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Sunday, January 20, 2013
The fix is in?

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago

CHICAGO -- This weekend, while you were trying to figure out "catfishing," the Chicago Cubs cast out a new plan for renovating Wrigley Field that is far easier to understand, if not digest.

Here's the gist: The Cubs want so-called Big Government off their backs.

More than two years after debuting their failed attempt to wrangle tax dollars from the city and county to help fund a $300 million renovation of historic, charming and yes, dumpy Wrigley Field, the Cubs owners are fighting for their right to desecrate, I mean decorate, their own home.

Sounds like a simple solution, right? Give them carte blanche to run their business without the city on their case about every Toyota sign and JumboTron, without aldermen and rooftop owners lobbying and whining.

It's not like the Cubs are asking to frack Waveland Ave. (Unless that's on the table.)

During a major presentation at Cubs Convention, the team made a few points very clear. What the team wants is a relaxation of the landmark status and restrictions in game times, and regular street closures on Sheffield Ave. Once the city bends to its demands, something the club hasn't had much luck with, the Ricketts family will happily pony up the money to rebuild its privately-owned facility.

Tom Ricketts
The Ricketts family is willing to use its money to fix Wrigley Field -- with a few concessions from the city.

While I don't believe the Cubs' promises any more than I believed team chairman Tom Ricketts last year on Opening Day when he called the 2012 Cubs "compelling," it's time to be realistic. Wrigley Field needs a rebuild and there is no way the city's taxpayers should be funding it. So that means the Cubs need to drain every dollar out of Wrigley Field.

"We're not a museum," Ricketts said at this weekend's Cubs Convention. "We're a business."

Ricketts used the museum line in 2010 in a meeting with the Chicago Tribune editorial board, where he also tried to get tough about erecting a Toyota sign in the outfield by saying, "I have a lot of other dollars that can be invested in Wrigleyville, or not."

He got his Toyota sign and a couple of years later, he's building a boutique hotel in Wrigleyville and talking about a farmer's market.

But relaxing government restrictions isn't just an extension of the "government is too big" politics championed by family patriarch Joe Ricketts, it's also what's right, right?

"I think we would like to be treated like the other 29 clubs," team president of business operations Crane Kenney told reporters at Cubs Convention. "If they are going to be allowed to build their business and put signs where they need them and hold games when they need them, they [the Ricketts family] are prepared to write the whole check themselves."

Isn't that nice of them!

During his spiel, Ricketts added that during the lengthy process to buy the team, "What I didn't understand was we were the only team in baseball to have these restrictions."

There are a few problems with statements like these, mostly that 28 other clubs aren't in Chicago. And the White Sox would kill to be in a neighborhood like Lakeview.

Why the Cubs want to use other Major League teams to complain about their situation in Chicago is a mystery. I don't recall Ricketts trying to purchase the Tampa Bay Rays. Pittsburgh has a beautiful gem of a park, but no one is taking vacations there and thus there are no tourists filling the park when the team is bad. The Cubs nearly drew 3 million fans last year despite losing 101 games. You didn't build this, Tom. You either, Crane.

Really, it's unbecoming. It's like complaining about the price of wheelbarrows when you buy a gold mine.

The charm of an authentic temple to baseball is what has drawn fans to watch a very expensive, traditionally terrible team. But I can't argue that it doesn't need to be modernized. The Cubs just want it monetized.

But there is some reality in their argument. I was against their previous, convoluted plan of using increases in amusement tax payments to fund the payback of state-issued bonds to help Ricketts renovate Wrigley Field. Ricketts himself admitted at the convention that plan, which was still on the table last summer, is dead.

But it's obvious the Ricketts family can't fund the renovation of Wrigley without some help, legislative or otherwise, and it needs to get done soon. Mostly, so we can stop talking about it.

While other teams are lavishing money on free agents from new billion-dollar cable deals, the Cubs won't be able to start their own network until at least the 2015 season, after the team's deal with WGN ends in 2014. The Cubs' deal with Comcast SportsNet Chicago ends in 2019. The team is part-owner of CSN, along with the White Sox, Blackhawks and Bulls. Last year, one local TV executive thought there would be two separate, but connected networks by 2020, one Cubs/Blackhawks and another for Bulls/White Sox.

By that time, the Cubs want Wrigley Field to be completely refurbished into a money-making machine, like Fenway Park. Think of how much money Ricketts will be making by then. Hopefully enough to pay off all the loans the family needed to make the $845 million purchase.

With its Cubs Convention unveiling, the team said the renovation will be the story of 2013. That and the terrific baseball, of course.

While I admire mayor Rahm Emanuel's tactics of completely snubbing Tom Ricketts over his father's political misadventures, it's time to put politics aside.

I'm not saying trust the team completely, but a deal should be struck. After all, this is a stadium outfitted with netting so pieces of concrete don't fall down (again). As much as I don't buy the Cubs' pie-in-the-sky valuations of their economic impact on the city, there is no arguing Wrigley Field is a landmark tourist attraction and a jewel of the city.

The park's current landmark status restricts what the Cubs can change about the ballpark and often results in the team groveling before various commissions and politicians to put up signs and expand seating areas.

"Most of the elements that the landmark status covers we would never want to touch anyway," Kenney told reporters Saturday at Cubs Convention. "We just need the ability to add some of the marketing elements we need and the ability to host games when we want to."

It should be noted, the reason the Cubs do such brisk business is Wrigley is kind of a museum. From the scoreboard to the marquee to the government-protected ivy, the ballpark is a living monument to baseball. There is a reason 3 million people (usually) visit the park every season and it's not the chance to see Ian Stewart.

While Wrigley Field should be protected from avarice and shortsighted investments that would ruin the meaning behind the stadium, we can have it both ways. I think the city should give the team the right to put up a JumboTron and find creative ways to put up more money-making advertisements. A video board won't ruin the park experience; if done correctly it will enhance it.

The Cubs absolutely should renovate the player facilities, and add more food and comfort options for the fans, especially the ones who come more than once a summer. Pushing Friday starts to 3:05 p.m. and allowing a few Saturday night games won't kill day baseball.

"Everything you do needs the city's approval," Kenney said. "Any building in the city, you can't [start work] without getting the right permits for electrical and plumbing or mechanical, so we need city support to get this off the ground, and thousands of jobs are waiting. We expect to get a lot of support from the city because, certainly, we could use more employment in the city."

You have to love that last line, as if Kenney has any idea of the problems of blue-collar workers in Chicago. I always get a kick out of the optimistic projections for revenue and jobs created for a plan benefiting a private business. Like in Nov. 2010, the Cubs said the then-$400 million renovation would create 1,000 construction jobs in addition to "hundreds of more permanent jobs." Now, in Jan. 2013, the $300 million project would, ta-da, create 2,100 jobs. That prospective farmer's market at Clark and Waveland must be enormous.

I'm sure the Cubs won't screw this up, not like the time they tried to jam a football field in and forced Northwestern and Illinois to play one way. Or the time they gave Kerry Wood $3 million to pitch for a month and retire.

Either way I'll definitely be there when a shovel finally hits the ground. Or knowing this club, when a shovel hits an oil well.