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.

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