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Monday, April 15, 2013
Talking a good game

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- In Tom Ricketts' short tenure as chairman of the Chicago Cubs, the team has been awful, attendance has gone down and the long-awaited celebratory shovel still hasn't hit the ground to renovate Wrigley Field.

The only good news has been plans for the future. Theo Epstein's farm system, artists' renderings of a happy Wrigley Field, grandiose dreams of money and World Series parades.

At a news conference Monday to discuss the seeming end of never-ending plans for Wrigley renovations, Ricketts accidentally summed up his time as owner by saying, "we look forward to moving forward."

Tom Ricketts
Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts has talked a lot about the future, but more needs to be done now.

That snippet of a quote is the Ricketts era in a nutshell. They're constantly looking forward to getting something done. As their new ad campaign says, "Not if. When."

So ... when?

"A lot of it will depend on how quickly this process moves," Ricketts said. "That will have a lot to say on what gets done in the offseason of 2013, relative to future years."

After local news organizations put out embargoed "the deal is done" stories late Sunday night, the Cubs sent out a detailed six-page press release about the plan on Monday morning, instructing the media to show up to hear Ricketts speak on the topic.

A news conference was called to talk about the Cubs coming to agreement with the city and neighborhood on a much-debated $500 million renovation of the stadium area that will "save" Wrigley Field.

I expected specifics, but Ricketts dodged questions better than Dioner Navarro blocked those wild pitches Sunday. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Alderman Tom Tunney weren't there, probably because there's nothing really to celebrate. Not yet.

To be clear there is no concrete Wrigley agreement, just the Cubs' proposal, a framework of a deal between the Cubs, Emanuel, the city and Tunney that needs to pass through meetings and gain approval of community and city politicians and planning boards, not to mention the litigious rooftop owners staking out their turf.

What Ricketts could say is that if the Cubs' plan is approved, good things will follow.

"The fact is we're all together on this," Ricketts said. "We've worked many, many hours talking through the issues and getting to this point."

Maybe once this deal is finished, the Ricketts Cubs will stop whining about their limitations and act like a big-market organization again. Because Wrigley is the key to the Cubs' future, not an impediment from the past.

Don't be fooled. The Cubs were never going to move. Dumpy old Wrigley Field is a cash machine for the Cubs. A new one with enhanced revenue capabilities might as well double as a U.S. Treasury mint. Other teams would love this stadium and Ricketts knows it. When he pushed his father into providing a family trust to buy the team, he pointed out how full the stadium is every night. (He did this on a rooftop, which is no small irony.)

The city also sent out a release with some different details than the Cubs' one. The details of the deal, both big and small, will be tinkered with in the coming weeks and months. But I'm pretty sure the deal is close.

Most importantly, the Cubs will get their extra night games -- 40, up from 30 -- and their profit-making gigantic video board. They will likely get to push Wrigley out onto Sheffield and Waveland avenues to make room for more amenities and to presumably save the views of the rooftop clubs.

They will get their signage and their concerts and their skyway between their new boutique hotel and their ballpark. The triangle building is a thing of the past and will be replaced by public space, including a farmer's market, which I assume Mark Grace asked for years ago.

In the coming years, the Cubs will get their new TV contract, which will line their pockets and pay off the debts incurred to buy the team and rebuild the stadium.

Heck, the Cubs even got a half-inning extension on beer sales, and they already lead baseball in that category. I can't rip that idea. It's good for the workingman vendors.

Ricketts projects "1,300 new jobs" will be created from this plan, along with the construction and union-type jobs that come with a massive building plan that will take five offseason phases to complete. The guaranteed revenue streams from advertising will help the Cubs take out loans for the work.

The Cubs are big on PR spin nowadays. Take the news conference itself. Ricketts' talk oddly took place in the main Wrigley Field concourse, just outside the "Italian Hot Spot" concession stand and not far from the outdated Cubs clubhouse.

"It occurs to me standing here, when we get this place fixed up, we might have to build a little better place to have these press events," he said clumsily.

In the fall of 2011, the Theo Epstein introduction ceremony, which had at least twice as many reporters, was at the United Club, which is the stage for every news conference.

Twenty-nine months ago, on Nov. 16, 2010, Ricketts held a news conference in the Captain Morgan Club on Addison to present a proposal for a public-private partnership to rebuild Wrigley with a convoluted scheme to use excess amusement tax revenue to benefit the Cubs.

But the optics of Ricketts speaking in a dank hallway were priceless.

I'm surprised we didn't have a news conference in the bleachers, where Ricketts famously met his wife. Have you heard that story before?

Of course, as they angle for this deal's summation, the Cubs wanted everyone to see how outdated the park is. This organization strives for things to look better, or worse, as long as it fits their narrative. They use Wrigley Field to sell tickets, peddle nostalgia and when it suits them, to illustrate how bad the Cubs have it.

While calling this a "milestone day" for the Cubs, Ricketts mixed his metaphors, noting "like making the playoffs, we have a lot of baseball to play to get to the finish line." Ricketts then referred to the "MVP players" that got this deal almost done. If you have a degree in acronyms, that doesn't make much sense.

Maybe some of this renovation budget should go toward speechwriters.

To be fair, when he's talking naturally, Ricketts is funny and down-to-earth. He must be sick of this public "process," a word he's used approximately a million times in three-plus years. We're all sick of hearing about what the Cubs are doing for the future while we let the present turn into the past.

Ricketts wouldn't signify which renovations would happen first if the plan is approved, but you can bet on the home clubhouse, the new signage and the video board, which should generate major revenue, getting priority. Presumably, any renovations that won't make money will be paired with ones that do.

The left-field video board could be 6,000 square feet, or three times the size of the old-fashioned one in center field. That's what the Cubs are planning, though interestingly enough, they've kept this idea hidden, even as most of the major renovations have been drawn up since 2010. Ricketts said they will be "thoughtful" of where it's placed to "minimize the impact" on the Waveland rooftops.

"Well, we've spent a lot of time talking to our fans about how they feel about a video board in the park," Ricketts said. "You guys know me, I like Wrigley Field. I'm very traditional. The fact is, that when you look at what the fans are asking for now to improve their gameday experience, and you add to that the economic value of a video board, it becomes obvious that it's the next best step for us."

He added, "I think the economic value and the ability to improve the gameday experience are both equally valuable."

Right, equally valuable. It's all about the money, and there's nothing wrong with that. Own it, Tom.

The next news conference better include a shovel for the physical dirt, not the verbal kind. Because as Ricketts promised, "If this plan is approved, we will win the World Series for our fans and our city."

He said "if," but he meant "when." But "when" the Cubs will win that elusive World Series is anyone's guess. Some things you can't be specific about.