Are Cubs fans in for a treat?
New owners have much work to do
CHICAGO -- I had a great idea.
I was going to attend the Ricketts family's pre-Halloween, we-just-bought-a-baseball-team news conference in a scary costume.
My idea was to dress up as the thing that would scare Tom Ricketts the most: Alfonso Soriano's contract. "We owe this guy how much?! Ahhhh! It's 'The Shining' of contracts!"
Alas, I chickened out. Another reporter did too. He was going to dress as Werewolf Jeff Samardzija, complete with a "no-trade claws."
Fun ideas aside, this was serious business. The first public appearance of the Omaha-Chicago clan that has taken over control of the baseball team you love to watch lose.
The Ricketts family, led by chairman Tom Ricketts, took control of the Chicago Cubs, Wrigley Field and a chunk of Comcast SportsNet Chicago this week, and introduced itself to reporters, and by proxy, the self-proclaimed best baseball fans in the world.
The Halloween eve news conference was apropos, considering the horror show that is the Cubs' payroll, their postseason success, outdated stadium and historical ineptitude.
With rain blanketing the city, and canceling an opportunity to have an always enjoyable outdoor news conference in late October, the event was held at the Captain Morgan's Club, the brainchild of Crane Kenney and the Harry Caray's Restaurant Group.
We learned a little bit about the new owners' plans, like their plans for the long-delayed Triangle Building at Clark and Waveland to open by 2012. We learned they're planning an immediate makeover of the ballpark's bathrooms, concourses and concession stands, among other upgrades that will be done before the 2010 season. Improvements to the players' facilities are a big priority as well, Ricketts said.
We learned that ticket prices will go up a few percentage points, which shouldn't go over well with the fans. In 2009, the Cubs had four pricing tiers and the third most-expensive average ticket in the majors, behind New York and Boston, at $47.75, an increase of nearly $15 from 2007, according to Team Marketing Report. Ricketts didn't know if every section would be affected by the increase, and also said that payroll will go up a bit too. Don't expect this team to go cheap, was the implication.
Ricketts said that profits will be wholly reinvested in the team and ballpark, not in Tribune executives' schooners, as was previous precedent. (OK, I made up the part about the boats.) The difference between family and corporate ownership will be noticeable, he said.
"We don't have quarterly results to worry about, or a year-end return," he said. "Our shareholders are our fans."
Those are words that Cubs fans should pay attention to, and should hold the Ricketts family accountable for in the future. I believe Tom Ricketts when he says that, for whatever reason. The Cubs, while profitable, are no cash cow without naming rights (which he didn't completely discount) and massive upgrades to the stadium (which, he said, won't force the Cubs to play a season in the South Side or Milwaukee). Expect more ads and corporate partnerships.
Cubs fans now have actual people to blame when things go wrong. The Tribune Co., which bought the team in 1981, just when the Ricketts discovered the team, was an easy target, but now you have faces and names to go along with the guys making mistakes on the field.
"We're going to be in the stands," he said. "I can't imagine anyone who comes to a lot of games won't see myself or my siblings."
This was our first glimpse into the Ricketts family. For the most part, the Rickettses were completely charming. After years of corporate ownership and button-down, patrician Tribune executives and old-school baseball blue bloods like Andy McPhail running the show from behind the curtains, the four Ricketts children cracked jokes. Tom stood beside the Cubs logo-embossed dais, while his siblings, Pete, Todd and Laura, sat next to him on stools. Family patriarch Joe, the founder of TD Ameritrade, and his wife, Marlene, sat in the first row.
The jokes didn't go over that great, which is actually a good sign, because it shows they have real, spontaneous senses of humor. At one point, Todd Ricketts answered a delicately worded question about dumping the $21 million owed to Milton Bradley, looking at Jim Hendry and saying, "I think Jim knows way better than to do that, though." He capped off the joke with a wink that went over like a Soriano fly ball into the wind.
(Earlier, when someone asked Tom about adding to the front-office staff, he said, "Crane [Kenney] says he needs more people, and I'm telling him, 'Dude, you're being efficient!'" Also, few laughs.)
By the way, all that Kenney speculation proved to be unfounded. Kenney, a former Tribune lawyer, is officially staying on as president in lieu of his old title of chairman, with the same duties and responsibilities he had under the Sam Zell Tribune ownership. One of those, preferably, won't be curse buster.
"There is no curse," Tom Ricketts said. "There is no curse. If anybody on our team thinks he's cursed, we'll move him to a less accursed team. From this day forward, let's just get that behind us."
Well, that doesn't count the curse of bad management, which has plagued this team for most of the past century.
The Ricketts kids hope to change that, and to be sure they sound like Cubs fans. They're still young enough to declare "we're Cubs fans with deep Chicago roots," and clarify those roots as originating way, way back in the early 1980s.
Todd Ricketts, who reportedly slept on the street to get bleacher tickets before, affirmed his Cubs fan status by jumping on the bandwagon at the right time, in 1989, when he moved to Chicago to go to college. Tom Ricketts is only 44 years old, making him one of the younger shot-callers in sports.
Early in his half-hour speech, Tom Ricketts delivered three messages to his fellow fans.
"No. 1 is, we're going to win the World, Series," he said, pausing for polite applause. "We're going to win the World Series by striving every day, and in every way, to be the best franchise in baseball."
Later he amended that by noting, "Saying you're going to win the World Series and winning the World Series are two different things."
Ricketts, an investment banker who lives in the suburbs and met his wife in the bleachers, was genial but forceful in some regards. He took a (possibly unintended) shot at the costly way the Cubs made a run at that elusive World Series, taking on millions upon millions in long-term deals, like Soriano's $136 million deal that goes through 2014. Of course, the Tribune Co. bankrolled those deals knowing it wouldn't have to pay the full freight.
"We've realized there is no magic bullet, no one player you can sign," he said. "The only way you're going to do it is drafting and developing the right players and coaching them through the system and being consistent with how that talent comes up the system to give the general manager the flexibility to put the best team on the field."
He also put Mesa, Ariz., on notice by talking about getting better spring training facilities. Ricketts acknowledged having conversations with people in Naples, Fla., about a spring training site.
"We're not going to let the tail wag the dog," he said. "It's about winning and we're looking for where we can have the best facilities and where we can have the best situation for the team. We're going to be looking over those options over the next few months."
During the dog days of the summer, as the deal dragged on and the team started to sink (or stink), the family didn't wonder if it was making a huge mistake, Tom said.
"Well, I think August was painful, both on the field and in the deal," he said. "It was tough. The process was long, and there were a lot of ups and downs. The good news is we just rode with, and didn't overreact to any one day. We just hung together and persevered with the Cubs deal.
"Watching the team on the field this year was difficult for everybody. Expectations were very high and they should be. Every year we should have high expectations. It was obviously disappointing for everybody at the performance on the field didn't match up to expectations. We will turn it around in 2010."
The Ricketts family is no longer just another rich Omaha family. Now, it's the Ricketts family, the owners of the Chicago Cubs.
"Waking up this morning was interesting," Tom Ricketts said. "But we had three years to get ready for this day, so that was good."
It has been a long time coming and I hope the family basks in its happiness.
OK, basking time is over. Being the owner of the Cubs is no longer a dream or a goal. It's a reality. Scary, isn't it?
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.