Commentary

What not to do

A guide on actions the Ricketts family should avoid as new Cubs owners

Originally Published: August 24, 2009
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

MEMORANDUM

To: The Ricketts family, soon-to-be owners of the Chicago Cubs.

From: Someone who wishes he had about $800 million to buy a major league team.

Re: Don't screw this up.

[+] EnlargeJim Hendry
Chris Chambers/Getty ImagesJim Hendry's successes outweigh his failures as Cubs GM.
Once the bankruptcy court signs off on the deal, and the check clears, and the other MLB owners approve the purchase, you'll own 95 percent of a franchise that is working on its second 100-year rebuilding plan. Congratulations.

But just because you're fabulously rich, or because one of you met your future wife in the Wrigley Field bleachers, or because you've done well in business doesn't mean you know anything about overseeing a big league ballclub. You don't.

This isn't just any team you're purchasing. This is the Cubs, a franchise with enough heartbreak and history that it needs its own traveling psychotherapist. What it doesn't need is an owner who thinks of the Cubs as simply an investment, another expensive car to park in the portfolio garage. It needs someone who has business and baseball sense. (Jerry Reinsdorf isn't a bad ownership template.) It needs someone who cares if the W flag flies -- and not just because it might mean a full house the next day.

You want to start to earn some trust currency from Cubs followers? Then don't make these 14 (in honor of Ernie Banks' jersey number) mistakes:

Don't pink slip general manager Jim Hendry.

Hendry would be the first to tell you he whiffed on the Milton Bradley signing. Right idea, wrong guy -- except that nobody thought Bradley would be the wrong guy coming off a 2008 season in which he hit .321 and had 22 home runs and 77 RBIs in 414 at-bats. But there's no way around it: Bradley has done a first-year belly flop (.250, nine homers, 31 RBIs in 316 at-bats) and Hendry is the guy who handed him the three-year contract.

If he had a do-over, Hendry should have kept Mark DeRosa and made sure the Cubs had some viable left-handed relievers at spring training. And yes, the Kevin Gregg acquisition finally blew up, but do you blame Hendry for trading for him -- no way were the Cubs going to give Kerry Wood the years and money he wanted to stay -- or manager Lou Piniella for keeping him in the closer role? Whatever. Gregg is a one-and-done.

Kosuke Fukudome has two years left at $12 million per, but at least his bat isn't hooked up to a respirator anymore. Hendry overpaid for him, but any team that signed him (and there were higher bids) were going to overpay for him.

Everyone loved the Alfonso Soriano deal in 2007, when he hit 33 homers and could actually run. Then he hurt his right quadriceps and he's never been the same. And never will. That's a problem, since Soriano is signed through 2014. If you think he's semi-useless at age 33, just wait until 2014, when he's 38.

So Hendry has had an off year. It's not why the Cubs are, barring a baseball miracle, out of the playoff race, but it didn't help. Still, Hendry's successes easily outweigh the negatives. His body of work is enough to buy him at least another season.

Don't let Crane Kenney be Crane Kenney.

You want to keep Kenney as team chairman during the ownership transition, and maybe beyond? Fine. He wouldn't be my first choice. Or second. Or third.

But if he's going to stay, he has to quit with the jock-sniffing. I've seen him on the road, in the visiting clubhouse, sitting on a couch with players as they watched a movie. He's the chairman, not the clubbie. Someone needs to tell him he's not a player and that this isn't fantasy camp. How would Kenney like it if Bradley stopped by his office, slouched on a chair and acted like he belonged?

Kenney is the guy who green lighted the Greek Orthodox priest's going into the Cubs' dugout and blessing it with holy water. Not only did the decision insult Cubs players, but it didn't work.

Don't sit in those front-row seats right next to the Cubs' dugout.

Kenney does and he looks like a dilettante. I swear I thought I once saw him talking to a player in the on-deck circle.

Anyway, if you absolutely have to sit there, then how about this for an idea: Each game pick a fan out of the stadium entrance line and show him to his new seat in the front row. Just like the Heineken commercial.

Wrigley Field Sign
Warren Wimmer/Getty ImagesThe Wrigley Field marquee should remain untouched.
Think about it: You and the paying customer. You get some honest feedback and the fan has to buy the first round of brats and beer.

Don't touch the big three.

