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Friday, September 21, 2007
New owner can transform 'lovable losers' ... for $1 billion

By Wayne Drehs

CHICAGO -- From the third seat in the fifth row of Wrigley Field Section 120, Thomas Mandler seems to have everything any Cubs fan could ever want.

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To his right, his 26-year-old son Jason. To his left, his 31-year-old daughter Amy, his son-in-law Danny and his 2-month-old granddaughter Maya, dressed in a pink Cubs onesie. Some 20 rows behind home plate, his seats are close enough to identify the break on a curveball but far enough away to not be fooled that a routine fly ball might be a home run. He knows the ushers and vendors by name. The folks who sit around him he considers some of his closest friends.

But on this night, the second of two ultra-important late-season games between the Cincinnati Reds and the playoff-chasing Chicago Cubs, Mandler is frustrated. Right-hander Carlos Zambrano has allowed five of the Reds' first six hitters to reach base. Before Mandler has a chance to give his granddaughter a hello kiss, his team is trailing 2-0.

Mandler, a 60-year-old attorney, rolls up his sleeves, rubs his hands across his face and shakes his head in disapproval.

"Welcome to the world of being a Cub fan," he says. "Nothing is ever easy. And you never know … you just never, ever know."

Thomas Mandler
Attorney and longtime Cubs fan Thomas Mandler also made an offer to buy the team in 1981.

Yet unlike the other 40,801 fans in attendance on this night, there is something different about this die-hard lifelong bleeder of Cubbie blue. Mandler might soon be able to heal a century of wounds. He believes he has the money -- and soon, hopefully, the power -- to transform the Cubs from lovable losers to World Series winners.

He and fellow lifelong/die-hard fan Jim Anixter -- a guy most Cubs fans know as the man who spends every night game jumping in and out of his front-row, behind-home-plate seat wearing a pink Cubs hat -- have put together one of the half-dozen or so groups that during the next few months will make legitimate runs at buying the Cubs.

In an ultra-secretive, behind-closed-doors process in which few people on either side of the negotiating table will return phone calls, much less comment on the sale, Mandler is one of the few willing to talk publicly about his dream. He is doing so with hopes that Cubs fans will realize he's not some corporate suit; rather, he's a khakis-and-button-down sort of guy who lives and dies with every Will Ohman slider, just like they do.

"Listen, we want to win the World Series," Mandler says. "Multiple times. We want to bring a perennial championship contender to the North Side of Chicago. Cub fans have waited long enough. We deserve this."

The words sound heavenly to the ears of any Cubs die-hard, but whether his investment group has a legitimate chance to buy the team is anyone's guess.

The first step in the process is supposed to happen any day now, when the Tribune Company releases the club's financial records to interested bidders. After the first round of bidding, the group will be narrowed to two or three bidders, "where the men will be separated from the boys," says one sports banker. After another round of bidding, the winning bidder will be chosen and presented to Major League Baseball for approval. The entire process, said Tribune spokesman Gary Weitman, will "hopefully" conclude by the end of the year.

The Cubs won't come cheap. Though a March report from the Anderson Economic Group valued the Cubs at $600 million, some have estimated the deal for the club, Wrigley Field and a 25 percent stake in Chicago's Comcast SportsNet, could top $1 billion. Such a sale would be a record for a North American sports franchise. The mark is currently held by Daniel Snyder, who bought the Washington Redskins in 1999 for $800 million. Malcolm Glazer paid $1.47 billion for English Premier League team Manchester United in 2005.

People always come up and ask me if the Cubs are going to win in their lifetime. And I always give them the same answer: 'How long are you planning on living?' A new owner has a chance to help make that happen.

-- Former Cubs pitcher/broadcaster Steve Stone

With the Cubs, the eye-popping price tag is somewhat understandable. Few franchises can claim they played their first game in 1870, six years before Custer's Last Stand. And what these multimillionaires are essentially bidding on is the right to potentially lead a World Series parade down Michigan Avenue, earning themselves a place on Chicago's Mount Rushmore between Jordan and Ditka.

"People always come up and ask me if the Cubs are going to win in their lifetime," former Cubs pitcher and broadcaster Steve Stone said. "And I always give them the same answer: 'How long are you planning on living?'

"A new owner has a chance to help make that happen."

Some insiders even believe that if the Cubs were to somehow win the World Series this season, the value of the franchise could potentially decrease.

"They have this cute market niche. It's root, root for the Cubbies in this cute, lovable loser sort of way," said Allen Sanderson, a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Chicago and an expert on sports stadiums and franchise sales. "But too much success could spoil that niche."

Besides Mandler's group, others reportedly interested include Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who caused a stir this week after watching Monday's thrilling three-run, bottom-of-the-ninth rally in the right-field bleachers. Cuban is the fan favorite.

