribune in December 2007, when Kenney said he didn't crave the limelight.

"That's not my goal," Kenney said then. "Our goal is to keep this ship running straight and to have a good plan in place. As the owner, our role is to be out of the public light. Jim's got a good plan, and there's a real good, strong team behind us."

Why would Ricketts keep Kenney around? If anything, he should replace him with a baseball guy, an experienced front-office hand who could work with Hendry to build a consistent winner from the farm system on up or eventually usurp him. The Cubs need some fresh voices, ones who would say, "Why on Earth would you pay Aaron Heilman and Aaron Miles to play baseball?"

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Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCrane Kenney's job is listed as the Chicago Cubs' chairman, but what exactly does he do for the organization?

Baseball writers from both major Chicago newspapers have made Kenney's ouster one of their top suggestions for the Ricketts ownership. I'd be willing to bet my press pass others in the Cubs organization agree.

No matter who's in charge, Ricketts can't go back to the MacPhail spending model. The Cubs should be one of the top spenders in baseball, but that doesn't mean they should just throw money around at every switch-hitter with a snarl.

Pare down the overpriced roster, however you can do it, and find some underpriced talent to fill the gaps. I hate to bring up the White Sox, who were unconventional big-ticket buyers during the past month, but Ricketts should copy their track record of finding undervalued guys such as Carlos Quentin, Alexei Ramirez, Scott Podsednik, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Bobby Jenks at bargain prices. Think young, Tom. Think cheap. That's why he might want to add another top-level front-office guy.

The century countdown is past, and no one died (aside from some aged Cubs fans). A new century is under way, and the new owners owe it to Cubs fans to give them a team to root for and feel good about.

You know how they say it's President Barack Obama's economy now? Well, Tom, it's your Cubs team. You're not responsible for the past century, just as Obama is not responsible for the past few years. But you own this team. I've heard enough about how you're a big fan and you met your wife in the bleachers and lived near Wrigley Field. That's biographical fluff. If being rich and living in Wrigleyville were prerequisites to owning the team, half the patrons of Casey Moran's would be qualified.

So it's time to get to work, starting whenever baseball approves you. You need to find a way to get a scoreboard built in the outfield, which could earn the team $30 million a year in ad revenue, and serve your fans. You need to buy a building or two to house the overworked front-office staff. You could try to buy one of the rooftop buildings and kill two birds with one massive land deal.

You need to get creative with contracts and hire someone to squeeze every last marketing opportunity out of the old facility. Sell naming rights to the entrances and the land Wrigley Field rests on. How does Wrigley Field at Budweiser Square sound? Good to me if it continues to bring in money to renovate the park. When you renovate the park, make sure to get some better food there. Wrigley's options are as embarrassing as its visiting clubhouse.

As much as I make fun of Cubs fans, the majority are good people who love this city and love their team. They deserve a good park, a good team and an owner who is more than just another rich fan with big ideas.

The 2009 season is a wash. Spend the next month trying to make sure it doesn't happen again, Tom. We'll be watching. Or better yet, waiting.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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