Commentary

Cubs' next steps? Don't ask Ricketts

Owner has a fan's optimism, but details on business and baseball a bit lacking

Updated: April 4, 2014, 9:35 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

Tom RickettsDennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY SportsCubs chairman Tom Ricketts has yet to give his front office the budget to finance a contender.

CHICAGO -- Tom Ricketts is just like you, Chicago Cubs fans.

Billed from the get-go as the Fan Owner who met his wife in the bleachers and enjoys a nice Cubs-embroidered dress shirt, the man entering his fifth year as Cubs chairman is excited about those minor league studs down on the farm, just like you.

"I read the minor league reports every single morning," Ricketts said Friday before the Cubs' home opener. "I have since day one. They're just more interesting now than they used to be."

After 197 losses in two seasons -- and a bunch more coming in this -- you have to take in the big picture to truly embrace the baseball side of a massive rebuilding project.

And, just like you, Ricketts has no idea when anything is going to be done. Or, more likely, he won't admit to knowing what he does know or what he doesn't.

We're all just here at this park waiting for something to happen.

And if you're hungry for information, and have a press pass, the top guy in the organization is the wrong person to ask.

Sure, he gets the reports, but he's not a baseball guy. He knows the messy details of the Wrigley Field renovations and the upcoming TV-rights deal, but he can't tell you anything.

There's no news like Cubs news, which is usually no news. It's "Wait 'til next press availability."

Ricketts didn't have much to say about the state of the will-it-ever-start rebuilding project, with an estimated cost of $300 million for Wrigley Field and $500 million for the entire campus project. Comcast SportsNet Chicago broke the news Thursday that the team is looking to add minority partners to help pay for it. Ricketts didn't have much to say about that, either.

"I don't have a 100 percent clear picture, but we definitely want to be ready to get going this season if we can," he said of the renovations.

So, what would the Cubs start this season?

"Well, there's a whole plan," Ricketts said. "There'd a whole bunch of things that would happen as soon as we get started. It's pretty involved. There's a whole bunch of things that happen in sequence."

Such as the giant Budweiser sign that's supposed to be in right field. It was supposed to be up for Opening Day, but a Cubs source told me earlier in the week it was held up over design issues, not the squabble with the rooftop owners.

Clark's Clubhouse, the home for the team's new mascot, did get finished for the opener. So there's that.

[+] EnlargeWrigley Field
Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY SportsOpening Day of Wrigley Field's 100th season was a chilly one, with many unanswered questions about both the ballpark and its resident Cubs.

Ricketts added that the Cubs can plan for things during the season so they can hit the ground running this offseason -- as we thought they were going to do last offseason after getting the renovations rubber-stamped by the city council.

In late July, when the council approved the entire $500 million plan, the Cubs admitted it would take about more than a year to get the money-printing left-field video board ready, what with the bidding process, the design and construction time and the training of a staff to run it.

I asked Ricketts how that's going.

"Um, I'm not sure exactly how much research or progress we've made on that yet," he said. "It does take a little while to get that done."

The prospect of such a large obstruction to the view of the rooftop club owners, or at least for one or two of them, has been the major divide in settling a pending, nauseating legal entanglement. Even though it's not close to being done.

And what about those nettlesome rooftop owners? A recent Sports Business Journal story about Wrigley Field's 100th anniversary noted, "The Cubs hope to resolve the conflict by April 4" -- according to Ricketts.

So, it's April 4. The rooftop clubs' outdoor seating was nearly empty on a chilly Opening Day, and nothing's been solved.

"Well, I think that the key is to keep moving forward and keep talking," Ricketts said. "I expect something will work for us."

Stop me if you've heard that before. Rust Cohle was right, man. Time is a flat circle.

Ricketts and team president Theo Epstein are fond of talking about that faraway plan when business and baseball meet cutely in the bleachers and the Cubs start spending like the Red Sox instead of emulating them.

Epstein wisely avoided the media Friday, but his general manager, Jed Hoyer, gets that fans want to see good baseball in the present.

"I think people want to be here Opening Day and feel like they're watching a team that they could be buying playoff tickets for," Hoyer said. "They wouldn't be fans if they didn't do that. I expect the fans to want it sooner than we can provide it."

There are still a handful of Cubs who could be "flipped" for prospects, most notably pitcher Jeff Samardzija, but the days of players dealing with nonstop questions about a summer sell-off are almost over.

"I think it's stating the obvious, but we made a lot of those trades because we feel like we have to do that for the future," Hoyer said. "Obviously, you want to get away from that in time. It's not a great thing for a team culture for you guys asking questions of guys early on, 'Are you going to get moved in July?' I mean, you guys are doing your job and we've made that a trend by doing it two years in a row, but, ultimately, we want to be in the opposite. 'Who are you guys going to add? Which prospects could be traded at the deadline?' We need to move more toward that because that's a much better culture for the team than this currently."

But to do that, you need money. Not money to sign a blockbuster, over-the-hill free agent, but a collection of major league players to complement the young (cheap) talent down in the farm. Ricketts hasn't given his front office a credible budget to do that yet. The Cubs have the majors' third-lowest Opening Day payroll (not counting Alfonso Soriano's salary to play for the Yankees), at around $74 million.

Despite the effect that losing has had on the current players, losing on purpose has worked out. It's given the Cubs draft picks and signing-bonus money.

Trading veterans brought them Mike Olt, C.J. Edwards and so on. The plan is working, but when will it have worked? Past tense.

Follow the money.

Part of the Cubs' TV deal is up after this season. The remaining portion, with team partner Comcast SportsNet, is up after 2019. TV money is everything in the modern game. The Cubs should get a chunk this offseason from someone. (An aside: Follow the Dodgers' TV-network fiasco to see Chicago's future.)

Do fans have to wait five more years to see this franchise spend like a big-market team? Will we be here next year asking about the next Emilio Bonifacio, a surprising veteran stopgap on a cheap team?

"We'll see," Ricketts said. "We'll know more about what our media-rights options are as the year goes forward. So I'm not really sure."

Yup, Tom Ricketts is just like you. He's not really sure, but he's optimistic and confident about the future.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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