Then there's John Canning Jr., chairman of the private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners. Canning has pieced together a heavy-hitting lineup of Chicago fat cats even George Steinbrenner would admire. Included in the group is restaurateur Larry Levy, whose company already holds the concession contract at Wrigley Field. A longtime friend of commissioner Bud Selig, Canning is Major League Baseball's favorite.

There's also Don Levin, owner of the AHL's Chicago Wolves. And Omaha's Ricketts family, which founded the discount brokerage TD Ameritrade. William Marovitz, a former Illinois state senator and the husband of Playboy chief executive Christie Hefner, reportedly is also behind a group.

"And you can be sure there are a couple groups we just don't know about," Mandler said. "People who just don't want any publicity at all."

The ultimate long shot is a group of baseball fans trying to manage a fan-owned buyout of the team through a Web site, Major League Baseball has told the group it can participate in the bidding process if it aligns itself with another group. But to date, 4 Fans Sake has raised less than $3.5 million.

"It's an idea that has crossed everybody's mind at one time or another," said Eric Majeski, who is organizing the group. "No, I can't be the GM. But in this model, I can have a say in who is. It's democracy at its finest."

Yet, despite the posturing and positioning behind closed doors, with the future of the Chicago National League ballclub at stake, most of the folks in Cubs Nation couldn't care less. The team opens its last regular-season homestand of the season against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday in first place in the National League Central, one game ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers.

So instead of worrying about the future, the focus of everyone from the players to the managers to the beer-drinking folks in the bleachers is now. Cubs fans are losing more sleep worrying about Ryan Dempster and Ryan Braun than they are about John Canning and Mark Cuban.

But if the last 98 years of baseball on Chicago's North Side are an indication, this season, too, will likely end with a box of tissues. And when it does, Cubs fans will turn to that familiar phrase to carry their broken hearts through another bitter Chicago winter: Wait 'til next year.

Only then will it hit them. Next year?

The 93-year-old dilemma

On a beautiful late-summer night at the intersection of Clark and Addison streets, she stands as the ultimate tie between baseball's past and the Cubs' future. She's 93 years old now. Her men's bathrooms are still glorified troughs. Her visitors clubhouse is one of baseball's smallest. The batting cages are under the right-field bleachers, meaning any pinch-hitter looking to grab a few in-game hacks has to do so with a batting tee in a clubhouse hallway.

Wrigley Field
Should it be renovated, rebuilt or replaced? The future of historic Wrigley Field will be a primary concern of any prospective ownership group.

And yet, 81 days each summer, more than 3 million fans pour through the turnstiles, filling the stadium to capacity. One by one, they walk up the stairs or down the ramp, and when they finally set eyes on the field, they melt like a 10-year-old at an amusement park. Babe Ruth, Hack Wilson, Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron. Yes, they all played here. It truly is a field of dreams.

And it's also probably the biggest question facing the next owner of the Chicago Cubs: What is the long-term future of Wrigley Field?

"At some point, Wrigley Field is going to fall down, be it economically or physically," Sanderson said. "And a new owner has to figure out what they're going to do with it."

The options are minimal. Tear Wrigley down and rebuild it in the suburbs. Tear Wrigley down and rebuild it at, or near, the same location. Or follow the model of the Boston Red Sox and keep the stadium where it is, upgrading the facility while finding creative new ways, like Boston did with its Green Monster seats, to squeeze out additional revenue.

Further complicating the matter, the city of Chicago designated Wrigley a historic landmark a few years ago, meaning nothing can happen to the scoreboard, the marquis in front of the ballpark or the ivy without city approval.

Mandler is among the groups that want to keep Wrigley where it is.

"Look, this place needs a lot of work, there's no question about that," Mandler said. "But Wrigley Field is part of the Cubs. Not some new stadium that looks just like Wrigley Field, but the actual Wrigley Field. When the Cubs win the World Series, we want it to be here."

Besides adding new seats, raising ticket prices, selling naming rights to the stadium and boosting advertising, Sanderson believes any new owner should try to negotiate with the city a revenue-sharing agreement with bars and restaurants in the neighborhood. The Cubs negotiated a similar move with rooftop owners a few years back, earning 17 percent of their profits.

"The team is making all these guys rich around them, and they can't capture any of that for themselves," Sanderson said. "I don't care if they have to meet in a dark alley and get a check for $10 million each year; they have to do something. And that would be the Chicago way, after all."

The importance of finding additional revenue streams at a new or refurbished Wrigley Field carries even greater importance following the Tribune Company's record-setting spending spree. The Cubs spent close to $300 million on free agents last offseason -- a record for any major league franchise. Coupled with the five-year, $91.5 million contract extension they gave Zambrano in August, the Cubs will have one of baseball's highest payrolls for several years to come.

Just look at 2009, when the team will have $80 million -- a figure higher than the total payroll for 14 major league teams in 2007 -- committed to just six players: Zambrano, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis.

