Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How long will Soldier Field last?

I watched the end of the Chicago Bears' thrilling overtime victory over Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings Dec. 28 from the comfort of my bedroom. I'm sure it would have been quite thrilling to have witnessed the game in person, but I really can't see sitting for four hours in a 20-degree night (plus wind chill) to watch a truly terrible football team. A friend and Bears expert told me the Bears still rank in the top ten (of 32 teams) in terms of stadium revenue. How long will that last? It seems to me that Mayor Richard M. Daley cheated the city by caving into the McCaskey family (Bears owners) demands for a renovated Soldier Field in 2001 after having told the McCaskeys "you can go to Alaska" for years. I'm no fan of public funding, but the total cost of the Soldier Field renovation was $632 million. At about the same time, Houston built Reliant Stadium from the ground up for $425 mil, and that stadium has a retractable roof! So Bears fans continue to pay top prices for tickets (no discounts after nearly three decades of consecutive sellouts and a huge waiting list) to freeze outdoors for nearly half the season. Retractable-roof technology has existed at least since 1989, when SkyDome opened in Toronto.

After another World Series was marred by bad weather in 2008, Sports Illustrated sharply criticized Major League Baseball for allowing numerous new ballparks to open without retractable roofs. Subsidies for the additional cost, which SI estimated at $100 mil each, could come from an MLB fund, the magazine said. I can't vouch for the magazine's math, but I agree that with baseball running from April to November (including the full postseason), keeping players and paying customers comfortable makes sense.* That would seem to be even more important for pro football, with much higher prices and much colder temperatures.

Chicago could have built a retractable-roof stadium, which could have attracted an annual college bowl game, Men's and Women's NCAA Final Four basketball tournaments, and one Super Bowl. (The NFL gives cities cold-weather climates one Super Bowl per stadium built. Keep in mind the Super Bowl is for rich men who play golf, which means Miami, Tampa, Phoenix and sometimes New Orleans. St. Louis is still waiting.) We have none of those tourism-generating events because we don't have a facility that can host them. And Bears fans continue to sit in the cold in a stadium quickly headed toward obsolescence.

Thanks again, Your Honor.

*Except in freezing Minneapolis, where the baseball team is moving from an indoor stadium to an outdoor ballpark. Good luck with April and May ticket sales, Twins.

The East Coast Establishment marries in

It started in the White House.

Karenna Gore, oldest daughter of Vice President Al Gore and granddaughter of former Sen. Al Gore Sr., married Andrew Newman ("Drew") Schiff on July 12, 1997. Drew is Jewish. Karenna comes from a wealthy Tennessee family that has been part of the Washington political establishment for decades. The Schiffs have three children.

Ivanka Trump, whose billionaire real estate developer father Donald is one of the wealthiest and most famous men in the world, converted to Judaism and married Jared Kushner Oct. 25, 2009. Kushner works in his family's successful publishing business.

A month ago, former President Bill Clinton's family announced the engagement of their only child, Chelsea, 29, to Marc Mezvinsky. Mezvinsky's parents, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky and Edward Mezvinsky, are both former U.S. Congressmen. While Chelsea's father soaks up millions in speaking fees, her mother continues to firm up her political resumé as U.S. Secretary of State. Mezvinsky's uncle, Professor Norton Mezvinsky of Central Connecticut State University, is vehemently anti-Israel and possibly antisemitic. Chelsea plans to convert to Judaism. Marc is not Chelsea's first Jewish beau; she had one at Stanford University as well.

Not too long ago, a child of an Establishment family marrying a Jew would have been absolutely unthinkable. Here we have three beautiful, successful young women who have married in to Jewish families or are planning to do so, with the blessing of their world-famous fathers.

These are just three examples. More such unions occur all across America without the tabloid coverage. It's another step of American Jewry becoming further entrenched as part of the American fabric.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Wanted: a Cubs owner who cares

Could the Chicago Cubs buy a decent owner?

The Wrigley family managed to field competitive teams in the 1930’s and 1940’s, winning the National League pennant several times. But the Wrigleys didn’t have the passion or the finances to compete with the big boys in New York or Los Angeles. Gee, they couldn’t even compete with the little boys in St. Louis or Cincinnati. The Cardinals and Reds have won 13 World Series championships between them since the Cubs won a pair in 1907 and 1908. The small-market river towns 275 and 300 miles away? How embarrassing.

It’s probably better that the Tribune Co. didn’t build a new ballpark in the early 1980’s after its 1981 purchase because that ballpark would now be obsolete. Still, failing to insist on a full night-game schedule is costing the Cubs dearly, in my opinion, both at the box office and on the field. The ballpark is worse than ever. (Seriously.) The Cubs were never financially competitive, and the team’s popularity with the fans may have induced laziness on the part of the ownership to be aggressive with front office and on-field talent. Some Cubs teams in the 1990’s and 2000’s were quite awful.

Now we have a new ownership, and after some initial optimism, I fear more of the same. I was excited that the Ricketts family wanted to renovate Wrigley Field extensively in preparation for its centennial year and the 2014 All-Star Game. Then I read the men’s restrooms will continue to be a public health hazard—no renovations are planned. I also read the Ricketts want to play 50 night games a year, up from the current schedule, limited by Chicago law, to 30 night games and none on Friday or Saturday. (Other teams typically play 55 night games at home.) But the Ricketts have not held meetings with Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) or with neighborhood groups to discuss the issue. Despite the standing law (which expires after the 2018 season, I believe), Ald. Tunney could amend the law to allow more night games. He would probably receive City Council approval since Council protocol is to allow aldermen to set policy in their own wards.

The Ricketts’ inaction at baseball’s recent winter meetings in Indianapolis was a serious tactical error. The Cubs missed out on upgrading any number of positions where they are desperately vulnerable. Milton Bradley will probably be playing Monopoly or Uno on the Cubs’ bench this season since the Cubs’ general manager was unable to deal him.

The biggest shock to Cubs fans, especially those who have seen the Cubs play in March, is the Ricketts may move the Cubs’ spring training facility from Mesa, Ariz. to Naples, Fla. Everything I have read about spring training in Florida (the Grapefruit League) is that it is crowded and kitschy with awful traffic. Add the arrogant Yankees and Red Sox fans to the mix, and it makes for misery in Alligator Alley. The Cubs and their fans were right at home in Arizona’s Cactus League, which now includes the White Sox (who moved from Sarasota) and the Dodgers (from Dodgertown/Vero Beach, duh) sharing space in Glendale.

The late Ron Luciano was the American League’s most famous umpire in the 1970’s. He was a fan favorite and wrote a best-selling book, which is a great snapshot of the era: The Umpire Strikes Back. He wrote that every off-season, he would beg his American League bosses to send him to Florida for spring training. Every year, they would send him to Arizona—which was exactly what he wanted. Ha! Very smart man.

As an aside, a Cubs move to Southwest Florida would fundamentally change the relationship Chicagoans have with Arizona. The Grand Canyon State becomes less desirable as a winter destination. The second-home market and spring-break vacations in the Phoenix area would never be the same without the Cubs in town. Unlike replacing Wrigley Field (great idea), leaving Arizona would be a sad end to a great tradition.