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Saturday, January 16, 2010
Under new ownership

By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

The sight itself was stirring enough to make a ballroom full of Cubs fans dumbstruck.

The Rickett's Family
While the Ricketts family met the media back in the summer, Saturday was the first time fans got to address the Cubs' new owners directly.

Real live owners of the team, sitting in front of them -- practically close enough to touch -- prepared to take their questions.

The fact that they appear to be quite normal -- accomplished and fabulously wealthy as they are -- and reasonable, as well as Cubs fans themselves who once lived near Wrigley, sat in the bleachers and suffered lord knows what sort of indignities made it that much more absurd.

It may have also explained as much as anything why those who packed the Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Chicago on Saturday, in their usual array of outdated and ill-fitting Cubbie attire, lobbed softballs at the Ricketts family in a Q&A session at the Cubs Convention on Saturday.

Not that it wasn't appropriate. As Laura Ricketts, the only sister of the four siblings, said after one fan gushed "You have given us new hope:"

"We really haven't done that much yet. I hope next year at this time, everyone's just as happy as they are today and that we've actually done something to earn that enthusiasm and respect."

At this point, the Ricketts family doesn't deserve anything harsher than guarded optimism. Not even the raised ticket prices caused any serious wrath, the subject coming up as a polite plea from one fan, who asked: "Will you please reconsider your decision to raise ticket prices considering the economy and job losses, so fans can afford it?"

To the Ricketts' credit, there were honest, straightforward answers. Taking over for a faceless bureaucracy as just the eighth owners in franchise history and the third in the past 90 years, they would have to really try to come off as anything but genuine.

Even when team chairman Tom Ricketts answered the ticket question by essentially saying that's just the way it has to be, there were no catcalls, perhaps because he was being honest and sounded sincere.

"With respect to ticket prices, there's always going to be that tension," he said. "The fact is, you can have five questions about signing higher-priced free agents and you can have five questions about why ticket prices are going up. There's always going to be that balance.

"If we're going to compete with the bigger teams in the league, if we're going to try to compete for talent with the Red Sox or the Yankees, we're going to have to have some financial flexibility. With that said, we don't have any plans for any ticket increases in the future. The team wasn't in the best position financially coming into the season, so there are reasons behind the increases. But we appreciate it's getting more expensive to bring your family to the game."

Of course when you say that, you have to actually compete with the Red Sox and Yankees and sign high-priced free agents that pan out on a fairly regular basis. And if your general manager doesn't do it consistently enough, you have to be willing to make the decision -- as painful and even unfair as it may seem -- to hire a new GM.

Saturday was easy. Saturday was fun.

They spoke of building a "world-class organization; a place where every player wants to play and every coach wants to coach." They said they're going to be good neighbors and eventually have the best spring training facility in baseball.

And -- oh, yes -- win the World Series.

But not necessarily right away. I mean, let's not get crazy.

"I don't know if any of us have said we're going to win the World Series this year," Pete Ricketts said. "But what we've talked about is putting a playoff-ready team on the field every year. And eventually, if we go to the playoffs enough, we're going to get to a World Series and we're going to win. I don't know if it's this year. I don't think we can put a date on it, but I certainly feel good about the guys we have on our team right now."

The Ricketts' kids grew up in Omaha, Neb., and were raised by parents who believed they should not live a life of privilege, but rather earn their own way through hard work. They are extremely intelligent, all four of them, which doesn't necessarily mean the Cubs are going to win the World Series, and which doesn't always guarantee common sense, either. But in this case, it sure seems like a good thing.

They were asked if being lifelong Cubs fans would overshadow their business side, or "will eyes always be on the bottom line?"

Laura Ricketts boldly took this one and gave a pretty bold answer.

Wrigley Field seats
Tom Ricketts talked about giving Cubs fans better food options, but said, "way you see the game from your seat is the way you're going to see the game from your seat."

"The bottom line is winning the World Series, so any business success that comes from that, we welcome," she said. "But we're not in this just to make a profit. Any profits we make will be reinvested in the team. To us, that is the most important thing."

If you want to be skeptical as a Cubs fan, that is certainly your prerogative -- and who could blame you?

They still haven't really outlined their plans for Wrigley, but they did say their experts tell them it's "structurally OK" and could be fine for another 50 years. They also promise the restrooms will be better, concessions will improve and, given the space limitations, the players' facilities will be worked on.

"The state of the clubhouses, home and visitor, were shocking to me," Laura said.

And that was when they were empty.

They said they will hire a Wrigley Field "Chief Hospitality Officer" to handle fans' complaints and suggestions. They also want to make the park more kid-friendly.

"If you want to jam into a bar and pay $10 for a Budweiser, you have a lot of options. But we want to do a lot more for kids," Tom said.

But really, just put a winning team on the field and the kids to will learn to appreciate good baseball.

The Ricketts were given standing ovations, both coming and going, which likely won't be a scene repeated next winter if the team misses the playoffs for the third year in a row. But they get it. They're dug in. They're one of us, even if you're not a Cubs fan. Living, breathing and accountable, and according to Tom, we're all going to have to learn to live with each other.

"We're here for the long run," he said. "This is it. We've made a commitment for this to be an intergenerational thing. This is our family, and we will be a part of this for a long, long time. Some of the other guys bidding for the team had five-year [timelines]. Well, we're on a 95-year [timeline]."

Hopefully, our grandkids' kids won't have to let us know how it worked out.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com