Commentary

Cubs sinking under wishy-washy owner

If Tom Ricketts has a plan to turn his franchise around, Cubs fans would love to hear it

Updated: June 22, 2011, 1:48 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs have lost their way. And worse yet, team chairman Tom Ricketts is having trouble reading the directions on his baseball Garmin.

His franchise is headed south. It has been pointed that way for a while, but the hope was that the new Ricketts ownership regime would change that. So far, nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Forget about reversing the curse. How about reversing the growing concerns about Ricketts' ability to make a difference, about his having the stones to make a hard decision?

Somehow, Ricketts has forgotten the essential truth about running a sports franchise, especially a franchise such as the Cubs with its special history and special, perpetually heartbroken following. And that truth is this: Winning makes all things possible.

I'm not saying Ricketts isn't interested in winning. Or that he doesn't care. I'm saying that he hasn't done anything of substance to convince people that he's trying to win.

Surely he has a plan, right? You don't spend $845 million on a team and an ancient ballpark without a plan. But has Ricketts ever articulated exactly what he's going to do? It's as if he's scared to go public, to be the tiniest bit controversial.

Tom Ricketts
AP Photo/Matt YorkCubs chairman Tom Ricketts has the daunting task of turning around a franchise that's heading in the wrong direction.

Any owner can mingle with the paying customers in the stands. I get it: You listen to the fans, get their feedback, try to ease their pain. But then what? Talk is Groupon cheap. Cubs season tickets aren't. Just once I'd like to hear Ricketts explain how this thing is going to get fixed.

The Cubs haven't won a postseason game since 2003. They haven't won a division since 2008. They've won 90 or more games just three times in the past 26 years. A glance at the National League Central standings finds them stuck firmly in fifth place, well below .500 and 10 games behind division leader Milwaukee. And yet, they have their supporters.

"I look at the lineup yesterday," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said before Tuesday's game, "and I think they have a chance to win the division. I look at that lineup -- that lineup pretty good. They're going to compete.''

The Cubs' reaction?

"Ozzie's a smart man,'' outfielder Marlon Byrd said.

"Obviously we do. We do have the talent,'' said catcher Geovany Soto.

"I feel that way,'' manager Mike Quade said. "I hope Ozzie's a really good handicapper.''

Cubs followers want a World Series, of course, but more than anything, they want a reason to believe. Give them that reason and they'll keep coming to Wrigley, keep paying those jacked-up ticket prices and keep giving Ricketts the benefit of the doubt.

Right now, there is no reason. Every so often, Ricketts emerges from his office and aims a garden hose at the latest firestorm, but that's it. He's pleasant enough, but he never quite says anything.

I don't buy the "Fan Boy" tag. So what if he used to sit in the Wrigley Field bleachers and watch ballgames? If anything, he's a fan of sellouts and black ink. He got them during the recent New York Yankees series, but the Yankees are long gone. Now it's back to reality.

The reality is that the Cubs have an identity crisis. Ricketts is the face of the franchise, but so far he hasn't been its voice.

Nobody expects him to be George Steinbrenner. Or Hank Steinbrenner, for that matter. But it's OK to show some emotion and passion. And it's even more OK to throw in a few details now and then.

It's nice to say you're going to build your organization from the ground up. Congratulations. But Ricketts first needs to address the top of his organization and then work down.

If Jim Hendry is "Dead General Manager Walking," as everyone assumes him to be, team president Crane Kenney better be walking right beside him. Sorry -- your legacy has to be more than the Captain Morgan Club or trying to turn Wrigley Field into Fenway Park Jr.

The Boston Red Sox make money because they win, because they spend money and because they usually spend it well. They give their fans that reason to believe. Yes, they have some economic advantages, but there's never any doubt about management's pursuit of winning.

Kenney is infatuated with the Red Sox business model. He is infected with Red Sox envy. But Red Sox ownership hired a team president (Larry Lucchino) who knew what he was doing. Lucchino helped create something in Boston that can't be duplicated -- and Kenney should know that.

Maybe Ricketts is too nice to be an owner. Maybe he wants everyone to like him. If so, he needs to sell the team tomorrow.

The Cubs' message these days is as strong as 2 percent milk. If Ricketts wants to be taken seriously by his constituency, he has to make some difficult, seismic and franchise-defining choices.

For starters, he has to state his goals -- the more audacious, the better -- and show everyone he's serious about achieving them. If that means spending big, great. If it means starting from scratch, fine. But have the guts to say so.

He has to find the best person on the planet to become team president, someone who understands that Cubs fans have been dialing 911 for decades. Someone who breathes baseball and business as if they are oxygen. Kenney is not that person.

The culture and personality of this franchise must change. Otherwise, why bother buying a ticket?

Cubs followers don't ask for much, just hope. It is time that Ricketts gave them that and much, much more.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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