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Enough talk, time to start fixing Wrigley

5/22/2014

CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts is mad as heck and he's probably, no, definitely this time, not going to take it anymore.

On a video posted to the team's Wrigley Field website, Ricketts said the Cubs are going through with their $500 million-plus renovation of Wrigley Field and the surrounding neighborhood, and they are done negotiating with the obfuscating rooftop owners.

"We've spent endless hours negotiating with the rooftops businesses," Ricketts said. "We've gotten nowhere in our talks with them to settle this dispute. It has to end. It's time to move forward. I have to put the team and the fans first.

"So today we are moving forward with our original plan. We are proposing a master plan to the city of Chicago to expand Wrigley Field and have several signs in the ballpark. We need to press ahead with the expansion and the many planned improvements. We cannot delay any longer. The time build a winner is now."

OK, so where are the shovels? Show me a shovel. Put on a goofy Cubs hard hat. Put your money where your mouth is, Tom, and start the process instead of once again telling everybody you're starting the process.

Of course, it's not that easy. First would come the legal battle with the rooftop owners. The Party of the Century typically ends in the Trial of the Century, right?

"Unfortunately, this decision by the Ricketts family will now result in this matter being resolved in a court of law," Ryan McLaughlin, spokesman, Wrigleyville Rooftops Association, wrote in an email.

The Cubs have said they don't think their deal precludes them from adding a view-blocking scoreboard in left and a Budweiser sign in right. But I understand the Cubs' desire to work out a settlement. Few people want to waste time and money in a legal battle. Perhaps if the Cubs had better negotiators, they would've been able to strike a deal in the 10 months since the renovations were approved. Too bad John McDonough works for the Blackhawks.

These renovations, once estimated at $500 million but likely closer to $600 million, were approved by the city council on July 24, 2013. Ten months later, here we are. Who was this video aimed at? I suppose just to put pressure on the rooftops, as the Cubs also announced they will put up more outfield signage, among other tweaks to last year's plan.

All the money will go toward funding the baseball team, which is mired in last place and heading toward another 100-loss season. As it stands now, the Cubs' Opening Day payroll was one of the lowest in baseball despite one of the highest revenues. The farm system is awesome, though. Just ask them.

"Our plan will provide more revenue for Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to invest in building a championship club," Ricketts said in the video.

I'm sure they're checking the team PayPal account every day.

Last year, after numerous meetings with the city council and the landmarks commission, and after making some concessions to the rooftop owners through city mediation, the Cubs were given permission to renovate the park and start the money-making process.

The plan boiled down to: redoing the clubhouses and concourses; building a giant video board; putting up advertising signage in and outside of the ballpark; building more club and restaurant space; and building an adjacent hotel, a multipurpose square and an office building. They got more night games, more concerts, and free "air space" to expand their facility onto city property with no remuneration.

It took some fighting, and it wasn't pretty, but it seemed that a healthy compromise was reached with the city and the Cubs' alderman last summer.

But the Cubs still had to settle a dispute with rooftop club owners who signed a 20-year deal in 2004 that gives them the rights to views of the ballpark in exchange for 17 percent of their gross revenues to the Cubs.

After the council approved the Cubs' plans last year, Ricketts said in a statement: "We look forward to beginning construction on our $500 million plan, but before we do, we must resolve once and for all the threat of litigation and the enforcement of existing rooftop ordinances and long-term certainty over control of our outfield."

Nearly a year later, Ricketts is really serious this time.

Infuriating as it might seem, the Cubs could afford to take their time to avoid a legal battle.

The process of building a video board, from bidding to building, takes more than a year. So it was never going up this season anyway. The Cubs would've had to start planning for major reconstruction before last July, so this past offseason was out.

The only change at Wrigley Field for the start of the 2014 season was the debut of Clark's Clubhouse, the home of the team's new mascot where fans can buy expensive Clark memorabilia.

In the video, Ricketts made a big production of the Cubs' makeshift batting cage in the home dugout. It's a batting tee and a net that comes down from the ceiling. Hilariously enough, the Cubs added that just in the last decade when a former player couldn't hit soft tosses into a small round net.

Ricketts' point was that the team needs to start the renovation to put the Cubs on a level playing field with other teams. He's not wrong.

Of course, the rooftop owners don't have any say about the home clubhouse. But any kind of infrastructure work takes time and money, and the Cubs are counting on revenue from the planned video board in left field.

So nothing has started, but I'm sure it will very soon.

OK, maybe not so sure.

I was at the Captain Morgan Club on Nov. 16, 2010, when Ricketts first made his pitch about renovating the stadium with money from the city and county amusement tax. That was about as popular as Milton Bradley in the Cubs' clubhouse.

I was in the Wrigley Field lower concourse on April 16, 2013, when Ricketts held a press conference to announce that the city and Cubs had come to an agreement on the renovation, even though they hadn't actually finalized anything. "We look forward to moving forward," Ricketts said that day.

That's been the motto of the Cubs under the Ricketts regime. We look forward to moving forward.

Maybe I'm naive, but I do think the Cubs will start the renovation this offseason, if in fact the video-board process has begun (Ricketts had no answer for me at the home opener). The Cubs needed this year to get things set up for a four- to five-year renovation process.

A new Wrigley Field will only help this team win and give the fans some well-deserved happiness. I'm all for it.

But I'll celebrate the end of this saga when a shovel hits the ground. Until then, it's just talk to me.