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Cubs’ refrain: Only fixing Wrigley can fund a winner

Chicago Cubs Vs Texas Rangers. Chicago Cubs celebrate Jackie Robinsnight.  Tuesday April 16 2013 I Phoby Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Chicago Cubs Vs Texas Rangers. Chicago Cubs celebrate Jackie Robinson night. Tuesday April 16, 2013 I Photo by Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 17, 2013 6:27PM



Cubs ownership probably couldn’t have picked a more fitting time than Monday to announce their big ballpark-renovation deal that’s not actually a deal yet.

It came just in time to set the stage for the first interleague series of the season — just in time to remind the public how far out of the Texas Rangers’ league the Cubs have backpedaled in the 3½ years since the Ricketts family bought the team.

Since that highly leveraged 2009 sale that pinned the Cubs under the largest debt load in the majors, the once-mid-market Rangers have secured a 20-year, $3 billion local television rights deal, gone to back-to-back World Series and then outbid the supposedly big-market Cubs to win negotiating rights to free-agent Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish.

It doesn’t necessarily mean the Cubs are sunk, or that their rebuilding plan under team president Theo Epstein won’t eventually bear results.

But it does underscore the fast-changing reality of baseball’s economic landscape that is making big-market teams out of mid-market teams and giving even some small-market teams optimism.

It also underscores the dangers of a Cubs business plan that has sucked resources from baseball budgets — however temporary in theory — while assuming there will come a day when an influx of money from new revenues will allow a switch to somehow be flipped and the team made suddenly competitive again.

It’s not that easy to win in major-league sports, and nobody should know that more than the Cubs.

Lost in much of the coverage of chairman Tom Ricketts’ big media event Monday was the fact that he continues to move out the timeline on the family’s promise to bring a World Series to the North Side.

‘‘If this is approved, we will win the World Series,’’ he said Monday.

Also lost in that coverage was the fact that Forbes’ ranked the Cubs as the most profitable team in the majors in 2012.

Still, Ricketts remained evasive Monday when asked when the baseball operations would get its promised budget boost — and how big that boost might be.

And it seems no coincidence that the ‘‘news’’ of a ‘‘framework’’ of a deal came the day after a three-day series of meetings at Wrigley involving family patriarch Joe Ricketts, who put up the TD Ameritrade money that paid for the family trust that owns the team and, according to sources, dictates much of the strict spending patterns.

Addressing the importance of getting the renovations deal done, Epstein alluded to renegotiated TV contracts and ‘‘other factors’’ in addition to the renovations.

But make no mistake:

‘‘We need revenues to increase in order for us to execute our baseball plan,” he said Tuesday before the Cubs’ 4-2 loss to the Rangers. ‘‘We expect them to, and we have a lot of folks on the business side working hard for that. We’re not where we want to be where we want to be right now in terms of payroll. As you know, it’s gone down.

‘‘As we move forward with our baseball plan, eventually it’ll go back up. That in and of itself won’t be a determining factor in our success. We need to generate a stream of young talent through our farm system. But we want to complement that with some aggressiveness in free agency.’’

They almost certainly must if they’re going to find enough pitching to compete by 2015.

‘‘My job is to come up with a baseball plan and execute it,’’ Epstein said, ‘‘but we need the business plan to come through.’’

When pushed for a reason why renovations are a prerequisite for contending again, Epstein said: ‘‘Our payroll now is third in the division. That’s fine. But it should be first in the division. So this is one of the ways that we’re going to get there.’’

Of course, Epstein wasn’t around when the Cubs’ payroll was first in the division only a few years ago. Those resources obviously are no longer in the baseball department, despite growing operating revenues.

Maybe that Jumbotron will come with a big enough switch to put a charge in the ballclub, too.



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