- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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The good news is that Sam Zell is selling the Chicago Cubs. Believe me, you don't want this goober within a foul pole of a major league baseball team. He'd be the first owner to insist on 12-man rosters and that the clubhouses go condo. Anything to save or make a buck.
The bad news is that Sam Zell is selling Wrigley Field as a separate asset, but not before he also might sell the naming rights to baseball's second-oldest ballpark. Sam isn't big on tradition.
Of course, when you're $351 million in the hole (Zell's initial stake in the $8.2 billion purchase of the now-highly leveraged Tribune Company) you'd sell your mother for the right price. In fact, she might be available on eBay right now.
So one of the most famous neon signs in sports -- Wrigley's gorgeous red marquee at the intersection of Clark and Addison -- could soon be reconfigured for the right price.
No surprise there. Zell is about sell. About profit. About green -- and I don't mean the ivy on the Wrigley Field outfield walls.
But most of all, Zell is about Zell. His Sam I Am Tour of assorted Tribune media properties in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Orlando, among others, hasn't, well, exactly had the feel of a town hall meeting to them.
"F--- you," he told an Orlando Sentinel photographer at one meeting. In another, he described a Trib management type as a "motherf-----." According to a person who was there, he reminded employees at one meeting that if the entire venture fails, he'll still be a billionaire but they'll likely be jobless. And when characterizing his ownership role, he said, "I'm your Viagra."
Zell's language is so inappropriate for the setting that even Eminem is offended. Zell prides himself on being the defibrillator paddles of the business world. He's here to shock your senses. Clear!
"My head only looks forward," he said during a visit to L.A.
Zell is more insufferable than another Will Ferrell sports movie (please, Will, more cowbell, less sports). But like it or not, this is the man who will decide whether Wrigley Field remains Wrigley Field. Sadly, his head looks forward only to the highest bidder for those naming rights.
The possibilities are frightening:
• Cialis Field (In the rare event of a Cubs game lasting more than four hours, seek immediate medical help).
• White Sox Park (Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf can't outdraw the Cubs, so he deep-sixes their stadium name).
• F-Bomb Stadium (Zell's personal favorite).
Look, I understand the financial realities of the game these days. The sports business models of the past aren't necessarily the sports business models of the present and future. Got it.
But renaming Wrigley would be like the Vatican's signing off on the Tostitos Sistine Chapel. Some places have earned the right to keep their maiden name.
Wrigley Field, so named in 1926, is one of those places. So is Fenway Park, whose owners understood the intrinsic value of baseball's senior citizen ballyard. So is Yankee Stadium, which will keep its proud name when the new structure opens next year. So is Lambeau Field (Lambeau Field Presented By Miller? Don't think so.)
I know -- it's just a name. Wrigley was originally Weeghman Park, then Cubs Park, then Wrigley, in honor of then-team owner William Wrigley Jr. But still, that's 82 years of the same identity. That probably doesn't mean much to Zell, the billionaire real-estate mogul, but it means something to people in Chicago, to any baseball fan who's made the pilgrimage to that plot of land bordered by Clark, Addison, Waveland and Sheffield.
The New York Mets are getting $400 million to call their new ballpark Citi Field. Can you blame them for wanting a fresh start in 2009? Anything to forget the dump known as Shea Stadium, where the rats are the size of canned hams.
The San Francisco Giants have changed their stadium name so often that they ought to write it in grease pencil. And the White Sox, who tore down gloriously old Comiskey Park for blah-ishly new Comiskey, eventually sold the naming rights to a cell-phone company. They even sold their home starting times to a convenience store chain.
Now that's the kind of revenue stream Sam Zell can get behind. Wait -- until recently Zell held a minority ownership interest in the White Sox. Uh-oh.
With Zell, everything is reduced to its purest commercial form. His real-estate holdings are product. His newspapers, television and radio stations are product. His baseball team and the stadium they play in are product. He is proudly a bottom-line guy.
But without getting too "Field of Dreams" about it, baseball is a different kind of business. There's a delicate, complicated dynamic between a team and its fans. With the Cubs, that dynamic includes a love affair with Wrigley Field.
The Red Sox, Yankees and Packers owners understand it. That's why they didn't dare screw around with their stadium brand names. Plus, there's money to be made on old age. Fenway, Yankee Stadium and Lambeau are cash cows. Call them something else and they lose their authenticity. They become depressingly corporate.
"It will be Yankee Stadium in 2009," Yankees president Randy Levine said Friday. "It will be Yankee Stadium every year. It will always be Yankee Stadium. We have no interest in selling the naming rights. We think that would not be the right thing to do. There is only one Yankee Stadium. ... The name reflects something special."
Zell, for all of his supposed billionaire brilliance, is too dumb to recognize this about Wrigley Field. He's forgotten the First Commandment of business:
The customer is always right.
And the customer wants Wrigley to stay Wrigley.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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