Why the Cubs, and Ricketts, are stuck with Wrigley
The best thing to be said for Cubs owner Tom Ricketts and his ostensible threat to vacate Wrigley Field is that he had to say it. He’s a soft-spoken man, demeanor that ought to serve him well when dealing with Cubs fans. Ricketts clearly doesn’t like playing the part of an ogre, but his mean streak came out a week ago.
Having chosen a City Club of Chicago audience to unveil his proposal to alter Wrigley Field, Ricketts let the threat slip during a Q&A session near the end of his talk. “If it comes to the point that we don’t have the ability to do what we need to do in our outfield, then we’re going to have to consider moving. It’s as simple as that,” Ricketts said, as reported by the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman.
Since his family bought the team in 2009, Ricketts has been under pressure from the city, Wrigleyville neighbors and baseball purists about changes at the park and putting advertising above the ivy. He needs money from a Jumbotron and from a festival-like atmosphere outside the park. Sometimes in prolonged negotiations, it helps to lay down a marker and let the other side know that you can’t be pushed beyond a certain point. For Ricketts, a mild admonition with wiggle room probably qualified as a well-placed tantrum.
But the truth is that he and the Cubs aren’t going to Rosemont, which has been offered, or anywhere else. Ricketts knows it too. Forget misty-eyed nostalgia or those glorious TV shots of baseball, blue skies and urban living. All that undeniably comes into play, but it’s business reality that binds the Cubs to Wrigley in a pact of hope and despair.
Two numbers are important: $845 million, the price Ricketts paid for the franchise in 2009, and $250 million, the price Sam Zell wanted on behalf of former owner Tribune Co. when he hatched a plan to sell Wrigley to the state in 2008. Both numbers are fluid — Forbes estimates the Cubs are one of four billion-dollar franchises in the majors. Zell’s price for Wrigley was part of a tax-avoidance scheme. But they yield a rough notion of how important the field is to the franchise.
With that in mind, here are reasons why the Cubs can never leave Wrigley:
1.) The team would leave behind property whose worth would drop substantially. Is the next user a Park District league? Tear it down for condos? Wrigley Field is a landmark that couldn’t be razed without legal machinations lasting several market cycles. The Ricketts would take a loss on property around the park, including the McDonald’s site at Clark and Addison where they want to build a hotel. It would become a worse investment than Alfonso Soriano’s contract.
Put the Cubs in Rosemont, and they are maybe a $700 million franchise.
2.) Revenue for the Rosemont Cubs is a riskier proposition. A new audience would attend, but an old audience would be lost. The Cubs could count on parking revenue, but would lose money they collect from the Wrigley party scene. That includes the club’s 17 percent stake of the rooftop business.
3.) To draw crowds in Rosemont, the Cubs need a winner. Hundred-loss seasons don’t cut it. Rosemont’s mayor has talked about building a replica of Wrigley Field to mimic the ambiance, but what does the outfield vista look upon? A convention hall?
4.) All the critics, carping neighbors, disgruntled rooftop owners and City Hall wouldn’t let any move happen. They are invested in the Cubs too. Would those who complain about night games prefer plummeting condo prices and a ruin in their midst?
I write this as a former Cubs fan who had a White Sox epiphany and made the conversion years ago. It was liberating and I recommend the experience to anyone. The 2005 season was rapture.
But I remember from my youthful reading a certain Bert Wilson, the Cubs radio broadcaster from the 1950s, saying he wanted to be buried in the Cubs bullpen. Later came Steve Goodman singing about a dying Cubs fan’s last request. I always thought the sentiments summed up the connection people have with the Cubs: fidelity and fatalism.
Some call it a curse, but whatever the force is that affects the Cubs, it has beaten good baseball men from Leo Durocher and Dallas Green to Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella. And now it’s got Ricketts.
The otherwise sensible bond trader bought the team and its fixer-upper of a home. Now he needs to own the decision.
Photo by Nam Y. Huh