Owner appreciation day

2/19/2010 - Chicago Cubs

CHICAGO -- It was a deceptively cold Friday morning. The sun was out for a second straight day, mischievously, but it didn't help.

"Just pretend it's Opening Day," a man with no hat said warmly. "It's always cold on Opening Day."

The hatless man was wearing a long red scarf and a jacket down to his knees and he said over and over again that he just wants the season to start. He's heading to Mesa, Ariz., on Monday, joining snowbirds and spring breakers and Ron Santo, all excited to watch a bunch of millionaires jog and play pepper games.

The man with a hint of a bald spot and no tie was shaking the hands of Cubs fans and undercover ticket brokers who waited in a long line on the Waveland Ave. side of Wrigley Field for the right to pay the Cubs a lot of money to watch a game in the coming months.

The hatless, tieless man was Tom Ricketts, the new owner of the Cubs, the guy who went from being a rich fan to a rich owner without losing an appreciation for the common touches, like the tiny cups of Dunkin' Donuts the family was passing out.

"Owners, they're just like us!"

Forget pitchers and catchers reporting. This is the real herald of spring in Chicago: a thousand Cubs fans shivering outside an empty park for the right to spend a lot of money to watch baseball.

The Ricketts family, as fresh as a white baseball, was doling out coffee and shaking hands and taking pictures with the fans who are dedicated enough, or paid enough by big-time scalpers, to get wristbands on Thursday night, hoping to be lucky enough to have the honor of buying a $60 bleacher seat or a $63 upper deck reserved seat for a platinum game against the St. Louis Cardinals before the thousands of fans at home waiting virtually on their computers.

Some look at tickets as potential profits, but far more, judging from the fans in the queue, were just buying hope. They were buying a chance at a memory and an experience.

Maybe it's a warm July afternoon when Lou Piniella gets tossed and Aramis Ramirez dents Sheffield Ave. with a walkoff homer. Maybe it's a late September evening and a chance to be drenched in champagne by Ryan Dempster. Being there will never be replaced by an LED television. Whoever thought of the wristband idea (John McDonough? Jay Blunk?) deserves credit, because it builds more buzz than any marketing campaign. It encourages the idea of scarcity and added value. It plays into the mystique.

But for everything the Cubs have kept from the previous regime, they've changed things, too.

Under the Ricketts family's leadership, the Cubs moved quickly to add little, relatively inexpensive, amenities, from the much-ballyhooed bathrooms to an open socializing area under the bleachers. These are things the Tribune Co. wouldn't spend money on, because they won't directly generate revenue. Are they vital to that goal of winning a World Series? No. But are they the right thing to do? Yeah, and they should have been done 15 years ago.

According to the Cubs' new marketing campaign, it's only "Year One," so maybe this is really a rebirth.

"The idea is to put the past behind us," Tom Ricketts said. "We're looking forward. There's no point talking about what didn't happen."

Laura Ricketts said she had mixed feelings on the new "Year One" campaign.

"The Cubs have a great history," she said. "But it's a new beginning too."

Tom Ricketts was having pleasant conversations, real conversations, with fans at 8 a.m. as they moved from the line to ticket windows for first crack at tickets Friday. (Well, first crack after the 15-20 percent markup presale with MasterCard on Monday.) He had gotten there, with his brother Todd and sister, Laura, at 6:30 a.m., when they greeted the first person in line. They used to wait in line for bleacher seats, too, the story goes, especially Pete, the lone sibling who lives in their native Omaha, Neb.

"We used to sleep outside for bleacher seats," Tom Ricketts said. "Pete used to sit against the wall with a cooler of beer and some lawn chairs."

Those days are long over, as fans clamor to buy up tickets en masse on the first day they are available to everyone.

"We will sell more tickets today than any team in baseball, if history is our guide," team president Crane Kenney said.

Now Pete and Tom and Laura and Todd own the wall they used to lean on. And they make money off the tickets you're waiting for, which have mostly gone up in price again, and the beer you drink. How does it feel to know this is your house, I asked Tom.

"I don't know about that," he said. "It's everyone's house."

Coming out to Wrigley in the morning chill to greet the hoi polloi with very small cups of a sponsor's coffee is a PR opportunity, of course, a chance to build some positive buzz for a fan base that deals with rising ticket costs and annual disappointments, but it was also a total sea change for this organization. If I saw a Tribune executive coming at me years ago, I'd clutch at my wallet.

"We're fans, too," Tom Ricketts said. "It's not hard for us to come out here and talk to folks."

It's not that the Ricketts family doesn't want your money. It does, and it'll get it. In 50 years, the Rickettses will have your thumbprint to charge you $1,000 for zero-gravity seats in the upper decks.

I'm as cynical as they come but I'm not ashamed to admit I saw some authenticity to their gesture. Laura and Todd Ricketts constantly had a tray of coffee in their hands. And the fans seemed appreciative. No one, that I could hear, took the opportunity to complain about high prices or the team-owned scalping service or the Cubs' growth in pandering to deep-pocketed fans with their presales and Cubs Club and whatever else.

Then again, these were the fans who got in line early to buy tickets for six months down the road. They weren't exactly reading Saul Alinsky in line. In any event, the Rickettses were happy to be there and the fans were thrilled to meet them.

"We have very respectful fans," Laura Ricketts said, sagely adding: "But we haven't owned the team long enough to do anything wrong."

What's it like to own your favorite team?

"It's 10 dreams come true," Tom Ricketts said.

At one point Ricketts turned away from the cameras and back to a shivering fan, "You look cold."

"I am cold," the blonde, shaky woman said.

"Next year," he said, "we'll bring heat lamps out here."

And I believe him.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.