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Ricketts talks up Wrigley Field renovation, but what about Cubs?

Photos: Cubs unveil video scoreboard plans for Wrigley Field
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Updated: June 3, 2013 3:51PM



The pictures look impressive. The rhetoric is almost inspiring.

But with every shiny new announcement of a Wrigley renovation deal that’s not even close to being approved, it gets harder to keep your eye on the ball.

You know, the ball the Cubs pitcher just threw into the outfield. Or the one the Cubs opponent just hit onto Waveland. Or the one the Cubs cleanup hitter just swung at and missed with a man on third.

This is what all the ownership bluster is about — or should be. The baseball.

It’s certainly how history will measure this debt-burdened, street-fair-pushing, Jumbotron-chasing chapter of Cubs lore. And maybe how the Ricketts family ownership will be judged a generation from now. The baseball.

So far, it’s not a flattering story for an ownership group that willfully extended a century-old title drought by undergoing a lengthy, youth-driven rebuilding program; that charged fans the third-highest ticket prices in baseball for a 101-loss product last year; that siphoned baseball budgets for more than three years to cover the cost of the largest debt load in the sport; and that only Wednesday added insult to all that fan injury by threatening to move from Wrigley Field if it doesn’t get its way on proposed ballpark signage.

Chairman Tom Ricketts quickly tried to backpedal from the hollow threat made during a City Club of Chicago event downtown Wednesday morning — an event attended by the mayor of Rosemont. But Ricketts never took it off the table during a lengthy back-and-forth with media on the subject.

And perhaps worse yet, Ricketts hasn’t moved any closer to offering a timeline for boosting baseball spending than he did before the home opener three weeks ago, when he said he hadn’t “been focusing on that lately.”

“I think Tom’s answer to that question [Wednesday] really just underscored the importance of the project and the importance of the revenue to our vision of building a sustainable winner,” team president Theo Epstein said of the relocation threat, “in a big market and behaving like a big market should.”

Epstein left out the part about new ownership creating its own baseball-spending limits by agreeing to Sam Zell’s debt-loaded purchase terms, and compounding that issue by structuring it through a family trust — which dictates strict income-to-spending relationships and requires bank “covenants” periodically be met.

The trust keeps family assets protected from team-related liabilities. But it also prohibits overspending operating revenues.

And that, in turn, has turned the big-market Cubs into a mid-market operation — with no end in sight, if you ask Ricketts.

“We obviously anticipate increasing baseball spending through the revenue that’s generated by this proposal,” Ricketts said Wednesday. “I think it’s going to come down to when we know what we can do and when we can do it. And then we can start making those plans more specific.”

Meanwhile, the debt-related crunch on the baseball end already has left the front office short in attempts to win posting bids for Asian free-agent pitchers Yu Darvish and Hyun-Jin Ryu in the last 18 months and influenced failed efforts to sign Cuban free agent Yoenis Cespedes, who eventually signed with Oakland.

“We always talk about free agents,” manager Dale Sveum said of baseball-budget issues. “But it’s international players, it’s player development.”

Epstein defended Ricketts’ relocation comments.

“Tom loves Wrigley Field. He doesn’t wake up in the morning thinking about moving,” Epstein said. “He wakes up thinking about winning here. But winning does come first.

“We’re all committed to finding a way to make it work so we can win and act like a big market here. I’m pretty sure that’s going to happen, but as he indicated [Wednesday], you have to keep alternatives alive in such a crazy process.”

Alternatives? The fact is, nobody’s going anywhere.

Not the franchise. And, unfortunately, for Epstein’s department, not the under-funded levels of his baseball operations budget. Not any time soon.

Ricketts denied that the team’s debt — estimated at $580 million by Forbes — is the driving force behind the excessive push for the wide-ranging revenue-building plan.

“The fact is it doesn’t affect the urgency of this process,” he said. “We have to do what we can to generate more revenue for the team. … We’re going to have enough resources to be a competitive team on the field going forward. This will help us.”

When?

Ricketts said he didn’t know if the original five-year plan for completing renovations would start on time, in October, pending the length of the approval process. Players already have been briefed by the front office that the promised new clubhouse digs and underground batting cages might be delayed beyond next Opening Day.

And that 2014 internal projection for turning a competitive corner? Epstein doesn’t know any more than the players when the renovations project will start — much less when his department will see more new revenues start coming in.

“It’s not instantaneous by any means,” Epstein said, “but it’s important we start soon.”



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