Commentary

Cubs owner takes swing at shaping club

But will Ricketts' recent moves hinder his biggest one -- hiring a new general manager?

Updated: September 5, 2011, 10:48 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- One thing you might have noticed early about Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts is that he likes to wear an ID badge around Wrigley Field.

It was cute, at first, because he was the new, fresh-faced owner of this maddening team, and it showed a Midwestern humility that is part and parcel of the image he wants to exude. Wearing an ID badge when you're the owner says, "I follow the rules, too. We're all pulling on the same rope here. Want a bison dog?"

Now, as his second season comes to a merciful ending, Ricketts can officially take off the badge. Everyone across baseball knows he's the boss.

Ricketts started slow, preferring to take stock of his new team before making any drastic changes. It goes against the prevailing wisdom of the crowds, but it was the right thing to do, even if it cost the team some goodwill and certainly some wins.

But he proved true ownership of the not-so-lovable losers by firing general manager Jim Hendry, the man who ran the actual team. And then again last week, when he re-upped vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita before hiring a new GM.

Yes, the smiling guy who walks around Wrigley, shaking hands and kissing babies, is now Tommy Baseball, the button-down boss man of Clark and Addison.

[+] EnlargeTom Ricketts
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastTom Ricketts has always taken an active role in marketing the team. Now he's getting involved with making the team.

Sure, he still parrots the silly bromides about "World Series" and "best fans in baseball," but Ricketts is showing he's finally in charge of the team he bought for the princely sum of $845 million. His associates and employees have trumpeted his leadership abilities for the past year, but in recent weeks, we've learned something very important about Ricketts. He will be front and center in baseball decisions.

That's a good thing, perhaps. Or maybe it's the harbinger of more lost decades and organizational confusion. It all depends on your perspective.

If you think Ricketts, who made his own money in the trading world while using his father's largesse to land the winning bid for his favorite baseball team, is an owner capable of making informed baseball decisions, then it's crucial he takes a commanding presence in the team's operations.

If you think he's some kind of rich fan playing at running a team, it's a very bad sign. Like Dan Snyder in Washington bad.

I think he's the former, but if I were a Cubs fan, I still wouldn't be investing in season tickets anytime soon.

Ricketts had mostly concerned himself with business and public relations issues before firing Hendry, including the new spring training setup in Arizona, paid for by the city of Mesa; the Dominican facilities; and improving Wrigley Field. Now he's letting it be known he'll be active on the baseball side.

"The new general manager will report directly to me and it will be my job -- as it has been since day one -- and my No. 1 priority to make sure that I give that general manager freedom to operate and all the support that they need to bring a championship team to Chicago," he said.

Firing Hendry needed to be done, in my opinion, and I give Ricketts credit for making the move. I don't discount the good things Hendry did in his Cubs tenure, which get overlooked, but the franchise needs change, and Hendry's dismissal was the first step. "Wait 'til next year" is the steady refrain surrounding this team, and a move away from the longtime regime was welcomed in most quarters.

But Ricketts' surprising extension of Fleita is another story. In fact, it's almost unheard of, and is raising eyebrows across baseball.

Ricketts gave Fleita a four-year deal and a raise, despite the executive having another year left on his deal. The Detroit Tigers were reportedly interested in his services, which likely precipitated the deal. Ricketts is supposed to meet with scouting director Tim Wilken in the next two weeks to discuss his future. Expect another extension. Ricketts also brought in his own advanced stats guy in Ari Kaplan. Cross off another important hire for a prospective GM.

Both baseball guys, and Kaplan, are well regarded around the sport, but these proactive moves go against the very words Ricketts spoke on Fleita's and Wilken's tenuous standing after Hendry's firing.

"You can strongly recommend and give your thoughts and opinions on which of the people are most valuable to the organization and those are two great examples, just two of many great people here," Ricketts said then of Fleita and Wilken. "But ultimately, like I said about the manager's job, the GM has to make that decision for themselves. It's not the owner's place to second-guess that. Once again that goes back to having that accountability for the results."

Ricketts also said, "The general manager will be responsible for the baseball operations. That's something we've been pretty consistent about. The general manager makes the decisions. The results are his. He owns them. So you can't second-guess them or get between them and their key personnel. They have to be able to have the freedom to hire the people that they are most confident will deliver the results and obviously in any organization if you don't do that then there's no grounds to hold them accountable for the outcomes."

So … what are we missing?

Ricketts said the new GM will make decisions on key personnel and has to have "the freedom" to hire whomever he wants to hire. Now he's proved those words false -- unless, by some miracle, he's already surreptitiously landed his GM. But there's no sign that's happened.

"Continuity" is a word that is being used to describe the Fleita move. The same word was used to explain why Ricketts kept the holdovers around when he bought the team.

"At the end of the day, the truth of it is it was a match between Tom and I, the family, and something I believe in," Fleita told reporters this past weekend.

He does know Ricketts well, from their shared trips to the Dominican Republic, where the bilingual Fleita has a major presence, to Wrigley real estate. Fleita's office is next to Ricketts' humble abode at Wrigley.

The vacant Cubs GM job, by any measure or viewpoint, is an intriguing one. You'll have a good amount of money to spend, and a clean slate for a couple seasons. If you win, you're a legend. Sure, no one has done it yet, but what's history to a forward-thinking go-getter?

But regardless of what the company line is, or what organizational cronies and professional speculators have tried to sell to everyone, it's not a leave-your-job type of opportunity for the entrenched, already-successful GMs. I have little doubt the big names that have been floated will leave this job, not take it.

With now-limited hiring powers, a well-publicized organizational focus on homegrown (read, cheap) talent, and the prospect of a dysfunctional, meddlesome atmosphere behind the scenes, it'll be interesting to see what kind of candidate the Cubs can get to run this team.

It's certainly more interesting to watch than the team on the field, which is why Ricketts was in this position in the first place. Congrats on the new team, Tom. If this hire goes wrong, as you say, you'll have "to wear it."

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

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.