"You wish they wouldn't spend the next owner's money," Mandler said of the Tribune Company. "But there's not much you can do about it now. You have to find a way to make it all work."

Another source close to the bidding process was a bit more candid: "It sucks. With all that money, they're basically a .500 team. And how do you get from a .500 team to 20 games over? By spending money. But as these contracts balloon, it's going to make it more and more difficult for any new owner to do that. And the moment you lay a hand on that ballpark, the fans are going to have a fit. It isn't an easy situation for any new owner to step into."

Playing to win?

Who knows what his intentions were. Who knows if it was nothing more than enjoying a beautiful late-summer evening in the Wrigley Field bleachers with some friends. But Mark Cuban is no dummy -- and he knew what would happen when he showed up in Wrigley's bleachers Monday night in a Cubs throwback jersey. He knew the attention he'd receive when he started trading e-mails with Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti.

Mark Cuban
Mark Cuban might be a fan favorite to own the Cubs, but perhaps not the choice of Major League Baseball.

According to a Wrigley employee who worked in the bleachers Monday, Cuban signed autographs, took pictures and laughed when fans starting chanting, "Buy the Cubs." He even held up a sign featuring this year's unofficial Cubs slogan: "It's Gonna Happen."

Add the fact that he witnessed a 7-6 come-from-behind Cubs victory, in which the team scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth, and it's no wonder fans are convinced Cuban has caught the fever and won't hesitate to fork over a billion dollars to buy the team.

Before Monday, fans viewed Cuban as their savior. Now? Those emotions are off the scale. Forget the fact he grew up cheering for the Pirates.

"He seems to have that fire in the belly," said Bruce Ladd, the founder of the Emil Verban Society, an exclusive Cubs fan club that includes Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. "And there are quite a few Cub fans who believe he's the missing link. Who cares that he was a Pirates fan? We won't hold that against him. As Verbanites, we just want to win."

Cuban has said next to nothing about his interest in buying the team, but reportedly filled out an application in July to bid. Most insiders believe the controversial NBA owner is a long shot at best, if for no other reason than the challenges he would face getting ownership approval from Major League Baseball.

But that doesn't mean he won't try. Or isn't having fun fanning the flames. When asked last week how it felt that fans see him as their potential savior, the Mavericks' owner coyly replied via e-mail, "All I can say is anything I do, I do to win."

Daring to Dream

It's understandable why most fans look at the impending sale of the franchise with optimism. Two years after the Red Sox were sold to John Henry, they won the World Series. And getting rid of a corporate owner like the Tribune, which has to answer to stockholders, can only help.

Dating back to the strike-shortened 1994 season, only two World Series champions -- the 2002 Angels (Disney) and the 1995 Atlanta Braves (TBS) -- were owned by a corporation. And the Angels were in the process of being sold to Arte Moreno.

Mandler is aware of all this. As he sits in his downtown office, complete with signed pictures, autographs and jerseys, not to mention a poster from the 1932 Cubs versus Yankees World Series, Mandler doesn't have to think hard to remember the letter he sent to the Wrigley Company's board of directors in 1981, offering to buy the Chicago Cubs.

"We offered $22 million," Mandler said.

But the response from the Wrigley Company was that the team wasn't for sale. Then two weeks later, Wrigley announced that the Tribune Company had bought the team for $20.5 million.

"I was heartbroken," Mandler said. "But we didn't think the Tribune Company would be a long-term owner. We knew that someday, we'd get our shot again."

And now, 26 years later, Mandler has his shot, albeit for at least 40 times more than he was willing to spend in 1981. For a man who grew up idolizing Ernie Banks while taking in as many sun-soaked Wrigley afternoons as his parents would allow, it's all he can ask for.

This time around, he says he and Anixter have put together their own group of heavy hitters, most of whom he said he can't reveal publicly. But he did say that Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams is part of the group. And he added that Cubs fans and Major League Baseball will be ecstatic about some of his yet-to-be-revealed long-term plans for the team and the ballpark.

"We're committed to winning and we're committed to Wrigley Field," Mandler said. "And we're going to do everything feasible and reasonable to win this thing. We have every intention of being one of the final groups at the table when we get down to the end."

At some point, that might be just what this all comes down to. What's feasible? What's reasonable? How much is one group of fans willing to sacrifice for the chance to pull the strings, be heroes, end the longest championship drought in American sports history?

Mandler isn't sure where the line between his heart and head exists. But there are definitely times, sitting those 20 rows behind home plate, surrounded by his family, when he looks at the ivy, the scoreboard, the pinstripes, and dreams that, yes, this could all be his.

"I love those seats," Mandler said. "But I'm hoping that next year at this time, I'll be watching the first-place Cubs from the owner's box. And if that's the case, I won't be able to even put into words what it would mean. Dream come true? That doesn't begin to put it into perspective. There really are no words."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for He can be reached at