Commentary

Face of the franchise

After nearly 30 years of Tribune ownership, fans finally know who owns their Cubs

Updated: April 12, 2010, 11:02 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

If you were at Wrigley Field for the Chicago Cubs' home opener Monday, there is an excellent chance you saw, posed with, chatted up or hugged one or more of the four new team owners.

If you didn't have a Ricketts moment, you were not paying attention.

Between Tom, Pete, Todd and Laura, not to mention their parents, Joe and Marlene, their 11 combined children and 150 friends and family, it was "kind of like a wedding," Tom offered. And he wasn't far off in his description, what with the family receiving line that greeted guests coming into the park with all the warmth of your favorite cousins.

[+] EnlargeTom Ricketts
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesOwner Tom Ricketts spent some time at the gate greeting fans as they entered Wrigley.

It was the home opener of a team already in dire need of a victory, but much more than that, this was the day all good and suffering Cubs fans had been waiting for longer than many could remember. It was the day they could finally see and touch and, in many cases, kiss the new owners of their team.

If you do not think this is a big deal, then you have never tried to write a letter of complaint to an airline. Never tried to call the phone company. Never railed against a team with ownership you could not define, much less meet and greet.

Tom Ricketts, the same man who last summer was hanging out by the Ernie Banks statue in shorts and a T-shirt, only to have someone remind him, "You know Tom, you may not be able to do this for much longer," really is one of the guys inasmuch as one of the guys can be indescribably wealthy.

What makes him and his brothers and his sister one of us is that we also would want to buy our favorite baseball team if we had the dough. And if we loved that team enough, many of us also would jump through ridiculous hoops and end up overpaying and maybe never see a profit.

We would do this not because we were jazzed about making what some would consider a questionable investment but because it's incredibly cool.

It was so cool that Tom and his siblings showed up at 6 a.m. for their first round of radio and TV interviews Monday, enduring such intros as "They call them the lovable losers…" and, at one point, a 25-minute wait for a cable business news network to overcome its technical difficulties and ask its first question.

Quote of the morning: "We're a pro-trough family," said Tom, explaining why extensive restroom improvements still left the Wrigley staple intact.

Runner-up pregame quote: "We're a family, we're not a corporation," Tom said, "so we don't have multiple agendas."

We had been told the negotiations were torturous and the 2½ years they dragged out confirmed it. They celebrated the final sale last summer and this spring, and over mini-bison burgers with the family's bankers before Monday's game, the relief was still palpable.

"I've never been through a more painful process," said Dan O'Brien of Galatioto Sports Partners, a New York-based company spun out of Lehman Brothers five years ago, which now is involved in the sales of the Dallas Stars and Golden State Warriors.

"The Tribune Co. was trying to leverage this as much as possible. I wouldn't say they were the most honorable people in the process. They introduced complexity when the markets were so complex already. The deal almost buckled under their own weight.

"A lot of us thought 'This is unreasonable, let's pull the plug.' It was only because of the family's commitment that it got done at all."

According to Forbes Magazine, the Rickettses' purchase price of the team was more than $100 million more than its current worth of $726 million.

"The [sale] came during an economic meltdown," Ricketts told CNBC. "Obviously, it was a volatile market. We're very happy with the price. It was good enough for us. … You don't get into sports for profit."

For patriarch Joe Ricketts, who is not on the board of the Cubs but whose trust fund to his children made the sale possible, buying the team is, he said, a little like having grandchildren.

"It's perfect for us," he said. "I get the fun, but I don't have to do any of the work."

His children got the fun as well Monday, immersing themselves among the masses, first at the turnstiles, where one elderly fan kissed Tom's hand, then later in a lap around the park, handing out autographed baseballs and shaking more hands than politicians.

It was Tom's idea to pass out the baseballs before he owned the team. None of the four siblings was interested in throwing out the first pitch, choosing instead to pick a random family out of the crowd to do the honors.

[+] EnlargeCubs owners and family
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhThe Ricketts posed for some photos, but let a randomly selected family throw out the first pitch.

They did, however, happily agree to sing the seventh-inning stretch, after which all four Ricketts owners tossed their caps into the crowd. Had they been practicing for that moment, Tom was asked.

"Only for about 20 years," he replied.

Tom plans to be at nearly every game, putting in a modest office setup in one of the skyboxes so he can work when he isn't sitting in his preferred seats next to the home dugout. Waving to fans down from the catwalk and up to the upper decks before working the bleachers was reminiscent of Rocky Wirtz at the Winter Classic last year at Wrigley.

And Wirtz's presence among the fans during Blackhawks games is something Ricketts will try to emulate, even planning on sitting in the top row of his section and closer to the aisle so he can hop in and out.

"If you're one of the owners who never goes out, you never can," he said. "The whole goal is to be comfortable and make everyone comfortable [with you]."

His story is so homespun that some think it was the creation of a good PR man -- meeting his future wife in the bleachers, writing in an essay applying for business school that his dream job was to own the Cubs one day.

"I came across it last summer," Tom said. "That was when I was living at the Sports Corner bar across the street in about 1989."

He moved around Wrigley on Monday as if he were taking it for a test-drive, stopping in his skybox just in time for the Cubs' five-run third inning.

"We're going to like Marlon Byrd," Ricketts said seconds before Byrd singled through the hole at shortstop.

"Drop, drop, drop," he yelled as Derrek Lee's bloop single fell in safely.

"[Xavier] Nady's going to be a nice pickup," Ricketts said as the Cubs newcomer launched a three-run homer to left-center.

"Oh man, that's sweet."

And mere minutes later, more high-fives for Jeff Baker's two-run shot to left.

"That's gone," yelped Ricketts, running back out to the balcony. "Yeah."

Doesn't seem the burden of ownership was affecting his enjoyment as a fan.

"Not if things are going well, no," he smiled. "If things aren't going so well, as a fan you drink a few beers, go 'Oh well.'"

But on this day, anyway, things were going exceptionally well and Ricketts was back out again, joining his sister, Laura, who is expecting her first child in less than five weeks, to weave their way through the upper deck down the third-base line before wading through the concourse behind the bleachers.

More camera phones fly out as fans do not merely pose shoulder to shoulder but wrap their arms around him, one elderly women kissing Tom's hand.

"Great hand sanitizers in the women's rooms," one fan called out to Laura.

"Mr. Rickers, we love you," slobbered one already-overserved woman as they wound around the beer line.

They worked their way past one woman screaming at her friend for desecrating a hot dog with ketchup and even greeted fans standing up against the fence, outside the park.

"Yeah, [bleep] yeah," yelled one man after Tom paused to shake his hand. "That's the new owner."

There were the occasional, "For the love of God, do something with Soriano" remarks. But mostly, there were looks of shock as an actual team owner actually came out to meet the actual fans of his team.

"Classy move if ever I've seen one," one fan remarked.

"This Opening Day," Ricketts said, "is going to be the one that I remember forever."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.