Under no circumstances should you tinker with the red Wrigley Field marquee sign, the center-field scoreboard or the ivy. And while you're at it, don't mess with the underrated blue Chicago Cubs neon sign behind the center field bleachers.

Don't invite the Seventh-Inning Stretch guest conductor back for 2010.

It's time to wave goodbye to the guest conductor. It was a wonderful tribute to Harry Caray after he died, but seriously, how many times do we have to listen to Jim Belushi? Even more painful are those tortured interviews with the WGN radio and TV crews.

Keep "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" -- a Wrigley tradition like no other -- but let's try this: Ron Santo becomes the designated singer, with an occasional duet with a visiting dignitary who can actually name a Cubs player.

Don't forget Greg Maddux.

Maddux's retired jersey number isn't on a Wrigley flagpole by accident. And he could have started writing his Hall of Fame speech years ago. So why not reach out to Mad Dog and see if he'd like to be part of the Cubs organization?

An instructor during spring training? A traveling instructor in the minor leagues? A consultant? A special scout? A pitching coach? Whatever it costs, Maddux will be worth it. He's one of the smartest and most intuitive players ever to play the game. The Cubs need assets like that.

Don't wait on Piniella.

The moment after you officially become the new owners, call Piniella and tell him he has exactly 24 hours to state his managerial intentions. Either he wants to be here, or he doesn't. And if he doesn't, have your list of replacements already in your back pocket.

Don't overlook the in-house candidates.

If Piniella wants out -- or you want him out -- there are two names worthy of serious consideration: Alan Trammell and Ryne Sandberg. The Cubs' bench coach stunk it up as Detroit's manager from 2003 to 2005, but that was then, this is now. The guy is an absolute keeper.

Meanwhile, Sandberg brings the Cubs star power and, to his credit, has done his time managing on the Single-A and Double-A levels.

Don't ditch the Triangle Building project.

It won't matter to the average fan, but the Cubs' clubhouse could use some elbow room. So could the Cubs' front offices. The proposed project could give the Cubs an actual batting cage (let the visiting team still use the one under the right-field bleachers) and a new workout room (you could move it from the existing clubhouse to the new building) and could provide more working areas for the front office.

And while you're at it, would it kill you to update the home clubhouse? It doesn't have to be a country club, but it also doesn't have to look like a hospital hallway with lockers.

Don't retire Sammy Sosa's number.

The Gladiator walked out on the Cubs. He lied. He used corked bats. He tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Do I have to go on?

Don't be afraid to eat some salary.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Zambrano
G Fiume/Getty ImagesCarlos Zambrano is not as valuable to the organization as previously thought.
Joe Ricketts founded the company now known as TD Ameritrade, so you know stocks. Think of Soriano as a stock gone bad. The Cubs bought high (eight years, $136 million) and have since watched Soriano reach penny-stock status.

I know it's not my money, but if you can trade him to an American League team that needs a DH -- and it means you have to take on some of his remaining salary to make the deal work -- then do it.

Soriano is a good teammate, hates losing, can't stand being out of the lineup and does the best he can. But Soriano doing the best he can isn't worth five more seasons at this price. Sometimes you have to cut your losses. At the very least, you have to let your GM and manager know that it's OK to bench Soriano, regardless of what his weekly paycheck says.

Don't be afraid to trade Carlos Zambrano.

Zambrano is the classic case of a guy corrupted by money and his own ego. He can be a dominating pitcher (when he's not on the DL -- two seasons in a row now), but his diva act has worn as thin as a hot dog wrapper. If the right trade package came along, I'd deal him in a nanosecond.

Don't raise ticket prices.

You say you respect Cubs fans. Prove it.

Cubs fans do their part -- they show up by the millions to Wrigley. Now do your part -- don't jack up the ticket prices. People will pay for a good product, but the Cubs have been average at best this season. A price freeze on beer would be a nice gesture too.

Don't be an imitator.

Wrigley Field isn't Fenway Park. One is the Mona Lisa, the other is the Sistine Chapel. They're both masterpieces. And they're both different.

Red Sox ownership has done a near seamless job of updating and enhancing Fenway. But what works in Boston doesn't automatically work at Wrigley.

You know business. Then you know that Wrigley is as important a brand as the Cubs themselves. So don't change Wrigley for change's sake. Its age, its peculiarities, its lack of creature comforts is part of its charm. Keep it pristine. Repair it. Baby it. But don't alter what makes Wrigley, well, Wrigley.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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