Wednesday, January 20, 2010

From the new Cubs' ownership: more of the same

During last weekend's Cubs convention at the Chicago Hilton Towers, new Cubs owner Tom Ricketts put an end to any optimism in my mind that he is serious about winning.

No Friday night games. No video board.

The video board (often referred to by Sony's trade name, JumboTron) is a side issue. It's a nice amenity for fans who want to see replays or see themselves on Kiss Cam. More importantly for the club, it's an opportunity to sell video ads (commercials) during inning breaks. It would be another revenue stream for the Cubs, who sorely need more of them.

Playing Friday night games (which I would be unable to attend) is a competition issue. Every team has 13 Friday home games. Unless one of those is Opening Day, every other club in Major League Baseball plays those games at night. Playing at home at 1:20 Friday afternoon puts the Cubs at a significant competitive disadvantage. Whether they are returning home after a Thursday road game or playing after a rare Thursday night home game, playing a Friday matinée drives players absolutely crazy. They are exhausted, and they could use an extra six hours off. Instead, they're back at the ballpark. Why can't they play on Friday nights?

Parking, say neighborhood whiners. How can parking be an issue on Fridays? Neighborhood residents are entitled to resident parking permits that allow them to park in the night-game zone, a large area surrounding Wrigley Field that extends one-half or one mile beyond the ballpark. For non-residents, it's a 5pm-10pm tow zone on night-game dates. So what's the issue?

The Cubs have an informal agreement (not in writing) with the neighborhood not to schedule Friday or Saturday night games. Saturday nights are less of an issue due to MLB's current contract with Fox Sports. Fox's Saturday afternoon broadcasts force teams to schedule their games according to the network's wishes, meaning start times of 12:05 or 3:15 CDT. But Friday night is a real problem and will continue to hamper the Cubs' championship hopes.

The larger issue, of course, is the number of night games the Cubs can play. All other Major League Baseball clubs play about 55 of their 81 home games at night. By Chicago ordinance, the Cubs are limited to 30 (through 2018). This is a tremendous competitive disadvantage that the previous ownership stupidly agreed to: first in 1988, when the lights were under construction; and then again in 2003, when the Cubs revised and renewed their agreement with the city. Neighborhood stalwarts who have lived there since the 1970's (no night games) insist on enforcing the night game limit, which I like to call the "no-pennant" law. The Cubs have been playing night games for 22 seasons now. An entire generation of Wrigley Field's neighbors have grown accustomed to the night games, and I suspect most would enthusiastically support a full complement of 55 night games, including Friday and Saturday nights.

The Pittsburgh Pirates last won a World Series championship in 1979. The Bucs have now suffered 17 consecutive losing seasons. The Kansas City Royals last won a World Series championship in 1985 and have not been to the playoffs since then. The Royals are perennial bottom-feeders in the American League. The Cubs' owners can afford better records than the Pirates and Royals, but I fear their futility in securing pennants and world championships won't be much different.

The team's new owners, the Ricketts family, is proud of its new Chief Hospitality Officer position. If I were Tom Ricketts, I would quickly install a new Neighborhood Liaison Officer, charged with securing a full night-game schedule from Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) as well as permission for a complete renovation of the main grandstand. Obviously, Mr. Ricketts and I don't see eye-to-eye on the team's priorities. The team should have just one priority: winning a World Series. The previous two ownership groups (Wrigley family, then Tribune Co.) were either indifferent to that goal or financially unable to deliver. The Ricketts can certainly afford to bring a World Series to long-suffering Cubs fans. Whether they care enough is another story.

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